Sunday, February 26, 2012

Native English Teachers in South Korea (part 2)

In my last post, I identified the reasons why Native English teachers essentially do not help in achieving higher test results for Korean students, but are valuable in other senses.  When I first saw the figures from Seoul, for the lack of improvement in English since the introduction of the Native teacher programme, I thought deeply about the usefulness of my own position in my school.  I think despite the fact that English teachers get paid well here in Korea, the schools themselves can make the foreign teacher feel fairly surplus to requirements sometimes.  The figures from Seoul and this fact made me question the meaning of my existence in my position at the school.  I could give many examples of the lack of importance I feel sometimes, but I shall just give one particularly irksome example from last year;

As I mentioned before there is no marking or test taking for any of the native teacher's lessons, and this can make for a fairly demotivated bunch of students, especially in an all boys high school.  To place at least some competition and significance to my lesson, I dangled a bit of a carrot of cold hard cash (gift certificates as good as money here in Korea called 'happy money').  I have 17 different classes, so I obviously can't give money to every class, so I divided each class into 9 teams and the best in each class were entered into a raffle at the end of the term, with 5 prizes, 3 of them money based.  The total prize fund is 175 000 won.  This costs me, therefore, 350 000 won a year (about £180 or $350).  But I think it's a small price to pay for a much less mind-blowing experience of teaching them.  It makes for a competitive, interesting lesson that is not only fun for the students, but more importantly, fun for me.  Anyway, the end of term came and it was nearing the time for the prize draw, but how to do it?  I wanted all the students to know about it happening, and to be able to come and see it if they wished.  I had a series of ideas of how to do this, over about a two week period, here are some of the conversations I had with my Head of English at my school;

Me: Is there a presentation ceremony at the end of term?
HoE (Head of English):  Yes.
Me: Can I have some time to present awards for my classes?
HoE:  No, that is not possible.
Me:  Can I organise my own presentation ceremony?
HoE:  Sorry, the students are too busy.
Me:  Can I use a room for a presentation at lunchtime?
HoE:  We have no spare rooms, sorry?

Me:  Can I do the draw live over the speaker system?
HoE:  No, sorry, the headmaster would not approve.
Me:  Can I just announce the results over the speaker system?
HoE:  No, I am sorry.
Me:  Can another teacher or yourself announce the results for me?
HoE:  The students are not often in their rooms during breaks between lessons.
Me:  What about at the start of a lesson?
HoE:  That would disturb other classes.
Me:  But, it would only take 2 minutes!
HoE:  Other teachers would not be happy.

Me:  Can I video a draw being taken and play it in each of my classes?
HoE:  Yes.
Me:  Can the headteacher draw 1st prize?
HoE:  No, he would hate that.
Me:  Oh, well maybe the deputy head.  What day do I finish classes this term so I can plan when to play the video in each class?
HoE:  We don't know, maybe you will teach next week, maybe you won't, and in some classes the computers will be disconnected.
Me:  Arrggghhhh!!!!!

It was like I was fighting a losing battle.  I was trying to add meaning to my lessons and be the best teacher I could be for the school, and I was even giving up my own money!  Still, my school were being about as flexible as my legs feel when sitting on the floor at a Korean restaurant, they would not budge.  The strange thing is that I do get the feeling that the school likes me and thinks that I teach well, they mention frequently that I have a great reputation with students and teachers at the school.  So why do they behave like this?  Even with my now extensive experience with Korean culture I am still a little dumbfounded.

I was now really thinking, 'is there any value to me being here?'.  I had to really think, because I was just a little bit dejected and annoyed, but I have found many reasons to feel that my position here in Korea is valuable, and even essential.  It is a pity, however, that many others do not see it, Koreans and foreigners alike.

For me, the purpose of my job is more of a cross-culture teacher and student position, rather than teaching English.  With any luck, a bit of English does stick with the students now and then, but if I can achieve something to surprise them, entertain them, or just give them something completely different from what they have seen before from their other teachers, I think I am doing a good job.  My lessons are always my own, I never copy lessons.  They have my personality stamped all over them.  My likes, dislikes, pet peeves, what I find interesting, what I find abhorrent, and my passions.  I am not saying that this makes me a better teacher, or that people can't teach effectively in other ways, but it does maximise my ability to be interesting and engaging.  The famous saying when writing is, 'write about what you know', and when we as teachers plan lessons, we are writing something.  It's not a book, it's not a play, or a piece of music, but a lesson, and I think the same principle applies.  Interesting and engaging is the key here, in an atmosphere of tiredness, poor motivation, and frustration over the difficulty of the subject.  My goal is this; not to improve their English this minute, or even this year, but maybe to give them confidence in speaking to a foreigner, inspire them to be interested in my culture, to have an open mind to explore my culture, and that it could have interesting things to say to them that might well enrich their lives.  If I can achieve these high goals, maybe they might just be interested in learning the language too, a higher form of motivation than just learning English to get a better job in the future by way of achieving good exam results.  Essential in this process is the ability of myself to learn from them too.  Young people are a wonderful thing that many adults can learn from (a fact/system that I don't see operating in the status and respect culture in Korea).  Young people are open-minded, adventurous, and less stuck in their ways (as adults can be sometimes), that can be the great joy of working with them.  It can keep you fresh, open to new ideas and ways of thinking, and able to see things from new perspectives.  But adults must be willing to learn from them, and (especially in Korea) this does not often happen.  It is regularly just one way traffic.  I recently returned from Indonesia, and on my way back from the airport in Seoul, I took the train.  On the train there was a teenager being lectured to by an older person (presumably his father).  He was just staring into space and nodding, looking thoroughly disinterested.  Was he being rude?  Maybe he was sick of taking advice from older people?  Maybe the old man really had important stuff to say?  The fact is though, if someone is just telling you what you should do, what you should learn, and how you should feel, it's pretty easy to get despondent after a while and just switch off. That was what the boy on the train was doing.  His father (probably) could have been telling him the most important piece of information in the world, but his mind was closed, it was all one way traffic.

The same thing occurs in learning from other people's cultures.  If it's all one way traffic, the other side just does not listen.  Not only does the road block come up from the other side, but nothing can go the other way either.  Important positives are missed, and learning from both sides cannot happen.  There are examples where it is not possible to follow this, however.  An example would be a discussion with a member of the Taliban about women's rights, of which I think I can be sure that there would not be much I could learn from such a discussion.  Some cultures are wrong about some things, period.  I am not a cultural relativist.  Now that I have cleared my throat about that, I can give an example of something that occurs quite frequently in Korea, and that is the arrogance that many western visitors carry with them on their trip over.

Korea and the Far-East, in general, is about as different a culture as there is possible to find in the civilised world.  The most fundamental of these differences lies in the fact that, in the Far-East, their culture is based around groups and hierarchy with social stability, and ours is based around individuality and freedom.  There are many reasons for this that I won't go into here, but it makes a huge difference to the perception of morals and values in each respective culture.  Now I am going to go out on a limb here, and say that with respect to morals, western culture has a greater depth of thought, precisely because of a greater emphasis on the individual.  Fairness and human rights are understandably a western invented concept, because when group cohesion is most important, then it's alright to mistreat a few for the benefit of the whole group (hence a greater sympathy for Communism in the East in general).  However, the depth of thought that the west has now gotten into has spread to laws, and bureaucracy to the point of insanity, producing a wrapped in cotton wool effect and legal action recognisably irritating to most people.  So we can still learn some good things about morality, and building a better society to live in, from those in the Far-East.  I think that people in the western world have an attitude that says, 'we have been developed and richer for longer, and have thought about morals more deeply, therefore we in the west have nothing to learn from recently developed and developing nations'.  They simply think that most nations, Korea and China included, have only just caught up and are waiting to be enlightened like us, but that sometimes we can't push morality on them and that it will happen naturally, eventually.  There is some truth to this, but in reality it goes much deeper into history and culture than this, but this attitude is rife among Native English teachers to Korea.  It's an arrogance that leaves them completely closed to understanding Korean culture and maybe assimilating some of their better practices for themselves.  Again I am going to use a school situation to describe an issue that we have long thrown into the immoral dump of history in the west, never to be returned, and one for which I am sure I will receive few supporters for my views, particularly in more liberal friends of mine.  This subject is corporal punishment.

In Western society there is no corporal punishment in schools, no hitting of students and no physical exercises as punishments, e.g. stress positions.  There are exceptions, such as in the deep south of the US, where they still use the paddle.  These exceptions are generally seen as crazy or religious inspired backward thinking islands in an otherwise wiser ocean of greater enlightenment.  In respect to the deep south I agree, I don't think we should be using the paddle in our classrooms, don't worry.  But clearly there is a problem with discipline in our schools.  I can only speak for schools in the UK, where I have worked as a teacher myself and been a member of the support staff in various schools.  The lack of respect for teachers is shocking, and the constant calls of, 'I am going to sue you, sir!' ring out regularly when a teacher lays even his or her little finger on a student.  The students have the power, they know their rights and their rights outnumber those of the teacher.  This is the greatest obstruction to learning there is in schools, teachers have to spend time in class and outside of class managing bad behaviour and planning and delivering effective lessons is getting harder and harder.  Even school trips are becoming a thing of the past as teachers and schools are worried about accidents, knowing that however thoroughly they plan, or ask for consent slips from parents, they may be found liable.  The atmosphere of fear in schools in palpable, and the students can smell it all over their teachers and, as young people often do, take full advantage of it.

The situation in Korea is very different, because of the cultural history of Confucianism there is a greater natural respect for teachers (students will bow to their teachers when they see they in the hallway, for example, even me).  But also teachers are given a great leeway into how they discipline their students.  Some examples I have seen are; the slap of a ruler across the hand, the hit of a stick to the hip, and a little slap or punch to the top of the head.  Also numerous stress positions and exercises, such as, kneeling on the ground with hands in air, press ups, squats, wall sits, etc.  Now I have heard of teachers going too far in Korea, and hitting too hard or being overly aggressive, but as far as I can tell this is very rare.  I hate to say this, but the examples of corporal punishment I have seen at my schools, just simply work.  They stop bad behaviour almost immediately.  In all the cases I have seen it used, it is a quick sharp pain, the students are upset for about 5 seconds, their friends laugh, they get on with their work and it's all forgotten.  Contrary to western thinking that it damages a students' mental health beyond repair for the rest of their days, the students don't seem in the least bit bothered by it.  Obviously, I work in a boys high school, and maybe this strategy is not applicable to younger students or female students.  However, every single student I have asked (when I was a Hagwon teacher) had said they don't like it, yes (who would), but I cannot detect even a grain of fear or insecurity about it.  They are usually smiling when they say this and often have a sense of amusement about it all.  My wife also confirms that when it happened to her at school, it was no big deal, and it may even have the effect of bringing students closer together.

Let me make this clear, I am not a supporter of using violence against students in class rooms.  I think, actually, that hitting students is not ideal and most of all not necessary if you are a good teacher.  Maybe there is a place on the continuum of East and West for corporal punishment, though.  My proposal would be this; hitting should not be generally practiced or especially approved of in UK (and others in the western world) schools but, just so the students know that threatening teachers with intimidation or legal action isn't going to happen, it is not strictly off-limits either, and certainly not against the law.  I am sure with even a modicum of common sense, that situations or teachers that get out of hand are dealt with and still severely punished.  I would also recommend that stress positions or physical exercises are fair game.  I really do not see how this can do any permanent damage to children, but I can hear the voices of objection already, 'What about the boy with asthma?  What about the obese child?  Won't other children laugh at them?  Won't it affect their mental health?  What about the boy with dyspraxia who can't move properly?'.  In this case, my advice would be tough luck.  If students are going to misbehave, these are the consequences.  If they have a problem that could make other children laugh at them, they shouldn't have misbehaved in the first place.  Let's get the idea of responsibility back into the classroom.  In quite obvious cases, such as those in schools that are severely disabled, wheelchair bound, or have some other severe condition, I am sure other solutions could be found.  But I have the sense that the students in this bracket are not usually the trouble makers in class.

For everyone to learn effectively in schools, teachers need to be respected, even the bad ones.  An effective school is like a good army unit.  How well would the British Armed Services operate if all of the low ranking officers constantly questioned and threatened their superiors, and didn't follow orders?  I suggest that this army would be an embarrassment and a mess as a fighting force.  A respect for authority is key in the army and in the school.  We recognise this in the army, and the government in the UK even understand that this could be helpful in school too, with the introduction of army officers as teachers in some problem schools.  Why oh why can they not see that bringing in army officers will make little difference if they do not have the capacity or the tools to discipline students.  It's time teachers in my own country had a few more weapons at their disposal (not literally, of course!).

It might sound like that I am a man in favour of obeying authority, but I am most definitely not.  Indeed I think it is very important to disrespect authority, if it deserves to be disrespected and to constantly question and doubt it (something that is rarely done in Korea).  But a disrespect for authority cannot be tolerated in a school as much as it cannot be tolerated in the army.  When students leave the school premises they are at their liberty to dish the dirt on their teachers to friends, to call them names, I would even understand their right to show disrespect to me on the street, if they so wanted, but in the classroom they will show respect to their teachers for their own education and that of everyone else in their school.

I have discovered that I have much to say on the subject of the Native teacher role in Korean schools, and have expanded on the necessity for teachers to be students of culture, as much if not more so than the actual students themselves are learning about English and the culture of the Native teacher.  I will continue my analysis of this in my next blog.  The Native Far-East teacher in England concept is on the back-burner for now.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Native English Teachers in Korea (Part 1).

I am currently working in South Korea as an English teacher, and enjoying the culture change very much.  I am employed to teach high school students English, and invariably about western culture.  The governments in South Korea, Japan, and China, feel that it is very important for children to learn English, and although they have many English teachers of their own, teachers that are good at speaking are in short supply.  On top of this there is a slight attitude of fear and distrust among far-eastern countries of people from English speaking nations, and the western world in general.  With this in mind, they see the need to employ native English speakers, to improve English so that people from these countries are ready for business in a globalised economy.

The statistics, however, (at least in Korea) are not matching up to their expectations.  English levels are not improving, despite the introduction of thousands of native English speakers, and with a government spend of millions and millions of dollars.  In fact, the numbers of native English teachers has been slashed just recently in Seoul for this very reason.  So, the experiment is just a waste of time and money, right?

There could be many reasons for this failure, though, and statistics do not always tell the full story, here are some arguments I wish to put forward (I will stick to the country I know, South Korea);

1.  Native teachers often come to Korea fresh out of university, with no previous teaching experience, and no foreign language teaching experience.  Many are young, and just see it all as an extended holiday.  They do not take the job seriously, stay out late most nights getting drunk, and irritate the locals  Therefore they fail to properly educate young South Koreans.  This is certainly true of some foreign teachers I have met, but not that many.

2.  The Korean government and individual schools do not trust foreign teachers to do a good job, so they invite some of the attitudes mentioned above.  No responsibility is given to the native teacher for their lessons, no marking, no tests, sometimes the schools do not even care about the material that the native teacher uses in their lessons.  Typically, students will only see the native teacher just once a week, in a class of up to 40 students.  The number of students is hardly ideal for a conversation class, and the amount of time spent with any particular student is not enough to drive up test scores or significantly improve their English in any way.

3.  Government strategy is in complete denial, and has no control over what is going on in the schools.  All native teachers frequently receive online training guides from their regional offices of education, and are compulsory and for the most part irrelevant.  They usually revolve around co-teaching relationships, and model classes around a native teacher and a co-teacher working together.  The experience of most native teachers is that this rarely or never happens.  If, as a native teacher, you are lucky enough to have a co-teacher that can speak English to a good enough level to assist you in class, you then have to get past the culture and teaching strategy barrier. I can't think of one teacher, I have met, who thinks that their co-teacher relationship is effective in class.  Maybe there are examples of it working, but I don't think it is controversial to say that it is rare.

4.  English tests, are too focused towards grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing.  Even the speaking part of exams is too concerned with communication that is word perfect.  The ultimate goal needs to be understanding and fluency of communication for there to show any effect of having a native teacher.

5.  Students in Korea are over worked.  Learning a new language, especially when you are speaking and listening to people, is an exhausting experience.  When you are tired, the last thing anyone wants is to hear someone talking to them in another language.  For this reason, many students, particularly at high school, just give up.  Coupled with this is the fact that essentially the native teacher's lesson does not matter, many students see native teacher classes as much needed rest time, rather than an opportunity to practice their English.  To be honest, seeing how much they work myself, I can't blame them for thinking like this.

Below: A typical scene between lessons in a high school.  Some students even buy special arm pillows designed for napping at school.

All of the above reasons contribute to the inefficacy of native teachers in Korea in making a noticeable change in students exam results.  The statistics are irrefutable, it just doesn't make a difference to their English level, in exams, having a native teacher.  So should Korea, Japan, and China (presumably there are similar results there), just ditch the idea of native teachers.  No, absolutely not!  The reasons for this run a little deeper than exam results, and the arguments that I will make also are applicable to our own schools in the west, and how much of a good idea it would be to have native speaking teachers from the far-east teach in western countries.

I am arguing that the majority of Korean people, and even the native teachers themselves, just don't get the real benefit of having native English teachers in Korea.  What is surprising, is that the younger students seem to get it absolutely.  My first teaching job in Korea was in a Hagwon(private academy), and I mainly taught Elementary school and Middle school boys and girls.  The Hagwon was an especially good one, with very high level English students, something that is not common.  So after I had gained their trust, and they were able to speak honestly with me, (without fear of upsetting me) I asked them about their thoughts of native English teachers in Korea.  None of them felt like we improved their English significantly (at least the teachers in their public schools, the hagwons are another matter), but almost every single student thought that native teachers were a great idea, just simply because they never get to meet any foreigners.  I know what you are thinking, that this is a pretty weak reason for keeping foreign teachers in Korea.  But, I believe, this needs to be looked at in greater depth.

In what is now a globalised world, how good is it if only a very few of the population of your country have ever met a foreigner, and only the same few know about their culture and customs?  In Korea, without the native teacher policy, this would be the case, and there would be a good argument that it could affect the ability of South Korean businesses to find suitable employees in their own country to interact with foreign investors or customers.  People in Korea, unless they are very rich, rarely go outside the country, and if they do it is usually only to Japan or China.  If they do go further afield, they can usually be identified in big sightseeing groups, shielded from any culture that clashes from their own.  I experienced this in a trip around Europe last summer with my wife, where we saw a surprising amount of Korean people.  My wife was skeptical about the way they traveled, commenting that the only real reason that they are there is to take pictures, so that they can show people back in Korea that, 'look at me, I have been there!', a kind of higher status confirming reason to travel.  This is generalising, obviously, but my wife is Korean, she knows what's going on, and I have been witness to this phenomenon myself in Korea.  We do it in the west to, of course, in fact it might be a big factor in most people's decision to travel to far flung places.

It is not just the practical business element, though, there is also a great benefit of looking at things from the point of view of another culture, and without actually going to a country yourself, what better way than getting foreigners to come to your country.  This can help to build a better relationship between nations, and improve the way your own nation does things.  This last point I think is very important.  The argument of, 'well, this is the way we have always done it in this country', is a poor one, if you have always done something wrong, should you keep doing it?!  Sometimes they get things right in Eastern Culture, sometimes they obviously get things wrong, and the same is true of the west.  What is so curious about being a witness to both cultures, is that, usually the east and west do the opposite things right and wrong, or that some ways of life would be so much better in the middle ground somewhere (I have mentioned before about a continuum).  A melding of the two together would surely produce better results for everyone.  The native English teacher in South Korea, ultimately aids the Korean people with this (even if they have trouble in their schools).  As a teacher in Korea myself, I believe that this also goes both ways, that we can learn from the Korean way, and then when we go back home, talk to people in our own countries about what they are doing better than us.  I will give two examples, one pro-western and one pro-eastern philosophy in this particular blog (both of which I have mentioned in previous blogs), in the setting of a typical school in Korea;

Pro-Western - Workers Rights

Unfortunately, this is an issue that keeps cropping up in Korea for teachers.  In Korea there is a lot of wiggle-room in the contracts from the perspective of the employer.  Sometimes teachers are expected to work longer hours, get less vacation, and sometimes are also victims of last minute changes of plan, which can include the cancelling of vacations a couple of days before you are booked to go on your flight!  It really does depend on the luck of the draw as to what school you get to work for and their attitudes to contracts, and the native teacher.  What many foreign visitors to Korea do not realise is that Korean people receive exactly the same kind of treatment, and usually much worse.  Their contracts are very flexible, again in only one direction, and that's towards the employer.  Korean people are regularly asked to do extra hours without pay, cancel plans at the last minute, and do jobs that are not mentioned in their contracts.  The amount of pay can also be changed after interview, so until a Korean finishes their first month of work, they may not know what they are getting paid, and also exactly when.  If they ask their employer about it, it is considered rude, and the consequences are not worth risking.  It is important for Korean people to show dedication to their work to their colleagues.  If there is any weakness shown in this regard, it will be pounced upon by the employer and fellow employees, bullying in the workplace is a common and expected practice in a lot of professions.  Another problem is the taking of sick days and holiday.  You just can't take sick days in Korea, if you do, you must have to have been to the hospital and have a doctors signature and reason why you could not attend work.  You really must be seriously ill.  The problem is that, particularly in the setting of a school, if one teacher comes in with the flu, many of the other teachers subsequently come down with it, increasing the misery of all.  But, if you are really ill it is seen as a chance to show your dedication to the job.  Vacation time is also pitifully low.  My wife is a first year nurse in Korea, and she receives NOT ONE DAY of vacation, other than public holidays, she is also working six days a week.  When I ask the students in my classes how long their father's yearly vacation is, they usually say it's just 3 days.  This is different for school teachers, but for most jobs in Korea, vacations, at least for those not at the top of the ladder, is a no no.

This attitude to work clearly needs to change, and there is something that teachers coming to Korea can do to guide this issue towards a better deal for everyone in the future.  It is simple, do not stand for it!  Many teachers in the interest of harmony at their school, and because their job is not especially difficult, will just go along with unfair proposals from their school that are not specified in their contracts.  My argument is, that if you stand up for yourself, point at the contract and say no, you are helping the process along.  Many at your school will just think you are a lazy foreigner, who doesn't want to work, but maybe there will be a young teacher, who has been doing extra hours recently (for no extra pay), who might think, 'yep, they have a point, I wish I could do something about what they ask of me.'  In such small beginnings, the wheel of change starts to turn.  Teachers from a culture of better work ethics and protection of employees rights, I feel have a responsibility to point out unreasonable demands when they occur.  This is because we can.  The Korean workers can't, they risk being fired or forced to quit in an atmosphere of bullying in the workplace.  I often here from people that native teachers need to be ambassadors for their countries, absolutely right.  But ambassadors don't just agree and go along with everything that people do in their host countries, they point out where they think there is room for improvement in a country's behaviour.  They then report back news and ideas, good and bad, to their respective governments.  In fact, what would be the point of an ambassador, if there were no debate between the ambassador and their host country.  The Korean people need to be shown the way to worker's rights by us, if lower paid workers rarely travel outside their own country, who else are they going to learn from that the current system is unacceptable.

There is something to be learned from Koreans in the workplace, however, it is not all bad from their side.  Korean people show a dedication to their work and their attitude is something that many an employee in the west can follow.  They have a hard work ethic, that people in the west used to have, and that has seen them rise from a poor farming country to a booming economy in a very short time.  A balance between the two cultures again needs to be met on the imaginary continuum.

Pro-Eastern - Health

As mentioned, the attitude towards food and health in the general population is the difference between night and day, and it is most definitely those in the west that are in the dark.  The weird thing is that many people in west understand this and still don't even try to change their ways.  I won't go into it in any more depth here, as I have already written a fairly complete blog on why I think this is.

I have heard of some stories of teachers really not getting on well with the food here, and sometimes teachers take food with them into their schools and do not eat the school dinners provided for them.  I think this is a big mistake.  I regularly hike with an american friend in Korea, and I am going to quote him here, as I think it is a nice little nugget of wisdom.  He said to me that, 'If the food is healthy, I think it is possible to learn to like anything.'  There may be exceptions to this, but in principal, I think this is a terrific attitude towards food.  When coming to Korea, teachers should make an effort with the food.  Food is a huge part of Korean culture, and during the act of eating food, it is important to do it together.  We in the west need to learn to like better food, teachers in Korea should behave as good students in a lesson about how to eat properly.  Teachers should also take note that all the students are eating their meals, with no complaints, which are exactly the same, healthy meals as the teachers. When native teachers go to the cafeteria at the school, tastes, and maybe some principals need to be left at their homes along with their packed lunches.

In my next blog on this subject, I will highlight more areas I think that our respective cultures can learn from each other, and I will propose a far-east native teacher programme for western countries.  This way more people could have their consciousness raised about issues, such as food and health, from real people of countries that deal with these issues more competently.  Not just learn about it from the TV, whilst eating their favourite frozen 3-minute microwave ready-meal and chocolate pudding for dessert.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Attitudes and Thinking part 2 Food and Health (let's get positive).

From the tone of my first post, you would be forgiven for thinking that Korea isn't that great.  Now this would be true, but it's not that bad either.  I think this is a statement that could very well be true for most countries.  Korea is just different, wonderfully and interestingly different.  I am not a relativist, which means that I do think some cultures are better than others and that some parts of different cultures are also better than our own.  I am English, but I think the ideal, and currently the best plan for culture made by any country is the US constitution. I am going to be brief, but broadly this is because it is essentially secular, allows freedom and rights for everyone, and in common with my own country a respect for freedom of speech.  Unfortunately, the US constitution is not always followed in the US, and in my own country (where arguably the great tradition of, at least modern day, freedom of speech originated), the best values are constantly under attack and not well understood by the large majority of the public and even worse the governments and politicians themselves.  This leads me onto the point I was beginning to make in my last post, the continuum of East and West.  If only we could pick and choose things from the East and West and have a happy medium, but it's never that simple, egos and traditions always get in the way.

In this blog I am going to attempt to explain what I think is great about Korea and how perhaps western cultures could learn from it.  There are some bad things too but if anyone who reads this likes a bit of a moan, please wait for a later blog.  I am sure I will forget some of the things but I will attempt to explain the ones that strike a particular chord with me.  For this part of my blog I am going to concentrate on food and health.

1) Health
Since I was very young I have always been heavily into exercise and in my early twenties spent a lot of time with professional squash players in England, and wasn't too bad myself.  For this reason health and fitness have always been important to me.  Coupled with this, is the fact that I have the worst constitution known to man; everything makes me sick, I get a lot of colds (in England), hay-fever, and I am an extreme lightweight when it comes to drinking.  I never imagined though just how bad my diet was in the UK and how difficult it is to eat well.  The attitude towards food and health in Korea is markedly better than in the west.  They eat for health and they exercise also for this reason.  Parents instill this into their children (generally) and do not tolerate and accept overweight children or obese people in general.  This can sometimes be taken to extremes of unkindness, however, and some balance of these attitudes needs to be achieved (note the continuum).  In the west we eat for pleasure, rarely for health, and our societies count the cost of this.  Just this morning on my YahooUK news feed there was an article about an american who had a cardiac arrest in a restaurant eating a colossal hamburger called 'the cardiac arrest burger'.  I know american people famously don't get irony, but this is a fairly obvious case.  My own country can ill afford to be smug either, as on the same news feed the was a story about England currently being home to the worlds heaviest man, as the previous, rather unwanted record holder of this position, had just died in Mexico   The west is in a huge rut of bad eating and bad thinking when it comes to food and health.  I am going to argue that, on the Korean model of eating you can quite literally have your cake and eat it.  The food in Korea is delicious, it makes you feel good after eating it, and it makes you healthier.  In the west, the food is just as delicious, but makes you feel terrible, lethargic and sleepy after eating it, and most of it is rarely beneficial and often detrimental to health.  Western food is, more often than not, about the here and now, it says 'I want to be satisfied now, I want that good feeling now, and who cares about later'.  Korea says, 'I want to be satisfied now, I want that good feeling now, and I want to feel good later too.'  Which is better?  The argument is over before it has started, Korea wins.  Japan shares this ethic about food, and maybe slightly less so in China.

Now I can begin to hear the murmurings of an argument from the other side in my ear, of those of you in the west that have never been to Korea and those also living in Korea, that either have never heard of Korean food, can't get it, or just hate it.  My argument, however, is not that we should all be eating Korean food, but that we understand why Korean food is beneficial and therefore can re-model our own foods and habits.  Koreans do in fact eat some crazy things, and trust me I wouldn't be advocating eating a small live octopus that can kill you by sucking on the inside of your throat if you don't chew it properly, or, quite probably the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten 홍어(pronounced hong-oh), which is fermented and rotten fish, usually served with heavily fermented kimchi and very gristly pork.  The one and only time I have ever gagged at the dinner table.  The trouble is, it is usually such a large piece that you have to put in your mouth, that getting it down takes a long time, it has to be chewed and pieces of gristle, cartilage, and bone have to be frequently spat out.  All this with a number of Koreans staring at you, and trying not to offend them with poor table etiquette.  On top of this Koreans have a nasty habit of ruining all the good work they do throughout the day, when it comes to their health, by drinking gallons of soju (like a weak paint stripper type alcohol) with their meals.  I am positive that this is the reason that Korea falls behind Japan in life expectancy, and figures in Korea showing high levels of bowel cancer and liver disease might back up my point on this.

It's not just what Koreans eat but their methods.  Back in England, I readily admit that cooking is somewhat of a chore and I really don't enjoy it.  The problem is that in England the only real way to be healthy is to buy and cook your own food.  I genuinely believe that there are not a great number of healthy restaurants around, certainly not a great number of affordable healthy restaurants, and it is still too expensive to go to cheaper restaurants regularly in England anyway.  In Korea, I have lived in three different apartments and at each one there has been a restaurant about a two minute walk from my house.  At these restaurants, called Kimbap shops, I can buy an extremely healthy meal, with side dishes, and be well satisfied for less than £2.50 or $4 in the US.  These places are the McDonald's of Korea when it comes to cheap and quick food, but the quality and nutrition of the food in the Kimbap shops is astounding, it might as well be from another planet.  The vegetables are plentiful and fresh, very fresh, you can taste the goodness with every bite, and when you are finished eating you are, full, well nourished, and not feeling like a stuffed turkey.  My energy levels in Korea are incredibly good, and I rarely get colds here, something which happens regularly in England.  I am positive that this is the effect of the food.  You might well say that this is just my assertion and that I have nothing to back this up, and you'd be right.  I am a bit of a skeptic myself and I like good hard evidence that what one person claims to be true is, in fact, true.  I would love to see some studies done by dietitians, but I suspect many have been done already, perhaps mainly on Japanese food, that I am unaware of.  The higher life expectancy of people in this part of the world may well provide some immediate evidence, if you need any.  But long life is not necessarily the best measure of quality of life, so I would like to see the effect of a western vs a far eastern diet on mood, happiness, energy levels, etc.  Again I suspect that some research may already have been done on the effect of processed food, and high glycaemic index foods on moods, attention spans, and happiness.  It should be noted that there are far less processed foods in Korea, and very few ready meals with added salt and sugar, and their penchant for sugary foods in general is not particularly high.  In fact they rarely do dessert, for example, and if they do it is usually fruit.

The Kimbap shops, provide proof that it is possible to make quick, healthy, and cheap food for the convenience of the people, and these places are one of the things I miss most when I am at home in England.  The fact that food generally is as expensive in Korea, and more expensive in supermarkets than in England, backs up my point that convenient and healthy food is possible to produce for profit in a restaurant, if one so desires, and if the population want to eat it.  The Kimbap shops even provide a take-away service, but it is not sandwiches that are the order of the day, but Kimbap (김밥), hence the name of the shop.  Kimbap, for those of you who are unfamiliar, are rolls of rice (밥) with vegetables, egg, and sometimes meat or fish in the middle, wrapped in dried seaweed (김).  When I made them in England and showed them to my friends, they all said they were sushi, which is technically not true, but that is how they would be viewed to those that are unfamiliar with it all.  They are nutritious and delicious, they are also inexpensive, and quick to make.  I regularly take a couple of rolls with me when I go hiking, which they seem to be the perfect food for.  It is also possible to take-away almost anything from the menu.  When it comes to food and eating healthily, everything is made as easy and convenient as possible.  On a side note (you know when it is possible to get all excited about silly little purchases), my wife has recently bought a set of thermos flasks, and she has said that it is OK to ask these shops to make some soup and then pour it straight into the flask to take-away.  I am therefore now possibly overexcited about buying soup the next time I go hiking.  The quality of the thermos flasks my wife has bought brings me nicely into another great area of Korea's culture of food, their equipment.

Korea is home to the biggest fridges in the world, of that I have no doubt.  The reason for this is that they make a string of side dishes, soups, and main dishes in one go and then refrigerate them for later.  Their food is often partly fermented and spicy, like kimchi, and it can keep for months and sometimes even years.  This habit is one that was formed in their poorer history, when the people had to make times of plenty last and store their food over a harsh winter, which I can assure you is freezing cold and very dry.  They made kimchi (there are many different kinds), as well as different sauces used in cooking, and they were stored in huge pots and left to ferment.  This made the contents of the pot edible all through the long hard winter.  The history of kimchi, in particular, may well be over 2000 years old.  I have if fact eaten 15 year old kimchi, and I can safely say that it has been the best kimchi I have eaten to date.  Fermented and spicy foods like kimchi do take some getting used to, however, and I confess to disliking kimchi when I first arrived in korea.  But, as is true with a lot of acquired tastes, I can no longer do without the stuff.  As I was saying they keep stuff for a long time in massive fridges with a lot of Tupperware.  This method actually makes it quite easy to come home and prepare yourself a meal, and is also coupled with the fact that their staple diet is rice, which can be cooked easily in rice cookers (terrific little devices) and the rice is also kept warm in the rice cooker for up to a couple of days.  These rice cookers are incredibly easy to clean after finishing with them, as is all Korean cooking equipment.  I heard a rumor that Tefal test all their new products on Korean housewives, and that would not surprise me in the least bit, these women from my experience do not tolerate sub-standard products.  The products that they sell are fantastic, and back to the (rather pathetic, I know) excitement over my new thermos flasks, they are like no thermos flasks I have ever seen.  I don't know how they keep the heat in, but they do, without the need for thick walls with just a small space in the middle, the space is massive and the walls are thin.  There is some ingenious stuff in this country when it comes to food at least.

That's probably enough of me droning on like an old Korean housewife, so I am going to move onto an issue that was a hot topic a few years ago in England and also in America, brought to the attention of the wider public by a British chef (from my neck of the woods in Essex) named Jamie Oliver.  This issue is school dinners.  I think a lot has changed for the better because of this man, in England at least, but I wonder if most schools and parents are still committed to the healthy eating of their students.  I think I might have to do some research on this one, and see what school dinners in England are currently like, but I am pretty sure that in America things haven't changed all that much.  I am guessing that things in America, and my suspicion about much of the UK too, is that school dinners are still mostly comprised of cheap junk food brought into schools by the government to save money.  Basically the cheapest, unhealthiest food it possible to imagine.  I always remember watching one of these programmes and chuckling about how school administrators counted the tomato topping on a slice of horrible pizza and chips (french fries) as a portion of vegetables essential for the child's diet.  Actually, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry with disbelief at just how willfully ignorant some people can be.  The claim by Jamie Oliver, backed up by a lot of research on children's attention spans after eating processed food, and childhood obesity rates in England, was that we as a country are doing a disservice to our young people, promoting unhealthy eating, and by this contributing to behaviour problems in schools, and general bad health in the population as a whole.  I think anyone with any sense whatsoever agreed with him wholeheartedly.  But the trouble he caused seemed to be significant both in England and in the US.  There are many reasons for this based on the power of money in government policy and just plain laziness and bloody-mindedness that I will not go into here.  So, what about Korean school dinners?  Talking with my other school teacher friends in Korea it seems like school dinners are pretty similar all over Korea, and without knowing too much about government policy, I will tell you what I think of them.  School dinners here are amazing.  Korean people do realise the importance of children getting a good meal at school, and parents have no worries about the quality of food available at lunchtime, it is spectacularly good.  I have compared it myself to going to my favourite 'all you can eat' restaurant everyday.  There is always enough food and it is very healthy.  Just one school meal in Korea would get a student their '5 a-day' (portions of fruit and vegetables) as we like to say in England.  A typical meal would be something like this; rice, a portion of meat and/or fish, 3 vegetable side dishes (kimchi usually being one of these), and there is always a very nutritious soup also.  The menu changes everyday, so you usually don't get the same meal twice in a two week period.  Lunchtime is genuinely my favourite time of day.  The students like this food and they eat it, and they don't know how lucky they are.  Sometimes I mention the average school meal in England to them and they are envious of what we eat.  But if they knew about the low-grade nature of our school food they might think again.  I don't know this for a fact but I suspect the food, especially the fruits and vegetables are all locally produced, it certainly tastes that way.

There really are so many nice things to say about Korean food culture, that I almost forgot to mention about the proper restaurants here.  Almost all of them are based around the theme that the food is cooked on the table.  In the case of meat restaurants this is like a barbecue style restaurant.  Meat is cooked in the centre of the table on a grill (without oil).  The meat is usually marinated in a delicious sauce, which really enhances the flavour of the meat.  There are a couple of methods of getting the heat, to cook the food, to the table.  Some restaurants have gas pipes running on the floor throughout the restaurant, and others actually bring a bucket of hot coals and place it in a well in the table.  Some restaurants, usually those where a hot fish soup is at the centre of the table, just use a portable gas stove with a removable gas canister.  I have yet to meet a foreigner living in Korea who doesn't love these restaurants, everyone likes them and even vegetarians usually come along and enjoy the authentic experience and atmosphere that eating this way creates.  The food is also rather good and not overly expensive.  Sometimes I think that these restaurants would be a great idea in the England and how popular they could be, given how popular they are with foreigners in Korea.  So why can't we have this in England?  Any guesses?  The Health and Safety police!  They would have a field day pointing out all the health and safety implications of eating in this way.  All the gas tubes running through the restaurants, 'what if there was an explosion?!'  The hot coals, 'what if they burn someone?  And heaven forbid a child might put it's hand on the grill or try to play with coals!'  The cooked meat being next to some raw meat being cooked on the same grill, 'what if someone gets E-coli, Listeria, or Salmonella?!  With this in mind, I seriously doubt if you ever see restaurants like this in England, and probably not in the USA, Canada, Europe, etc, either.  And what a senseless pity.  The tedious business of health and safety is another thing I will talk about in a later blog, which is not so prevalent in Korea.  I have been in Korea for almost 3 years at the date of writing this, and I have yet to get sick from one of these restaurants, I have never seen anyone burned by hot coals, and I haven't seen a restaurant go up in flames either, neither have I heard any news of it.

Food to Korean people has a great deal of importance and is embedded in their culture, so you would expect them to hold a high regard for all things culinary.  They really love it when foreigners eat their food and enjoy it, and it has been an easy way for me to impress lots of Korean people and make up for my deficiencies in the Korean language and etiquette.  Their attitude towards food is exactly how it should be, a lesson that everyone in the west should learn, but alas we are still not listening.  Japanese food is starting to get very popular around the world, maybe Korean food is next.  It's the Korean and Japanese attitude towards food that is what really needs to sink into western culture, though, and not necessarily just the odd foray into a strange food from the other side of the globe for something a little different on a Friday night with friends.  To put it simply the way that the Japanese and the Koreans eat is fantastic, the way we in the west eat is terrible.  It's time to change our ways.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Attitudes and Thinking part 1

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.