Matt Smith

Agreeing with Alison Empey

The downsides of teaching in Korea

Gladly, I find myself back in Thailand, seated comfortably in a Rajabhat office chair, as I write this. Why gladly? Isn’t this, you ask, the bloke who but recently was telling everyone how excellent Korea is, and who was indeed offering a ‘heartfelt recommendation’ to all and sundry to ‘come and experience Korea’. And isn’t, for those of you who know your maths, nine months just a little shy of the twelve month term (sentence) that a public school contract in this country normally entails? Well, the first thing I would say is that most of the nice things I noticed about Korea remain, in my eyes, and indeed genuinely are, nice things. However, after a relationship with Korea that spans more than 12 years now, and that includes a lot of effort on my behalf to, through reading and interaction, get to know this country and its people, I have to say it is my most measured opinion that this is one place I don’t really like. If, in other words, I gave the impression that Korea was a really nice place to go and teach English, and that you will enjoy it as much as going to Thailand, I now feel a lot of remorse over being so hasty with such ill-considered advice – the truth is, if you’re anything like me, you probably aren’t going to enjoy it much at all.

So why then, was I so eloquent in its praise? Why, I mean, was I so forthcoming with such a glowing representation of what going to Korea was all about? I think, while I know this doesn’t provide any real justification for the harm I might have wrought to some by recommending them to go there, it pertinent still to offer a wee bit of explanation. The reasons for this transgression were twofold. Firstly, I’d just finished working for a year apiece in Australia and Thailand, at wonderful jobs – jobs that, sadly, were marred by the presence of an overabundance of people who, through the pursuit of their own selfish and short-sighted agendas, just love to whinge about other countries. If I explain the type I’m referring to a little better, I’m talking about the kind of people who are as follows. They have a very poorly informed and self-centred agenda in life (and don’t those two things always walk hand in hand with one another?). However, they certainly don’t describe themselves as such; the reason everyone should accept, and indeed conform to, their drive to arrange the world and everyone else in it in the ways most suited to them is because their ideology is ‘best’. If you don’t want to conform to what they find it convenient for you to do, and – heaven forbid – if you should happen to notice them for what they really are, you’re the one with the problem, and they are very vocal in their grizzling about it. These people always whinge about Asians – as I’d copped a gutful of them by the time I went to Korea, I tended to be obsessive about looking on the brighter side of things, because I in no way wanted to be associated with their ilk.

Also, my academic background is in humanities, and lies heavily in the fields of history and cultural studies; these disciplines inform you about exactly what’s wrong with being this type of person, or show the very irrefutable logic behind the discomfort that most normal human beings feel when subjected to this mentality. Moreover, they point to the very unsavoury purposes that ‘orientalism’, or the utilitarian misrepresentation of people from other cultures for the purposes of personal or hegemonic gain, has served throughout history; being schooled in these disciplines again leaves one inclined to, as Phil has referred to it on this site, try and avoid the temptation to ignore the glorious array of flowers above one’s head in favour of staring at the rubbish at one’s feet. Again, explaining why you made a mistake never lessens the severity of its impact; however, perhaps it sometimes makes forgiveness a little easier.

And what exactly is it that I don’t like about Korea, or that made Matt finally spit the dummy? In as objective tone as I can muster, here’s the nature of my gripes. Firstly, I couldn’t ever enjoy my classes there; the main reason, and it’s made me really understand a lot of people who I thought previously might have simply been uninteresting teachers, is that Korean students – and this has been the case in every institution at which I have worked there, I just thought at first that it was my inexperience at ESL teaching that was the problem – the main reason is that Korean students all too often come to the class with absolutely no intention to make even the minimum of effort required to learn another language. (Or, for that matter, to engage in any such form of intellectual pursuit.) Instead, they expect you to ‘teach’ them in a way that will be as absorbing to them as whatever else it is they might be able to do if they didn’t have to attend your class – an impossible chore, because you’re competing with a lot of very relaxing activities. And, to make matters worse, if you don’t succeed at this, which by the very nature of the demand means a lot of the time they’re there, as well as moping about listlessly at the desk and, quite often, simply dropping their head on it to have a sleep, a lot of them take the opportunity to compensate themselves for the fun you have failed to provide them by actively taking the piss out of you!

Which, if this was simply the mischievousness of the child and adolescent, or if this was an attitude that was simply a lack of learning motivation, would be containable in itself; I fear, however, judging by my complete failure to have ever formed any really human teacher-student relationships with most of my Korean classes (and before you start congratulating yourself on your own, please think about how many opportunities you’ve had to teach in other situations and compare), that there is far more than that afoot. And when you start wondering just what it is that’s up with them, of course you don’t have to look too far to see that there are a number of very likely things that fit the bill. Firstly, as I’ll provide more evidence of shortly, Korean society, despite its external dressing in the trappings of tolerance, remains enormously xenophobic; it’s very difficult not to imagine that the animosity that a lot of members of the public feel at large towards Western people isn’t present in their offspring, or doesn’t in many ways rub off onto them. Sure, they say they like Western people; however, if you become really familiar with Korean discourse, and if, like me, you take the big step of marrying a Korean woman, you’re soon going to come to real grips with the nature of the problem. Furthermore, as a quick glance at popular culture as we see it in films and TV will suffice to show, there is real status to be earned for male students – males, I must say, having almost exclusively been the recalcitrant students in my experience, I should have added earlier that when I’ve been fortunate enough to teach all girl classes they’re model students – there is real status to be earned for male students who, as a microcosm of Korean male culture in general, absolutely crave status, or anything that will show them to be ‘better’ than the other guys…there is real status to be earned by male students who flaunt the pre-eminent authority of, and who suffer unflinchingly the draconian punishments administered by Korean teachers. And, when they get this Western teacher out the front, who, by virtue of their own inhibitions and the direct dictate that discipline is to be the domain of Koreans only (but who in my experience rarely practice it to the degree that the creation of an effective learning environment requires) – when they get this ineffectual Western teacher out the front, here’s the opportunity to accrue such status without ever having to risk any of the disadvantages that its acquisition normally entails. Hence, the great temptation to be highly irritating and offensive.

Also, I’d be very surprised if Korean students don’t harbour the expectation that Western English teachers are all fools; this is a natural representation of ‘the other’ in all cultures, let alone in any that the realities of European hegemony demand should focus on such a view as a salve for wounded pride (I’m not justifying colonial exploitation, I’m just saying if I was the victim of it I’d hardly be inclined to agree with the conqueror’s convictions that they were superior). In addition, the nature of Western-Korean ESL interaction has given many Koreans real reasons to uphold such a view; look, all I’m saying here is that the reality of the matter is that ESL teaching has traditionally been a missionary activity in South Korea, and that I remember from my own short-lived days in scripture classes at school (they didn’t last long into my generation in Australia for these reasons) and from the couple of times my mum, in the interests of my ‘moral betterment’ (we’ll get to her in a minute), sent me to Sunday school…I remember from these experiences that the sort of doughy, South Park school counselor, marching band, clown suit, overall patronising mode of education I was subjected to in these situations hardly left me with a respectful view of the teacher and of the lesson content they were pushing. Considering that, for want of a better term, the ‘evangelistic’ mode of teaching has somehow become the preferred norm in South Korea, it’s little wonder they think of us as idiots. Think of the teachers on those TV shows on educational TV in South Korea, with their silly voices, their Coke-bottle bottom glasses and bug eyes, their contrived, ridiculous and very condescending ways of speaking, and think of the slap-stick accompaniments that are provided for their shows (the whistles and horns, the puffs of smoke, the clashing symbols and spinning lights and so on) – given that, judging by the way these shows are so often parodied on comedy TV in Korea, there are quite a few of the believers themselves who can see through the charade, would it really be that much of a mystery if kids who are the product of an information age thought the dominant mode of ESL teaching in Korea plain silly? If I was them, I’d give those fools hell…

It’s a bit hard to wonder too if it’s not the monolingual/monocultural view towards other languages that isn’t in part, or along with religious colonisation, responsible for what a lot of Koreans have obviously somehow come to think represents an effective way to have your kids engage in intellectual endeavour (or, to put it simply, that they have confused with an effective way to make them smart); to make good on the promise to bring up my mum, I ask you now to consider the way she, as a distinctly monolingual and monocultural Baby Boomer (born and bred in White Australia), has generally tended to treat my Asian friends. The only people in her experience with a less than complete grasp of the English language have always been children, and furthermore she is the sort of non-tertiary educated person who thinks that goo-ing at kids and making ludicrous facial expressions to emphasise the ‘point’ is best practice when it comes to cultivating their abilities; when she meets my Asian friends, she generally tends to mistake their cognitive abilities for those of a child, and adopt a similarly embarrassing strategy in trying to communicate with them. If, is all I’m saying, the older people in Korea who are indubitably at the reigns of how English language education in that country should proceed have similarly mistaken views about speakers of other languages, and about what represents effective teaching strategy…well, we have pause to consider that perhaps the role cast for Western ESL teachers in South Korea reflects very strongly this mentality.

On top of which, outside the classroom, I didn’t have a particularly pleasant time overall in Korea either; I was prepared to overlook it at first, but the animosity towards Westerners I mentioned earlier – indeed, the whole box in the Korean weltenschaung into which one is stuffed – most definitely ended up wearing very thin. They were constantly just plain rude to me, especially the men, by any cultural standards; here’s a bit of a catalogue of my experiences. On numerous occasions, when I stopped to ask male Koreans directions to places, in their language, they simply turned their backs on me and pointedly ignored me; in one case, after I had the ‘hide’ to imagine that maybe they hadn’t heard me and repeated my request, I was abused. They always went out of their way, sometimes when I was fishing on riverbanks lined with Korean anglers, to angrily tell me to piss off when I was fishing in ‘no fishing’ (unsigned, but apparently so) zones – wouldn’t a simple explanation of the fact to someone who obviously wasn’t the best positioned to be in the know have sufficed? After I became paranoid about this, I stopped one time to ask some security guards at a turnstile whether the river adjacent to them was one in which fishing was permitted – one of them, with no provocation to such behaviour whatsoever, screamed angrily in my face that if he caught me fishing there, ever, he was going to punch me out and throw my gear in the river (if ever there was something that could make me hate Korean blokes, that was it). Constantly, on overhearing me speak English, Korean men would mimic my voice in mocking tones, particularly if it was my female colleagues or my wife with whom I was conversing – I mean, I knew after a bit that this would happen, so I kept my voice down, what gives there? Conversely, of course, I met a lot of people who were very kind to me – so frequent, however, were my unpleasant experiences, or so often did things like this occur, that I became after a while well and truly convinced that I was far better working in a more receptive place.

There’s a whole bunch of other stuff I could add here too – how dismissive Koreans are when you make the effort to speak to them in their own language, how there is a lot of male showing off and dressing oneself up like a popinjay going on, how the women are enslaved to the point of their being a lot of disturbing body image-related and other psychological trauma evident, and how the streets are awash in vomit and spit – however, it all begins to sound, even to me, the author of this narrative, rather petty. Suffice to say that I’m off it, there are definitely greener fields elsewhere. The Koreans, of course, who made me feel unwelcome are indubitably as glad to see the last of me as I am of them; quite fortunately, I would say, the world at present remains large enough for both of us. My final word being that, to redress comments I made earlier, sure, if you have no specific qualifications and experience, Korea offers the highest salary; there’s definitely more to life than money, however, and if you’re after a gentle and civilized environment, I’d say you’d be doing well to find somewhere nicer than Thailand. I always do alright here at the end of the day; certainly, as my current situation demonstrates, Thailand offers a reliably lovely public education environment in which your teaching skills can flourish.


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