Thursday, February 18, 2010

Korean mentality

So here we are, watching the Winter Olympics. It's a great time of intense competition, where individuals and teams fight for their countries' honor as well as their own. However, even in those sports where the competition is on an individual level, there is still an unofficial sense of "teamship" between athletes from the same country. They may compete, but generally a Canadian or American will still be really happy if a fellow countryman gets a medal instead of them.

I've recently learned that this is drastically different from Korean thinking. I've always been aware of the competitive nature of Koreans. It's why I have a job. Parents want their kids to be the absolute best, so they're enrolled in private afterschool schools (Hagwons) in order to get every advantage that they can to get into the ridiculously competitive colleges and then get into the even more competitive jobs. It's a glorious cycle of addictive competition. However, I've never seen it stated so blatantly as last night.

A few nights ago, the Koreans were competing in the men's speed skating race (can't remember the length). Coming into the final leg of it, the Koreans looked like they were going to sweep the podium and claim all three medals. However, in the last few hundred meters, the third place skater tried to push for gold and cut across the second place skater. Both of them went down in a mess and some American (who's apparently famous or something) got silver. This seemed to be such a brazen display of greediness and the desire for gold. I just couldn't understand how the Korean could cut down his own "teammates" when getting all three medals would have been a great thing for Korea.

Well, I've noticed a debate that's been brewing with my students. They keep claiming Korea is in third place overall and I keep telling them "no, Korea is in fifth place in overall medals after France." Finally, after having a similar debate with a Korean friend of mine, she explained that Koreans only care about and count gold medals. The bronze and silver mean absolutely nothing to them. I was speechless. I didn't even know what to make of that. Suddenly the speed skater's actions made sense. It wouldn't matter if he got a bronze, it would only mean something if he pushed for the gold and triumphed. You only matter if you're number one.

I've mentioned this to my coworkers and they're all just as stunned as I am, but it makes so much sense. I suddenly feel a little bit sadder to be here.