I am currently sitting at my computer at work doing what most foreign English teachers in Korea will know all about and that's deskwarming. It is a truly bizarre waste of time. Basically for those of you that are unaware of this, a foreign English teacher contracted to a public school is contracted to work at the school, even in school holidays, and during exam periods also. Usually, the school will make the foreign teacher come to school, even if the teacher has absolutely nothing to do. This might be understandable for a normal teacher position as i know for a fact that teachers usually have lots of other work to do besides lessons. In Korea though, in part because of their history of invasions and distrust of foreigners, absoluetly no responsibility is given to the native English teacher whatsoever. So what is there to do? After planning about ten lessons in one day, then you still have 2 more weeks (at least) of this. Usually, it's facebook, twitter and blog writing (I would love to see the statistics of blogs started in South Korea by native English teachers). Now, as a foreign teacher, you can either embrace this lack of responsibility or get very aggrieved with it. I like to think i embrace it most of the time, and enjoy my life here with a certain freedom and give my work here my own meaning, with it being the pure goal of education of young South Koreans without the need for endless exam practice and study. It's actually a wonderful thing in my school, I have nobody poking me in the back telling me what to teach or how to teach. I make up completely my own curriculum, my students and I talk about wide-ranging subjects, such as politics, sports, survival, food, prejudice and culture. I feel a positive response to these lessons even though the poor students are overloaded with far too much study, which dulls their minds to the pleasures of learning and quells their imaginations and dreams.
I have digressed slightly into the positive, so here's the negative bit. I currently have no classes, and nothing to do. But i have recently applied for a marriage visa here and so therefore can do extra work, which i am doing at my old academy while they find a new teacher. I get to work for 8am and get home at about 11pm, it is a long day. What would be great is if i could not go into work at all at my public school, afterall all i do is sit at my desk watching youtube and twitter. But no, i have to come in. The last couple of days i have been allowed home early, but it is never the same every day. So i have been getting up at 6am to go to the gym before work and then going home at about lunchtime (I would go to the gym at lunchtime if I knew). Going early is great and you may ask, 'what are you complaining about?' But here's the deal, I usually know absolutely nothing about what is going on. This means I cannot plan my time effectively, which frustrates me, and without putting words into other people's mouths, other foreigners here too. This ranges from not knowing what time I go home this week, not knowing if I am teaching this week, not knowing if I am teaching today, and even not knowing if I am teaching in the next 5 minutes! Other teachers quite regularly ask me to dinner one hour before they want to go. When I tell them I have other plans, they seem surprised that I even have plans, and shocked that I have turned them down. Everything does sort itself out in the end and you might think that these are just minor cultural problems, and it's all relative and, 'that's just the way things are done here'. It does, however, take a more sinister turn in other areas.
I have the privilege of being married to a particularly lovely Korean, who is quite westernised but also has left some of the charming and important parts of her own culture (of which I shall describe in a later blog, it's not all bad, and very often good). Because of this I have good insider information of Korean practice at work towards other koreans, and in a different workplace, at a hospital, my wife is a nurse. A lack of planning, not knowing what is happening, or a lack of training is not a matter of life or death in a school, but in a hospital, the stakes are much higher. My wife has the extra responsibility of being a surgery room nurse, not life and death surgery, mostly joints and bone surgery, but there are still many things that can go wrong. In Korea you need no extra qualification to be a 'scrub' nurse from an ordinary nurse, my wife received NO training, she just watches and helps with one surgery and the rest she has to study at home. What is actually quite amazing is that after just a couple of weeks she can actually assist the doctors well in these surgeries with little or no training (something which maybe we in the UK could absorb and reduce the need for too much mind-numbing training). There is a massive problem, however. My wife works Monday - Friday from about 8.30am to 6pm and then on Saturday from 8.30am to 1pm. These times, though, are often flexible and only one way, finishing later. She quite regularly work 2,3 or more hours overtime, with no pay, it is just expected. From what she describes it sounds like the average day is her rushing from one surgery to the next, quickly sterilising and washing instruments in between, sometimes not even being able to eat lunch. My wife and other nurses are regularly left in the dark about important things and there are many unplanned digressions to the format of days. Because she received no training, and they are rushing she and other nurses regularly make mistakes or forget things, when this happens senior nurse (who, after all, are older) will shout and bully younger nurses when they make the enevitable mistakes. There are absolutely no sick days and absolutely no vacation time (not even one day in a year for new nurses). Different culture? We just don't understand? Let me put it this way; you are a patient at this hospital, and you know about this, are you happy to be treated by poorly trained, overworked, underpaid, and bullied nurses? Think your surgery is going to be perfect? Forget about the patients, think about the workers. My wife regularly returns home with cuts, burns and bruises from equipment, because she has been in such a rush to sort them out for the next surgery. On top of this she is shouted at and insulted by older nurse to the point of breaking down in tears. When my wife speaks to her friends who she graduated from nursing school with, it is the same story everywhere, every nurse cries, everyone, this is no overstatement. On top of this the nurses have to give some money out of there already low wage for 'group activities'. This is usually translated as, 'getting forcibly drunk after work, in your free time on Saturday and/or Sunday, with the same doctors and nurses that have been abusing and bullying you all week', with the added bonus of you having to speak and act respectfully around them. If this is part of the culture here it simply needs to be thrown out. It is not only wicked, dangerous, and stupid, but also incredibly unprofessional.
Will the Korean people listen to me or my wife? Unlikely. There does seem to be moral progress here, particularly amoungst the young, but in the far east in general, there have been no revolutions about freedom in their history, no fighting for the rights of individuals, only battles to maintain their culture against foreign invaders and foreign thinking. Group harmony is the most important thing in their psyche and Confuscianism teaches them to respect and obey authority, even if it's wrong or cruel. These are the reasons why China has a poor human rights record, North Korea has one of the most complete totalitarian regimes ever, the Japanese have often come under the spotlight for cruelty to animals, and that South Korean people can still behave in this way at work.
There are, however, many things we in the west can learn from the culture here in Korea. I often talk about a continuum, with Western culture at one end and Eastern on the other, and how we'd be so much better off with a happy ground in the middle. The problem is in the west we are arrogant, that we have the best way, we are most successful, the most moral, and have thought far more deeply about everything. The problem in the east is that of stubborness, the sheer bloody-mindedness of saying, 'you can't change us, we have always done this, it's our culture'. The really annoying thing is they don't mind absorbing all the bullshit stuff we do in the west, but that is something for another day.