Quite often in language class in Korea, English teachers find themselves perplexed during the introduction of certain lexical items, namely cheating. No matter the proficiency level of the class, beginner, high-beginner, or low-intermediate, the word "cheating" is almost always followed by a class chuckle and student error correction on the understood term used when cheating is mentioned: cunning.
One might ask how cheating can equal cunning in meaning. But once clarification was made by students, it was easy to see that cheating is only cheating if that person should get caught. Otherwise, if no consequences result on account of such actions, then it is understood that that person has gotten away with something and is hailed for their cleverness as being "cunning." To nationals of the Western world, cheating is still cheating whether that person suffers the consequences of their actions or not, but Koreans have come to accept this concept culturally, and expect it of its people. While this in no way reflects an absence of cunning attitudes in the West, it does serve to highlight a growing epidemic that has gripped the country recently.
The emphasis on educational achievement and ranking have resulted in an increased competitiveness, so when it was uncovered in 2004 that students and schools "cunningly" collaborated to score well on the Korean Scholastic Aptitude Test, no one was surprised by the event, but rather by the severity of the punishment: a one-year forfeiture of test-taking eligibility translating into a year of banished, undocumented schooling. Parents pleaded with the Ministry of Education to have the punishment reduced or even overturned. This behavior, as unusual as it may seem, was again taken to another level in May of this year when an unnamed Korean female pretended to attend Stanford University for an entire semester, to please her parents, before other students and school officials became suspicious.
Though cunning is only cunning if you get away with it, it has become clear that even the failed attempts of peers has not discouraged others from trying to be "cunning" in their own right. Perpetrating this further is a certain cavalier attitude that accompanies these incidents. In the case of the cunning students who cheated on the KSAT, societal competitiveness was cited as causative, not the cheaters themselves. Failure to accept blame is reflected in events involving some of the highest members of Korean society.
Hwang Woo-suk`s rise to fame and his meteoric fall encapsulates this epidemic surrounding a failure to look beyond what is present and identifying a relationship between cause and effect. The interpretation that cheating is cunning is not a linguistic discrepancy, but alternately a cultural representation which has affected all areas of society. Held as a model for rapid economic development, the country saw its stock fall during the 1997 financial crisis, which was due in large part to a collusive relationship between the government and domestic "chaebol." The consequences were foreseeable, yet cunning attitudes prevented this disaster from being recognized and prevented. So, when Shin Jeong-ah cunningly professed to have graduated from Yale University with a doctorate in art when she in fact had not, should we have been surprised? Of course not, why should that be the case after the international embarrassment of fabricated stem-cell research data. Anything is possible.
This cheating-cunning phenomenon is a rationalized short-cut to the old-fashioned axiom; "all in a hard day`s work," except there are no more days of hard work. Feeling overweight, consider liposuction. Need to get a better job, take the Test of English for International Communication. Both are likely to improve your surface value while eliminating that long drawn-out process of difficult work. Liposuction will make you look better without all the fuss of going to the gym and dieting, and TOEIC will quantify your level of English regardless of your poor command of the language.
That`s the beauty of being cunning.
It is only cunning if you get caught.
By David Ribott-Bracero
David Ribott-Bracero has been a University English instructor in Korea for the past six years. His views do not necessarily express those of The Korea Herald. - Ed.