The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] What we can learn from other countries

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Oct. 30, 2018 - 17:09

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When I was 12, I left home for a broader world. Thus I came to know early on that there were other peoples and other lands in this world and that there were many things I could learn from them. Ever since, that realization has made me open-minded and global, far from being jingoistic or parochial.

For that reason, I am ever grateful to my parents for having sent me to a boarding school in a foreign place where I learned to survive alone in an unfamiliar environment when I was young. Thanks to their wise decision, I grew up as a man of all seasons, a global citizen who could easily be comfortable in any foreign country. Surely, it is an advantage in this rapidly globalizing world.

Due to the nature of my profession, I have also had ample opportunities to travel around the world. Wherever I went, I tried to learn from the people there. From the US, for example, I have tried to learn their flexibility, generosity, and cultural diversity. Many times, I have been impressed by American’s ability to be flexible and bend the rules, if necessary. America is also marked by admirable magnanimity through its embrace of cultural and ethnic diversity.

In Korea, however, reasonable explanations often do not count and consequently, we frequently turn a deaf ear to reason, necessity, or the truth. We also do not bend the rules no matter how urgently necessary it is. We just stubbornly stick to rules and regulations and are seldom free from them. We also seriously lack generosity and diversity, and thus are prone to narrow-mindedness and parochialism.

From the States, I have also learned the American sense of humor. Whether a presider or a speaker, Americans I have known have almost always demonstrated their excellent sense of humor and their knack for making the audience laugh. The same thing goes for ordinary people’s everyday conversations. A few months ago in Washington D.C., I bought a bouquet of flowers at a supermarket to brighten up my living room. When I handed the flowers over to the female cashier, she took it with a bright smile and exclaimed, “Thank you. I love you, too!” I burst into a laughter at this unexpected humor and all the people nearby, too, laughed heartily at her superb sense of humor. With her witty remark, she made my day.

While living in the UK, I also heard similar humorous remarks on numerous occasions. Britain’s legendary Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, too, was famous for his extraordinary sense of humor. When his political opponent Lady Nancy Astor said teasingly, “Winston, if I were your wife I’d put poison in your coffee,” Churchill replied, “Nancy, if I were your husband I’d drink it.”

From France, I have learned the French tolerance, even though they say it is rapidly vanishing these days due to frequent terrorist attacks and massive influx of refugees from the Middle East. I have also learned from the French people’s keen sense of arts and architecture, not to mention their magnificent sense of artistic beauty that turned Paris into a masterpiece of arts in itself

From Germany, I have learned the celebrated German precision and punctuality. From Japan, I have learned the Japanese keen sense of shame and responsibility. I have also learned from Japanese meticulousness and excellent final touch. Those qualities give the impression that Germany and Japan are reliable countries. From Spain, I have learned the Spanish “jeong” or affection that is extended even to foreigners and outsiders. Perhaps we should also learn from Spain how to do something leisurely, not to be too impetuous and anxious.

On the other hand, other countries should learn from today’s Korea as well. For example, America should learn from Korea the speed of handling things. At a bank in Washington, D.C. I found that it would take three months to process my auto pay application for my bank credit card. In Korea, it will be taken care of instantly. If you apply for the No Criminal Activities Record on the FBI website, you will be aghast at finding that it will take four to five months to receive the document online. The US Consul in Seoul is an exception; you will receive your visa within three days of the interview, which is quite impressive and even incredible. Perhaps the US Consul has learned how to be quick and efficient from Korea.

In the States, both the Post Office and the DMV in big cities are notoriously unfriendly and even rude at times to their customers. On the contrary, their Korean counterparts are surprisingly nice and friendly, not to mention the incredible speed of handling things. For example, In Korea you can get your driver’s license instantly. As for an international driver’s license, it takes only ten minutes. In America, it usually takes a week to receive your driver’s license by mail.

We should learn from one another. I have greatly improved my life by constantly learning from others.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at -- Ed.