This is the last of 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 now that I've expounded till I'm blue in the face about being teachers, expat transgressions, Korean reactionism, the expat community, and the frustrating condition of living in a society that is still in the process of... SO many things, and the fact neither Rome, nor social change, are built in a day. But until the clouds part and everything's peachy, being a visible minority here, it's time to get our butts on a PR campaign: we've got to stabilize and consolidate our own community, at the same time as we work to improve our image in the Korean public consciousness.
And I'm here to give a few starting tips. Here are some things we can do, in order to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
First, we've got to start on the assumption that there is an expat community, and we are a part of it, even if we don't have a whole lot in common with that weird guy who works at the hagwon down the road, or that crusty old veteran whose Korean ability is the only thing that tops out his cynicism. Stick up for each other, help each other out where we can, and encourage the newcomers we work with to do likewise. Whatever our differences, and there are plenty, we need to have each other's backs on the big stuff, because, frankly, not many Koreans will throw another Korean under the bus for a foreigner's sake, unless that foreigner's her sister-in-law or something, so the least we can do, in the face of the Minjok and the knee-jerk elements, is to present a similarly united front. Yeah, we're all adults and stuff, but the old salts ought to take on at least a little responsibility for the greenhands, for their experience here, and for their behavior here, so that next time around, THOSE people are instilling that same sense of responsibility toward their peers, colleagues and successors, and to their successors in turn: if we can create a culture of accountability and responsibility toward the other expat teachers in Korea, we're most of the way toward a functioning community already.
We've got to reach out -- make sure that new teachers get invited out, to meet the crew, to give them a toehold into inclusion. We should get together with other expats in our areas, that we know who teaches at the school nearby. Choose, or spread word about the foreigner bar in the neighborhood (every neighborhood has one, or should,) but then don't let it stop there, with drinking buddies...(that's kind of the stereotype, isn't it?). Start clubs, take daytrips, climb mountains together, adopt a stretch of highway, volunteer at a local orphanage: be a presence in the community, not just at the bar. Small groups need to form connections -- we can't exactly get all 20 000 of us together for a party (or is that what the Boryeong Mud Festival's become?), but we CAN get the foreigners in our neighborhood meeting and knowing each others' names, so that we have couches to crash on when push comes to shove, and people to knock on the door of our ex-bosses' offices when the completion bonus isn't showing up as promised.
As part of that community we're trying to form, we need to act in a way that is responsible toward the other English teachers we work with and deal with closely, but also the English teachers who will come after us, and the English teacher population at large. A lot of this is detailed in my open letter to new English teachers. You know what, folks, don't even throw the other expats here under the bus in order to feel like one of the "good" foreigners. It's short-sighted and counterproductive, and pitting us against each other is an easy way to make sure the expat community never amounts to anything. Kushibo thought we should all take HIV tests to show OUR hands are clean, but I disagree: doing that automatically frames the discussion in terms of "good" foreigners and "bad" foreigners, in the same way that Chris Rock's famous "I hate n****rs" routine draws a line between good and bad blacks...and then reinforces EVERY negative stereotype about African Americans. Framing the discussion that way automatically assumes, indeed, lays suspicion, that there are enough "bad" foreigners to justify that test, which means that even if my result is clean, I'm part of an inherently "dirty" group, or at least, when people first meet me, they'd better watch closely, in case I AM one of the "bad" ones, rather than offering the benefit of the doubt. Yeah, Chris Rock has demonstrated that he's one of the "good" ones, but we don't walk away from that routine thinking, "Yeah, what a swell guy he is" -- we walk away thinking about the negative stereotypes he trotted out. It's the same thing when we draw the good vs. bad foreigner binary. Don't sit around going, "well, there are certainly a lot of no-good English teachers... good thing I'm not one of them," because it increases the "other" of all foreign English teachers but yourself, and that's fine for you, but counterproductive for the community. Don't totally deny that there ARE some bad ones -- that's just bull -- but always, consistently and emphatically assert that every population, and every group, has good and bad members, and the entire group shouldn't be judged by the behavior of the bad ones. And repeat that as often as necessary, and leave it at that. No need to bring up examples, either of good expats or bad Koreans, or bad expats and good Koreans. Every group has good and bad people, because every group is made of humans. (And don't always bring up Cho Seung-hui and Park Han-se during this conversation: shit'll get raw. The point of the assertion is NOT to throw the bad ones in peoples' faces... that's what they do to us, and we hate it, don't we?).
Another thing we've got to do is support and get involved in the expat and English teacher organizations that are already out there. ATEK, AFEK, KOTESOL, all the regional and interest-based facebook groups and meetup.com clubs. Join up, sign up, show up... it's worth it. And if you don't like one of the groups, start your own, or get involved with another. As I said before: if we have a dozen groups that can help people form communities with like-minded people, we're miles better off than if we ask one or two to pull all the weight, and then if all those groups can join in on the big issues, we're looking way better.
And don't just join the groups, and only call when the hogwan boss is ripping you off. As Satchel Paige, the old baseball player said, "Don't pray when it rains if you don't pray when the sun shines." -- community isn't the same as a safety net. It means something we contribute to, in order to belong more, and take more ownership, of the place where we are in life. If you didn't send a bit of cash when Matt Robinson or Bill Kapoun or Nerine Viljoen were in the hospital, if you don't want to think about Stephannie White's situation because it makes you kinda uncomfortable, well, why should the community stick its neck out for you when the shoe's on the other foot? Community is ... MUST be a two way street.
Earlier I speculated on how great it would be if there weren't just one, but many organizations working, not in competition with each other but on behalf of all the various groups of English teachers, to represent the different needs of different groups. Groups like that need to get together, and get in touch with the high-up mucky-mucks who currently have Lee Eun-eung as their go-to expert on Native English Teachers, and that's it.
You know what else those groups have to do? They have to open channels of communication, and collaboration, with the other migrant workers in Korea. While us poor little rich kids don't gain a ton of sympathy complaining for our own rights, we have a lot more in common with the Southeast Asian contract workers than we think, in terms of how our visas work, how our bosses can (legally) and do (actually) treat us, in terms of the laws made protecting our rights. Ditto for those of us who marry Koreans and the South-Asian brides who do the same. It's a mutually beneficial situation: if we, Canadianers, Aussies, Yanks and the like (countries Korea wants to impress) use that national-status clout to get Canadian ambassadors and such leaning on Korean lawmakers to help out the South-Asian DDD labourers, it increases the chance of stuff getting done for them, and honestly, they need more help than we do. Meanwhile, by aligning ourselves with a group of people who garner, and frankly deserve, a lot more sympathy than a bunch of university-educated HDI-enhanced professionals can muster, we will get onto the World Human Rights radar a lot more easily than if we're just a cluster of poor little rich kids crying cocktail-party-foul.
We need to take the connections we DO have with Koreans, and strengthen them. As I said before, this dialogue is happening on two levels: the big picture, where organizations and human rights lawyers and press arbitration commissions get involved, and on the micro-level, where I come to work on time and sober and ready to work every day, in order to create an image of professionalism in my community. Don't smoke in front of your school building, don't get puking-drunk in your neighborhood, where for all you know, the person serving you drinks has a kid at your school. Do demonstrate respect to the people and the culture around (back to that top ten list) -- be ambassadors, because that's what we are, in a country so unaccustomed to visible minorities and real diversity, and so prone to making blanket generalizations about those weird, different looking people.
(image: Boo!) Another thing: keep the high ground, no matter what. Minorities will never get ahead if they answer in kind. Returning hate for hate, spite for spite, rudeness for rudeness, will only confirm the negatives stereotypes people already have for us, and lead to escalating reprisals. Yeah, it's hard to step off when somebody just shouted a big fat "fuck you" or a "yankee go home" at your back, or called your girlfriend a whore or your boyfriend a traitor, but like Jackie Robinson blazing his trail in baseball, when Branch Rickey told him he had to NEVER RETALIATE for his first two seasons, no matter what people did, we've gotta have the high ground. We have little enough wiggle room already, being under the microscope: giving up the high ground means we have nowhere to stand.
image Another imperative is that we don't marginalize ourselves. Yeah, an expat community is important and helpful, and some of the long-termers who have "gone native" might do well to reconnect with the ordinary joe English teachers, if only because the advice they could give would be about a million times more useful than Johnny Six-months asking Janie Eight-months how Korean culture works, and what's expected, and why everbody in the neighborhood looked at him funny for five days after he went jogging through his neighborhood without a shirt, revealing the tattoo on his back. On the other hand, it's ALSO important that we don't self-marginalize. To continue the micro-level public relations campaigh, we can't forget to form and work on connections with Koreans. Join clubs, get involved in language exchanges, join a church or temple or volunteer organization or hiking club, have dinner at your students' parents' houses, so they can see you're a decent human being (and not just at the milf divorcee's place, eh?). Basically, if we can't participate in the media because of the language gap, at least we can participate in people's lives, which is more powerful anyway, for those individuals. And every social change starts with individuals.
I'm sure there are other tips I could give. Sure of it. Remind me of them in the comments! There are other tips, other angles, yeah, but basically, we've got to be aware of who we are, and where we fit in Korea's wildly changing society, and from there, we've got got got to be mindful of the implications of our position, and responsible for and towards our own, because we ARE your people, we ARE lumped in together, and as such, there are thing expected of us, and things we can do about it, so let's get on it, folks.
Brain Fart Update: I can't believe I forgot this one from Gomushin Girl in the comments:
START LEARNING THE LANGUAGE! I know it's hard, especially if you're working full time teaching English, surrounded by coworkers who speak English. I know that the language is radically different and thus takes time to learn. It doesn't matter. If you're going to be here for more than a few months you owe it to yourself and others to make all reasonable efforts to become able to communicate in Korean. You shouldn't expect to become fluent in a year, but for goodness sakes, gain some basic skills. And then KEEP BUILDING THEM! It gripes me to see people who learn enough to order a beer and say hi and thank you figure they know enough and just stop aquiring more skills. Enroll at a language hagwon, make a study group, something! It's the number one thing that will make your life in Korea more enjoyable, easy, and interesting.