Media’s perspective of foreigners can be better

Edited version published in Joongang Daily, December 10th, 2013. http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/Article.aspx?aid=2981768

I have lived in Korea for seven years now. Despite firsthand experience and research on media and education, I still do not claim to be an expert in Korean media culture. No doubt that media are powerful tools that orient us to reality particularly in societies like Korea where the media are a near ubiquitous. The significance of new media in contemporary Korea lies in its proximity; smartphones have become our closest consultants. In the words of Marshall McLuhan four decades ago that “the media work us over completely” couldn’t be truer today. McLuhan is considered the father of modern communications.

It is also common knowledge that the media largely influence our choices: what we buy, what we eat, how we dress and sometimes invokes our thinking on topical issues. Beyond the traditional functions of media to inform, educate, persuade, entertain and set agenda for deliberations, the media too form deep-seating cultural perspectives or worldviews. In fact, McLuhan asserted that all media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values. His claim that the media are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, or unaltered is quite evident in modern life.

In the recent days, there has been a series of publications focusing on multicultural aspect of the Korean Read the rest of this entry »

They came to maim Kenyans but instead heroes emerged

Edited version published in Joongang Daily  http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/Article.aspx?aid=2978229

The Somalia-based Al-shabab militia group and Somalia pirates are not new to Korea and certainly familiar to any country that has borne the pains of abductions, loss of life and property, or disrupted trade routes. It was just last December when Somali pirates released four Korean seamen they had held for 19 months; mind you a ransom had to be paid. In our archives we have some indescribable stories about terrorism but those are for another day.

The recent terror attack in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in which about 70 people died and more than a hundred injured is still fresh in our thoughts. Yes, agonizingly vivid. May the bereaved families will find immediate solace at this time of grief.

Without a shred of doubt, the Westgate attack was one of the most brutal acts against a population. Read the rest of this entry »

Madam President you won’t snub Africa, will you?

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President Park Geun-hye.

  1. * Edited version published by The Seoul Times on February 8th, 2013.

Dear Madam President. Receive my heartfelt felicitations for seollal, the lunar new year. If it is in order, allow me to commend you on your election.

Now to my point. Madam President, it seems to me that you’re commencing your executive journey on the right footing. I mean you are now the safeguarding vital links with your key political and trade allies globally. Indeed Beijing and Washington remain dominant in the contemporary geopolitical realm. Others like Tokyo, Pyongyang and EU’s main office (Brussels) are undeniably significant depending on the attitude they bear toward you and your country.

But Madam President, I wish to plead for Africa. This time, let’s forget the ‘begging bowl’ images of 80s and 90s. I want to proclaim to you that Africa is rising, and seriously so.

Admittedly, the West tried doling out aid for decades but look where Africa stood – stuck in a socio-political and economic quagmire. But that was then. So what has changed? I say the attitude; purely the attitude, Madam Read the rest of this entry »

Seoul Nuclear Security Summit: An open letter to leaders

Dear world leaders and delegates. Receive my Spring-time salutations. First, my sincere apologies for I will not be attending the summit. That should not bother you since I was actually not invited to the high level meeting.

By the way welcome to Korea. I am not a native of this land of the morning calm, but trust me I have been here long enough to show you how to use a pair chopsticks or do a taekwondo double kick. I assume that you’ve been inside Sangchoonjae in the Blue House where tradition and nature harmoniously subsist near a city. Therein, they must have served you with Kimchi and some makkolli. Koreans are cordial.

Secondly, I belong to the layman’s cluster and their wisdom that wonders why you, ladies and gentlemen, seem to have been making fires and now convincing the world to help think of a fire extinguisher. Okay, I will put it in a context. Sirs and madams, some of your nations’ passion for nuclear technology, for weapon or energy, supersedes any known safety capabilities. That makes me a worried chap.

You know what? If I came to the summit, I mean if I were really invited (jokes aside), I would first meet with the Japanese visitors in those extra meetings – What do you call them again? Aha, ‘side Read the rest of this entry »

Korea’s college entry exams and the ‘inconsolable’ desire

 Edited version published in Joongang Ilbo (http://mengnews.joinsmsn.com/view.aspx?gCat=010&aId=2944395)

Last week, over 600,000 Korean students sat an exam that seemingly determines their destiny in life. To most of them, the college entry exam is also a postern to their critical goal of entering Seoul National University, Korea University or Yonsei University. The three institutions are commonly christened as SKY. And they know quite well, that credentials from the “sky” comfortably land graduates plum jobs with big companies or the government. The three institutions are considered the academic cream of Korea.

There is nothing wrong with education that assures one a stable, happy future; after all, it is every parent’s dream to see their children prosper in all aspects. However, observers have termed the College Scholastic Ability Test or CSAT in Korea as either a national obsession or radically esteemed.

On the day of the nine hour exam, the country literally changes. All flight landings and take-offs at the airports are put on hold while the arriving international aircrafts are ordered to circle at altitudes above 10,000 feet for some while. Motorists are also asked to lower their speed and to avoid honking near the test locations during the listening comprehension assessment. In fact, traffic is usually banned from within 200 meters of the test centers until the exam is over.

At the periphery, parents, friends and school juniors of test-takers gather to wish their loved ones success. Some parents would be praying outside the exam centers. In the recent past a mother reportedly vowed to bow 3,000 times, kneeling down with her forehead touching a red cushion perhaps to invoke luck to her beloved son. Most schools will also give a day off to students who are not sitting the exam.

But beyond the facade lies fundamental question that many parents and educationists raise regarding Read the rest of this entry »

Our Nomadic Existence: How Electronic Culture Shapes Community

By Shane Hipps (http://www.qideas.org/essays/our-nomadic-existence-how-electronic-culture-shapes-community.aspx?page=5)

Our Nomadic Existence: How Electronic Culture Shapes CommunityI remember flinching for the dashboard as if that was going to help. The car was careening toward a snake-like elbow in the track. I glanced at the driver expecting him to slam on the brakes and save us from catastrophe. He looked almost bored; I think he may have even yawned. The car glided smoothly in and out of the turn as if it had prepared its whole life for that moment. As he accelerated out of the curve, the driver apologized for not going faster. Apparently, if you’re not wearing a helmet — and I wasn’t — drivers are only allowed to take the track at 70 percent speed. This was part of my “research” for the new account I had been assigned — Porsche Cars North America. At the time, I was working for an ad agency. The people at Porsche had taken us to a racetrack to develop an appreciation for their product. Apart from nearly soiling my drawers, it worked.

My role as an account planner in advertising was to serve as a kind of consumer anthropologist. Basically, I was to keep my finger on the pulse of what consumers influenced and what they were influenced by. There were no rules for this task, no formal training, no manual — just raw intuition, ingenuity, and a dose of insanity. As a result, I go Read the rest of this entry »

Wangari Maathai: Audacious Woman of Her Time

Also published in The Seoul Times, Oct. 4, 2011 and The Korea Times, Oct 2, 2011

Sometime in January, 1999, I came face to face with quite a frightening sight in Nairobi. I was just about to cross the road when a speeding anti-riot police truck swerved past followed by a jeep full of policemen with wooden clubs. Panic raged high prompting women to grab their children and flee. Some shops were shut instantaneously. Were it not for my school uniform, a distinctive red shirt and blue pair of shorts, I would not have been allowed into a matatu, public transport van, heading East. I was a high school sophomore.

Inside the van grape vine was churning from every other tongue but the theme was, “Wangari was in the forest planting trees”. You see, I knew Wangari Maathai from my Boy Scout training on environmental conservation, but it took me longer to comprehend why one can be clobbered for planting trees. The television’s chilling images later in the evening and newspaper pictures the following morning are still fresh in my memory – unsettling.

This woman never quit. Sooner than later Wangari Maathai was back in the forest or Uhuru park either attempting to plant trees or dodging tear gas from the authorities. Today Uhuru Park is scenic and Karura Forest where she was beaten by hired guards as the police watched is mostly saved from the hands of land grabbers.

The woman was also unbowed; a fitting title she gave to her biography Read the rest of this entry »

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