Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Cripes, I get so TIRED of this.

Korea Times published this opinion piece by Jessica Kim today.

It bothered me. For the usual reasons. Mostly for calling prospective English teachers losers, failures, and stupid.

Here is the letter I sent to her and to the editor of The Korea Times.

Dear Editor

While Jessica Kim's article, "Korea's English Pandemic" raised some valid questions about Korea's obsession with English, I was extremely disappointed both by Jessica's crass generalizations about the character and intelligence of English teachers coming to Korea, and moreover by The Korea Times' willingness to print such material.

The problems she raises are valid: yes, Korea's obsession with English education is expensive for families and stressful for children. However, recruiters for Korean companies trying to expand their global reach would probably take issue with Ms. Kim's assertion that Korea’s English obsession is pointless.

There is also nothing wrong with Ms. Kim being proud of her country's language: she mentions how Korea has a national holiday to celebrate Hangul, but why, in the same sentence, does she need to start making insinuations about the kinds of people who ask about coming to Korea to teach?

Does Ms. Kim know these people well enough to accurately judge their probable SAT scores, or is she guessing wildly about their intelligence? How did she judge that they had no life goals? Is she so sure that their only qualification to teach English is their white skin? Does she even know how many of them are asking about teaching in Korea out of a serious desire to come overseas, and how many are simply exploring possible options, the way desperate people do during a financial crisis, when they feel their options diminishing? And how dare she call these people miserable failures in their own lives, unless she knows their entire life stories?

Finally, as a long-term professional English instructor in Korea, who works hard to improve both my craft as a teacher, and my students' true English capability, I deeply resent Ms. Kim's insinuations that my white looks are my only important qualification to teach English in Korea. By ignoring the fact there are a lot of excellent Native English instructors in Korea, Ms. Kim sounds just as ignorant as the people approaching her, who think white skin is enough to get a teaching job in Korea.

I also resent Ms. Kim’s trotting out the old, ugly stereotype of the “unqualified English teacher," using a broad brush to paint an entire group of people. The English instructors in Korea range from experienced and supremely qualified career educators, to backpackers looking to pay for the next leg of their Asian tour. However, those recruiting teachers are responsible for which teachers come to Korea, and in recruiting, the old saying, “You get what you pay for” applies, for better and for worse.

Finally, I am dismayed that The Korea Times prints articles like this, which ply in stereotypes and lazy thinking, which does not even offer a solution to the problem it presents, though it does take time to slur the reputation of many hard working, enthusiastic and passionate teachers. Such careless media coverage denies native English teachers the respect they deserve for their work, and sometimes makes teaching English in Korea seem like a thankless job. It would be easier for the qualified, committed teachers in Korea to continue investing their talents in Korean society if it seemed to appreciate our hard work.

(for those who care: here's her original piece)
Korea's English Pandemic

By Jessica Kim

``I don't have a job here, but it's okay because my fallback plan is to teach English in Korea,'' they all say, the so-called native speakers.

Everyone in Korea, regardless of age, gender or job, has a massive collective fever. It's almost like the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Sure, it doesn't shoot up the death toll, but if you are a Korean parent, it does shoot up your kid's monthly English lesson fees, and if you are ``that" kid yourself, then it shoots up your stress gauge. This peninsula, at least the southern half of it, is drowning in a large-scale English craze.

Recently, a lot of people have been calling me and emailing me, to the point where I just had to shut down my phone. Some even identify themselves as a friend of a friend of a friend of mine. That's a long social chain.

These random ``friends" who don't have a job or got fired recently have been trying to get in touch with me to ask me about teaching English in Korea. They all say in unison, as if it comes from the Holy Bible, ``I heard all you need is the 'white looks' and you are good to go." I have heard this millions of times already, but every time I hear it I can't help myself from cringing with every single muscle in my forehead. I may need Botox soon even though I'm only in my early 20s.

So why is Korea, the nation that even created a national day to celebrate the beauty and the history of the Korean language, seen as the place to go for those ``native speakers" who have no life goals? The aim of trying to learn English is healthy for the mind and soul ― it's for personal development. However, the situation here is to the point where it's almost an obsession, not to mention an embarrassing one.

Do we really want these ``white-looking" people to just stroll into Korea, who probably scored less than 500 out of 800 on their verbal portion of their SATs or don't even know what they SATs are, to be hailed as kings by Korean parents? This leads to my point: Korean parents need to change their attitudes.

It is the Korean parents' crazy obsession with English that drives up the cram school fees; it is their obsession that creates such trouble for the government's education branch to rationally allocate their already-strained budget; and, finally, it is their obsession that leads Korea to be looked-down-upon as a Plan B by those ``native English speakers" who miserably fail in their own lives. The parents with such wrong attitudes are to be blamed for the pandemic.

Sadly, I do not have a solution and my intention was only to point out my observation of today's society. I do not know if anyone will ever have a solution. Is it even possible?

This mad English fever seems inexorable; it is how it is now, how it will be next year and the year after that. Someone needs to set an alarm clock to wake up the parents who have overdosed on their English fever.

We all need to realize that this English craze is not only pointless, but it burdens the students and their families. It ships Korea's money offshore and it pressures Korean educators to seek unqualified people who only possess the ``white looks." It leads to many indirect social problems that we have in Korea right now.

Rise and shine, it's time to wake up.

The writer is a student majoring in accounting at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. She can be reached at

OK, Yeah, they carry michael breen's column, and their friday "Events" page can't be beat in the English dailies in Korea, but CRIPES! Does the Korea Times HAVE to publish every single opinion any old whoever sends in, so long as it mentions English teachers? Seriously? Is this like their way of letting their readers (who are mostly Koreans practicing English anyway) get some vicarious, passive-aggressive revenge on their English teachers, by reading smears on their English teachers in their paper, in order to feel better about the fact they still can't speak English to a foreigner with confidence? (Bitter much, Roboseyo? I'll feel better in the morning. You should've seen the pictures I took today!)


Bekah said...

I've always wondered, do you ever get replies from the editors that are substantial and not like automatic "Thank you for letting us know your feelings"?

Anonymous said...

I get mixed feelings about her article. Im not quite sure what shes trying to say which does end up looking pointless to me. I can see how you can feel insulted over this but i have a feeling that shes talking about the english teachers who go to korea only because they think because they are white they have somekind of gold card and think they can easily make money doing somethign they dont care about. YOu know the ones with no interest in teaching english, the ones that just dont care and just want to party, drink beer and be irresponsible all around ( and ive met ALOT of those in korea and its a shame those are the ones that teach kids.) I do think the ESL profession in korea should be alot more controled but on the other hand if that was the case it would be almost impossible to find enough qualified teachers. I dont think she was talking about ALL english teachers in general just the ones that have that certain mentality. At least thats what i think she meant in her article and forgot to give credit to the good english teachers. I hope this is the case. Thats my take on it. I think she should have expanded more on her opinion on english teachers because its not very well defined and if she did we could get a better picture of what she really means. She does have a point just not very well explained.

Either that OR shes some korean american who's jaleous that alot of white people end up going to her mother land to teach english.

I do agree that this shouldnt have been put in the Korea Times though. Just goes to show you that there are much better places to get your news =p. Again i honestly dont think this was pointed towards ALL english teachers but just the retards and you can deny that these retards dont exist =p.

Kelsey said...

It's times like these that I'm glad I don't typically check the English Korean newspapers. I think my bloodpressure would be considerably higher.

John McCrarey said...

Well said, Rob.

I'm not an English teacher, but the ones I've met here have impressed me with how seriously they take their responsibility to educate the children in their charge.

Engaging in stereotypes like this Korea Times writer did strikes me as intellectual laziness. But then again, it is easier to be lazy than build a cogent argument. To a certain extent we all probably engage in this practice from time to time.

For example, I am frequently taken aback at the way American soldiers are characterized as dangerous rowdy drunks looking for trouble. Do they exist? Of course, but those represent a tiny minority of the military population here. You just never hear about the ones out there doing good things (like sponsoring orphanages). Sad to say, it seems that some of the most unfair criticism I've seen regarding soldiers came from English teacher blogs. (Not you!)

Anyway, great post. I'm glad you took the time to defend the folks who are here doing an important job.

JIW said...

Do I smell a witch hunt?

Better hide my crooked nose and brooms.

ZenKimchi said...

Poor girl. I used to send random half-thought letters to the editor when I was in school, too. That was part of my intellectual awakening. And I loved inserting obscure facts that I had just learned in a class (influenza pandemic of 1918) to make myself sound intelligent.


Now I just pepper my opinions with fart jokes.

Well, at least the KT removed instances of the word "like" from the piece. I'm pretty sure I saw the ghosts of a few in there.

"Like, I may need Botox soon even though I'm only in my early 20s. Like, I'm so young, ya know. I'm just like, whatever."

ZenKimchi said...

I'll give you a Ricetard to make you feel better.

King Baeksu said...

Hey Jessica, I graduated from UC Berkeley with honors, so in the Korean view of things, you need to STFU because my school is BETTER than yours!

HLee said...

You know what you guys sound like? You sound like that "Defensive Koreans" The ones who are hypersensitive to criticisms from non-koreans. She's not even a writer. She's just a student who wrote her opinion to a newspaper. Everyone has an opinion. It's her opinion.

King Baeksu said...

Yeah, HLee, go ahead and blame the victim. Your "opinion" is just as useless as our accounting friend in the US. I wonder if she's even been to Korea. Where does she get her "opinions" about Westerners in Korea anyway?

King Baeksu said...

BTW, HLee, I was a professional critic in the SF Bay Area for many years, and always went out of my way to be as "sensitive" to local minorities and their culture, which I often covered. I was not motivated by blind "political correctness," but simply because it was the decent thing to do and I was genuinely interested in different cultures. At the same time, if I had published a similar race-baiting (and uninformed) article as Ms. Kim's in, for example, the SF Bay Guardian, I would have been excoriated and in all likelihood fired. So I personally find it very offensive to be labeled as "low-life trash" after after all my genuine efforts at cross-cultural understanding both in the US and here in Korea. One of the first things I learned as a public writer is that your published opinions will be held up to scrutiny, which is only natural and right. Ms. Kim gets no "free pass" for her opinions because she is somehow more "special" than anyone else, and is rightly to be excoriated just as I would be if I had published the same type of drivel in the US.

For the record, the reason her article is uninformed and her "opinion" useless is because she focuses on effects or symptoms rather than the structural cause of the problem she "sees" from so afar. The fact of the matter is that Korean school and hagwon owners are the primary gatekeepers here, and they are the ones to be blamed if they hire "unqualified" native English teachers instead of professionals who are properly trained in ESL education. But they're often too cheap and half-assed to do so, so they're the ones who deserve primary blame for offering their students a substandard product at an inflated price.

Of course, Ms. Kim's main hang-up seems to be racial, so it would not serve her purpose to look at the structural factors at play here, nor would her ethnocentric chauvinism find outlet if she blamed "Koreans" instead of "whitey." And so she resorts to scapegoating the outsiders as a means of diverting attention away from the responsibility that Koreans have for their own problems.

Just another cliched and hackneyed attempt at "social criticism," in other words. And not terribly surprising, either.

Wayne0714 said...

First of all, I wonder what some of those "many indirect social problems" really are (don't leave me hanging there, sis. Tell me more!). Aside from the fact that it is such a sophomoric, ig'nant piece, she does have some good points about Korean parents not scrutinizing hard enough their kids' English (or any other subject) teachers, their employers, and their hiring practices; then again, if the parents were capable of grading their kids' English teachers, they wouldn't be so helpless as to pour so much money into the system and expect something wonderful to happen to their kids someday.

The press, The Korea Times being no exception, tends to latch onto a salacious stories like a hungry, N.Korean leech (no surprise there). Any market of any trade has good apples and bad apples (how controversial!), and the media people have to eat too so they choose to air/print whatever sells to their core market, as you pointed out. So don't feel too bad about one sassy, Korean college girl mouthing off her uninformed opinion or the Korea Times jumping onto that piece (I'm talking about her column, pervert!); newspapers are dying so expect them to print more columns like that in the future. And don't write to them; they love that shit.

Lunalil said...

Unless she's Korean-American then she is part of the Korean population getting shipped out for a better education.

If she is Korean-American then I wonder how she knows so well what's going on in the Korean peninsula.

The education system certainly is hard for students here (and dreadfully inefficient) - but I don't think blaming "whitey teachers" across the board will improve anything.

There certainly are many many Native Speaking teachers here who are excellent, resourceful, wonderful teachers. Usually as a result of their own hard work and drive, and not always because of support from their workplaces.

Maybe she needs to read "Korea Unmasked" which does a really good job of explaining the basis of the "Keeping up with the Kims" attitude that rules Korea and extends to the way education is dealt with here.

And just because I can say this - the 500 something score on my SAT was in Math. I got a 790 on my verbal. =P

ZenKimchi said...

Dang Scott. I think I'll pocket some of those terms and arguments to use later.

Brian said...

I'm going to whore my blog a little bit here:

"Kim might be interested to know that Korea imported twinkies and this past summer to teach English in public schools. These yellow-looking people hadn't even graduated college, and probably scored, like, 12 on the verbal portion of the SATs. They scored 800 on the math part, though, because yellows are good at math. They were hired because of their Korean heritage, not because of a particularly impressive resume as if one mattered to Korean schools and when the TaLK program couldn't get as many applicants as it planned---because who wouldn't want to come teach in Korea for 25% less than a white person?---they took in basically anyone who applied. Visa regulations, which have been become increasingly strict for English teachers, were found to be relaxed for ethnic Koreans, making it easier for them to come to Korea to sell drugs and race Hondas."

King Baeksu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
King Baeksu said...

Joe, as a fellow "white negro" I appreciate the solidarity.

Brothas gotta stick together!

Anonymous said...

Great letter, Rob.

3gyupsal said...

Well the fact that the KT publishes Jon Heuer is a pretty good indication that it doesn't really care about the content of the pieces that it carries. I'm thinking about writing a fake piece to the KT describing the activities of the "Dokdo forever" association of Anglican ministers in North Dakota. I would be interested to see if it gets published.

Anonymous said...

I find it odd for one so unqualified by her standards, that I would be asked today to re-contract (for the fourth time at the same institute) 8 months before the current one expires.

John from Daejeon

reijene said...

... It says play nice. so i'll try...

wow... a whole bunch of comments from NS, defending their race. I kinda like what Jessica wrote, because she points out that not all white-skinned people can and should teach the language Korea has been desperately trying to learn, which is not pointless, but out of control.

BECAUSE she's living in Virginia, so i guess it's quite safe to say that she had met a number of people who spoke the language, but does not pay attention to details of their conversation... such as subject-verb agreement, prepositions, noun articles.. the works. you know what i mean. =) in fact, i just read some comments somewhere connected with the same mistakes.

Resent the fact that your white skins got you where you are, because it's partially true. I can't get a job because my skin speaks for me even before i do. Korea is a place wherein a person is judged according to stereotype. Nobody is safe.

And as HLee said.. it's just an opinion. sad that Korea times stooped that low, but what can you do other than send a very defensive letter to the editor? why not send a hate letter instead to the writer? Someone somewhere connected (again?) said Jessica could use a few tips in writing, but because she's still a student, LET HER LEARN.