What makes boys cry, and when are boys allowed to cry? Turner Wright reports, with examples from South Korea.
Chan’s son was sitting there, silent. His expression had already twisted from a smile into a look of perplexity, and I could see his lower lip starting to quiver, anticipating his father’s reaction. The only reason he hadn’t gone into an all-out bawl was his father and I were still discussing his behavior in English. Unless he heard us say simple things like “don’t speak Korean”, “monkey”, or “fat”, as I hoped these had sunk into his head during today’s lesson, he wouldn’t be able to understand us.
As a teacher and tutor across two continents, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of facing children crying as a result of something I’ve done, both intentionally and not. Let me be clear: it’s never been my goal to make anyone feel so bad they have to let the tears flow. When I was in the classroom, I did occasionally poke fun at students when they did something so foolish I felt the need to draw it to others’ attention, so they might not repeat such behavior. Laughing and joking about something, in my book, is preferable to yelling or corporal punishment. Yet sometimes the reaction is the same from a fragile young mind: they cry, mercilessly.
I’ve seen a 17-year-old girl cry about not being smart enough for the SATs. A two-year-old bawled her eyes out in front of her father and me for not being allowed to hold her guinea pig Cookie at dinner (no cookies during mealtime, after all). I’m no exception either: my father used to be the Tim Tebow of yelling, and liked to show off his skills when he thought I was being particularly selfish (which, of course, I was). Maybe I blocked it out, but I don’t remember him telling me to stop crying; if anything, he wanted me to really feel I’d made a mistake, so I could appreciate the consequences to my actions.
Fast forward to South Korea. A year to learn the quirks and behaviors of Korean kids in and out of the classroom. At some level, we know that children are all born with a fresh slate, and could almost be interchangeable ‘parts’ across cultural lines up to a certain age, e.g. Korean toddlers will be fascinated by the same shiny objects, pointing and giggling in much the same way an American, African, Spanish, or Japanese infant would do. But, I think around age six (based solely on my experience), they cease to be children of the world and instead begin their transformation to adults, more vulnerable to influence by their environment, parents, and culture. I say this not to imply one culture’s values are superior or inferior to my own; they’re just different, and sometimes, really, really frustrating to wrap my head around.
I had felt it was necessary to tell my boss and coworker, Chan, that his four-year-old son had taken one of the vocabulary cards and hit me over the head with it during a private lesson. Did it hurt? Of course not. Was I surprised? Yep. I didn’t discipline the kid in class, because it was only the second time I had taught him and I wanted his father’s perspective. The scene played out just like I had seen on the receiving end of my father twenty years ago, with one marked difference: once tears had started falling from his son’s cheeks, my boss looked even angrier, raised his voice even higher, and shouted in English: “DON’T CRY! NEVER CRY!”
Considering the matter closed, he turned his attention back to me, and with a smile on his face, told me it wouldn’t happen again. I watched the door close behind him and took a minute to think as I tidied up the room.
Chan’s scolding of his son was not unexpected: every parent has his or her own methods for instilling respect in their children. What struck me was just how sudden his expression changed, from telling his baby boy not to cry in the harshest tone possible, to smiling at me as though his actions were necessary for his son’s well being, just one of his duties as a parent. I can only conclude he never wanted his son to grow up thinking crying was acceptable behavior.
People can say what they like about cultural differences in education, Tiger moms, the stereotype all Asian kids are good at math and science … if I’ve learned anything from my years abroad, it’s that we’re all just trying to live our lives as best we can, and that includes raising children in the manner we see fit for them to survive in our society.
In the Korean peninsula, more often than not, that means men not crying, unless one is singing karaoke, heavily inebriated, or feigning sorrow for the loss of Kim Jong Il.
Photo of Wooden Hahoe Mask, Seoul, South Korea courtesy of Shutterstock