Saturday, March 3, 2012

Native English Teacher in Korea Part 3 Ignorance and Racism

I guess you could briefly summarise my feeling of the worth of a Native English teacher in Korea, as someone that should be an inspiration to the students, and someone who is prepared to be inspired by the students themselves and the Korean people they meet everyday, during their stay.  On making this statement I am aware that I maybe guilty on two charges; that of being overly dramatic, and that of being arrogant in thinking that I can be inspirational to them.  I am not one to be dramatic, so I am going to defend myself on this charge by asking a question; if you are doing something (a job), which you go to almost everyday, and spend more time doing than possibly seeing your best friends, what's the point unless you can enjoy it and in a way that enriches your life?  Not everyone can be a doctor, or a marine biologist (my ideal profession), so why not find a way to enjoy and learn the most that you can from your work?  What a waste of so much time spent at work, in your life, if you can't do this.  On the charge of arrogance, I feel that arrogance should not be confused with confidence, and it is those that are best at their, jobs, sport, art, etc, that have the most confidence.  If you don't believe you can make a difference, and that you are valuable, what is the point?

The great thing about a job in Korea, as a Native teacher, is that it is easy to be inspirational to students.  You can achieve this just by being there, just by being yourself.  The western way of behaving, acting, and thinking is so foreign here, that most of what you will find yourself doing, just by acting normally, is interesting, funny, surprising, and inspirational to many an open young mind.  I say to a young mind, as I am acutely aware that the same behaviour can be annoying, rude, and inappropriate to some of the older generation here who have their minds firmly shut.  So what a great job this is, if you can look at it from this point of view.  You can be an inspiration to hundreds of people, in a country and culture you knew nothing about a year ago, just by being yourself.  It only really requires a small amount of organisation and planning, a good sense of humour, and an ability to survive the odd awkward situation.  You don't even have to test students, do reports, or have any responsibility for anything else whatsoever.  Just try to be a good teacher, and it's easy here in Korea.

For the reasons above I am going to propose a similar scheme in Western countries but with Far-Eastern teachers.  The system would work exactly the same but in reverse, with a bit of tinkering to the system, and also with a varied range of teachers from different parts of the Far East.  I think the language learning is less important than the cultural learning, so teachers could come from the three main economic powerhouses of the area, China, Japan, and South Korea.  The policy could also cover a wider base of countries like Thailand, Nepal, etc, although this may not be seen as very beneficial for the future and therefore not very economically viable.

When I returned to England after my first stint in South Korea, I was greeted with a profound ignorance of the place and the Far East in general.  People knew nothing.  When I asked them what they know about Korea, the two most common answers were, 'they eat dog, don't they?' and 'are they at war with that crazy place North Korea?'.  A worrying amount of people just assumed they spoke Chinese, and consider all the Far East countries to be 'the same'.  I encounter the last statement often, and I usually counter it with, 'so English people are the same as the French and Germans, are they?'.  The answer then is, 'of course not'.  So how can they expect all these countries in Far East Asia to be the same?  The people I talk to back home in England are not stupid, or without money, or poorly educated either.  What's going on?

Is this what most people know about Koreans?

With the richest nations in the world beginning to change, can we afford to be ignorant of a whole other set of cultures?  In England (and other western countries), we are familiar with Middle Eastern, European, and Latin American cultures, and even Arican, but woefully ignorant of Far Eastern cultures.  Even former colonies in China and Hong Kong don't seem to have helped the British along.  We have seemed to embrace and understand some of our other former colonies, but those people that have emigrated from China just seem to live quietly in England, and all English people seem to understand is how to order food from a Chinese take-away.  This is to the credit of the Chinese and other Far Eastern people living in the UK.  These people just seem to get on with it.  When was the last time you heard of a group of Chinese people protesting about 'their rights' as a minority or trying to change laws?  Do we harbour any Chinese fundamentalists in the UK?  I really can't think of any.  They just quietly live their lives in the UK, within the law and we never hear about them.  That's great, but it is also why we also know nothing about them.  We should know a little more about these people than we do, and because of the fact that we don't have a colonial history in Japan and Korea, we know even less about them.  It is high time we learned, not just because of the possible financial benefits of doing so, but also because our societies and the global community can only benefit from a greater understanding and dialogue.  I can assure you that the average Korean High school student these days, knows a lot more about our cultures than we do of theirs.  This is a nice little future advantage for them if we are going to be competing against them in a global economy.  There is another issue and that is the role that cultural ignorance plays in racism in our much more multicultural countries.  One would of thought that, for social cohesion's sake we should know a little more about a growing minority of our populations.  We have religious education in our schools, but why just focus on religion, surely their should be cultural studies also.  This is not necessarily a different subject, but it can be different and currently we don't do it.

One thing that strikes you when you first come to Korea is the amount of racism directed towards you.  It's not necessarily negative and often positive, and usually comes in a very passive form of staring, giggling, and just simply the constant saying of 'Hello!'.  This is particularly prevalent in smaller towns, but I must add that I think I am noticing it less than when I was first here over 3 years ago.  When I am with my wife, their prejudice shows a little more, particularly from the older generation.  I often see them looking my wife up and down (not discretely) when I am with her, and when I ask my wife why they do this, she replies with a sigh, 'Because they think I am a prostitute and you are probably an American soldier.'  I reply, with, 'I can understand how they make the mistake with me, it's because of my rugged physique!'.  In all seriousness though, this is upsetting particularly to my wife.  I have also heard of blond girls that have been thought of as being Russian hookers by people here, with one American friend of mine telling me how his blonde American girlfriend had to put up with an old woman on the street bending over whilst pushing and pulling her butt cheeks together, saying 'happy birthday, happy birthday, have good time, have good time!'  The meaning of this (in case you hadn't guessed) is that my American friend is presumed to have hired a Russian hooker for his birthday to do things with better imagined than said.  I can remember saying to my wife that things just aren't like that back home in England and that people would be fine with her and me, and no one would bat an eye-lid.  How wrong I was.  You see I just never had looked at racism from any point of view other than my own white face.  Having an Asian woman by my side in England for a year was very enlightening indeed.  Now I can't say this for certain, but I believe that some of the most racially abused and misunderstood people in our societies are Asian, starting from Thailand and and going east, finishing in Japan.  I think this is because black people have had a greater history of mistreatment in the west, so we as nations are more sensitive to this form of racism.  And with the problems emanating from the middle east and with people from Islamic countries, this form of racism also.  As I said before those from Far East countries just seem to slip under the radar of most people, and they usually just do not complain even when they are the subject of racial abuse or ignorance and cultural ignorance.  There also seems to be a particular sub-section of racial ignorance and abuse specifically reserved for white men with Asian partners or girlfriends.  I could write a book on the number of times I heard just plain ignorance, name calling, and worse while I was with my wife in England.  The drunken people on the street saying things like, 'love your little Thai bride, mate', were probably the ones that least bothered me, as they were often drunken 'Chav' idiots, who, after all, didn't know me and were people that I would never want to meet again.  The simple ignorance and prejudice of sensible, educated people I had known for years, is what actually surprised and, I have to admit, rather saddened me.  This was not because they were bad people, but because they had a prejudice so ingrained into their mind-set, that even knowing who I was for many years, didn't change their opinion.  These more minor transgressions into prejudice, took the form of ignorant remarks most of the time.  Examples are; 'Where's your wife today, is she cooking?', 'Is she cleaning', 'Where's your wife from, Thailand?', 'Wanted to get out of her country, did she?'.  I think the comment that irritated me the most was the Thailand comment, because everyone who said it knew exactly where I had been in the past 2 years and that was Korea.  So I felt like the comment was specifically designed to annoy me.  Since when has it been acceptable to talk about somebody's wife like this anyway?!  All these comments came from a particular club that I had been a member of for over 20 years, to which I shall never return as a member again, but I might add there are still many people who go there who I still respect and think of as good friends.  There were some that made a real effort to make my wife feel welcome, but many that didn't.  To those that did I say thank you and I will see you again soon.  To those that didn't, shame on you.

That strange look in people's eyes was ever present, but only lasted one night at my favourite place in England, Copford Cricket Club.  My friends there saw past the skin after one night and I am thankful to them for making my wife feel so welcome in England.  I have never been more pleased about the decision to have the Copford emblem emblazoned on my arse!

I realised that even I had some prejudice after I played in a squash match one night.  After the match the teams were treated to dinner by one of the players wives.  She turned out to be from Thailand.  My thoughts immediately turned to, 'this is a bit strange', and suspicion over why they were together.  But why?  Both were of a similar age, and they seemed to suit each other.  I think there is some right to be suspicious of an old man with a young Thai girl, but a couple of the same age?  Could they just be in love?  I think all should be prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt, because with the amount of people that visit Thailand every year, it must at least sometimes be genuine, and for this reason couples should be respected.  Suspicion is always going to be raised of women in South East Asian countries, because there has been a history and reputation of marriages of convenience there.  But has there been any real history of this from Korea, Japan, and China?  I suggest that the answer is absolutely no.  Any of those out there looking to get married and thinking that Korea is the place for you, are going to be disappointed.  The vast majority of women here would not think of dating a foreigner, and if they did, their families would quickly quash any ideas of the relationship getting serious.  I have had friends that have tried, with difficulty, dating South Korean women (one friend commented, rather vulgarly, that once you have to pried their legs open, then you have to get through their chastity belt), and those that have been successful have never gotten much further than a couple of months, before the issue of telling their parents set in.  I was lucky enough to find a very independent thinking girl who had a open-minded mother who managed to persuade a slightly closed-minded father.  Honestly, the crap that I have had to put up with in cultural differences, family, and Korean attitudes, to eventually now be settled with my lovely wife has been indescribable.  Only to be greeted on my return home with, 'Where's your wife from, Thailand, and does she like cooking and cleaning, and she must be glad to get out and come to England?'.  It's a scale of ignorance so mind-boggling that you don't know whether to laugh or cry.  With this one there is no continuum, racism exists in the East, the West, the South, and the North.  We are a tribal species, it is in our nature to ridicule and persecute those that are not seen as in our group.  We in the West have made great leaps to conquer it but are not there yet, and let's not kid ourselves about it.  Education is the only cure for stupidity.

I can't help but think my life would have been much easier on my return home if people had some education about Far East cultures.  It might be a revelation to some people, but the continent of Asia is rather large, and there is quite a big difference between the countries and cultures that live within it.  After spending just a short period of time here, it is even possible to distinguish Korean, Chinese, and Japanese by the way they look.  It is as clear as telling the difference between the average Spaniard, German, and Englishman, actually, probably easier, because there is less cross-cultural relationships here and therefore less genetic diversity.  I have always been irritated by people coming up to me in Korea and saying, 'Hi, you're from America?'.  I have nothing against the US, but I am not American, and I think I have heard this upward of a thousand times now.  My wife had exactly the same problem in England, except she was presumed to be from Thailand when she was with me, and Chinese when she was alone.  What is wrong with the question, 'Where are you from?', usually it is appropriate to ask a genuine question when you don't know something.

Below:  A T-Shirt in Korea, that says 'I am not American', maybe there should be a line of T-Shirts in England saying, 'I am not Chinese', and 'This is my wife, I did not buy her in Thailand.'

'Education, education, education!'.  I can remember this being a soundbite from a Labour election campaign in the UK many years ago.  Nothing much changed.  I wonder if it is time to give school systems a bit of a mix-up in the UK, and fly with the times and try something new.  The facts are indisputable, the economic powers of the world are changing, people in the UK (and maybe other countries) are ignorant of these cultures, there are more people of these cultures in our countries, and subtle forms of racism still exist, even among the educated.  It's time the education of our children reflected these issues.  There would be major problems, however, in having teachers from the Far East teaching in our schools, and these problems show up, rather nicely, the differences between our cultures.  This is what I will be writing about in my next blog.

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