Post-237: [Scene from Korean Class] Famous Person from Kenya: Obama

The tedium of our Korean reading class was broken for a spell on Tuesday September 30th.

I will, below, do my utmost to reliably
re-create (in translation) the dialogue, as it happened:

Cast of Characters
Nine Students Present (born between 1985 and 1994): Seven Chinese [two absent during the below episode], one Singaporean, one Russian (Siberian ancestry) [absent], three White-Americans. (Those absent this lesson have a habit of disappearing during reading class.) Two of the present Chinese and one American (not me) are featured in this episode.

  • [Featured Students]
  • D.D. : Chinese Female (from somewhere around Shanghai) born circa 1992
  • J.R. : Chinese Female (from near Xian) born circa 1991
  • L.A. : American Male (from Texas) born 1985

One Korean Teacher (born 1987, I’m told): She is from Gyeongsang Province, the region that produced the generals who ruled South Korea from 1961 through the early 1990s. (Sidebar: I am proud to say that I was the one who figured out her region of origin. It so happened that her Seoul Accent veneer at times slipped away when she got annoyed at students, and Gyeongsang shone through. I later asked her if she was from that province, and she confirmed it). A graduate of Ewha University, the number-one women’s university in South Korea. She teaches our class reading.

We sat in a kind of modified semi-circle, with the teacher at the center, and the white board behind her.

Episode 1: In Which the “Obama Origin” Question is Discussed (Yet Again)
One of our reading passages dealt with Kenya. It talked about safaris; wild animals; coffee. The main comprehension questions were knocked out without much difficulty. Then this:


Translated from Korean by me. Transcribed from my memory shortly after it happened. Grammar mistakes by students omitted.

Alright, class. How about famous people from Kenya? Do we know anyone famous from Kenya?
D.D. (Chinese): Obama! Obama is, uhh —

Teacher: Ah, Obama. [quizzically] Was he born in Kenya? [Pause] Where was Obama born?
[Indistinct noises as people whisper things or make inaudible comments]
D.D. (Chinese): Isn’t he from Kenya?
J.R. (Chinese)
: [eagerly] No, it’s Indonesia! He has–
Others: Huh? / Yes! / No, no. / What? / But…! / [etc.]
Teacher: Let’s ask the American students. How about you, L: Where is Obama from?
L. (American): He was born in the USA.
Teacher: Right, okay, but Obama’s parents were born in Kenya, right?
L.: Actually, his mother was born in the USA and his father was born in Kenya.
Teacher: Oh, is that right? [Wide eyed]. Really? So it’s not both parents.
[Murmurs of agreement from others]
L.: [Chuckling] Some Americans who don’t like Obama say that he was born in Kenya.
Teacher: I see...

And so it happened. Our prestigious-university-educated teacher apparently believed that Obama was the son of two Kenyans. AsĀ  I told L. later, this was remarkable: She is highly intelligent, as she was accepted to Ewha (requiring test scores in the top 5% or so) but intellectual curiosity is something else all together. All these years of Obama in the news, and our teacher has apparently been under a misapprehension about this most basic of facts. This means that (1) our teacher is either particularly intellectually incurious [from her unimaginative teaching style, I’d say “yes” to this] or (2) “Obama as the son of two Kenyans” is a widespread belief among Koreans even at this late date.

Obama, in his heyday, was hugely popular across the world, both in 2008 and to a lesser extent in 2012, and
South Korean was on board too. They were polled about their own preference in 2012, and South Koreans favored Obama over Romney by 7-to-1 according to a BBC poll in October 2012 (of those with any opinion. (Specifically: 57% Obama, 8% Romney, 35% No Preference.)

The experience I relate above leads me to wonder, tangentially: How much have Obama’s many fans across the world ever really known about him? I don’t know. I’m not foolish enough to try to draw any conclusions from one incident but anecdotally, I can expand it to all the Asian students in the class on that day. My impression is that five of the six East-Asians present in our class that day were at least a bit mixed up about it. Only the Singaporean, P.G., born 1988, seemed to know about Obama’s origin correctly. (There are a few Singaporeans who study here, and I am impressed by them. There is also currently one Chinese-Malaysian I know of.)

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