In their eyes
Create. That is the root of creation and creativity, which means to cause to come into being, as something unique that would not naturally evolve, or that is not made by ordinary processes, as is a work of art or an invention.
Do Koreans have a problem with this word? I don’t mean understanding it; I mean doing it. This is what I have often heard: Koreans are not especially creative. It’s not only foreigners suggesting this; it’s Koreans, too.
I did of bit of sociological research to test the validity of this claim. I asked my university English literature students to name three notable Korean inventions, and I gave them a week to return with their answers. I thought it would be an easy and enjoyable homework assignment. As an American I pictured the airplane, a boxy black automobile, a spaceship, and the personal computer, as well as her omnipresent sidekick, the Internet.
The following Friday I opened class eager to hear about some Korean inventions that were new to me. I started individually, student by student, but to my surprise, not a single invention was named. Finally a vibrant and brave Hong replied, ``He invented the … well, it was to gauge the depth of water, or maybe it was a sundial. I’m not sure. A kind of water clock, maybe.” ``What?” I replied. ``I don’t understand. Like a measuring cup?” ``No, no,” Lim interjected, ``it determines ocean depth, I think.” ``Like a very long stick?” I joked.
My persistent questions to clarify this invention frustrated both parties. The upside was they were learning to reach into their memory banks to reveal the ``he” and the ``it.” These students were learning English the hard way, in the best way ― by trial and error. They were learning to articulate; they were being forced to instruct me in a language not their own. It has always been my intention, my stratagem, to teach English in a problem solving manner.
This way, students get consumed with an answer, not the tedium that second language acquisition can generate. Even though the class was at a loss for words, I could empathize. As my dad repeatedly said when teaching me to play golf, ``You look frustrated.” ``I am.” I confessed ``That’s good,” he declared. ``That means you’re learning.”
However, let’s be fair. So I asked these same students to name a famous and formidable Korean poet of the last fifty years … Still, no answers. Ultimately, all I wanted was creativity. Yet again, they needed prodding, so I threw some different bait into the water: ``Have any of you been to the War Memorial Museum outside Samgakji Station in Seoul?”
No hands rose. I then asked, ``Have you had ever heard of Yi Sun-shin? All hands lifted with sighs, smiles, and sanguine eyes. They were visibly proud, and rightly so. ``How about that Turtle Ship to fend off those ruthless and pesky Japanese? Now ask yourself, is that design markedly creative ― the Turtle Ship?” ``Yes, teacher,” all 25 agreed in unison. ``And how about the ship’s five different cannons, including the dragon head that would spit fire and thoroughly horrify the enemy?”
I could see they liked this image. Heads rose; eyes opened wide. I proclaimed, ``Yes, it was very ingenious, no doubt.” Park then inquired, ``What does ingenious mean, teacher? ``It means creative as well as functional. It’s ingenious.” I was now getting their attention: one question was leading to another.
Back to the inventor of the so-called water clock/rain gauge/sundial fame. As it turns out, I was able to ascertain (Hong later did some research) this inventor was Jang Yeong-sil, a prominent Korean scientist and astronomer during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Born a peasant in 1344, Jang became a favorite of King Sejong.
Thanks to Hong, the class was treated to an explanation of this ingenious water apparatus: ``Circling the clock were 12 wooden figures that served as indicators of time. There were four water containers, two jars that received the water, and 12 arrows floating inside the lower container. As the water from the upper containers seeped down the pipe to the lower container, one arrow would tilt a board filled with small iron balls; a ball would roll down a pipe to a container of larger iron balls. The collision would cause the larger balls to travel down a lower pipe and hit a giant cymbal, announcing the time to the community.” Imagine that. It’s not easy. Something this innovative never is.
``Okay, now that I’ve got you seeing creatively, can anyone name another Korean invention? There’s one so obvious, you may just pass it over.” Again, silence from the class … I finally surrendered, ``How about something known as Hangeul? It’s rated as one of the most efficient and learnable languages on earth. Not only is it extremely original; it’s terribly practical. And what says more about a culture than its language? You should all be very proud.”
And they were. I could see it in their eyes.
The writer teaches at the Department of English Language and Literature at Hanshin University in Osan, Gyeonggi Province. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.