It was a headline that screamed at the top of its lungs; that is, if newspaper headlines had lungs.
"12 Foreign English Teachers Suspected of Drug Use", from the October 23rd issue of the Korea Times.
The following day, the headline in the Korea Herald was not any less strident: "English Teachers Busted for Drugs, Faking Degrees." From the Joong Ang Daily, "Police Charge Instructors With Drug Use and Fraud." And, not to be left out, the Chosun Ilbo's headline read, "Foreign English Teachers Held for Drug Abuse." All from the October 23rd and 24th issues. We even made headlines on Korean television and on the Internet.
So who are these teachers? And what is the real story? Since the stories in each of the newspapers are pretty much the same, let's take the full story from the Korea Times.
12 Foreign English Teachers Suspected of Drug Use
By Kim Rahn
A dozen Korean-American, American and Canadian English-language lecturers were under investigation for taking drugs
Police said that they detected 12 English lecturers at private institutes, or "hagwons," on suspicion of taking marijuana
and Philopon or methamphetamine.
They arrested five Korean-Americans and two Americans, while charging without detention two Korean-Americans, a Korean-Canadian, a Canadian and an American.
The teachers, who are in their 20's and 30's, have worked as English lecturers at hagwons in Seoul and Kyonggi Province
since early 2000 and habitually taken drugs at their residences, according to police.
The seven Korean-Americans, who emigrated to the U.S. when young, belonged to the Korean-American crime rings there, such as Korean Play Boy. They were deprived of their permanent resident status by their host country for their involvement in drug trafficking, illegal gun possession and robbery, the police said.
After being expelled from the U.S., they got the jobs at the institutes with fake diplomas obtained through a broker.
The broker who helped them get jobs and three heads of the institutes where also booked without detention on suspicion of forgery.
The 44 year old broker, identified as Kim, has run an unregistered job hunting firm named "One and One" in Kyonggi Province since July 2003. He mainly helped expelled Koreans get hired at hagwons, earning 300 million won over his three years in business.
Kim, also a Korean-American who was expelled from the U.S., helped his customers by fabricating graduation certificates
through foreign Internet sites. He also has worked as an after school program teacher at two middle-schools in Yangjae-
dong and Songsu-dong in Seoul, according to police.
The institute heads hired some of the teachers with the knowledge that their visa status did not allow them to work here,
The police plan to expand the investigation, following tips that Kim managed 80 lecturers, the officials added.
So there you have it. If you read the article closely enough, several things glare out at you which seem totally incongruous to the screaming headline. Of the 12 so-called "Foreign" teachers, eight of them where actually born in Korea. Since when are Koreans foreigners in their own country? And how long do you have to live in the West before you're considered a foreigner in the land of your birth? As one Columbian born Spanish professor at a university here in Pusan put it, "I've been in Korea for six years. Does that make me a Columbian-Korean?" For those Americans or Canadians that have been here for a number of years, are they American-Koreans and Canadian-Koreans? I'd like to think that I'm still a Canadian regardless of where I've lived in the world or for how long. And did you notice that the broker and the three institute owners in the article are also Korean? So of the 16 people arrested, 12 were Korean while only four where actually foreigners.
So it seems to me, and many others, that the real problem here is not with the foreign community. The real problem is unscrupulous Korean businessmen who fabricate false documentation and knowingly hire teachers, both foreign and Korean, to work at their schools. That's hardly a problem unique to Korea.
Leesa, an English teacher here in Pusan, wrote this letter to the Korea Times, which she was nice enough to forward to me.
Dear Kim Rahn,
I have just read the article in the Korea Times entitled "12 Foreign English Teachers Suspected of Drug Abuse" and have been appalled by the light in which you have put foreign English teachers in Korea. I can understand your need to sell a story by the use of using a powerful heading to draw people in. But it has come at a cost of discriminating against the foreign community in Korea.
There are many foreign English teachers who have come to Korea to make a decent living and who have sincere and legitimate intentions of helping members of the Korean community to learn English. We would like to be accepted and fit into your community in some way. But how can this be done when misleading information is given to the public through the use of the media? Only 4 of the 12 people were actually foreigners. Yet you stated that all of the people arrested were foreign.
Please take more care in the way in which you portray foreigners in Korea. It is a delicate issue. Foreign teachers are struggling to fit in. We are trying to help the Korean community learn English. With globalization, Korean people realize that they need to learn the international language (English). Many foreigners are trying to do their part in helping Korean children and community members to learn English. Please don't put foreigners who are trying to help your children in the bad light of being drug abusers.
There were a few other letters written by the ESL community here which were sent to the Korea Times and posted on www.pusanweb.com, a website for teachers here in Korea. What seemed to have galvanized us English teachers in this case was the headline; a headline, as you know by now, that lumped 12 unscrupulous and criminal Korean-born nationals with four North Americans, who also exhibited criminal behavior, under the all-encompassing banner of "Foreigners."
To be fair to the Korea Times, on October 27th, four days later, they retracted the word "Foreign" from the headline on their website. The headline now reads, "12 English Teachers Suspected of Drug Abuse." Although the Korea Times have omitted the term "Foreign" in its reference to teachers, the story remains identical to the original by referring to Koreans as Korean-Americans, thus softening any shock within the Korean community that one of their own can be caught smoking marijuana or fabricating fake certificates.
But as of this writing, the Chosun Ilbo still retains the term "Foreign English Teachers" in its headline, while the Korea Herald begins its story with "Twelve foreign English language teachers were charged with taking drugs, police said yesterday."
Anyone who has ever spent time teaching here in South Korea or has served in the U.S. military, knows that many South Koreans possess a tendentious nature to be xenophobic and nationalistic to the extreme. Their pack-mentality in thinking and action is, at times, frightening, and this makes it very difficult to live and teach here, but we try. It also makes it extremely difficult for any true learning to take place, but again, we try.
These stories were not published in isolation. There has been in the past, and it continues to this day, a long litany of anti-foreigner sentiment in the media and in this country. This long litany of anti-foreigner sentiment is manifested in misleading newspaper articles, commentaries, and television programs that portray foreigners in general, and English teachers in particular, as unqualified, alcohol swilling, drug addicted, skirt-chasing perverts, liars, and frauds with no social values or ethical standards. If you think I'm exaggerating, then I invite you to search the archives of both the Korea Times and the Korea Herald, as well as the English language versions of the Korean newspapers. I assure you it will be quite illuminating.
I have spent quite a bit of time in Korea since 1997, and what I find interesting about many Koreans is their penchant for misplaced priorities. Here is a country that is being threatened almost daily by their nuclear neighbors to the North, and they're worried about four North American English teachers who blazed up a doobie! But I guess I should expect that when, according to a recent poll, a full 43 per cent of South Koreans blame Washington for the nuclear crisis here on the peninsula. ("U.S Most Responsible for Nuclear Test: Poll", The Korea Times, September 15, 2006.)
Here is a country where millions of absentee fathers get drunk on a nightly basis and cheat on their wives. Here's a country where, on average, 38 people kill themselves every day, many of them teenagers, ("Suicides Increase at Alarming Rate", Editorial, Korea Times, September 6, 2006.), and they get all hot and bothered over four North American English teachers who, on occasion, puff the magic dragon! This is absurd. I am neither condoning nor condemning the behavior of these English teachers. I'll let the jurisprudence of the legal system handle this. But for the love of Christ, I think there are bigger problems on the Korean peninsula at the moment. I would prefer not to make light of this, but is the local media so desperate to put a negative spin on a story--- any story--- involving foreigners that they end up taking perverse pleasure in nabbing a few English teachers for enjoying a good dose of Columbian smack? Get a life!
Leesa brings up a very good point in her letter about us "trying to do our part in helping Korean children and community members to learn English." In other words, we are trying to do something bigger than ourselves. To use a rather worn-out phrase, we are trying to win the hearts and minds of those we teach. And, as I have said before, we ESL teachers are trying to give those we teach a better future. That is doing something bigger than ourselves. That is, in Leesa's words, doing our part.
But we can't do our part alone. We can't win hearts and minds by ourselves. We need the support of the media and the community. Without it, we are all doomed to fail: The teachers and the students. If these articles that continually portray us English teachers as monsters is the Korean people's way of doing THEIR part, if these articles are the Korean people's way of trying to win OUR hearts and minds, then we all have a long, long way to go before any positive changes can take place.
Criticizing the foreign element in your country, for whatever reason, is a burden. Or it should be. Moreover, it's an unwanted burden, and as with any unwanted burden, it comes at a cost. This unwanted burden of being critical with certain elements of the foreign community at appropriate times, whether in Korea, Thailand, China, Japan, or elsewhere, comes with a feeling of intense guilt. Or it should. After all, you are criticizing and excoriating your guests. That can't and shouldn't be a pleasant experience. But for far too many Koreans it's just that. For too many Koreans, criticizing, excoriating, and humiliating the foreign community has become a hobby, a sport, and an immensely pleasurable past time to while away the hours, days, weeks, and months of an otherwise mundane and humdrum existence. They are seemingly devoid of guilt, or any feelings associated with guilt, when they chastise us for any reason. This could be for anything from the quality of our English lessons, to the nefarious activities of some teachers in the foreign community.
What should really scare people about this, besides the complete lack of tact in a society that supposedly prides itself on linguistic subtlety, is the almost total lack of rational thought that goes into these media rants. The anti-foreigner sentiment here in Korea has become a social mantra, a long-winded series of cultural flatulence that serves to do little but stink up the whole atmosphere.
The problem with Koreans who write anti-foreigner propaganda, whether on the Internet or in newspapers, is that their thoughts and beliefs are unprogressive--- indeed, anti-progressive and their writing robotic and perfunctory. Their judgements and conclusions, based on false premises and faulty research, go unchallenged; not necessarily from outside, but from within.
They show precious little skill for introspection. There seems to be little or no inner struggle to know or search for the real story. And most exhibit no uncertainty of thought. Many of them seem so certain that we are unqualified teachers. Many seem so certain that we are drug addicts, perverts, and child molesters. Many seem so certain that we spread disease like AIDS. Many Koreans simply assume these perceptions to be true without the slightest evidence or depth of thought. And the sad part is that many of them don't even challenge these assumptions about foreigners, whether through introspection, or by asking the essential questions necessary of their own society. And no amount or rational discussion will change their perception or their assumptions.
Far too many Koreans are far too comfortable living within their four walls; far too comfortable reaching for that which is only within their short grasp; far too comfortable in not asking the right questions; and far too comfortable in their bias and ignorance of the foreign community in their own country which is made up of Canadians, Americans, Australians, Chinese, Thais, Nepalese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and many others. Ignorance may be bliss, but is is also dangerous when left to fester.
Part of what being a human being is all about--- as opposed to say a baboon, a giraffe, or a stingray--- is not only answering, honestly and sincerely, the questions posed by another, but also asking the right questions: Questions for which there are no easy answers, or questions for which the answers are not so easily apparent or obvious. Good research and great writing depends on this. This lack of knowledge in asking the right questions, this lack of introspection, this lack of inner struggle, this lack of any depth of thought about the lives of foreigners within their borders prevents many Koreans from knowing the truth, and more importantly, allows them to perpetuate a false reality based on lies, myths, exaggeration, misinformation, and propaganda.
Far too many Koreans possess neither the intelligence nor the wisdom to realize that when you attempt to bring down or destroy others in haste or out of fear, you succeed only in bringing about your own destruction. And this is what's happening. Even though the money and the benefits are good, fewer and fewer teachers want to come to Korea. And for those who are presently here, fewer and fewer of us want to stay. The reasons are simple: Not very many of us feel welcomed. We are constantly faced with a barrage of insults from the media and elsewhere. Our intentions are misinterpreted, our ideas either ignored, ridiculed, or misunderstood. And many of us seem not to be making a positive difference in the lives of our students. Far too many ESL teachers here feel that we are wasting our time trying to teach people who are simply not interested in learning from us. The system is stacked against us and the playing field is unleveled, and many of us know it.
What to do about all this? Well, I suppose we can try to ignore it in the hope that it will magically disappear. I'm sure many teachers are doing that already. Or we can let them know exactly how we feel, as some teachers have already done. It's important to work within the system to effect positive social change. But the question is, would we be welcomed to work within their system, alongside the Koreans, in order so that we can finally contribute to their society and make a positive difference in people's lives?
It takes courage to be fair and honest, especially when dealing with foreign English teachers. It also takes intelligence and wisdom to see the big picture. A big picture in which the local English teachers and foreign ESL teachers work together to ensure that the students succeed. A big picture in which those in the local media, both electronic and print, have the courage to see foreign English teachers as a blessing and an asset in their society. A big picture in which the students, both adults and youngsters, have the courage to put their perceptions and biases aside for the length of an English lesson. And a big picture where everyone in this society begins to see ESL teachers as professionals, worthy of appreciation and respect. It takes courage and intelligence and wisdom for Koreans to see all that. We Westerners can be a patient people. But our patience has limits, and we can't wait forever for certain segments of the local population to come to their senses.
For the record, I love my job here, and I love teaching English. I'm fortunate enough to teach ESL in a public middle-school. Most of the students are fine, although a bit uninspiring. The principal and vice-principal are great to work with. And my Korean co-teachers are helpful most of the time. But I wish for two things: That we foreign English teachers be sincerely appreciated and respected more of the time, and that we can be allowed to make much more of a positive difference in the lives of those we teach. But this is a topic for another column.