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Familiarity in a Different Culture PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Tuesday, 23 September 2008 11:08

While I was in Korea (yeah, I'm still coming out of the vacation mode... slowly... sloooowly) I couldn't help but notice the ubiquity of recognizable consumer products. One tourist map I carried everywhere in Seoul had symbols for cultural centers, historic sites, museums - as well as about one hundred curious little green symbols. They showed the location of all the Starbuck's coffee joints. Dunkin' Donuts shops could be found not only in Seoul, but on Jeju Island. I also saw McDonald's (no surprise), Baskin-Robbins (usually in conjunction with a Dunkin' Donuts), Pizzeria Uno, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Old Chicago and Cold Stone Creamery. While looking for gifts for the folks back home in Seoul's high-rise "Techno Mall" I walked into a store and nearly burst out laughing. Over the loudspeaker came a kind of hip-hop version of John Denver's Country Roads.

The one personal souvenir I was looking to take home was impossible to find. I wanted a t-shirt with something written in Korean. I pointed out to my friend Yunkyung one day while we were taking in the sights with his family that every t-shirt worn by a Korean had English words on it. Not that the words necessarily made a lot of sense. The words might have been something like, "Kiss the world green," or "Making curious, living huge". Junha, Yunkyung's fourteen year-old son commented, "They don't have to make sense; just wearing something with English on it is cool."

While driving from Seoul to Andong on a marvelous highway (no billboards or potholes), we went through several dozen tunnels and crossed innumerable bridges. Since I was trying to learn the Korean alphabet and a few words, I'd sound out the names of the tunnels. I could check out my pronunciation against the transliterated English word. I presumed the last two syllables, which were always the same, were the Korean word for tunnel. Eventually, I tried to sound it out.

Tun- Nul


"Sure," Yun-kyung said, "We never had a word for tunnel, only a word for an animal's burrow. Rather than create a new word, we just borrowed the English word."

So this blog isn't about how I spent my summer vacation, but about globalization. In fact, it's the first in a series of posts on the topic. Because it's happening, and it is having profound effects in the way we live, and will open up opportunities for evangelization - or secularization- like never before. Yunkyung Cha, my Korean friend, is a professor at Hanyang University in Seoul, and studies the sociology of education. Recently, he helped found the Korean Association of Multicultural Educators to study the benefits, possibilities, and problems associated with multicultural education. While sitting in his office one day, I took some notes from a book on his shelf (in English, of course) titled, A General Introduction in Globalization: The Reader, by John Beynon and David Dunkerley, eds., NY Routledge Press, 2000.

In the introduction, the authors mentioned the hallmarks of globalization:
- more inter-state connections and the decreasing effect of state policy;
- the development of increased transnational communication and activities;
- a decline in the importance of the nation state;
- the emergence of global political, economic and cultural organizations and bureaucracies;
- the emergence of what Anthony King aptly terms 'global cities' (like London, NY, Paris, and Tokyo) as local sites of global interaction;
- a huge increase in the flows of comodities and cultural products;
- and the world-wide spread of Western-style consumerism.

Certainly I noticed the last feature in Korea. Apart from the language and the occasional old royal palace or Buddhist temple, it could have been any western city - at least one that emphasized high-rise apartment living. That shouldn't be too surprising, given the impact of the American presence since the Korean war, and the fact that much of Seoul has been built in the last generation.

What are some of the features of contemporary globalization, and do any of them help in the task of evangelization?
Well for one, there's an ever-increasing speed and volume of movement, goods, messages and symbols. My travel to Seoul took 11 hours from LA. Many of the planes in the skies are not carrying people, but mail and consumer products (FedEx and UPS have huge fleets themselves). And TV and movies communicate messages, ideas and symbols in increasingly powerful and subtly effective ways. Certain images, like the solitary man standing in front of a column of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square, become instant icons.

Another feature of globalization is the shrinking of space (expressed in time of travel or communication). With the internet, my ideas, however wise or perverse become instantly accessible to billions of people. Yes, billions, when you consider that 70% of the world's countries include English in their primary and secondary school education, according to my friend, Professor Cha, who studies these kinds of things. Cell phones, video conferencing, and Skype bring much of the world face to face - or at least ear to ear.

The highly militarized border between North and South Korea is becoming more of an anomaly in a world with increasingly permeable borders between nation states. Trade, tourism, radio and television, environmental pollution, global warming, and the golden arches are hardly impeded by the dotted lines on maps.

Globalization also leads to changes in how we perceived ourselves, in a phenomenon known as reflexivity. According to Beynon and Dunkerly,
people are orienting themselves to the world as a whole, regarding themselves as both 'locals' and 'cosmopolitans'. Local sites everywhere have an increased opportunity to interact with the global; local businesses increasingly participate in global markets; and governments cannot risk becoming isolated.
North Korea's political and economic isolation, with its concomitant dependence upon China, may have startling effects on its future. Already the People's Republic of Korea has sold mining rights and other economic advantages to the People's Republic of China that could jeopardize a future reunification with the south. In fact, China has already begun insinuating that some of North Korea was traditionally a part of China. In a perfect display of the power of television, South Korea produced and aired a somewhat sappy - and immensely popular - historical drama to refute the claim!

Globalization also means an increase in both risk and trust.
Globalization increasingly involves everyone everywhere in a web of trust and risk, in that all of us have to place our trust in 'experts' and other unknown persons.
(like this blog)
Also, we place our faith in science and medicine, yet no one could foresee the advent of AIDS or CJD (the human equivalent of 'mad cow disease'). Similarly, each of us can be affected, either directly or indirectly by something as apparently remote (and totally beyond our control) as the rise and fall in share prices in the NY, Tokyo or London stock exchange.
In many Korean restaurants, the menu will note where their beef originates; it's part of a five-year long import ban on U.S. beef imports because of the outbreak of mad cow disease. When the ban was lifted just one month before I arrived in Korea, protesters stormed the president's home in Seoul. Prior to the ban, South Korea was the third largest importer of U.S. beef, so this was a big deal - and one of the reasons why I didn't eat much beef in Korea. It was just too expensive.

The authors also seem positively prescient in saying "each of us can be affected, either directly or indirectly by something as apparently remote (and totally beyond our control) as the rise and fall in share prices in the NY, Tokyo or London stock exchange." The near meltdown of our economy in the last few weeks has had even more serious consequences in foreign economies.

In my next post, I'll look at some of the historical examples of increasing globalization before moving on to a reflection on what this might all mean for evangelization in the future.

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