Americans can benefit from a collectivist mindset


Elise Kang, Staff Writer

This summer, I traveled to South Korea for six weeks through the Lembo-Sperling (LS) Grant. The foundation believes that summer travel experiences open students to new ways of seeing the world and funds students who might not have access to such experiences otherwise. 

 As a second-generation Korean-American, I realized that I was not as in touch with my Korean heritage as some of my peers. In my youth, I didn’t think much of it, but as I moved onto elementary and middle school, Korean students, parents, and teachers expected me to be familiar with Korean customs. For example, I did not know I was supposed to speak formally and bow when greeting my elders, instead of waving and saying “hello,” which came off as ignorant or rude.

I always regretted not knowing how to speak Korean, so I don’t have as close of a relationship with my grandparents, since they barely speak English. My lack of cultural enrichment caused me to miss out on family relationships. My mom single-handedly raised me and my two brothers, cared for my grandmother, and ran a medical practice, so we didn’t have time to observe practices like attending Korean school on Saturdays or celebrating Korean holidays like Chuseok. When I heard of the LS Grant the winter of my sophomore year, I saw an opportunity to rekindle a connection to my heritage. I found a travel program I wanted to attend, wrote an essay detailing how this related to my life, studies, or goals, and proposed a plan to share my experience with the school community. The LS Grant contributed $6,825, the full program cost, towards the program.

From July to August, I studied Korean language and culture at Hanyang University. As I familiarized myself with the alphabet and learned the names of people, places, and things, I felt a sense of belonging because I no longer needed my mother to read everything to me. In the afternoons, we visited the National Hangeul Museum, the Korean Food Promotion Institute, and Taekwondowon, among other sites. There, I saw the language come to life as people laughed, joked, and argued in Korean. By learning about Korean history, culture, and lifestyle, I grew more confident in my ability to participate in Korean society and pass down knowledge and traditions to the next generation.

As I was out and about, I noticed that the way Koreans spoke was quite different than Americans. And no, I’m not talking about the part where they speak Korean. Rather, certain phrases they used seemed a bit out of context. Every day, we got a text update from our program cultural director, Misook Jeon. She always started her messages by saying “good morning,” “how are you?” or “did you enjoy your lunch,” before getting into the daily agenda. She always ended her messages with “thank you,” even when they didn’t include a request.

These habits confused me. Why was she thanking us when she never asked for anything? Why did she always say “good morning” in her updates instead of sending out the schedule by itself? Lacking an explanation, I shrugged it off and attributed it to her kind personality.

Misook was not the only person with this tendency. In Korea, I studied flute with an English-speaking teacher. Every week when he texted me to arrange a lesson, he always began his message by asking how I was. When he asked me when I was leaving Korea to make lesson plans, he first asked how my new étude was coming. It got my wheels turning. Perhaps Misook and my flute teacher’s way of speaking was a larger cultural phenomena that I didn’t understand just yet. 

One bus ride home from a cultural excursion, Misook announced a Saturday trip to a waterpark. I heard several people audibly groan, complaining that they did not want to go; many had not packed bathing suits for the occasion and knew they would come home with mosquito bites. Misook hushed the bus. “Think about the group,” she reminded us, “We are going together as a group.” 

That’s when it hit me. In the book “The New Koreans” that I had read before arriving in Korea, the author, Oscar Breen, explained the collectivist mindset that dominated the nation. Like many East Asian cultures, Koreans prioritize the well-being of a group over the needs of an individual. As a result, Koreans tend to be more attuned to the emotions of those around them. All the intricate courtesies began to make sense. 

Being surrounded by these collectivist practices made me more conscious of the feelings of others around me. I began asking others how their days were more frequently. I became more attentive to everybody’s well-being and more emotionally aware, noticing nuances in tone and facial expression. Fundamentally, I became a better listener. 

As a very talkative person, I was not sure if this day could ever come. Growing up, I interrupted others who were speaking and was a little too blunt about my opinions, sometimes accidentally hurting people with my words without knowing what went wrong. Adults had told me to be more careful of what came out of my mouth, but I never mastered the skill as well as my peers, earning me many parent-teacher conferences where I was described as “a little rough around the edges.”

While part of my talkativeness comes from my personality, there is another element at play: the American education system. From a young age, we teach American children to ask questions, speak in front of the class, and be active participants. We learn to listen much later. This active teaching method conditions students to consider listening as secondary to speaking, unless we effectively unlearn this habit as we grow older.

While some Americans may believe they have unlearned their original teachings, I do not believe that any of us truly do to the extent we think. A prime example illustrating how Americans are impatient listeners is the stigma around stuttering. As explained in a New York Times Opinion video, stuttering is a problem with the listener, not the speaker. If people deciphered stuttered speech, stutters wouldn’t be an impediment. Thus, our impatience prevents some members of society from fully participating in a world made for talkers.

Living in a community of collectivists in Korea allowed me to internalize the habit of listening carefully and checking in with those around me before I speak. I have taken this practice with me back to NYC. My go-to line when I see someone isn’t just “hi” anymore; it’s also “how are you?” I make time for quick chats with teachers in the hallways, and I have been more mindful of the impact my words have on others. 

Listening more often has also helped me learn better — I absorb more information and make extra efforts to listen to what my peers have to say to avoid rephrasing what someone says before me. Some worry that speaking less seems as though they are not paying attention. To the contrary, remaining quiet, listening intently to what others say, and decreasing redundancies allows me to raise more thoughtful points to our discussion than I would if I spoke more. 

Notably, this clash between what I and others see as constructive ways to contribute to a conversation make it somewhat challenging to keep listening. Nonetheless, I aspire for a day where different means of productive discussion due to cultural differences are all accepted as valid forms of participation in an American classroom. All it takes is a simple change of perspective.