Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On Ugly English Teachers and Racist Korean Journalists, Part 3: Yeah, Some Introspection is Called For, but not from You, Ms. Choi

On Ugly English Teachers and Racist Korean Journalists: Let's not all crap our pants now Part 3:
Yeah, Some Self-Reflection Is Called For, but not From You, Ms. Choi

This post is one entry in a 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

No, Choi Hui-seon is not the one to ask the English teaching community to do a little introspection, though whoever sent that name-calling text-message SHOULD think a little more carefully about the fact that HOW one does something is sometimes just as important as WHAT one is doing. Especially when it concerns actions which might be taken to represent one's community.

Ms. Choi has a lot of self-examination of her own to do, looking more carefully at why she is so quick to measure a population by its low-water mark, and whether she would want other countries to treat expat and immigrant Koreans as harshly as she treats us. Packs of Americans roving the streets to torch Korean-owned grocers in the wake of the Cho Seung-hui VT Massacre is what we'd have if the world were as quick to profile outsiders as Ms. Choi, but I'm sure she hasn't thought of that. But then, she's not the only one who's been calling on the English teacher community to take a look inward.

Brian Deutsch has expressed similar thoughts, and while on the Seoulpodcast, Joe Zenkimchi has assured us that the Expat English Teacher's douche proportion is decreasing, there's more we can do, if only so that we know our footing before we head into the arena.

The old philosopher Sun Tsu said that "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result". Now that's a nice, tidy, over-simplification, to be sure, but it's how Batman defeats much more powerful enemies, time and time again, and while it's unhelpful to start off assuming the Korean media has an antagonist hard-on for us, and I don't like framing the English Teacher/Korean Media relationship in military terms, we need to take an honest look at the English teaching community in Korea, in order to at least know the position from which we are responding to the racism and scapegoating which targets us as a group. In the last article, I looked a bit at Korea's media, so now it's time to look inward.

Here are a few features of our community. What can we do about it? Well, let's talk about it to begin with.

The expat community at large, and even the English teacher community in particular, have been accused before of being too disjointed, too diverse and fractious, to ever amount to more than the sum of its parts; in fact, thanks to the actions of a few, and the reporting on those actions by a few journalists, I'd even submit that the English teacher population has so far amounted to significantly LESS than the sum of its parts. The famous Scott Burgeson, who will appear on the comment board if I write his name three times, even formulated Bethell's Law, which states
"the foreign community in Korea has always been much too fragmented, transient and diverse to broadly support any publications that fail to hew closely and safely to the proverbial lowest common denominator. That is as true today as it was a hundred years ago, if not more so."
Now, Baeksu was talking about publications like his own defunct zine, Korea Bug, however, since he coined Bethell's law, the basic meme, that expats in Korea are too fragmented and diverse to broadly support...anything, has grown to cover other abortive expat endeavors as well, particularly the attempt to form a functional community.

And it's true. The fractious and diverse part, that is. The English teachers in Korea run the entire gamut from human train-wrecks to model citizens, from ex-burger-flippers plying on their community college chemistry degree, to kickass, highly trained career educators, from one-year transients to long-term, rooted, and deeply entrenched. According to Scott Burgeson (that's two), the attempt to form a teacher's union in Japan failed, because there were too many disparate interests: it was like herding cats to administer such a fractious group. (Can't find the source: it's on a comment board somewhere)

So why bother trying?

Well, for one, the people who are trying to stiff us ARE organized: Anti-English Spectrum and the Hogwan Owners' Association are active operations trying to toss our reputations or our rights in the shitter, and some members of both associations have the ears of people in high places, if it's true what my friend said after joining The Anti-English Spectrum to get access to its archives and reading around; without groups in place to push back, we're done!

Also, even though we're a wildly diverse group, we are thought of by many? most? Koreans in the collective. Nobody stops to check the color of your passport before shouting "Yankee, go home!" ("Oh, actually, Mr. Aggressive drunk guy, I'm from New Zealand, so kindly direct your racist hate elsewhere" "Oh! So sorry! Loved Lord of the Rings! Have a nice day, my precious!" "Haha. I've never heard that before.") nobody stops and checks how well you speak Korean before calling your Korean date a whore or a blood traitor (to steal a phrase from Harry Potter). Nobody checks the stamp in your passport and verifies your visa status before lumping you into the "probable unqualified miscreant, possible HIV carrier, pedophile, drug-user" category. E-2, E-5, F-2, E-whatever and whatever the F, those letter-number combinations mean nothing to that drunk guy cursing you (or your significant other) in the street, and I'm an ignorant fool if I think I haven't been slapped in the same boat as the rest of all's y'all, just because "I'm a nice guy" or "I speak Korean pretty well" or "I've been here a long time," or "I have lots of Korean friends, and they tell me I'm not one of 'those' foreigners (are you carrying around a letter of reference to show to the drunken thugs looking to start something? Think it'll help?)". We're in this boat together, folks, and the sooner we start acting it, the better off we'll be.

So yeah, we ARE A fractious community, but in some areas, we DO share interests.
We want our rights to be protected.
We want to get paid what we were promised for the work we do.
We want our bosses to keep the promises they made in the contract, and to deal with us legally.
We want to have recourse when the shit hits the fan.
We want to be treated equally under Korean law.
We want to be covered in the media in the same way Korean professions and groups are treated (that is, a moral failure by one isn't made out to define the entire group),

Even if we have different goals and reasons for being in Korea in other areas, we should be able to lock elbows on those issues, and recognize that if one of us is exploited or stereotyped, that opens the door for any of us to be exploited or stereotyped. It's not Tommy Expat's fault his boss screwed him over any more than it's Jane Shortskirt's fault someone grabbed her ass in the stairwell, and blaming the victim does nothing to change an atmosphere where people feel free to take liberties without consequences.

Consider too that the deck is stacked against us in another way: every legal English teacher in Korea and most of the illegal ones, I'll guess, are university educated citizens from some of the richest, most advanced and privileged countries in the world. Plus, by default, we speak the lingua franca! It's harder for us to stir up the same kind of sympathy that a battered Indonesian housewife with nowhere to turn could, or the illegal Chinese worker who can't even buy a plane ticket home, and would have nothing waiting for her there anyway, so she starts considering the sex trade. I doubt any of us, ever, have considered the sex trade as a next option if our hagwon jobs go sour, but that's the reality migrant workers from other countries face.

Because of this, we have a bit of that "poor little rich kid" resentment going against us, which means that people simply feel less sympathy for us. I think this is where some of the "If you don't like it, go home" responses come from... I'm still convinced that's a totally unhelpful response: nobody gets any farther ahead, and everybody loses a chance to learn, and/or make a difference, if we have no recourse but to go home if we don't like things; however, the question remains, in a way that is much more poignant for us Canadians, New Zealanders, Americans, Brits, Irish, and South Africans (six of the seven E2 eligible countries rank higher than Korea on the Human Development Index) than it is for, say, Cambodians, Vietnamese, or Phillipinos whose "if you don't like it, go home" strands them in a much worse state.

We're choosing to be here, for whatever reason. If putting up with the bullshit is cramping our style too much, we CAN go home (even those of us who are married to Koreans: it would be easier to convince the in-laws to let their son/daughter emigrate to Canada or Ireland than to convince them that better opportunities await if we return to the hometown in rural Vietnam). We have that option, at least much more than other expat workers in Korea.

It should be reiterated too that sometimes (as several people mentioned during the "why do expats complain?" series) Korea online is a lot less fun than Korea in real life, and reading fifty other "my boss is screwing with me" stories at Dave's makes workplace frustration that much worse, and leads us toward making blanket judgements, where it'd do us better to climb a mountain, see a great view, and then get back to wrestling with the boss with a clear mind.

So as for forming a community... do we want that? What would that community look like? And, would it be worth the effort?

Well, first off, we're never going to include every teacher. We're spread out too far and wide geographically, and too many people come and go too often, and the internet isn't quite a powerful enough binding force to create community and unity on its own.

Meanwhile, a lot of the meaningful connections that DO form between expats get broken by people returning home, or otherwise moving on. This sucks. Seriously, it recently passed The Language Barrier as the biggest ongoing frustration/downer about living in Korea. I'm tired of pouring my energy down a hole, so to speak, and having nothing to show for the friendship-building work I put in, every time another meaningful connection splits.

Between the diversity and the transience, no, we're never going to be as tight and interpersonally connected as a church congregation in a small town, for example, where everyone grew up side by side. The cohesion that develops just won't here.

Yet it remains crucial that we STILL find a community of some kind, and put some energy into it. Organic communities fall apart when people leave; this is why I recommend people form and join structured communities with clearly defined roles, which have an easier time perpetuating than social groups that formed through interpersonal chemistry. "The group's communications director is going home next month. Who will take on the job of writing update e-mails?" is an easier conversation to have than "Janice was good at mediating Tom and Anna's arguments. Who will smooth things over after she goes?" Clearer roles make high turnover easier to negotiate.

Personally, the sooner I accept the revolving door as coming with the territory, the better I can cope, and make the best of what I've got. For a bit of pure speculation, I suspect this is why a lot of long-term Koreexpats end up losing touch with the first and second year teachers: we have less in common with them after a while. We get tired of hearing the same stories and complaints we heard last year when that other pal was new, and we end up investing in the people who are going to be around for a while, forming a kind of inside clique, the invitation-only veterans' club. I suppose this is natural...but on the other hand, it's a shame. In the same way it sucks that those with a lot of Korean ability often are out of touch with the expats who would benefit most from their ability (probably for the same reasons), it sucks too that those who have been here a long time also lose touch with the hoi polloi English teachers.

The variety of people you meet can be stimulating, if you approach it the right way, and the payoff might be surprising, if we DID let down the guard and let more newbies past the defenses. It might lead to more of those short-termers deciding to stay longer, and put more into this place.

And as for resources, a quick inventory reveals: Korean Media Watch, ATEK, Korea Beat's mad translation skills, Popular Gusts' mad research skills, The Wagner Report, an online sector more connected than ever before, and often making the leap from online to real life, and a lot of people saying, "I wish there was more" so let's get behind what we have, and look forward to what comes next. Anything I'm missing?

So our community DOES need work. Sure, we're only humans, but there's more we could be doing both in our willingness to help eachother out and our willingness to put ourselves forward in the kinds of groups that WOULD stand up for us. For example, I'd like to see more of the expats who have been here long enough to acquire the level of Korean needed to help in something like an anti-defamation committee, offer up their abilities to a help the community. I'm sure there are enough of you that, if we networked well, nobody would be taking on too much work.

At this point, a lot of the veterans, and especially those who really speak the language, seem to go native instead, and drift out of touch with the expat teachers who lack the language chops to defend themselves from Choi Hui-seon and her ilk. This would seem to be Bethell's law in effect; however, I'd be happy to be proven wrong on this point.

Meanwhile, this wildly diverse group has only one association. ATEK will have its hands full trying to represent every type of English teacher who's signed up there, given so much variance in training level, time of stay, visa status, region, and type of institute. I submit that instead of just one, we English teachers should have five organizations operating simultaneously, so that the different groups can focus on the needs of different types of teachers. Why not a Native Hogwan Teachers' Association, a Public School Foreign English Teacher's Association, an F-Visa Holder's Association, a Long-Term E-Visa Holder's Association, and an Anti-Defamation Committee for starters, all pitching for their different interests, and then coming together with one voice on the big stuff. That'd be friggin' AWESOME, and good God, we need all the help we can get! On the other hand, it'd also be good to get some good support, in numbers, energy and effort, behind the one organization that already HAS formed, to make sure it gets rolling. We haven't heard a lot from ATEK since its National Council formed (though I hope members have heard more than I have, not yet being a member myself), but I wish for nothing more than for every association, interest group, hobby club, book club and drama-kids circle to flourish, gain members, and meet more often.

Finally, though we aren't as cohesive as that small-town church, we DO share some pressing concerns, if only because we share the same, or at least a similar lot, and it's time to start initiating and supporting groups that articulate those concerns. Arguing for maintaining the status quo of being a silent, easy target is not enough when there are organized groups mobilizing and peddling influence explicitly to make things WORSE for us here, and the option to go home is moot when some of us do not have that option, and even if we DO throw up our hands and go home, the teacher brought in to replace us will inherit a shit sandwich, thanks to our disengaged apathy.

It's time to recognize that we ARE a community, folks, and start to act accordingly. We need to take responsibility for what we ARE, by taking a good look at ourselves, for what we want, by forming groups and speaking out, AND For How We Are Perceived. That public perception war is pervasive, every veteran and newbie is part of it, whether we want to be or not, and it trumps everything else we are doing as a community when party photos hit Naver's front page. Each new teacher coming to Korea should be made aware of the state of Native Teacher Nation in Korea, and if necessary, admonished not to bung up the public opinion war we are fighting. That talk should be part of the "Welcome to Korea" introduction, along with "Let me show you the nearest supermarket," and it should come from a peer, a drinking buddy or a fellow foreign coworker, not from a manager or supervisor, and certainly not from a Korean boss or manager. We need to keep our own in check, which is part of what every community does, in order to be seen as something better than our own low-water mark, and hopefully to one day equal, and then amount to more than, the sum of our parts.

And you know what? Now is the time!

Stay tuned for part 4: Racism, Acclimation and Integration in Minjokland


The Sanity Inspector said...

Coulda done w/o that last photo... Hope things improve for all y'all over there.

Joe Mondello said...

I've pretty much gone native. I was at a party with a lot of other long termers a few weeks ago and they all seemed to be mentioning shopping at Costco. After the party my wife asked me if I wanted to get a Costco card and I couldn't think of a single thing they sell there worth the trouble.
So yeah, Bethell's law for sure.

Chris in South Korea said...

My response kept getting longer and longer, so it became it's own post - see at http://chrisinsouthkorea.blogspot.com/2009/08/on-community-and-difficulty-of-forming.html

The Expat said...

Now is certainly the time for us long-term expats to pick-up the slack, but action speaks louder than words.

My concern is the same as it always has been: many of the long-term expats grow very tired of old complaints and move on.

My thoughts: The expat hagwon managers or supervisors in each area need to connect with each other and bring the local expat community together. Organizing starts locally. I'm the manager at an adult language institute in Gangnam and would be more than happy to get something useful going with my teachers and other area schools and hagwons.

K said...

Get out now while you can still remember how to speak English.

The Expat said...

I'm quite surprised by the level of apathy that has been expressed on the comments here. This was clear cut call to action and I think it's just what the expat community needs. Let's get started, Rob.

Roboseyo said...

I think you're right in your first comment, The Expat: especially in the days of easily formed facebook groups and meetup.com, there's really no more excuse for us NOT to be getting together and forming connections with other expats in our areas. These kinds of efforts don't need to be connected with organizations or associations, in fact I'd assert that they're better if they start out grass-roots.

Chris: your post was excellent, and i recommend everybody go and read it. I especially liked your six "here's what communities do" points at the end, which I almost cut and pasted here.

Mike said...

You forgot all about AFEK, which is nearing 100 members working to make life easier for F-visa holders.

There is solid advice on the site about setting up a legal business, be it private tutoring, opening a small study room, or a full blown hagwon. There is also a lot of information relating to teh other 'boring' things related to marriage that are of no interest to the E-holders.

We are also plan gatherings, with families going on outings together, and are planning our next one to be very very public, in the hope that a lot of Koreans can see happy multi-cultural families at play.

Of course, there are no grand media campaigns, and there is not much to blog about, but we are trying to make a difference.

Brian said...

One thing that's remarkable is how quickly Choi Hui-seon has disappeared.

There is a lot of good a teachers' organization could do. There's a lot I want to say about ATEK, but I'll keep it to myself for now, but suffice it to say it has shown itself unwilling and unable to meet the challenges we face.

First and foremost a teachers' community should be built on the aims of professional development, goodwill, and community outreach. The first one is the most important: we as a profession need to grow up, and whether we consider ourselves "real teachers" need to act like it. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of ambiguity about what's expected of us, what we're supposed to do, but that doesn't excuse the people over here who come over here totally unprepared for their job.

We shouldn't sink to the level of anti-English Spectrum, but a good teachers' organization SHOULD call out the bad ones, SHOULD point out that the bad guys make lives harder for all of us, SHOULD admit that not every Anglophone is a good teacher.

If a group got started doing good things---pooling money to help a brutha out, cleaning up neighborhoods, holding professional development conferences---it'd be much easier to get into the legal issues without alienating Koreans or the other teachers who don't care.

There ARE stories about teachers doing good, whether saving lives at the beach, or putting together informative websites, or volunteering at the orphanage, or "just" working hard in the classroom. We shouldn't be here raging against the machine, but trying our best as teachers and neighbors. Now, maybe I'm not the best spokesperson for a "happy" teacher, seeing as you all voted me the Angriest Blogger in Korea, but there's a difference between being interested in what's happening around you and in trying to stick it to Koreans.

The Seoul Searcher said...

Form a community all you want, with members who want to be in it.

Just don't expect those not in the community who don't want to act like they are in one to do so.