Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Open Letter To New Teachers In Korea

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


Chris in South Korea said...

A wonderful set of posts, both of which boil down to simply 'don't be stupid'.

Now, for a comment - it's truly a nice idea to believe that a newbie will actually the full letter, connect with it, and take steps to avoid some stupid action(s). But think back to when you turned 16 and got to drive the car for the first time... or when you turned 21 and had your first (legal) drink... you got plenty of warnings then too ('don't step on the gas so hard', or perhaps 'drink some water before going to bed') - good, common sense advice given by people who would know better. But, we didn't. We had accidents or got a little more drunk than we wanted. Some of us learned from those experiences far more than the verbal warnings.

I won't be surprised to hear of new teacher screwups this year, any more so than those of the past year or the year before that. That stereotypes are so quickly remembered and almost never forgotten (by all people, not just Koreans / westerners) means that it'll take a long time to get to a level of equanimity.

In any self-respecting, self-sustaining community, people are called to take responsibility for their actions, along with their friends, co-teachers, boyfriends, girlfriends, or other people they're around. Too often we get disconnected from that sense of community here in Korea - for most, we come alone with no friends or family already here.

For the new teachers, I say build your community. Call out the people doing something stupid. Don't accept the status quo because the status quo sometimes sucks. Get out there and experience Korea. Remember the Golden Rule (or your religion's name for the same principle). Enjoy life.

Wayne0714 said...

I'm just curious as a local Korean who has a limited knowledge of the English teachers community. Are there hagwons started and run by expat English teachers? Explotation by evil Korean hagwon bosses seems to be one of the most often discussed subjects here. If you are fed up with being employees of unscrupulous hagwons, why not take charge and start something of your own? I bet a lot of Korean parents would like to send their kids to such hagwons that have an extra "authenticity"; a lot of Koreans like real imports as you may have noticed which is why they prefer white Caucasians as their English teachers.
just a thought.

Andrew Van Wey said...

Great post Roboseyo. I'm only a 1.5 year teacher out here myself, still very new, but I love all the lessons I've learned, and I appreciated your visit to us when we were in quarantine, and your awesomely geeky references. Frankly, you remind me of a good friend I have back in L.A. who would be as excited to post a LOL CATS picture as he would some awesome breaking news about geek culture and

Anyways, this article was great, and presents a lot of things to think about, good and bad, about teaching out here and the risks vs. rewards of it all. Korea has been, overall, great to me, and I find myself lucky to be living and doing what I love in a country that, in 20 years from now, our friends might just be ordering a DMZ cheeseburger in Gwangju off a 5 language menu before catching an english speaking cab to Busan. I honestly think that we're seeing Korea before tourism really takes hold, and it's an exciting place to be, personally.



dokebi said...

What you wrote was awesome! Now couldn't a Korean magazine take this & translate it & publish it? Why are they blind to good parts like this & care only about the bad parts?

Darth Babaganoosh said...

Wayne, there ARE schools owned by foreigners, not many, but they exist. English Channel was started by foreigners, for example (not exactly a good example of non-exploitive hagwon bosses, though).

You'd be better off pointing at OTHER businesses owned by foreigners. Most foreigners who get out from under the thumb of an unscrupulous hagwon boss to own their own busisess, usually try to get away from English teaching altogether. When I finally qualify for an investors visa, you can better believe I will not be a school owner.

The problem with going out on your own is (1) visas and (2) money. Unless you are already married to a Korean and under an F-2 or F-5 visa, obtaining a business visa will cost a minimum of W50,000,000 (but realistically around W200,000,000).

Paul Robertson, former owner of, started up his own school in Busan. He's posted about the entire procedure here:

Darth Babaganoosh said...

"Why are they blind to good parts like this & care only about the bad parts?"

It's all about the Sejongs, baby. Negative stories sell. Positive stories don't.

Wayne0714 said...

ROK Hound,

That was an interesting piece of info. Korea is not known for being the most business-friendly nation to would-be entrepreneurs, let alone foreign entrepreneurs, so I'm not so surprised by such hurdles you mentioned. It would make more sense for English teachers in Korea to persuade a well-established, reputable private educational institute in America/Canada/whatever your home country is to set up an office in Korea and be the branch manager. Or maybe round up some potential Korean investors to get enough seed money to get started? Of course I'm just throwing ideas around without much knowledge of the reality of being English teachers in Korea, but I've always thought that a lot of native English speakers/teachers relegate themselves to being mercenaries when they have a huge upper hand over non-native speakers; I've seen a lot of Korean English teachers who are just plain awful despite their super-duper resume and pedigree; they seem to me more like entertainers who tell their audience what they WANT to hear then what they NEED to hear. I honestly believe Korea is better off in the long run with fewer Min Byungchul (BCM) hagwons. A lot of English hagwons would be scared shitless of being on a level playing field with foreign institutes.

Anonymous said...

First of all, you should know that in Korea's ancient, traditional culture, being a teacher is considered one of the most esteemed professions

Oh, hell no, Rob. Korean teachers get treated like shit by Korean parents. There's nothing "esteemed" in their relationship.

Let me lay it out to you and anyone reading-

The truth of the matter is that Koreans divide the world into two groups: Those they can treat like shit, and those they can't.

It's called "Confucianism". Teachers have traditionally fit into the first category.

The reason for the agitation between EFL teachers and some opportunistic Korean dirtbags is because EFL teachers don't comfortably fit into either category.

Those Koreans who spew the hate are trying, in their own idiotic way, to force all EFL teachers into the "Can treat like shit" role that all of the other foreigners in Korea enjoy.

Yes, don't be an asshole. This is true no matter where you live.

But no, don't conform to what a few uncomfortable Korean douchebags and waegookin kimcheerleaders think you ought to be. Be as foreign as possible, because learning that people have the right to be different is how cultures grow up.

Anonymous said...

A joyful read. These 10 rules should be printed on the back of all arrival cards at Inchon Airport...^^

I'm no Picasso said...

I like this, Rob. Very well said on a lot of counts. If you don't mind, I'll re-post it in reference to yet another "Let's go teach English in Korea/PARTY!!" article coming out in the hometown presses.

I'm not entirely invested in making the long-haul here in the ROK, but I did come over as a teacher, which is an investment of a different kind. I know there are people here with different interests, and it can be hard to try to understand each other sometimes without stepping on toes, but I think you've gone about explaining this side of things really well.

Chris said...

Absolutely accurate.

Andrew Dunkle said...

Great post! I really enjoy reading posts like this from teachers who are living abroad who want to offer their advice to newly arrived teachers. I taught English in Taiwan for two years and i still love sharing my thoughts with people thinking of going abroad.

Roboseyo said...

You've put into words what I've been thinking and beyond that. My personal thing is, be active about breaking bad stereotypes. I may be the ONLY ________ someone here meets, and what will I want them to believe about _________? 

Roboseyo said...

Thanks... Very interesting. I visited Korea once and really enjoyed it. I am married to Korean gal.... Was wondering what some of the not so friendly looks were about. Most people were nice to us.