There's an old joke about a group of Christian missionaries who travel to Africa because they feel that the villagers are having too many babies. After deliberating with one another about this "problem", the missionaries notice a pile of bananas by one of the villager's huts. Picking up a banana, one of the missionaries began to "advise" the villagers on birth control by unravelling a condom over it, much to the delight and giggles of the villagers. The missionaries left a large supply of condoms and told the villagers that they would be back in exactly one year to witness the progress being made in the area of birth control.
When they returned a year later they noticed that just as many babies were born that year as were born the previous year. The missionaries couldn't understand this. After all, they had left enough condoms and even demonstrated how to use them. "What happened?", one of the missionaries asked a female villager.
"I don't know", she responded. "When our men want to have relations we put the condom on the banana just like you showed us, but we still have babies. Maybe your way just don't work for us."
Well, maybe. My column last month titled, "Understanding Culture Or The CULTure of Understanding", outined a problem that many foreign EFL teachers have when working and living in another country; namely, that every now and then we come across ethnocentric people who believe that their culture and society are vastly superior to anything the "socially depraved" West has ever produced. There are two sides to this debate. This is the other side.
On www.pusanweb.com a thread was started last month by a teacher who wanted to bring into class feminist literature because he believed that his female middle school students possessed a negative body image. I argued that this is overstepping a foreign EFL teacher's boundaries. This negative body image is a universal phenomenon among adolescents and, in time, they will get over it. I also argued that if any feminist material should make its way into a Korean middle school classroom, it should be brought in by Korean teachers, not foreign ones.
To back up my point, on April 16, 2008, I wrote an op-ed piece for the Korea Times titled, "Westernization of Korea?" in which I argued that some of the foreign EFL teachers are here not only to teach English but to "proselytize the flock", to indoctrinate their students into their way of thinking and behaving.
In my column for the Korea Times I wrote,
"Examples of this indoctrination are native English teachers in private language institutes and universities "advising" Korean women on how to leave their husband or boyfriend, to English teachers who brazenly bring feminist writings,
revolutionist literature, and material which openly advocates radical social change into a public school classroom with the intention of disseminating this to impressionable 13 and 14 year old boys and girls." I have personally witnessed this over the years.
Over the next few days I received a dozen emails, mostly from foreign EFL teachers who took me to task for my belief that some EFL teachers are here as cultural imperialists or post-colonialists. Gerry from Britian wrote,
"It is my duty as an Englishman to explain Western culture and CIVILIZED behaviour as we know it, (the letter writer's emphasis), to teach young Korean girls good hygiene, (that they obviously lack), to teach them manners, (that they all lack.)
Western Culture --- Yes please and as quickly as possible.
As a British man, I can see all the good around the world that we introduced, from the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.
I will continue to educate young people in South Korea about the importance of adopting Western (British) culture. Only then can they become an advanced and civilized country."
In another letter, Jason, a 33 year old Canadian English professor in Korea describes himself as "a post-modern-post-colonial-feminist-gender-queer literary theorist." (His parents must be very proud.) He goes on to say that,
"Teaching English is a political act. One cannot use the public-private dichotomy to try and whitewash people into believing that one's English curriculum is somehow not politically and ideologically based, and that it will not influence Korean language and culture and language learner identity.
To teach English in Korea, no matter how you censor it, is antithetical to Korea's socio-cultural existence. English culture must be taught with the language. That alone guarantees, for example, 'anti-gibun' responses and results.
The entire history of English teaching in Korea has been one long act of religious, cultural, and economic imperialism.... isn't it at least time for teachers to be honest and up front about what they are teaching, and why? Instead of embedding things within and beneath the surface of "appropriate" materials?"
Jason ends his long and eloquent letter with another example of how we foreigners must teach Koreans how to use soap and water.
"What about another lesson I made about hygiene and diseases? Was it wrong that I taught the students about how to wash their hands using soap, hot water, and for at least 20 seconds? Or to cover their noses and mouths when coughing/sneezing? If the bird flu ever hits Korea the young and the elderly will die on a scale never before seen in this country.... I like to think I may have saved some lives with that lesson..."
Ah yes, Jason and Gerry to the rescue. What's next, are they going to teach the youngsters how to wipe their arse after a late afternoon poopie? Any banana and condom lesson on the horizon there, Skippy? And what's with foreign EFL teachers and hygiene? It's not as if we Westerners exude the scent of a pine forest whenever we sweat, burp, or fart. Obviously Jason, Gerry, and other foreign English teachers like them, don't seem to realize how seriously Koreans take bathing. With pubic bath houses on many street corners, it is a large part of Korean culture for families and friends to spend hours in them at least a few times a week.
As far as oral hygiene is concerned, Koreans brush their teeth at least four times a day, sometimes more. (That's at least two or three times more than your average EFL teacher.) Koreans are also known to bring their toothbrush to work so that they can brush their teeth after lunch. I've met EFL teachers here in Korea and elsewhere who, with their unkempt hair, shaggy beards,
and tattered clothes, look like they haven't washed anything in a week. (And the men are even worse!) So please spare us any lectures of how we're here to teach the dirty Koreans how to wash their hands. For the record Jason, Gerry, and EFL missionaries everywhere: Do you wash your hands every single time after you pee? In hot water and for at least 20 seconds?
Jason does make some interesting points in his letter, especially the one about the entire history of the teaching of English being "one long act of religious, cultural, and economic imperialism." He is right, of course, as many books including "The Story of English" by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert McNeil clearly point out. But where Jason, and others like him go wrong, is that he gets stuck in the past; mired in the history of the subject in which he teaches.
The entire history of teaching English may be "one long act of religious, cultural, and economic imperialism", but EFL teachers today have a choice that was not clearly evident in decades and centuries gone by. Our ancestors may have taught English by the sword and by the barrel of a gun, but we don't have to. We can put away the sword. We can look our students in the eye and see them for who they truly are. Not people who need to be indoctrinated so that they can become more like us, but people who need to be loved and nurtured so that they can become more like themselves and the men and women they were meant to be.
Lest anyone think this sounds naive or esoteric, this is what education truly is.
Education, from the Latin "to draw out", not to put in. When we truly educate someone, we do not fill the heads with nonsense or useless information that they will never use. We touch their hearts and draw out the real people within each of them. Then we accept them for who they are. A far cry from so many of the missionary EFL teachers out there today.
With many missionary and imperialistic Western EFL teachers invading and occupying classrooms everywhere, a dark and dangerous irony is at work here.
These EFL teachers come from countries--- Canada, the U.S., England, Australia, and New Zealand--- that are rife with their own political, social, and economic problems, everything from poverty, racism, sexism, ageism, crime, and the almost complete collapse of the moral and ethical values that have held traditional societies together for centuries. It is interesting that many of these EFL missionary teachers are attempting to import the very same problems that plague their own Western societies. Not to mention the fact that many of the same male teachers who are pushing Western feminist material in the East are themselves refugees of Western feminism.
Another irony here is that these EFL teachers have chosen to indoctrinate their Eastern students with Western values at an interesting and very important time in world history. In the last thirty years we have seen the rise of the East at the precise moment that we bear witness to the decline of the West. As tens of millions of Asians become more affluent, mobile, and confident, millions of Westerners are living in poverty, seeing a sharp decline in their standard of living, witnessing a shrinking or near collapse of the middle-class, and seeing millions of jobs go overseas. Many of these displaced English speakers are now having to relocate to the East to teach English in order to get by.
As China, India, and other Asian nations, as well as many nations in the Middle East, become the economic powerhouses of tomorrow, the economies of the U.S., Britian, Canada, and Australia are now in a state of stagnation and over the next generation are expected to fall behind Asia in terms of military strength and economic output. Books like Samuel Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations" clearly attests to that eventual reality.
It is becoming clear that many Westerners see the rise of the East as a threat to their autonomy and survival, both in terms of themselves and the country of their birth. Perhaps this proselytization and indoctrination on the part of these missionary/EFL teachers is their way of expressing the fear they feel over this historic, social, and economic reversal of fortune. Fear and jealousy are important and primary motivational factors in many things people do.
As for Jason's point that the teaching of English "is a political act" and that "English culture must be taught with the language", that may have had merit decades and centuries ago when the English colonialists forced the English language and culture down other people's throats. They also forbade their captives to speak their own language and practice their own culture. Koreans remember all too well the Japanese invasions and occupations over the centuries in their attempts to "civilize" them.
Out of curiosity, just what kind of culture is Jason and others alluding to when saying that culture must be included in the curriculum? Traditional British culture? Victorian morality? Shakespere? Chaucer? Dickens? Shall we teach Korean kids the rules of cricket while they take a break for tea and crumpets? How about some English pop-culture? The Beatles? Elton John? A touch of Amy Winehouse as she goes to rehab? Jolly-good, I say old chap! A lecture on Queen Elizabeth? A slide show about Princess Diana? Prince Harry as he plays polo? The history of Big Ben? And how much is it to see the bearded lady in the Picadilly Circus?
Teach American culture? Like what? Traditional American culture? Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation? The Great Depression literature of O'Neil and Fitzgerald? The kitchen sink dramas of the 1940's? Arthur Miller, Tennesee Williams? Davie Crocket? Peter Pan? Elvis Presley? Disneyland? The McCarthy era? Watergate? The Studabaker? Old music? New Orleans Jazz? Mo-town? Contemporary garbage? Philadelphia hip-hop? L.A. gang-banging rap? Britney Spears, with or without panties? Michael Jackson? The black Michael or the white one? Buddy Holly? Ben Hur? Space Monkey? Mafia? Paris Hilton? Lindsay Lohan? Gerry Springer? Tyra Banks? Pat Robertson? The Moral Majority? Martin Luther King Jr? The KKK? The mind reels.
Canadian culture? In English or French? Introduce the rules of hockey while the kiddies munch on Tim Horton's doughnuts. Have them read "Anne of Green Gables" while trying to remember your one childhood vacation to Prince Edward Island. Have them eat "poutine" while talking about the Quebec referendums and the rise of La Parti Quebecois. Show them pictures of snowmen and real live Canucks shovelling their cars out after a mid-January blizzard. That should get the little buggers dancing in the isles.
Anything so that EFL teachers and learners won't have to work so hard. Anything so that learners of the English language won't be able to string three words together at the end of the term. Anything so that teachers of the English language won't have to prepare that hard for class. Anything so that EFL teachers won't have to take on the responsibility of preparing their students--- children, adolescents, and adults--- for the competitive reality of high school and university entrance examinations, and a very competitive globalized marketplace.
Some of the things that I just mentioned--- great literature and music--- are very important aspects of any culture. They can and should be taught everywhere, but only within the safe confines of courses in a school or a university that specifically deal with these subjects in their curriculum. These courses--- literature, music, history, etc. should also be taught by those who are qualified to do so; not by those who have little more than a B.A. and are just in Asia for a year or two. There is precious little time in a 40 or 45 minute class to deviate beyond the teaching and learning of the English language itself.
Unfortunately there are far too many learners of English--- in Korea and elsewhere--- who treat the English language, English culture, and their EFL teachers like a joke. And, just as unfortunately, there are far too many EFL teachers--- in Korea and elsewhere--- who treat their students, the schools in which they teach, and their host country as a joke as well. For those caught up in this vicious circle of hate, prejudice, and violence, they can have each other. Both sides are poisoning the teaching profession and, in the end, both sides will get what they deserve. Learners who don't learn, and teachers who don't teach.
An important part of a teacher's responsibility is taking the time to help their students find their own voice. This is not easy. It requires a lot of time, sacrifice, and patience on the part of both the teacher and the learner. I would like to take this moment to put myself in the language learner's place. A language learner who is serious about learning English. An everyman or everywoman. I'm still not sure how to address the kind of lunacy that Gerry, Jason, and others like them have exhibited. Admittedly it has been difficult (and fun.) But I'm trying. So here it goes, from the perspective of a serious English language learner.
"Excuse me, foreign English teacher. As entertaining as this lesson is, I really don't give a damn. I don't care about your culture. I have my own to worry about, thank you very much. The pictures of your family, very nice. Your cocker spaniel named Bingo, very cute. But again, I don't care. I need to learn English. I need to learn vocabulary, phrases, grammar, and idioms. I need to improve my listening skills. I need to learn how to read. Most importantly, I need to learn to speak in complete sentences so I don't sound like an idiot. That's what I need, foreign English teacher.
Why do I need this, you may wonder? Because I have two young children and maybe another on the way. I don't have a lot of money, you see. So for me and many others, leaning how to speak English properly is the difference between having food on my table and clothes on my children's backs, or just one or the other. If you can teach me to speak English properly I can earn an extra 100 a month. With that we can have more than just rice. We can have Chicken Chow Mein, Chicken Pad Thai, Chicken Kiev, Chicken Adobo, Chicken Marsala, Chicken Catchatori, or Chicken Vindaloo. We can have better lives, foreign English teacher.
So please don't look down on us, foreign English teacher. Don't teach us how to wash our hands, clean our feet, and blow our nose. Don't tell us what food we should eat, what we should drink, or how to raise our children. Don't tell us what books we should be reading, what music we should listen to, or what movies we should watch. Don't tell us what God we should be praying to, or how we should treat our wives, husbands, sons, and daughters.
Just do one thing and do it well. Teach English. Teach English so that I can make more money and finally enjoy the same standard of living that you Westerners have taken for granted for so long. That's why we pay you. That's why you're here. Teach us your language so that one day our houses and cars can be as big as yours. Teach us English so that we can be rich.
One more thing, foreigners: You need not bring bananas and condoms. We have our own."