On Ugly English Teachers and Racist Korean Journalists: Let's not all crap our pants now: Part 4: Racism, Acclimation and Integration in Minjokland
This is part 4 in a 5-part series about racist reporting on English teachers in Korea, and how the English teaching community should respond. For the other parts of the series, see these links.
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
So here we are in Minjokland: Korea is a country where, (particularly during the difficult climb from being a third-world, impoverished shithole [Image source] , to a legitimate global force,) people were very explicitly and intentionally inculcated, indoctrinated, and programmed, to take pride in Korea for surviving many foreign menaces in the past, and yet remaining racially pure during all that time. I'm not scholar enough to trace the history of the one-blood myth, much less deconstruct it, nor am I thorough enough to demonstrate whether Korea's historical "foreign menace repelled...TWO THOUSAND TIMES!" myth holds a lot, a little, or no water at all, and I'm certainly not going to assert conclusively that the largest proportion of the crappy things Koreans suffered throughout Korean history were actually inflicted upon them by other Koreans (say, the elites who had money and power, on the proletariat), and not foreigners at all. I'd venture a guess, but couldn't say for sure whether Koreans' exploitation of their own nearly matched, matched, outstripped, or far outstripped the bad business that was done to Koreans by people from other countries. That's outside the scope of this article anyway, because how Koreans view their history is more important than whether that view is accurate, when we're discussing a country's self-perception, and where we fit into that matrix.
So what we have is a country proud of its pure blood (that focus on blood isn't as strong as it used to be, but it used to remind me of, uh, well... and the pure bloodline is called "Minjok" - hence the title. More about minjok here.), and told of a long history of being invaded by Bad People Who Want To Wipe Out Korean Culture, and of Korea repelling those invasions. Now, since 1910, if North Korea counts as Korea, and since 1950 if North Korea now counts as a different country (which I think it does), nobody's invaded Korea. There's much less reason for the people to band together and lock elbows and fight for their nation's very identity... yet that myth of some kind of monolithic "Real Korean Culture (That Must Be Defended and is Constantly being Threatened)" lingers: it's hard to unlearn an entire childhood of rah rah propaganda from an all-powerful dictator.
Don't believe old habits die hard? Here's another place where you can see ingrained patterns perpetuate, even after they (probably? most likely? clearly?) are no longer necessary, is in the Korean National Assembly. You know why those old guys keep reverting to extreme, overblown, wildly demonstrative and melodramatic rhetoric and tactics? Because back in Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan's days, when they were in High School and University and learning how countries work, that WAS the only way to make your point. The ordinary channels were blocked, or corrupt, or mere tokens, so sit-ins, hunger-strikes and molotov cocktails were the way to get stuff done, and those were the methods that earned Korea an actual democracy, instead of a sham dictatorship.
So now, without a military aggressor/villain trying outright to outlaw the Korean Language from being spoken in legal proceedings, official functions, and educational institutes (as happened during the Japanese Colonial period), there's this wacky Western Culture, and rather than hammering iron spikes in rocks to screw up the geomantic power of Korea's important sites, it's causing young people to tan, dye their hair yellow, wear pink men's shirts and speak a weird dialect full of alien, new words, and it's seeded the whole country with huge, ugly-as-hell tombstone-apartment blocks, and western brand-name shops, and people aren't learning to respect their elders like they used to, and instead of being forbidden from speaking Korean, they're being forced to learn English, not on pain of corporal punishment anymore, but on pain of stunted career opportunities, and finally one morning they wake up and don't recognize the country where they were born. Can you imagine anything lonelier than finding yourself a stranger in the only land you know, anything colder than being called anachronistic and outdated in the place you grew up, at an age when you'd expected to be growing old with honor and respect?
So it's anybody's guess just how much of Korea's hate-on for English teachers is actually redirected anxiety over Korea's rapid modernization and the loss of some romanticized image of "the old ways".
The whole percieved cultural hegemony thing sure can rankle, and while, deep down, I think Koreans recognize that yeah, they DO need America's military protection, and America's economic partnership to hold their place in the world, and that Koreans ARE generally better off now than they were getting ripped off and held down by their yangban overlords in the Chosun days, and certainly better than when they were having their culture boot-stomped by Japanese colonizers, we English teachers are a nice vent for the resentment that springs from the feeling of inferiority born of NEEDING that help (or at least having needed it in the past). And us English teachers? We look different, and we're from the countries Korea can't OPENLY alienate, and we're right here next to them on the bus or at the next table in the restaurant. We're easy [photo source] backlash targets, conveniently located three doors down, so let's remember that at least SOME of the bile directed at us is of a passive-aggressive, "I'm punching the wall because I'm not allowed to punch my father-in-law" nature, and not really about us at all, in the same way that the beef protests weren't really about beef. The exact same way.
As we struggle to find our place in Korean society, and as our expectations of Korea bump up against Koreans' expectations of us, let's consider this, too: On both sides of the (especially older male) Korean/foreign (white & especially male) English teacher head-butting binary, many, probably most of us are spectacularly unequipped to deal with culture clashes.
Let me explain.
See, to begin with, until this very most recent generation of kids whose families have had the resources to send them overseas, almost all Koreans have pretty much spent almost all their lives in Korea, speaking Korean, hanging out with Koreans, and doing things the Korean way. Even when Koreans travel outside of Korea, as anybody who's gone on a group tour knows, Koreans do it The Korean Way, and effectively carve out a little mini-Korea in the middle of the country they're visiting, going to the same Korean guest-house, eating at the only Korean restaurant in town (almost every night on some tours) and sneaking soju and kimchi in their carry-ons, in order not to have to eat any of that weird-smelling non-Korean food (the delicious irony of the country that invented dwenjang and the world's strongest garlic, complaining about the smell of Pho noodle soup, is not lost on me. Pot, meet kettle.) [image] Being surrounded by people doing everything the Korean way, and having no reason to seek out alternative ways to do things (the pressure to conform is also beyond the scope of this essay, but it's sure there) basically, most Koreans have never been asked, nor challenged themselves, to color outside the lines. Why would they? Those lines got there through years of the auspicious ancestors perfecting the system, and it worked for them!
Then, take a white English teacher. Especially a white male English teacher from a primarily-white home country (I don't think I can speak for South-Africans here...maybe one of you would like to explain the phenomenon I'm about to describe as it pertains to your countrypersons in the comments?). Yeah, we Westerners (though I've heard those Oceanians rankle at being called Westerners: sorry my Aussie and Kiwi readers) have generally had a little more experience meeting people from different cultures, and with different skin colors than born-and-raised Korea Koreans, but for the white of us (and I'm not saying that all English teachers are white, nor should be [heaven forbid!] but the Korean preference to hire whites has been fairly well-documented), and especially the white males, we've always been the face of the majority in our country. Sure, there might be a little white-priviledge guilt mixed in there, and we might be very open-minded in our choices of lifestyle, friends, association, and whatever else, but when push comes to shove, the onus lies on the other cultures immigrating to and living in our home countries, to learn OUR language. In our home countries, blending in, for those immigrants and ethnic minorities, means becoming more like us, in speech, dress, behavior, attitude, whatever. I ain't saying it's right, and I ain't saying our countries are as anti-diverse as they might have been in 1955, but for now the fact remains, we're still the face of the hegemony, and are used to things being done the way WE do them.
Whew! All this broad-brush painting is tiring!
So take Koreans who have had things done their way ALL their lives (and the assumption that things will continue to be done THEIR way is strongest in older Korean males), and English teachers who have had things done THEIR way all their lives (and, not to say it doesn't appear in other genders or colors, but I'm pretty confident in saying that this feature is also most concentrated in white males), put them together in a situation where one has a lot of money at stake, and the other is deep in culture shock, in every part of his/her life, and they have wildly different ways of doing things, and neither have ANY experience in their lives of being the one who accomodates, instead of being the one who is accomodated: we are, on either side, Speck-TACK-yoo-lair-ly unequipped to deal with eachother. At least white females and non-whites have had to deal with white male bullshit all their lives! Expat Jane has valuable things to say about this. Go read. With this in mind, is it any surprise that it has been reported to me, by a few friends whose observations I trust, that first-world white males complain about Korea, and racism, and whatnot, more than any other group of expat? So, again, neither side is off the hook, but we can at least be mindful of where we're coming from, and hope for the same from our counterparts.
This is not a point to be thrown in the face of the person who disagrees with you; this is not just more fodder for certain English-teacher-hating Korea Times trolls: this is simply something to be aware of in ourselves. Somebody with a sprained ankle ought to go slower down the stairs than an athlete, and someone who's never in his life been asked to so radically consider other ways of doing things ought to approach conflicts with a bit more open-mindedness, humility and flexibility than that multicultural whiz-kid diplomat's daughter, who navigates cultural barriers as easy as breathing.
Another thing about this culture clash is that, Korea is not like our western countries, where the diverse population includes a mix of F.O.B.'s (fresh off the boat), semi-experienced, very experienced, and second generation immigrants, and the diverse populations in our countries increase both by immigration AND reproduction. Many of the mixed-ethnic people in our home countries are from immigrant families, many are second-generation kids who grow up culturally hip, smart and capable code-switchers who can blend in smoothly both with their own immigrant communities AND with the majority culture. They can act as a buffer between the shocking otherness of their parents, and the dominant culture. [image] But here in Korea, immigration is rare, so such code-switching kids are only coming from international marriages, many of whom (especially in the case of the international marriages in the countryside between Korean males and Southeast Asian women) are still quite young, and some of the Koreans returning from living overseas (though they have their own troubles re-acclimating to Korea, I'm told) and those mixed kids are still struggling to find their place in Korean society, rather than acting as go-betweens between their less-culturally hip parents and the culture of the majority, as a kind of semi-Other mediating the more concentrated Otherness of their parents, who might never lose their accent, and don't like seeing their kids marry non-theirethnicgroups. I don't dare say much more than that about where returning overseas Koreans fit into this... any of my Kyopo readers want to throw in a thought or two in the comments? (As a non-Kyopo, I haven't, and I'd ask other non-Kyopos not to speak for them). What about Korean adoptees? Jeez, I don't know.
Anyway, what that all means is that for all the ethnic diversity in our home countries, there're also a bunch of visible minorities in North America who are skilled code-switchers, able to blend in and even mediate between the Other and the majority. For us English teachers in Korea, many of us ain't so hot at code-switching. For us, the more common pattern is "F.O.B. arrives, goes through a year or two of spectacularly difficult culture-clashes and personality-clashes that are frustrating on both sides, and just as he/she reaches a point where he/she is starting to "get" Korea, and can start to go with the flow, leaves to be replaced with ANOTHER F.O.B. who goes through the same frustrating travails, and also then leaves, and so forth. That pattern sets us up to be disliked by the people who have to deal with us every day, and deal with the same bull again with each new teacher, like a hamster on a treadmill. Now sure, part of the blame for this is, again, on the gatekeepers: the employers who are not willing to add enough incentives to make it worthwhile for more of us to stay longer and put down roots here, and (seemingly) would rather suffer those clashes, than pay what our experience is actually worth in ease of dealing with us and improved teaching ability, professionalism, and cultural awareness. This, again, is where it's a shame that so many long-termers and high-level Korean speaking expats don't continue to associate with the newer English teachers, because, again, they'd be helpful as a buffer for the shocking otherness of the F.O.B.'s, and better at explaining the score than that OTHER F.O.B. who's only really been there six months longer than the new guy. Plus, unlike second generation immigrant kids, who are buffering for their FAMILY, long-term expats feel less, little, or no obligation toward the new ones.
So, acclimation is hard. Harder than we ever realized it would be. It's part of the package, though, and we've got to find the healthiest way possible to deal with it.
[image: not quite a melting pot, but...]
Next question: what about integration? One of my friends has a brother who lives in Sweden, and he loves it there, and his Swedish is good enough that he can almost fit in without being noticed...but not quite. He says that while he appreciates the special treatment that comes of being an outsider, he'd rather be ignored. That's what integration is. He wants to be just another joe (or Bjorn, as it were), who happens not to speak Swedish as well as most....but well enough, thanks. Rather than pointing a neon sign at the differences between him and the rest of Sweden, he'd rather move around without making any waves.
And here's the next thing about the expat experience. See, I think a lot of us are a bit confused about what exactly we want from our Korea experience (likewise, our bosses often don't know what to do with us). Integration would mean that we are treated EXACTLY the same as the Koreans around us. If it could truly happen, imagine: no kids would shout "FOREIGNER!" and point when we pass a field-trip, no more shouted "MY NAME IS SUJI!" from across the street. No old guys leering, or cursing at us, or no old ladies grabbing our love handles and laughing to her friends. Nobody approaching us in bookstores with "Free English Lesson" written all over their face, or staring at our erogenous zones in saunas. (Yes! Foreigners have them too!) Wouldn't it be nice! But it would also mean being ignored on the bus by those cute kids. It would mean facing the same obstacles and expectations a Korean mate would face in dating, and, even worse, in the workplace. It would mean being expected to learn the language, because "This is Korea" ("Learn English. This is America:" how often have you heard that?) and sure, the cops would treat us the same in a scuffle, but the landlord's wife wouldn't bring us fruit just because we're foreigners, the young people wouldn't afford us those curiousity dates that drop in our laps from time to time, and we'd have to work harder to get phone numbers, and if we were lost downtown, nobody'd approach us and ask if we need help. I don't think we can separate the good from the bad, and ask for only the good parts. It's a little disingenuous to expect it, but it might help us to remember that being called "handsome" or "beautiful" regularly, getting away with stuff by playing the "foreigner card" (gee, sir, sorry: I couldn't read the "park closed after 10pm" sign) getting free bonus-stuff at shops or restaurants, having an easier time getting away with approaching strangers to get a phone number or whatever, comes out of the same perception of uniqueness and otherness that attracts the weird drunk guys to come and talk to US, over all the other people on the subway car. So would we give it ALL up, in order no longer to be singled out in the news, on the street, by the big hairy old-guy eyeball, and such? Maybe I would, but I'd have to think about it for a while. I kind of like the well-meant "can I help you find something?" strangers who approach me at subway stations, or the coworkers who say "I want to take you to a traditional Korean restaurant" or invite us to eat with their families, or to come to their houses on holidays and observe the ancestral rituals. I kind of like being special here. I think a lot of us do, and after glowing from the special attention, it's a bit hypocritical to complain in the next breath about the people staring at us who AREN'T cute young Koreans of the opposite gender.
This is the part of the essay where I mention that every time unqualified English teachers get mentioned in the media, coverage conveniently fails to direct any scrutiny toward the gatekeepers of the ESL industry: the recruiters, the employers, and a little farther removed, Korean immigration. More attention SHOULD be paid to the clowns who are letting these clowns into the country, and the word unqualified really only highlights how badly recruiters hogwan owners and immigration are bunging up their job as gatekeepers... especially when immigration does it, because first they set the bar, and then they moan hypocritically that it's too low, when THEY decided where it should be. One of the best comments I ever read on this topic was also one of the simplest: it was on the Marmot's Hole, and all it said was "1. Many native English teachers. 2. Well-trained, professionally qualified native English teachers. 3. Cheap native English teachers. Korea has to pick two." Can't remember who wrote it, though.
But there's plenty of blame to go around for who gets in. The moms who settle for discount frat boy instead of paying extra for a real educator are also to blame, as are the hogwan regulatory institutions that are either too lazy, too understaffed, or too corrupt to fix a failing system.
[image] Fact is, as long as there's a place for jokers and deadbeats on the demand side, there will always be deadbeats and jokers ready to fill the demand. And then we get into the vicious cycle where those jokers convince people that Native English Teachers are just singing white monkeys anyway, therefore we are assigned tasks and curricula that demand nothing better from us, which ask far less of (most of) us than we are capable, or put us into conditions where actual professionalism is impossible: split-shifts, insane working hours, unreasonable demands, unpaid overtime, and so forth... so we do the bare minimum we can, either because too much is asked, or because we've given up because the curriculum is insultingly simple, or because the boss just wants warm bodies in the classroom and flaunts his lack of care about education, creating a culture of complacency about education, and despite our initial intentions or qualifications, we're doing no better a job than that white, dancing monkey after all. Upon seeing such work, the boss's idea is confirmed that skimping for a cheap native speaker makes more sense than paying the kind of money it would cost to bring in teachers with qualification, and we're going in circles, playing "the chicken or the egg?"
Next thing about the racism dialog: it's happening simultaneously on two levels: on the Macro Level -- that is, the big picture, where English teacher organizations and Anti-Defamation Leagues should be interacting with groups like the Press Arbitration committee and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, and also on the Micro Level, where we demonstrate good character and professional conduct to our coworkers and the Koreans we meet, and walk away from provocation instead of stirring shit up, wherein our behaviour is so unimpeachable that instead of reading articles by bigots like Choi Hui-Seon and thinking, "Yeah! We really SHOULD do something about English teachers! [image] I wish somebody'd done something about those awful weiguks I saw last weekend...," the Koreans around us read such articles and think, "Wow! This is so clearly racist bullshit: I've known a bunch of English Teachers, and all of them have been polite, global-minded, professional and altogether above reproach!" These two levels of discourse are not always in step: while the civil rights movement had LEGALLY forbidden certain acts, and extended certain other rights and priveledges to African-Americans, racist hate-crimes and various forms of discrimination or profiling did, and still do, continue. Changing laws is a lot easier than changing minds, and changing enough minds to comprise a change in culture takes time. It might be a full generation, or two, before Korea fully recognizes the role foreigners and mixed-blood citizens will play in Korea's future: it was two generations between the Civil Rights movement and Obama's election, and even in American black-white race-relations, there's still work to be done. Until then... work in progress. Sorry about the mess. Please be patient with traffic stoppages.