Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Ugly English Teachers and Racist Korean Journalists: Part 5: 'Seyo's Marching Orders

On Ugly English Teachers and Racist Korean Journalists: Let's not all crap our pants now: Part 5: 'Seyo's Marching Orders


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.

Let's go.

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.


The Korean said...

Robo, I think what you are doing is very noble and worthy. On the other hand, I am not very optimistic about your chance of success. At any rate, I wish you best of luck.

Roboseyo said...

Thanks, buddy.

Gomushin Girl said...

How about this tip?
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.

Charles Montgomery said...


Spot-on as usual.... and I don't share the Korean's reflexive pessimism. Korea changes more quickly than can be kept track of and if we contribute what little we can to those changes (primarily within our communities, but also as you note by being aware we unwitting ambassadors) it can only make things better.

And damn Gomushin Girl for sending me back to my flashcards! I thought I had put them down for the day ;-)

Chris in South Korea said...

An excellent end to the series, Rob - bravo. The 'We are the world' / world peace does sound unrealistic, as does getting a completely fair shake in this society. But take a step back and look at a longer-term here. The ajossis and ajummas that basically run the country only have a certain shelf life - in the long run, the younger generation we've spent our years teaching come to pay off. It may not be a change we see, but certainly every person that joins the cause certainly helps out.

One thing not mentioned is calling Koreans out in a way that embarasses the heck out of them. While the more experienced expats know about the libel laws in this country, sitting back and doing nothing (and/or taking a dong chim up the you-know-where) is not only counter-productive - it lets them get away with whatever for the umpteenth time. Make some noise - tell your friends - and don't be afraid to lose what you might have.

And build the community too - you never know when you'll need them or they'll need you.

John from Daejeon said...

The following is why I quit learning the language and decided to continue to build upon my Spanish and Chinese language acquisition instead.

First, I was told by my employers not to speak Korean at all in class. The parents are paying hagwon fees for their kids to learn English and not Korean. Point taken.

Secondly, we had a terrible accident outside our hagwon in which a student lost her life. Had my knowledge of the language been any better, I'd still be in jail to this day after seeing the tremendous beating that the owner took because the police ruled that the young girl caused the accident and there would be no pay off. The grieving family members decided to beat him to a pulp and then accosted the staff and students while spitting and cussing at even the smallest and youngest of the children while ransacking the school hoping that they could at least cause most of the kids or teachers to leave the school.

Finally, the 35 year old woman (37 now) I thought I was going to make my wife with here, after dating for well over a year, disappeared one day from her high paying job and moved across the peninsula and into a lower paying job to appease her father because he found out that she was planning to marry a foreigner from her wonderful friends. She now tells me that she has made a terrible mistake, but her father will not hear of her coming back. This is from a man with no other children and the prospects of grandkids is looking dimmer and dimmer.

I do speak classroom Korean pretty well, but these types of situations really put a damper on my going all in. However, the kids do get a kick out of my struggling with Chinese, and are impressed with my fluency en Espanol—well, what they understand of it.

skindleshanks said...

I have to say, it's pretty easy to label the conditions places on us foreign sojourners in Korea as racist. . . that is, until you try to figure out how to get a visa to the west.

When I followed my Korean wife out here, she complained at the 50,000 won fee I had to pay for my visa until I got my permanent resident status, which involved about 3 forms and a couple immigration guys coming over for coffee and a chat while playing with my kids.

Now it's time to head back to Canada, and I have been working for 2 weeks straight on the complex application with no end in sight. Criminal records checks from countries my wife hasn't seen in 13 years (do you know how hard it is to get a clearance by proxy in Mongolia? It's impossible. At least not without hundreds of dollars in bribes. Which by offering would probably render us criminals.) That, plus $1500 and a 4-6 month wait, and my wife may be approved to join her husband and children in Canada. And yes, she does have to get an HIV test like every other non-tourist visa applicant.

Korea is darn welcoming to westerners. We're just too full of ourselves to appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Skindleshanks, my Korean wife got her PR card in 2008 with no mention whatsoever of an AIDS test. So I don't know if you are making it up to support your point or have severely misread something, but what you are saying is flat untrue.