This is a companion piece to part 1 of our series, "let's not crap ourselves", on Ugly English Teachers and Racist Korean Journalists.
Open Letter to People Coming to Korea (especially ethnic non-Asian males) to Teach
Get ready to be insulted. It's tough truths I'm dealing out here today, and if we don't deal with them in-house, they get dealt with in Korea's national assembly, or on the front page of Korean newspapers and news websites, so here goes. The language might be harsh sorry 'bout that.
Hey there everybody. Welcome to Korea: it's a pretty cool place, all in all. You can read here, at this blog, and also in other places, how to have a great time, cultural pitfalls to avoid, and some of the ins and outs that make one's first year in a totally different culture sometimes feel like driving blindfolded. Don't get me wrong: that first year is also great, especially if you take the open mind and the initiative necessary to carpe your diem.
But I'd like to talk about a delicate topic today: one of the seamy undersides of the experience here. It's unfortunate, but you'll experience it.
Bare bones fact: you're in a totally different culture here (duh). I'll tell you a couple of things about this culture, though. First of all, you should know that in Korea's ancient, traditional culture, being a teacher is considered one of the most esteemed professions: that's what you're heading into. That's cool, right? It means you (presumably) get more respect than other professions; you'll also get a bit more respect than you get from students and parents back in North America, generally speaking.
However, the same culture which honors teachers also tends to evaluate a person's entire character as a part of one's qualification for teaching: that is, even after you punch out and go home, you are STILL a teacher. In the street, in your neighborhood, and even on the weekend, you are still a teacher to Koreans. This goes for other professions as well: hence the hyper-competitive drive in Korea to get into one of the prestige jobs, like doctors and lawyers, civil servants and, yeah, teachers. Being a teacher isn't just a paycheck here: reaching that position is also a call to moral leadership in Korean society, and a position of moral esteem. Seriously.
Next thing: because, until only very recently, Korea considered itself an ethnically pure country, and it remains one of the more racially homogenous countries in the world, Koreans are still getting used to the idea of having people with different nationalities, cultures, and especially, different skin colors, involved in their day-to-day life. One feature of not quite knowing what to do with this (sometimes un-asked-for) diversity is a tendency to generalize the different populations. You'll probably regularly hear Koreans talk, not just of their own culture, but of other cultures, in incredibly broad terms: "Koreans are..." "Americans are..." sometimes they'll go even broader, and say "Westerners are..." "Southeast Asians are...". To be fair, this kind of stereotyping and generalization goes both ways: I just did it myself!
But here's why I'm talking about this: one of the generalizations some Koreans like to make is "Foreign English Teachers are..." and, for that reason, along with what I mentioned before about English teachers being judged for everything they do, and not just what they do in the class, we're under a microscope. And the sucky part is this: if I go to your neighborhood, or stand in front of news cameras, and act like a jackass, it reflects badly on you. And if you get smashed one weekend and act like a jackass, and take pictures with a bunch of hot, drunk Korean girls, and publish them on your blog or facebook or, really, anywhere on the internet where Koreans can find them and forward the link to their friends, it makes ME look like a jackass, too. It's not all Koreans, but there are a handful of Korean netizens, a handful of Korean journalists, and a handful of Korean rabble-rousers whose absolute FAVORITE thing to do is to find jackassy pictures some foreigner has posted online, and to show them all around and claim that ALL foreign English teachers always act exactly like that, all the time, and extrapolate a picture that might be from the kind of night you only have once every year, into not just YOUR entire character, but the entire character of your whole demographic!
It's happened before.
So here's the thing:
You might not be living here for a long time, but there are some of us who are, and even if you're only here for a short time, reports that English teachers are all moral reprobates will make it harder for you to earn the respect of your Korean coworkers, your students' parents, your boss, and people in your neighborhood. It's happened before, so here are a few things I'm gonna ask you to do, for the sake not just of your own self, but for the other foreigners your Korean contacts will meet in the future, for the other foreign English teachers in your neighborhood, and for the teachers who will come after you at your school, and at large.
1. Treat your job like a real job. You're getting paid for it. You signed a contract: keep it. If your boss is ripping you off, there are legal options you can pursue, and people ready to help you out, but almost all of them are also contingent on YOU filling YOUR side of the contract, in order that your boss is the only one in the wrong.
2. When Koreans ask you "What do you think about Korea?" say something nice. You're an ambassador for your country and your culture, whether you want to be or not. Sometimes, you'll even get Koreans asking you questions that seem baited to get you to start complaining: "What is the biggest cultural difference" or "what are some problems you see" . . . be diplomatic, dodge, or at the very least, be descriptive ("I notice that this is different.") instead of prescriptive ("Korea should ____ to fix their education system."). The safest answer to "What's the hardest/worst thing about living in Korea?" is "The language barrier."
3. I'm not going to tell you to live like a monk or something, but save the non-monk behavior for appropriate times and places. If you're going to go wild (and don't we all sometimes), take a page from Koreans' books, and don't broadcast it. Don't brag to your friends, don't post pictures online, don't make boasting blog posts. Be discreet: that's how Koreans do it. Believe me, I've seen and hear tell of Koreans doing all the wacky, wild things expats are accused of doing, stuff like that has even been in the news ...but Koreans generally cover their tracks, and so should you, and when all else fails, Koreans plead ignorance: "I was so drunk. I don't remember." But this plea only works if there's no photo evidence.
4. Be aware that your actions DO have consequences. You are no longer in university. Seriously; back home, everybody had their turn being "that guy" and it was funny. Here, being "that guy" leads to newspaper articles about how no foreign English teacher in Korea is any better than "that guy". That drunken silliness no longer gets brushed off with "oh, to be young again!" instead it becomes even worse than it was to begin with, because "and he/she's a teacher, too!" Korea is not frat/sorority house redux, even though your parents aren't here to be embarrassed at your conduct. The people who come here to have a year of no-consequences drunken fun before they settle down, and then leave... well, it might not be THEM dealing with the consequences of that year, but all the long-term teachers who were here before them and stayed after them, who gave them classroom management tips for free, DO have to stay here and clean up the skid marks from them making an ass of themselves for a year. It's no fun cleaning up drunk puke-stains on my reputation, when I wasn't even the one having enough fun to throw up on somebody's shoes. Seriously, have your fun, but don't be a brazen jerk about it: that's not how things work here. The only people who get to be brazen jerks here are drunk old guys.
5. Don't talk to Korean journalists, especially about Korea's night life, or about English teachers. I've known enough people who were misquoted, pull-quoted, or cast in a bad light by Korean journalists, that I'm not going near that minefield, and you shouldn't either.
6. Treat other expats with respect, too. This includes showing respect and gratitude toward expats who have been here longer than you, and have heard the questions you are asking, time and again, and still take the time to patiently answer them. Also, be helpful toward expats who have been here a shorter time: there was a time when you didn't know anything either. It sucked, didn't it? Then somebody gave you a hand, right? Pay it forward: that's how we roll in expatland.
7. If you're male, don't be like these jackasses, and disrespect the women from your home country. In fact, it's a pretty good idea to avoid directly comparing Korean women and Western women entirely: so many stereotypes get tossed around that everybody winds up looking bad in that conversation. There's nothing more distasteful than an expat male who hooks up with a pretty Korean girl, gets a case of yellow fever while he's high on the good side of inter-cultural dating (before the "why didn't you answer my last text message?" text messages start coming), and takes the chance to start disparaging Western women, or starts acting like God's Gift To Women because he's getting attention from pretty girls who were startled to see Someone Who Looks Different in the subway car. Don't be that guy. Or this guy.
And whatever your gender, don't react to bad expat behavior like that by spreading the rumor that we're all losers who couldn't get jobs or dates in our home countries, and that's the only reason any westerner stays in Korea for a long time, or comes at all: there are three fingers pointing back when people start pointing that finger, and that conversation, too, ends with everybody looking bad. Especially when Koreans who are busy forming their opinions about foreigners are listening in on that kind of talk. Save the shit-talking for appropriate times and places, eh?
8. Date Koreans if you want. Go right ahead. Have a great time. But you know, just because they don't speak your language so well, doesn't mean they're stupid, and they know when they're being treated with disrespect. Be safe, be responsible, protect yourself, and the reputation of all of us, and respect them. A lot of English teachers who get deported were caught in their illicit activities -- whatever they were -- by being ratted on by scorned exes. And from the stories I've heard, hell hath no fury, pal. If you're looking for fun without strings attached, there are K-girls and guys looking for that, too, rest assured. But don't lie to get what you want, or make promises you don't mean. I know a guy who did that, and the girl published the story in a magazine, including his actual e-mail address, as a cautionary tale. Suddenly he was getting dozens of nasty e-mails from Korean women who read the article. And even if it isn't published in a magazine, I don't need your ex's friends corroborating their other friends' stereotypes by saying, "Yeah. My friend was tossed aside by some Yankee charisma man, too!"
9. If you have to complain about Korea (and don't we all sometimes), save it for your expat friends, unless you A. know a shit-ton about Korean culture B. are an absolute king/queen of objectivity, grace, and tact. Moaning about culture shock is better done with people who KNOW what culture shock is, so honestly, that conversation is best saved for your expat co-workers, or friends. The only Koreans who should be privy to the complaining stuff are the ones who know you well enough to take such comments in the context of everything else they know about you, and hold it in the balance.
10. Whatever their age, always, always, always, act with the utmost professionalism toward your students and, if applicable, your students' parents. If you teach kids, and especially if you're male, don't take them on your lap, even if they initiate contact, or tickle them, or stuff like that, even if it's totally innocent. Even if your boss tells you to be more affectionate to the kids, limit touching to hands, shoulders, heads. If you teach adults, don't get involved with students: at least wait until they're no longer in your class, and think carefully before getting involved with a coworker. Don't be stupid. If things go south between you and a student, or a coworker, after getting involved, you can pretty much count on it being YOU who'll be the one catching the short end of that stick, so, as my friend told me, "don't shit where you eat."
Basically, because of where we live, and because we look a bit similar, whether it's fair or not, anything you say and do can and will be used against ME, or any of us, in the court of public opinion. And vice versa. Sure, it's a bit of a burden...but now you know what it's like to be a hispanic living in Georgia, or a First Nations Canadian living in rural, Western Canada, or a Tamil living in Toronto. Welcome to the other side.
And I know that not all of you need to read this letter. Maybe even MOST of you don't: I'm sure that you are probably really good, decent people. Great! While we're in Korea especially, we need to help each other out. I know stuff that can be useful to you, and I'll pass it on to you for free, out of professional, or simply situational (ex-pat) courtesy. Out of that same courtesy, keep in mind those ten tips, in order to help ALL of us win the public opinion battle.
Yeah, I know I come off sounding like a pompous turd in this post, but seriously, we've GOT to deal with this stuff in-house.
And after telling you all how to behave (thanks, Mom), in return, here's what I've got: I'm an experienced teacher, and a six-year expat, and I know a bunch of stuff, and a lot of people who know more than me, about different things that come up when you live in Korea. So that this post isn't a totally one-sided bit of pompousity, here's what you get in return: all over this blog, and more so if you ask (e-mail address on the sidebar), feel free to hit me up for tips or advice about some of the pitfalls. Read around the blog to find what you need to know, or to get some hints on great places to go and things to do. Explore the blogs I link on the right, in order to find some really helpful info about life in Korea. That's how the exchange works. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you find some useful stuff.
Also, in the comments, Chris makes the very good point that the best thing you can do to enjoy life here more, is to find a community, a group where you feel like you belong. Whether that's expats, or mixed, or Korean, don't fall into the isolation trap (I was there in my first year, and part of my second, and it sucks). Get involved in something, and it'll deeply enrich your time here, in a way that'll have you walking away with much more than memories of drunken nights will. Thanks for listening.
This post is part of a series about racism, the Korean media, and ugly English teachers:
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