Nominated for six Oscars last week, “Parasite” became the first Korean movie to be nominated for Best International Film. This reminded the public of an interview the director Bong Joon-ho had last October, in which he said he was not expecting much from the Oscars. It may have just been his humility, but it’s likely his pessimism was based on the fact that a Korean film has never been nominated for the award. However, it was his next comment that surprised many American critics. “It’s a little strange, but it’s not a big deal. The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local,” Bong said. He shocked many Americans by categorizing the Oscars, long perceived as one of the most prestigious film gatherings in the world, as a local event. It is, in fact, a local event. The Oscars only recognize movies “for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County.” I’m not a film expert, but the reason I’m introducing this news byte is to point out that some Americans often forget that “American” does not mean “universal.”
As an international student born and raised in South Korea, it’s often shocking to see how some American people perceive the world. In courses that address United States government and politics, instructors will sometimes refer to background knowledge by asking students to think about what they learned about the Civil War in high school or the American values they were taught growing up. They were not cognizant of the fact that there were international students in the class, people who were unfamiliar with these common American teachings. These instances reflect how some Americans, even those who are well-educated, are indifferent to or even unaware of the rest of the world. While American universities may claim to be global centers of knowledge, they are really insulated worlds detached from other cultures.
Although, it is natural for anyone to feel attached to their country, I find America’s indifference toward foreign cultures extraordinary because it starkly contrasts what I was taught about the world. The Korean mandatory education system teaches every student Korean, English and a choice of a second foreign language. Under the equivalent of K-12, each student is required to learn English from third grade and an additional foreign language from eighth grade, and the Korean SAT tests all three languages. This is not about excessive education, but rather about recognizing that not everyone speaks one language, and it is important to learn how to communicate with people from different countries.
Meanwhile, minorities in the U.S. are still mocked for speaking languages other than English in public. An online critic responded to this with a burning satire, saying, “ ‘It’s rude not speaking English in public places.’ Aw, does it remind you that you can only speak one language?” Observing, or even experiencing, such incidents makes one realize how provincial perspectives are responsible for exclusive society.
Compared to “international student,” imagine how awkward “domestic student” sounds. American students in an American institution are domestic students, but to an American listener, that way of categorizing might sound strange because “American” has always been the default. Every time I walk on the Diag and see the American flag, I feel ambivalent. On one hand, it reminds me of the rich democratic history I learn about every day, and I understand why so many people are patriotic to this country. On the other hand, I wish that someday studying in the U.S., I no longer need to come up with a random Hollywood movie as a substitute for my actual favorite movie for an icebreaker, which is not American.
Sungmin Cho can be reached at email@example.com.