Wednesday, 5 August 2009

On Ugly English Teachers and Racist Korean Journalists: Part 1: But You're TEACHERS!

On Ugly English Teachers and Racist Korean Journalists:
Let's not all crap our pants now
Part 1: But You're TEACHERS!

Here is the table of contents to the series: On Ugly English Teachers and Racist English Teachers: Let's not all Crap our Pants Now: Intro
Part 1: But You're TEACHERS!
An Open Letter to new English Teachers in Korea
Part 2: Why, Yes, Korea DOES have a Batshit Media! Why do you ask?
Part 3: Yeah, Some Self-Reflection Is Called For, but not From You, Ms. Choi
Part 4: Racism, Culture-shock, Acclimation and Integration in Minjokland
Part 5: The PR Campaign: 'Seyo's Marching Orders

Image: buy the t-shirt for your kid.

This is a new one, actually. See, one thing I've noticed in having conversations in English about Korea with Koreans is that it's startling how often one will come across what almost seems like rote answers or rationalizations to common questions and topics. Almost as if they're programmed in during second period dodeok in eighth grade. For example, "1. Korea has many people. 2. Korea has little land. 3. Korea has few natural resources. 4. Our only real resource is people. 5. With lots of people and few resources, Korean life is very competitive. 6. Therefore, to gain a competitive advantage, education is the key. 7. Therefore Koreans MUST get a good education, to compete. 8. Therefore we must push our children to do well in school, or our kids will fall behind the other kids. 9. Therefore, even though Minji and I both hate it, I STILL must force Minji to go to at least as many Hogwans as Mrs. Kim's daughter." It's not that any of this is untrue, or at least not partially true, but it sometimes it seems like discussion of the topic will brook no other arguments than those already tabled.

I've seen similar rote responses in discussion of other social issues popular in expat + Korean conversations (another example is the "but we can't make our entrance exams into other formats than multiple choice tests because multiple choice is objective: you can't bribe a scantron; writing tests or even double-blind interviews are too subjective to be trusted").

I've also had the honor of spotting a new meme to add to the progression. A few years ago, I started hearing this added to the others about competing for success through education: "Yeah, Roh Moo-hyun/Hyundai's CEO/some other wildly successful Korean was a self-made man/woman...but that was then, in the past. That kind of success is impossible in today's Korea, therefore, even though it wasn't always, education is NOW the ONLY way to be successful in modern Korea."

Well, in my talking with Koreans about why Korea focuses on English teacher drug use, for example, over drug use by its own population, or other expat populations (and the majority of foreigner drug-smuggling that happens takes place among Chinese and SouthEast-Asian expats living in Korea, I believe, though I don't have statistics at hand to back that up: the potsmoking English teachers are a tiny minority of the foreign drug users in Korea, to say nothing of Korea's own home-grown dealers and users). But we're teachers, and we deal with kids, I've been told, a number of times now, so it's worse if foreign English teachers do it, than if a bunch of Thai factory workers unwind with a little contraband...or use a little sumpin' sumpin to keep them awake through the last leg of that 36 hour shift their exploitastic boss put them on. And that's why the news media pays attention to English teacher iniquity over drug crimes, or other crimes done by other segments of the expat or local population. That's the new argument I've heard, almost by rote, the last handful of times I've talking about scapegoating. Didn't used to hear it.

We're teachers. The expectations are higher for us.

And here's what I have to say about that:


You know what, we ARE teachers, and we SHOULD be respectable, especially if we're working with kids. Yeah, seriously. If we want to be treated with the respect that is supposedly due to teachers in Confucian society (whatever that means), then we ought to act the part, and not be dipshits. And maybe you want to say "but we're not Korean, so why should Korean rules apply to us?" but you're in Korea, aren't you? Yeah, that argument can be stretched out ad absurdium into the unhelpful, "If you don't like it, go home"... but "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" can surely be followed without being tortured into, "If you don't like it, go home," (which is my absolute least favorite phrase in the entire culture-clash conversation, and is usually a dead giveaway that the person you're talking with has already made up their mind, and you're not conversing, because one of you ain't listening to the other).

Sure, because we're foreign, sometimes allowances are made for us. My Korean friends are mortified by my boldness if I strike up a conversation with a stranger (gasp! a STRANGER?) in the bank line or on a subway, but they shrug it off with "he's a foreigner". We've all gotten away with stuff by playing the 'foreigner card' - 'Gee, sorry, sir. I couldn't read the -stay off the grass- sign, sorry!'. But that does not mean we are entitled to having allowances be made for us. And you know, my supervisor might make allowances, because it's her job to help me do my job, but that doesn't necessarily apply to Byung-chul on the street, in whose country I am living, and who still sees me as a guest...and a sometime rude one at that. Some of us DO need to clean up our act, and it DOES behoove us to respect the fact teachers are held in high esteem here, and do what we can to act the part.

Couple other things, however:
First, if it's true that teachers are held in higher regard, and teacher crimes are considered that much worse BECAUSE WE'RE TEACHERS, then let's make sure that principle is applied across the board. If Korean teachers behave badly (and statistically, they sometimes do), I'd like to see foreign English teachers given the same treatment Korean teachers get when they step out of line, and by that I mean this:

I would like to see those misdeeds portrayed as inappropriate acts by individuals, not as behavior trends that characterize the entire group. A few Korean teachers getting caught in a prostitution sting does not lead to every Korean schoolteacher being accused of whoring, and if such rhetoric entered public discourse, teacher's union representatives would be quick to respond. It would be nice if the same courtesy of not measuring the lot of us by the low-water mark, were extended to Native English Teachers in Korea.

This point does get sticky when we head into the realm where law-abiding foreign English teachers get attacked for making choices which, while legal, are not always up to the highest standard of behavior, or just make people uncomfortable because of their racist ideas about a pure-blooded Korea. No, a male Native English Teacher's choice to date a Korean female does NOT affect his ability to teach his students, and yeah, it IS sexist that it's cool - it's great! - for a foreign female to date a Korean male (look how she's trying to get involved in Korean culture!) but it's not cool for a foreign male to date a Korean FEMALE (keep your dirty waygook hands off OUR women!) and yeah, a large - huge percentage of the anti-English teacher backlash is rooted in the sexist assumption that Korean females are helpless against foreign men's blue-eyed voodoo, and the unreasonable wish that male English teachers live as monks while they're in Korea (though it's fine if western women date Korean men, of course).

[Update: I am informed by Gomushin Girl in the comments that KF + WM BAD/WF + KM GOOD is an oversimplification of the foreign (particularly white) female, Korean male dating situation. She'd know better than I.]

Those sexist, racist ideas are reprehensible, but they won't go away until, basically, socially, Korea grows up (a moment to acknowledge that Korea's not the only country that needs to grow up in this way), and people who believe that kind of junk are relegated farther to the outliers of society, where they'll be recognized, and dismissed, as extreme and irrelevant voices. Until then, there ARE a couple of things we could do while we're here to at least alleviate the ugliness.

In fact, this is important enough that I'm going to make it a separate post of its own.

So go read it. "An Open Letter to New Teachers in Korea"

Now, Korea's not the only place where visual profiling takes place. How many of us have groaned in embarrassment when we went with grandma or dad, into the 7-11 back in our home-country, and dad or grandma spoke to the second-generation East-Indian store clerk (who was our classmate in high school, and won the English essay contest, and is due to inherit a chain of 7-11's across the city, and lives in a house with a garage bigger than my current apartment) in super-slow half-formed pidgin-English sentences. We get judged by our looks, if we look different than Koreans, and you know, there's not a whole lot we can do about that, except be mindful of it.

Another thing about being teachers is that we DO get into the teaching profession a lot more easily than Korean nationals. They have to go through years of education, and pass a super-badass-hard test before they can get a public school job. We pretty much need to show up with a University Degree. Now, you can talk until you're blue in the face about the fact that's simply a question of supply and demand, and that if Korea wanted better teachers, they could find them, but for now, most decision-makers are content to pay less for a less qualified teacher, than to pay the kind of money, and offer the kinds of prospects of advancement and development and the kind of lifestyle opportunities that would attract qualified, certified, career teachers to come and stay here. Until that happens, we WILL be viewed slightly askance, like interlopers, for the fact we got into teaching more easily than Koreans do, and the fact we kind of DID sneak in through the side door means that if we AREN'T on our best behavior, all those other judgements and stereotypes are on a hair-trigger, ready to dredge up every negative ever said about English teachers, if we step too egregiously out of line. That hair trigger is wound up with resentment and (let's be honest) envy: we're from the "good" countries, speak the "priviledged" language, and got into one of the most prestigious jobs in Korea, and like Harry Potter defeating Voldemort through who he IS, rather than any badass wizard talent of his own, it was mostly through the sheer good luck being born in the right place, that we're now teaching in Korea, occupying what is seen as a super-priveledged position. If we shit on that position by disrespecting Korea and brazenly flashing around our bad behavior, rather than keeping it on the down-low, is it any surprise we are met with such a harsh backlash?

Is this my own observation? Yeah. Is it anecdotal? Sure. I'll admit that, which, in the face of all these generalized assertions, might be all that differentiates me from Jon Huer (by the way, can I request that Huer become a K-blog catchphrase - either Huer (noun) for a blowhard who has no idea what he's talking about - "That guy's a total Huer. Been here two months and he'll argue with anyone." or Huer (verb) to approach a topic so mired in one's own preconceptions and stereotypes as to shoot one's argument in the foot before one has even begun - "Wow, you totally Huer'd that question...have you even read Virginia Woolf?")

However, ultimately, if we don't deal with douchebag behavior internally, among ourselves, as an English Teaching community, we will deal with it in newspaper articles, stereotyped news reports, and hit pieces by Choi Hui-seon and other equally racist hacks, so let's be a little more mindful of how we are seen by Korea, yah? Thanks.

Next: Let's not all crap our pants now, Part 2: Why Yes, Korea DOES have a Batshit Media! Why do you ask?


The Sanity Inspector said...

So go read it. "An Open Letter to New Teachers in Korea"

Hey, there's no link!

Stuart said...

I´ve spent the last 4 years working for the board of education. At the start of the term my old principle retired and was replaced by a new one.

When it came to renewing my visa this year, my new principle refused to sign my sponsorship papers because she thought I might be one of those "bad foreigners" that take drugs that she´s read about in the newspaper.

I guess my years of good work counts towards nothing with some people.

After 7 hours of talks she agreed to sign it only if all of my co workers signed a document she produced to agree to watch over me to make sure I don´t do anything illegal.

To top it off she made me make a pinky promise to promise her that I wouldn´t do anything illegal.

This is a 50 year old middle school principle.

I give up.

the Korean said...

No Stuart, it was your inability to spell basic words like "principal" correctly that got you canned. If four years of experience couldn't cure you of that, everyone in the world would fire you.

Roboseyo said...

one of the smartest people I know has mild dyslexia, and confuses spellings like principal and principle, The Korean.

Stuart said...

The Korean, I’m sure you’re really popular at parties.

It takes a special kind of person to deconstruct something into spelling and grammar points as a means to attack a random stranger, whilst completely ignoring the issue at hand.

Yes, I made a mistake I misspelled principle. So what?

I guess you’re perfect and never misspelled a word in your life.

Why did you even bother?

Roboseyo said...

let's keep things friendly now, can't we, everyone?

grubstreethack said...

For the record, one of my fellow teachers often makes spelling and grammatical mistakes (personal favourite: "Engliish," on a student's report card), whereas I'm a professional writing major with an excellent command of the English language.

But she's brilliant with kids, they absolutely love her and she's 1,000 times better at teaching, caring for the kids and communicating ideas than I could ever hope to be.

A teacher is more than just a walking dictionary.

Gomushin Girl said...

Rob ~ while I appreciate some people can direct unpleasantries towards Asian Female/Western Male couples, it is NOT all sunshine, roses, and happiness all the time with universal approval for Western Female/Asian Male couples either. It might be more aggressive, blatant, whatever when the dude is obviously foreign and the lady is not, but stares, comments, and rudeness can follow all kinds of couples. Much as I'd like the people of the world to beam their approval at the foreign chick with local boy, it's just not the case. The idea that western dudes have it so hard is . . . well, I'm not saying it's not hard, but I'm beginning to think that the emphasis coming from everywhere is overplayed. Yes, I know that things are sensitive because of the bad press lately, but . . .

Roboseyo said...

Thanks for the perspective I obviously lack, GG.

dimesfornickels said...

"If you don't like it, go home"

I think you are improperly dismissing a valid and helpful statement. I assume that your distaste for it stems from it's use by morons as another way to say "Love it or leave it".

I always advise people unhappy with their Korean experience to leave. Preferably home if that's where their heart lies.

Life is far too short to be spending a miserable time. And only an idiot would tough it out for the not-that-great benefits one gets there.

And yes, I do wish I had a time machine so I could go back to 2001 and tell myself to not be that idiot.

Hindsight is 20/20.

And Stuart: I hope you told the old bat to take the document and shove it up her ass as you walked out the door.

(Golly, I do hope all my spelling and grammar are correct so The Korean doesn't dismiss me out of hand)

Stuart said...

Unfortunately no. I've been at that school for the last 3 and a half years.

For the last 3 years I had a great principle but she retired this year.

She has been my principle for the last 6 months now and before last week when I required the legal documents from her; I had absolutely no contact with her.

I have very little contact with the new principle and she has very little effect over my day to day employment.

My main employer is the board of education anyway. I'm subcontracted to the middle school.

Most of my co-workers are great. As for the people that give me problems I really couldn't give a toss about them.

I make it clear to the idiots at the school what I think of them and they stay well out of my way. I really don't care what the new principle thinks, I've lost any respect for her after last weeks fiasco and all of my co-teachers are damn embarrassed about the whole thing as well.

I qualify for F5-9 visa status now and once I get that I can do whatever I want.

Once I get that F5 and there are any more problems I will be seeing what legal options I have available to me. I will also take a copy of the legal document the principle made up requesting that my co-workers monitor my personal life to make sure I don’t do anything illegal.

Roboseyo said...

Here's what I said about the "If you don't like it go home" line in my famous "Why do expats complain" post:

"Fair enough. K-defenders are entitled to that opinion if they choose. However, I hope they’d think for a moment about how unhelpful that attitude is. If I don't like Korea, and I go home, whatever -- I'm just one guy, and I can put up with a lot, as long as Korea puts food on my table. But what about when an international investor doesn't like something? What if ten-thousand teachers, or ten-thousand migrant workers, or five-hundred loaded, foreign businesspeople looking to invest, don't like something? When does the onus fall on Korea to look inward, rather than on outsiders to get lost? Is telling that investor to take his billions and invest them in Hong Kong instead, going to help Korea become the global leader it wants to be?

And if a K-defender wants Korea to go back to its hermit kingdom days, and pickle in its own juices, he’s free to that view, but that "my way or the highway" has another name in North Korea: juche, and it didn't work out so well for the starving farmers over there. If Korea wants to become a globalized, cosmopolitan hub, and a destination for business leaders and investors, then, "If you don't like it, let's work something out" would be more productive.

the "Go home" part of the ultimatum is especially unhelpful and frustrating because some of us consider THIS our home: some of us are married, have connections, roots, and commitments here, which means that the flip "just go home, then" is a null option for us, while at the same time, it often signifies that the other person talking is through listening or accepting new ideas.

Stuart: what a messed up story. Wow. I've been lucky enough not to bump into asshats like that so far in my time here. the other shoe will drop eventually, I'm sure.

bryancheron said...

Good post Rob. I agree with alot of your points, but I want to point something out about this:

"Another thing about being teachers is that we DO get into the teaching profession a lot more easily than Korean nationals. They have to go through years of education, and pass a super-badass-hard test before they can get a public school job. We pretty much need to show up with a University Degree."

The reward Korean teachers get for all those years of study and that test is a permanent job (철밥통). No matter how long we're here, we'll always be contract teachers at public schools, and assistant ones at that.

Korean teachers can get year-long contract job after year-long contract job with only a university degree too- at hagwons.

Wayne0714 said...

Even though I have a lot of sympathy for the expat/English teachers working hard in this country, I must point out that some of the hardship you folks are going through is a picnic compared to what an immigrant with distinct ethnic looks who is "fresh off the boat" (I actually heard a white teacher use that expression on me when I moved to Canada. Could've been just a joke but it was strange to feel like one of the boat people escaping from Vietnam or Cuba even for a moment. If only the air fare was that cheap..) goes through on a daily basis. Most of your folks come from nations with a much higher GDP than Korea or any other semi-developed/developing nation, so it would be harder to put yourselves into the shoes of an immigrant with poor English skills who gets no respect from the "white people" even though he may have been a general manager at a reputable company earning a good salary or a teacher with a Master's degree. Don't get me wrong, I'm no race baiter. But a lot of you folks seem to be so used to being part of the majority that you don't know what it's like to be fighting uphill battle. It's sometimes laughable to "ethnic people" to hear "white people" cry foul when there's even a hint of racial bias against them. I'm not saying reverse discrimination doesn't exist. I'm just saying the world history in the last several hundred years has been predominantly white man's game (white man must've been doing something right!!)

I had been in a minority long enough to understand the kind of pain some of the expats must be going through. And as a Korean, I've dealt with the kind of assholes you have been describing on countless occasions, so I hear you loud n clear! At the risk of sounding like a flower child, I guess sometimes love is the answer to problems like this. Let's all try to have a little more compassion for one another. And my hats off to Roboseyo once again for trying hard to put things into perspective with thoughtful writings.

BaludaBladula said...

First off, I just want to say that I think you did a fantastic job on posting the 10 tips for teachers. You should get them published on brochures to be handed out to new teachers as they step off the plane.
While I completely agree with the moral aspect of your post (ie: that as teachers we should be responsible and respectful), I think that the Korean Ministry of Education and Immmigration are largely responsible for not placing more emphasis on qualifications. While I am by no means implying that non-certified teachers are not capable of being wonderful educators, I do feel that you generally get what you pay for. The following is an example of a situation that I would see time and time again throughout my 5 years in Korea.(While I used a fictional character named Joe who majored in Chemistry , it's obvious that he could have majored in any given subject...)
Having just graduated from university, there's nothing more that Joe would like to do than backpack with his buddies across Europe. Unfortunately,the cost of his education has left him completely broke,and he has no choice but to look for a job. In searching for work on the net, he comes across an ad that explains how as a recent university graduate, he is "qualified" to teach in Korea. It doesn't matter that he majored in chemistry and never really had strong language skills, or that he has absolutely no interest in pursuing a career in education.He can travel to Asia, make a decent wage and live in a rent free apartment.Not too bad for a recent grad!
Who knows how Joe is going to behave once he gets to Korea.He could end up being a very successful teacher who gains the respect of all those surrounding him, or he could end up being a loose cannon who shows up to work everyday reeking of alcoohol. Sure he submitted a criminal record check before going to Korea, but that doesn't mean he's not going to party his arse off every night!

While I am not insinuating that certified teachers could never act like loose cannons, what I do know is that by completing a Bachelor of Euducation they've gone that extra mile to show that they are serious about a career in education. If a certified teacher were to teach in Korea, having a good reference would be absolutely essential.I am convinced that most certified teachers are quite serious about being educators, and understand the importance of being professional both in and out of the classroom. Unfortunately, as you mentioned in your post, there are few incentives for certified teachers to come to Korea. For this reason, I can honestly say that I do not feel any kind of sympathy for Koreans who complain about foreign teachers not being "real teachers".
Unlike places like Hong Kong, (where you need both a B.Ed and your CELTA/TESOL certification to teach) Korea is just not willing to pay competitive wages. I've actually seen job postings offering 2.6 million won a month for teachers holding a B.Ed, masters degree or PHd. It's pretty odd then, to think that certified Korean English teachers (many of whom can't even string together a full English sentence) can make over 5 million won a month.
I believe that if Korea wants better teachers, then it's their responsiblity to demand higher qualifications and offer more competitive packages. After all, there was a time in Korea when simply being a native English speaker was all you needed to be considered "qualified".

And to all the Koreans readers...Have you ever thought about how things would be if Korean was the lingua franca of the 21st century,and all you needed to teach Korean abroad was a 3 or 4 year degree. I can't help but wonder how these thousands of "Korean teachers" would behave as educators in a foreign land...

The Bobster said...

I generally agree with dimesfornickels that people who don't like Korea should leave, and it's not just because I'm tired of hearing the exact same bellyaching year after year, but rather mostly for the reasons he states - this place isn't for everyone, and personal happiness is more important than making a little more money than one might do back on their own home turf, or somewhere else.

I personally think that western teachers get about as much benefit from positive discrimination in our favor as the negative discrimination that harms us in some way. In the end, it tends to be a wash, really.

kushibo said...

If Korean teachers behave badly (and statistically, they sometimes do), I'd like to see foreign English teachers given the same treatment Korean teachers get when they step out of line, and by that I mean this:

I would like to see those misdeeds portrayed as inappropriate acts by individuals, not as behavior trends that characterize the entire group. A few Korean teachers getting caught in a prostitution sting does not lead to every Korean schoolteacher being accused of whoring, and if such rhetoric entered public discourse, teacher's union representatives would be quick to respond.

While I think this is an excellent post, I have a quibble with this. The press is deliberately taking Korean teachers as a group to task and has been doing so for at least a decade. As late as the 1990s, Korean teachers were virtually unassailable by the media and now they're being depicted as a lazy, out of touch, privilege- and position-abusing group of people. And yes, various policies have been demanded of them in response.

kushibo said...

Meanwhile, I don't care much for the "if you don't like it, leave" meme.

People may have things in their life that may keep them in Korea (family or work obligations, Dog the Bounty Hunter, etc.) so that kind of response is not so helpful.

Foreign residents are still residents, and there are some things that they legitimately ought to seek to change.

As I've said before, however, I do think that the nature of K-blogs can lead people to wallow in a negativity that poisons their real lives, and for some people backing away from the abyss might be something to consider. But for them, leaving the K-blogs is something to try before they leave Korea altogether.

Yeah, there are a handful of people I know that should have left Korea a long time ago, but for most the "love it or leave it" response isn't the right one.