Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Back on the Bus with You (and Your Other-ing Elbow, too)

More than once on this blog, I have tried to address how quick US citizens, especially white folks, are to cry Xenophobia while living in Korea. It's true that Korea has a reputation for being rude to foreigners. People are pushy in the streets; they will look at you, but won't talk to you; they'll even talk about you while looking at you yet ignoring you.

But let's not kid ourselves: this is how foreign others are treated in the US as well as, well every other place I have been come to think about it.

I have yet to experience racism, though. Koreans have told me how rich I am, how lucky I am, how educated I am, etc. They like to draw rough caricatures of me: all end up representing me as an Ugly American of some sort. That is, until I get to know them.

I once got into an argument in my public school classroom with a teacher because I told a student who insisted Americans are all rich that I wasn't and the majority of Americans are not either. I told him, "in fact, we are poor." Speaking on behalf of millions of poor Americans, I felt proud of myself not permitting the nonsense in my classroom. My co-teacher stepped in and mentioned my clothes and then my wealth. After all, I was a traveler and living in Korea. Well, I stopped class. Turned on my laptop (a sign of wealth by the way, and it is and I must admit that,) turned on the projector, and connected the Internet. I showed them the poverty in the US. They shut up. The students ALL apologized. The adult teacher said nothing else about the matter. I had embarrassed her. It's not nice to do that to an adult here. Confucius still clouds daily life in Korea. On the other hand, I wasn't going to permit lies in our class to save her face.

I am a teacher. I am here to teach. I am not in this country to piss and moan about my personal treatment. I am here to work with others. If I were here to make money, to travel, to be tourist, I'd be at a hagwon (a for-profit, language education business) and tutoring. But I believe in public education and I am decidedly not a tourist.

I have found that by engaging my hosts, I am always treated well. Always. But engagement with others is difficult. I understand. I also understand that some people who travel are not cut out for traveling. What many travelers want is to be catered to in a manner that meets the satisfactions they are accustomed to in their native countries and as consumers in their local markets. Or, they want to treat Korea as their Zoo. I think it's unfair to come to a country like Korea and expect to be treated as anything other than other. Unless. Unless you are willing to take some shots, to be hurt, but to push back and insist your permanency in your new local environment.

Each time I return a shove in the street or a rude look or whatever weirdness I am given by a strange Korean I don't know yet, I try to return the action with a smile and some Korean language. If another return is offered it is always kind. The worst thing that happens is that I receive a grimace from an old man or lady. And I love the older Koreans. For what they been through in their lives--occupation and war--they have earned the right to grimace at foreigners in their land.

***5/27, 12:44 pm: It has been suggested to me that my use of "return" above makes it sound like I am returning a shove with a shove-with-a-smile. No. I am using return to implicate the return in discourse. The shove is a speech act. People push me out of the way rather than speak to me for a reason. It means many things, but one of the most significant ideas communicated by the shove is "I don't want to talk with you." I have learned that Koreans are incredibly shy and so are apt to appear incredibly obstinate. I return the shove with a speech act that invites a revision of their act. I think insisting that they "see" me again (revise) is important.***

AND LET US NOT FORGET KOREA'S HISTORY. You all do know that the Korean War has never ended. No treaty was ever signed between the US and Korea. We are still at war with each other. It's worth considering that Koreans know this and that Americans seem to not give a shit. Well, let's be honest. I am willing to wager that more than half of the foreigners in Korea, American or not, do not know this.

It is not an exaggeration for me to say that most foreigner teachers (not the students) I meet, including the Korean-Americans here know less than I do about Korean history, geography, and its local culture. Even the foreigners who speak the language well are not necessarily informed. How is this possible?!? Maybe they have read wikipedia. I think this is suspect. I did my homework before coming here and I assumed that others who wanted to live here would feel the same obligation. Well, I actually started doing the homework years ago when I wanted to come here. My point is that there are many reasons for Koreans' lack of trust. Foreigners come here to make money, eat, drink, have sex, make friends, buy stuff, and leave. And many foreign teachers make a lot of money. Many foreign teachers also often talk as if it is their right and privilege to come here and make as much as they want without doing anything. In other words, they do not behave as guests who are asked to be here and granted limited access; they act as if Korea is theirs to do with as they wish. Yes, they are little Imperialists and they are colonizing Korean space. And many Koreans hate it.

I am not going to surprise any high school or University teachers who read DagSeoul by saying this. But I will piss off almost every foreign teacher in Korea who will read this. We do not do much teaching here. The students in hagwons are studying for multiple choice tests. The majority of their teachers are teaching Idiomatic Expressions and some of their teachers are great performers and tell fun stories and use neat technology. In the high school I teach at, I see 20 classes of 35-45 students for 50 minutes once a week. Really. What can I do as a language teacher? Not much. Koreans do not work on composition and do not involve much reading in their language education. They work out of text books that target certain learning areas in language so the students can score well on tests. The students can read English and with prompts in the form of questions written in Korean language, they can tell you some basic things about English syntax and grammar. I do more for my students just talking with them in English, to familiarize them with the language, than I can teach them English.

It was shocking when I first got here. To the point, the majority of "native speaking English teachers" (NSETs) in Korea do not teach much at all. They work. We all work hard here. But most of the NSETs are not teachers. It's obvious talking to some of them that they don't know what they are doing. Now public school teachers here are more with it. But many are young and inexperienced--in fact, here to get experience. I don't understand what the Korean government is thinking bringing new teachers here to teach the English language. They should bring experienced teachers. (And this no offense to recent college grads coming here to teach, have fun, and get experience. Good for you.)

At any rate, the students are my concern. And many NSET folks care more for themselves and their lifestyles as travelers than they do care for their students. In other words, they are not teachers.


Pree-oz said...

I agree. I read about how people's guests are treated with rudeness, and I think, who are they meeting? All my guests have been thrilled with their Seoul experience. Even with the shoving on subways and ajussis nagging girls to quit smoking. :D

You know, Korea is a country unto itself. It is not the United States of America and it is a country that developed to what we know in the last 50 years. It's incredible for what it is, and it's even the vanguard for 3rd world Asian countries in development. I am sick of Korea at times because all the things I didn't like about Korean culture at home are... surprise... here, and amplified. But I've also learned that Korea has been moving and shaking and growing, while Korean immigrant culture at home has remained stagnant in values and attitude. So I'm impressed in more ways than one.

What I'm not impressed by is foreign teachers complaining that they are not treated well. Oh, I'm sorry, do you not have a job that pays you more than enough to survive and shop and eat and travel as much as you want? You are given a bank account, insurance, and even treated with respect from many people, if we are honest.

Whenever Gary and I go out, Gary is always being approached by a Korean who is trying to speak to him in English-- while I twiddle my thumbs and try to act interested. once we climbed a mountain and the hikers there LOVED the fact that he wanted to drink mak-uh-lee with them and laughed and talked with him for 15 minutes. Then, they gave him yut, or taffy. Where's MY yut? I turn around and Gary already ate it without sharing. Oh, that's another issue... ;)

Good entry, Norrs.

shag carpet bomb said...

i think it's that a lot of u.s.ers don't understand what people mean by racism, for one. they want to think it's the obvious, overt, blantant stuff tied directly to assumptions of inferiority based on body/appearance.

years ago, i was in a debate with an australian theorist who i resisted at the time: she was talking about racialization. i've since embraced her formulation -- just needed time to let it sink in i guess. at any rate, i've come to think of it as a process (racialization) and not a product (race) -- which makes it all a lot more fluid and shifting. in the case with angela, who first introduced me to the topic, she was looking at the way a discussion of working class bigotry in the u.s. could be understood as class racialization. interesting stuff. and more applicable to a variety of situations where we claim there's no "racism" (i.e., racialization) when, in fact, there is.

but it is too early for discoursin' too much this morning. maybe a blog post when i get over all the muscle aches leftover from my vacation. ha!

shag carpet bomb said...

with Gary, you get new issues in the mail, once a month. lol

Anonymous said...

"America and Korea are still technically at war with each other"

Uh...say what? America and North Korea, sure--what does this have to do with the way South Koreans treat Americans (or, for that matter, Canadians, Brits, Aussies, or Kiwis)?

Gary Norris said...

nice anonymous comment:
"Uh...say what? America and North Korea, sure--what does this have to do with the way South Koreans treat Americans (or, for that matter, Canadians, Brits, Aussies, or Kiwis)?"

well, i think you can forgive me for combining two statements. we are still at war with DPRK. but the we is not the US, it is the US and the Republic of Korea. We are still at war. And this continues to problematize the US presence in Korea. It's really not too difficult to understand.

But you're really not at all interested in that, are you. You're much more interested in pointing the finger at Koreans and complaining about how they treat Americans (and others that you put into parentheses.)

I don't really expect much from anonymous comments. feel free to explain what you're getting at. I think I was and am always thorough.