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?