Friday, May 24, 2013

The Shabby Treatment of Native English Teachers Living in South Korea

A few months ago a friend of mine asked my advice about working in South Korea.  He said he had read some horror stories and general stories of discontent on the internet and was worried about coming.  At the time I reassured him that all was not that bad, and very often it is not, but the Korean government's plan for native teachers and the attitude within individual schools is at present poor to say the least.

Following on from my last post where I complained generally about the problem of not understanding people from other countries in Korean culture, this post is going to examine the issue related to the job the vast majority of Westerners find themselves in when they come to Korea.  I think every foreign teacher living in Korea knows about the drawbacks of the system the country puts in place for teaching English to its young people and its limitations regarding it use of native teachers, but here I will focus mainly on the problems of inflexibility and understanding.

I think most native teachers brush-off the problems they have with their schools as cultural misunderstandings, however annoying they might be, and that it is all part of the 'backwards land' experience.  Some, of course, are genuine misunderstandings and communication problems that can't be helped but a great many issues go much deeper than this.

I have written before that the treatment of all workers within Korea is poor.  It is especially bad for Koreans themselves and I have focused on this aspect rather than native English teachers and other foreign workers.  Even though I accept that foreign teachers probably have things a lot easier than their Korean and particularly South East Asian counterparts, things are still unacceptable.  This also affects the reputation of Korea itself as it causes a fair amount of bitterness in people who have visited Korea for work.  Word has got around and the amount of negativity from former workers in South Korea can be felt in discussion forums and general comments on the internet and in everyday chinwags with friends back in their own countries.  This message is this; Korea is a backwards, rude, uncaring, and in many cases morally bankrupt, but if you are lucky you might just make a wad of cash there.

The people who do say this kind of thing are the out and out doomsayers, the people who can say nothing good.  There are some great things about living in Korea and many fantastic aspects of the people and culture, as I have mentioned before.  When it comes down to relations with work colleagues and employers, however, I can't help but think that there is a great deal of truth to what the negative-nellies are saying.

I have lived in Korea for over 3 years now - on and off - and I have a had a great deal of experience within my schools and heard of friend's experiences within theirs.  I can tell you that the horror stories are true, as I have known people personally who have had them and nearly went through one myself, where the fact that I had a Korean family probably saved me from losing an awful lot of money, but didn't prevent me from having a truly awful 9 months in a job.  The general aches and pains are also true, I experience them often even in my current job, which I quite like.  What really annoys me is that in most of the annoying situations, cultural difference is simply not an excuse worth entertaining.  It is a cop-out, a reason to treat you badly, a reason to treat all employees badly, or a reason to remain ignorant and should not be accepted.

A classic story comes up time and time again from teachers all over the peninsula and this is the school changing their minds about vacation dates, even after they have confirmed things with you and your flights are all booked up.  Koreans are culturally famous for being rather last minute kind of animals, in schools they pull last minute classes and other duties on teachers all the time, but behaviour of this kind is simply tantamount to the abuse of an individual's rights.  No understanding at all is given to the native teacher's life.  I rarely hear of refunds being given to teachers for flights, hotels or other bookings, not to mention the mental stress and strife of it all. 

In my own personal experience my school regularly comments on what a wonderful teacher I am, how 'diligent' I am (they love that word), and sometimes even how much they 'love' me.  However, when it comes down to helping me out, or even just performing their duties as written in my contract, I am given the cold shoulder and I have to fight tooth and nail to make them do anything for me.  Simply asking for a pay slip (stub), organising dates for holiday, or even have them sign a piece of paperwork feels like I have asked them to donate one of their kidneys to me.  I am incredibly independent in my job and I have a Korean family, so there aren't too many things I bother them for but when I do I am made to feel like a self-centred ass. 

If actions really do speak louder than words my school, as much as they talk a good game about me, the evidence seems to show that they have very little regard for me whatsoever.  I have to make my own meaning in my job and my students are the best.  Ironically, (from a Korean viewpoint at least) I have far greater respect for my students than I do for the vast majority of my co-workers because their actions do convey value in me as a teacher and as a person, something the so-called 'adults' at my school don't tend to achieve.  I genuinely respect my students, I just pretend to respect most of my co-workers.

I become more embittered by my school's lack of regard for my welfare when I think about how things would be if the situation were reversed and I was a Korean who was teaching Korean in England (not that this would actually happen, but join me in a thought experiment).  I am convinced that workers at schools in England would bend over backwards to make sure that their overseas teacher was well-informed, well-looked after, and was valued.  The higher amount of planning and organisation generally would also help. 

The difference is pure effort and a willingness to think about and try to understand another individual's feelings.  The 'Golden Rule' comes to mind here, 'do as you would be done by' or 'how would you feel in the same situation'.  This way of thinking seems remarkably absent in many Korean people, but not some much in young people who in my experience have a much more natural urge to value things like fairness and are less obsessed with dutes, status and petty jealousies (emphasis on 'less' especially with status and jealousy).

The problem is foreign teachers in Korea are individuals, they are different and many Korean people make this very clear to us all everyday.  They then turn around a minute or two later and treat us as part of the group because it is convenient to them.  This is an extreme double standard and is a great reason why a culture that values the group over the individual has some issues with regard to morals.  In my experience most Koreans do this 'picking and choosing'.  They single out foreigners as different when it suits them whilst at the same time demanding that we behave as part of their group and the way a Korean would behave.

Of course, it is not only a non-Korean that meets the criteria of an 'outsider'.  This can be met by other Koreans who act differently or are even new to a job.  The whole attitude in the workplace is detrimental to the rights of individuals and always only works in favour of the old and powerful.  This must change; the average Korean workplace is immoral, unfair, and a very real dictatorship.  There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and co-workers who will buck this trend and care for others well, but the situation in workplaces is generally unacceptable for all in a developed country and let's not kid ourselves that this is all about cultural difference and brush it under the carpet.  Yes, it is a cultural difference but it is a divisive one.  When you fail to recognise, understand, and care about individuals, those in power are favoured and those under them suffer every time.  In this respect the native English teacher is very much in the same boat as the majority of Koreans, except we perhaps have a harder time accepting it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

When in Rome.....

We always hear about a powerful West taking advantage of the rest of the world and the atrocities of past colonialism and present capitalism.  But what if people in other countries are now using our own cultural thinking against us and playing on the past for their own advantage?  This process can be consciously done or may even be an unconscious way of getting ahead.

A blog post by Sam Harris perked my interest the other day where he published a question and answer session with his twitter followers.  One answer to a particular question got me thinking about life in the Far East and the double-standard many people live by when it comes to dialogue and understanding between different cultures.

Adam Dorr @adam_dorr You seem to avoid political morality. Care to engage? Is conservativism inherently less moral than liberalism? 

"I touch on this briefly in The Moral Landscape and Free Will. These views have different strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the context, one can be less in touch with reality than the other and conducive to greater harm. One of the virtues of liberalism is self-doubt and a willingness to consider the other person’s point of view. In the presence of antagonists who don’t have a point of view worth considering (e.g. psychopaths, religious maniacs), liberalism can be a recipe for masochism and moral cowardice. Conservatives tend not have this problem. But when conservatives are wrong, they often lack the corrective mechanisms of liberals. It’s hard to generalize, but it is worth noting that there is a structural asymmetry here: liberalism can be exploited in a way that conservatism cannot."

Although the Western world has its conservatives and the Eastern world has its liberals, I don't think it would be controversial to say that - generally speaking - the West has a much more liberal mindset than the East.  This is perhaps starting to create situations where exploitation of Westerners and Western countries is commonplace.  Much has been said about the problems faced by Muslim culture entering our societies and the way many of their principles are not challenged enough within Western countries.  This is an area that I will leave to others, however, as I have much more experience in the Far East and in Korea especially.

When in Rome do as the Romans do

Conservative Korea has its cultural practices and its principles and most of the people stick to them.  This is fine sometimes and I admire some aspects of conservatism for standing up for their opinions and fighting for them, however a considerable weakness of the Korean way of thinking is the inability to accept another argument.  Age and tradition trumps reason and this causes significant problems in accepting or understanding the ways of other cultures.  Another problem is that, just as Sam Harris says in his above reply to the questioner, liberal Westerners come to Korea and show a fairly unhealthy degree of masochism and moral cowardice and it isn't only psychopaths and religious maniacs we can give way to.

I have discovered on many occasions that Koreans know the above saying, 'When in Rome do as the Romans do', extremely well (although they tend to say 'when in Rome follow the Roman way'), and if I have ever expressed a hint of dissent about any aspect of my duties in Korea - at work or with my Korean family - this proverb comes out pretty regularly as a conversation ender.  The insinuation is that you are in Korea and you must follow the Korean way, and that there is nothing you can say.  The fact that they use the proverbial wisdom from Western culture seems to make this argument even more difficult to go up against.  

Perhaps the most annoying thing is that many don't really believe in it; my wife often complains about Koreans when they travel to other countries that they stay only within their own groups, eat only Korean food, and can be blissfully unaware of the customs of the culture that they are in (bear in mind that these are my Korean wife's complaints about some other Koreans, especially the older ones).  These are precisely the kind of people that might use this saying against people who come to their own country.

I am always one for famous quotes that impart the wisdom of the ages, but this is not one of my favourites.  For a start, there is a definite feel of a threat embedded in it.  'Do as the Romans do....or else!'  This has always the context I have felt when I have had this saying thrown at me and was surely an important factor in the developing of it in the first place, because if you didn't do as the Romans do, you'd be discovered, tortured, and thrown into the river Tiber.  To 'do as the Romans do' is either to be sensible in the face of a very real threat, to genuinely enjoy a new cultural experience, or to simply be a coward.  

So what is the threat that Koreans have to back-up what they say about following their culture?  In my case, my parents in-law can threaten the relationship between my wife and I, but in most cases of foreigners living in Korea the threat is to lose your job and therefore your visa or to have a life that is made very difficult indeed.  And I have known some quite unreasonable and unscrupulous ways in which some Korean employers have achieved this with foreign employees they have disliked.

I think foreigners living in Korea (including myself) do show moral cowardice; our natural inclination is to give way and this isn't only due to being humble in a part of the world that we know little about but is also sometimes down to arrogance and a feeling of magnanimous superiority.  Plenty of foreigners come to Korea and do what their told whilst at the same time thinking that the the Korean people they are placating are simply not worth respecting on the inside and that they really know next to nothing compared to them (sometimes this is justified and sometimes not).  Maybe there are even issues of guilt to do with wealth and past history also.  One thing should be abundantly clear and that is conforming does not necessarily entail respecting.

Perhaps giving way, relinquishing our principles, and conforming are really the only way we can all get along but I think this is troubling.  What side is trying to do the understanding, what side is ready to adapt, accept, and conform?  Too often it is only one and I think this should not go unnoticed.  

I am regularly astounded about how incredibly ignorant most Korean people are of Western core principles; they think they know them but it is amazing how they don't really understand it (the frequent observation that Westerners are selfish is an example of this) and if they can comprehend them they certainly don't make concessions for them.  Their knowledge of almost every other aspect of Western culture is surprisingly good (especially the bad parts, which they often embrace).  Westerners on the other hand tend to be far more able to understand arguments and principles from the perspective of another culture but are woefully ignorant of many other aspects.  This could well be the liberal/conservative mindset at work and the fact that Western popular culture is envied by the rest of the world at this time.

I think it is time we started to disrespect the old saying 'When in Rome do as the Romans do' and suggest something else.  How about; when in another culture try your best to understand, be polite, be humble, open to new ways of thinking and doing things, and be willing to learn.  However, do not relinquish all of your dignity, your principles, or your self-respect.  If refusing to give way on these issues brings you into direct conflict with others, then so be it.  If refusing to give way puts you in harms way - whether this be physical, mental, or whatever - you can pretend to be respectful, but not genuinely, and you should be suspicious of their motives and of this aspect of their culture.  Not quite as pithy and eloquent as the 'Romans' proverb but it is a vast improvement.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Avoiding Conflict and the Korean in-Laws

Those of you who read one of my first articles on this site, ‘My Korean Family’, will know that I definitely do not fit the description of the perfect son in-law in a Korean family.  I don’t give gifts (except at birthdays, Chuseok, and Seollal), I will refuse an invitation to go and see them if I have made other plans, and generally I don’t automatically respect what they have to say, and do what they wish of me.  I think they must know all of this by now, but to their credit I think they are basically content in the fact that I treat their daughter well.  There are, however, still a few problems I have with the culture at large, which manifests itself in their expectations of me.
I’ll be honest, I tend to try and avoid the Korean in-laws if at all possible.  I will visit them as often as I need to and no more than that because it simply is not a comfortable atmosphere.  The problem is that I soon as I step foot in their house or meet them in a restaurant or any other place, I am to follow their instructions without argument.  This means they dictate what I do, how I should behave, where I go, for how long I stay, and even to some degree how I should feel about it all.  They are not nasty about it, they are the nicest people you could possibly meet, but their cultural expectations create something of a benign dictatorship in relations between us.  It is simply unthinkable for me to excuse myself and go home after a long day in their company, for example, or in fact to have any polite disagreement with them at all.  So a bit like a North Korean defector, I slink away under the fence to get away and avoid an argument or any conflict whatsoever.  

My wife and I do this by lying, inventing little stories so that it is easier for me to get away.  It sounds terrible doesn't it, but it is the only way, and I have commented before that in my experience many older Koreans would rather be transparently lied to than have their children or younger family members tell the truth in direct confrontation with them.  I think many underestimate just how much of a factor this kind of cultural thinking plays in the creation of an Orwellian state such as North Korea.  It sounds almost offensive for me to compare my in-laws to Kim Jong Un, but the cultural mindset is the same and along with it the attitude that your parents are owed your 100% compliance and are not to be ever disagreed with, which I am sure is not really the case, but the feeling is there nonetheless.
I see the lack of conflict within Korean families, the workplace, and in Korean society in general to be an aspect of the culture that is flawed and could do with some changing.  Honest discussion - and the intellectual and verbal conflict that arises from it - is how we all move forward because, after all, there is no light without heat.  No light (quite literally if you look at the satellite image of the country at night) has been created in North Korea because there is no healthy disagreement with how things are being done.  Everyone just does what they are told, nothing moves forward, and North Korea is famously stuck in the past because of it.
The fact of the importance of conflict is something that is also lost on an ever-increasingly overly-liberalised Western culture, where many think we just have to accept and respect everyone else’s point of view as equally valid, especially those of a different society, or shout ‘racist’ or ‘bigot’ as a conversation finisher at anyone with a controversial opinion about the behaviour of any group of people other than the particular one that we belong to.  There is also a rather odd attitude present within our own societies (and especially in mine) of bending over backwards to accommodate and understand other cultures, but at the same time – when we travel to other countries – we should always ‘do as the Romans do’ and do our best to conform to others.  With particular attention to Korea and native English teachers, I think part of their role is to give students and their co-workers a true experience of working with people of Western culture.  We would all help Koreans much more if we stuck to our principles and conformed less, because they could learn so much more from it.  But we don’t, we just tend to do what we are told most of the time or try and weasel out of difficult situations like I do with my in-laws.  We all do this in order not to offend, and perhaps also keep our jobs and not get into trouble, although I really believe we shouldn’t, and I readily admit that I find it extremely difficult myself.
Back to my in-laws, and I am often confounded by the reaction I receive when I talk ill of my in-laws by saying I dislike spending too much time with them.  I usually get a range of responses depending on who I’m talking to and how much someone knows about me.  If I am talking to a Western person (who is married or in a long-term relationship) who does not know I am married to a Korean, I am usually met with a reaction along the lines of this, ‘yeah, I know, the in-laws are a pain in the neck sometimes aren’t they.’  If I am talking to a Korean friend or acquaintance and complaining about my in-laws, I also – pretty much 100% of the time – get the same kind of sympathetic response and also complaints about their own in-laws in return.  This is no surprise really as many Koreans – especially women – really do bear a significant burden from their in-laws.  But also, when you think about it, is it really that much of a controversial thing to say that you don’t like spending time with your in-laws?  Is this a rare feeling in people generally around the world?  I think not.  However, you wouldn’t know this if you could hear the criticism I receive sometimes from Western liberal-minded people, who know I am married to a Korean woman.  If I complain about my in-laws then, it is common to receive a barrage of comments saying that I should have known what the culture was like and I need to adapt to it and accept it and that I am simply not trying hard enough.  That is not how it should work, I should compromise on some things because of politeness and custom, but I will not bow down to everything they say because I need to accept their culture.  When it comes to respecting someone to the degree that you cannot engage in honest debate and disagreement with them, no respect shall be given and I say this from a logical, reasonable, and moral stand-point, the difference in culture is irrelevant.
To not be able to speak openly and honestly with someone without fear of reprisal and dire consequences is something that I cannot respect, accept, adapt to, or feel comfortable with.  This is the position I find I am forced into in relations with my in-laws.  The best I can do is tolerate it, I’m afraid.  I love my wife and I put myself through it all because of her, fortunately I do not have to meet her parents all that often and my attitude of trying not to feel guilty about having these feelings means that I can avoid meeting them more than is absolutely necessary.  The horrible thing about it all is that I actually like my in-laws, they are nice, caring, and kind people, it is simply this one aspect of their culture that makes dealings with them much more difficult than it should be.
In Korea, I am uncomfortable that the right to disagree, argue, and debate honestly seems to be taken away from many people.  It is not enshrined in law or indeed in principle, but it is in practice.  The frustrating thing is that to notice this and complain about it in writing or even to friends is often seen as something worthy of shame, stubbornness, laziness, and sometimes even bigotry and racism.  It appears that the West is engaging in restricting debate and freedom of speech as well.  We talk a good game, and freedom to express ourselves may even be written in our constitutions, but again in practice we still try to silence and smear others to end arguments and stop the controversy to avoid a conflict.  Disagreements in opinions and ideas leads to a better understanding of each other, a greater knowledge of your own subject and position, an ability to change and move forward, the acknowledgement of problems and their possible solutions, and – perhaps the most importantly of all – the avoidance of violent conflict or other disastrous consequences in the future.
With me personally, my relationship with my Korean in-laws will always be a difficult and somewhat of an awkward one, which teeters on a knife edge, perhaps prone to a fatal collapse one day.  It is all because we really don’t know each other, in over three years we have never talked openly and honestly about anything, every situation being mired in courtesy, custom, and fear of saying the wrong thing.  At best we tolerate each other, we don’t genuinely respect each other and this situation can be translated to many thorny situations around the world and especially within multi-cultural nations.
To hell with ‘tolerance’ and to hell with causing ‘offence’, I want to truly understand and respect people, not just pretend to.  This is an up-swelling of frustration that has afflicted me since living in South Korea, the feeling that every day I am too much of a coward to really get to know people and that I am valued as a person for holding back on my principles in this regard and cowering away from confrontation.  The fact is though, I should stop beating myself up because at this time the straitjacket would be applied everywhere, not just in Korea.  Most of us are cowards, we need to be and I will settle back into the routine after writing this article of being nice to and conforming to the wishes of others who I really have no respect for whatsoever because, out of a fear of offending them (and vice versa), I have never really known them and they have never really known me.  No wonder we cannot truly respect and understand one another.
Note: This post was first written by me for but I thought I would re-post it on my own blog as well.