This post started a long time ago as a diatribe against the unethical, dishonest, and hateful Korean Teachers' Union, and I had filed this post because I thought that things would blow over and die down. But the recent ridiculousness about "foreign English teachers" has reached some pretty unbelievable proportions and it's time to post, from the mouth of one who knows.
The problems we are talking about are really a function of the formal economy, as well as a sexual economy that is largely created by America's long and problematic influence on Korean culture. If you also look at Korea's "do it by any means necessary and do it now!" way of doing many things, the excessive, excessive, excessive emphasis placed in learning English at any cost, and the huuuuuuuuuuge economy that has grown and depends on – much like America's diet industry – the inherent inability to actually deliver the product promised (if low-fat foods and diets actually worked, or English education in Korea were actually any good at teaching English, there'd be far less demand, wouldn't there?), this whole thing makes a whole lot more sense.
But this problem of obssession with English, sycophantic cultural deference to the West and whiteness and the "magic" of the English native speaker (a newer form of 사대주의), a sense of perceived inferiority to that West (a really strong 열등감), the ineffective education system's looming meltdown and problematic relationship with teaching-for-the-test that the private sector is doing a far better job than the public schools (and the 교육열 that creates Korea's insane sense of competitiveness) – all come together in hagwon owners, Kangnam and Pyeongchang-dong ajummas, and even the Korean government's "throw money first, ask questions never" way of hiring.
And the blacklist? Please. If Korean society is so worried about the condition of its foreign instructors, then perhaps it should worry more about the legions and legions and legions of hagwons, schools, and other organizations breaking or even completely ignoring contracts, withholding or not paying salaries, not paying overtime hours or providing housing – and yes, sexually harassing female teachers because of that exact same assumption "foreigners are "easy" or "have no sexual morals."
If foreigners were to start a master "blacklist" of Korean schools and orgs that have cheated or abused foreigners (many lists exist, but the job is too big), it would literally have to be a 100-pyeong office space with a full-time staff of 10 just to list the complaints, keep the database fresh, along with a full-time legal department that would have to exist to stop all these organizations from suing them or the individual complainants who would be attacked using Korea's far-too-aggressive libel laws that protect one's reputation even if the accusation is demonstrably true.
This is why the recent statements of the Korean Teachers' Union, the creation of this ridiculous and practically useless (not to mention illegal) blacklist, and the new conversation forming around Jon-Benet's alleged killer having had lived in Korea – have all made me bloggin' mad.
If I were to list even ONE institution who had consciously and viciously lied to me and hired me under contract stipulations they had no intention of upholding, I'd be sued to high heaven. I wouldn't last a minute in the courtroom. And I'm sure just about every foreign teacher in this country has a similar story or three.
And given how concerned Koreans seem to be about their country's image, it's surprising to me that more people don't care about the many, many more people who have come to have quite negative feelings while living in Korea because of hiring practices here, versus the far fewer foreigners who came to Korea and gotten a "good impression" because of the 2002 World Cup. My hunch is that far more foreigners leave Korea with a very negative impression because of having been fucked over by a hagwon or a school than ever come in as a tourist and leave with glowing, warm feelings.
All I have to say is – thank God I'm not an English teacher. I'm not saying this because I think the job itself is bad. I'm just saying that Korean society – in the media, on the news, at the water cooler – seems to have a new badguy. I think I'd rather introduce myself these days as the old "bad guy" – the American GI – than say I'm "an English teacher from Canada." Now, that's saying a lot.
Let me tell you where I'm coming from. Some may find my listing of my set of qualifications excessive; but given how easily any foreigner criticizing Korea is attacked – and given the xenophobic nature of this particular issue – I feel it's important to put all my chips on the table. And I'm going to be as raw as possible without actually getting to the point of rude. Sorry in advance to whomever this might offend.
I'm part of one of the first groups of foreign teachers to actually enter the Korean education system. Before 1992, there was only foreign missionaries and the Peace Corps, whose primary work in Korea was teaching English until the mid-1980's (my memory has it until 1986), until the U.S. government declared Korea too developed to receive further Peace Corps assistance.
Feeling the loss, the Korean government, under the auspices of the Korean American Educational Commission, formed the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) Fellowship, which brought mostly fresh college graduates to Korea from 1992 to live and work in middle and high schools in small towns all over the peninsula.
When I came in 1994, the Japanese Yen was strong and Korea did not yet occupy a major place in the hearts and minds of Westerners. There was no "Korean wave" then, fine wine was still that red Majuang that tasted like cough syrup, and the most common Western dish was "hamburger steak" that cost you 13,000 won, which was, back then, about $16.50. Cable TV wasn't but about a year old, people still, as a rule, ate dried squid and sugared popcorn in movie theaters, and most people outside of Seoul had never even seen a black person in real life (as a case-in-point, my chubby ass was likened to Denzel Washington's several times back in the years of Ace of Base's pop chart dominance).
And most foreigners in Korea were alternatively some sort of missionary, military, or somehow specially motivated men. Most of the foreigners here were pretty sketchy, as the big money was in Japan. Barring being able to get into Japan, or having a strange, special interest in Korea, if you were teaching English back in those glory days, you were probably in Seoul. If you didn't quite have what it took to find a job in Seoul, a given foreigner living in Cheonju, Jinju, or Cheju was either somehow or another divinely inspired...or pretty much a bailjumper.
And in 1994, there were 27 of us Fulbright ETA's spread up and down the peninsula. In 1995 – after the Korean government had approached and been denied by the Fulbright program its wild and ill-advised proposal to expand it to reach "2000 by 2000" (yes, that meant 2000 Fulbright ETA's in Korean schools by the year 2000, to compete with, of course, Japan's JET foreign teacher program), then decided to whip up its own program, then called KORETA, now called EPIK (English Program in Korea) – there were around 250 of the EPIK peeps in Korea. And that wasn't a good thing.
Now, before some of you present-day EPIK people, friends, and alumni decide to get all medieval on my ass, please understand that I'm not trying to bag on the present state of the program, about which I know very little. But I do know something about the early history of that program and the Ministry of Education/Korean Educational Development Institute's plans at that time. So bear with me for a minute.
If my memory serves, they had aimed at around 250 spots the first year. It came down to me – straight from a closely connected insider at that time – that they accepted all but two people from the first round. Effectively, everyone who applied got in. And let me tell you, Korea at that time was a little tough to take for the purely materially-interested; you had to be either touched by a vision – whether personal or pious – or you had to be hard up. Or down on your luck. Or up the creek. Or something wasn't quite right.
There were five Fulbrighters and five EPIK people that first year. Without getting too much into it, let me just tell you that the American dude down in Seogwipo established a sovereign, English-speaking nation-state within his school as a teaching tool; of course, he was the President. The other American dude, who followed my lead by moving into the same building as me, dropped in unannounced on his first visit to my humble abode to ask if I had any porno tapes for him to use on the three Korean girls he had brought to his room and wanted some "Korean girls sex tips;" the Canadian dude whom I tried to avoid cornered me after bumping into him on a Sunday afternoon and brought me into a coffee shop to help him sexually proposition a nice university co-ed who had been unlucky and unwise enough to offer him directions; he later, during an official function where we all had to share the same physical space, went on and on about how much he wanted to "fuck his girls" in the all-girls commercial high school he taught at; the two Aussie women were much less offensive, even if all they did was constantly complain at these school board meeting as to how "cheap" Koreans were and "when are we getting paid again?" It was ugly. I was scared. And the experience of other Fulbrights, with their EPIK counterparts in small towns all across Korea, was disturbingly similar.
I had already written a letter of protest to the Ministry's proposed plan before it had even been implemented. After it had, and after having seen the pretty rotten fruits of their ill-thought labor, I wrote another letter to the then-head of KEDI to talk about the dangers of sexual predators lurking in their schools. Think I got an answer?
The point here is that it was the no-holds-barred, anything-goes, balls-to-the-walls way that the Ministry was trying to get foreigners into Korean schools – by any means necessary and because hey, if Japan has them, we must, too! – that was responsible for these freaks and fugitives working in Korean schools in 1995. In a nutshell, this reflects the overall attitude of native speakers and belief in their magical powers even today. Things have gotten better, the pool of applicants has gotten bigger, Korea has gotten more...ahem, famouser. Even given the fact that any white person without a major speech impediment – and this includes non-native speakers of English - can teach or tutor English and make money on par with the top of the income bracket of normal Korean people, there isn't really any pattern of really bad or highly illegal things with minors being committed by what is often still an eclectic and strange group of people. Yeah, you might get some knuckleheads out there acting a fool or doing stuff that I wouldn't in the view of people's cameraphones, but generally these acts are committed with other consenting adults. To each, his or her own.
So I'm arguing here that even the few bad apples that keep popping up 'round here – you know, the ones with dummy diplomas or axes to grind on English Spectrum – generally get here because market demand for them is so high. With Korean mommas in Kangnam throwing down duckets at the rate of 50,000 an hour to anyone who shows up in white skin – what middle school graduate from Podunk, America who hears about this great opportunity isn't gonna come?
But I digress. Big time, I guess. I was supposed to break down my qualifications for my attack on the KTU and it's xenophobic, erroneous, and purposefully dishonest statements and characterizations, right?
So this is more for the Korean folks who might have a problem with what I say, based on perceived notions of my concrete qualifications for saying them. For those of you who might be like many of the Americans I know, you might find this part kind of inane, offensive, and even inane. You might think I'm an asshole; but I do this because I want my criticisms to stick, and not be dismissed as the rantings of just another irritated foreigner. I want Koreans who read this to know that, for a person my age, I am probably one of the people with the most direct experience in and around the different parts of the Korean education system than most other foreigners, past, present, and future.
I'll just say it.
My mom's Korean. I have "Korean blood" pumping through my veins. I went to one of the most prestigious boarding schools in America. I then went to an Ivy League school. I was like Hines Ward, but without the tough life. Then I lived and taught in a small city for two years as a Fulbright ETA, where I learned Korean from esentially scratch. From there, I went on to write papers about the Korean education system, and this subject is a part of my Ph.D. dissertation at one of the best graduate schools in my country. I came back to Korea as a Fulbright research grantee to do dissertation work and also a documentary on the education system that was to come from the same body of research. I then did some consulting work for the Korean Education Development Institute, and also taught photography (in Korean) in two schools within the Seoul Alternative Learning Network (namely, The Haja Center and 스스로넷). I taught for a semester at Ewha Women's University and have been a lecturer in American Culture and history at the Hanguk University of Foreign Studies for two years, and will be returning to teach a course in "Korean Social Problems" there for my 4th year at their Korean Studies summer program. I also taught for one-and-half years at Daewon Foreign Language High School before quitting last year to go to HUFS' new elite extension high school, the Hanguk Academy of Foreign Studies (HAFS) – yes, that's the one with the uniforms designed by André Kim. I also work part-time for UNESCO, yes, have done my share of illegal tutoring.
In sum, I have worked, as part of the most elite group of foreign teachers in Korea, in two middle schools in Korea's heartland, as well as some of Korea's top, cutting-edge alternative schools and what are considered 2 out of the top 3 high schools in Korea. I have also worked and presently work in some of this country's most prestigious institutions of higher learning, and have talked, taught, and given presentations in both English and Korean.
So I know a lot about Korean education, and I have seen things in a variety of institutions that even most Korean people have never seen. I have personally witnessed a boy being beaten and kicked until he was on the ground bleeding. Harsh beatings were common in the middle school in which I taught. I personally know of one of several unpublicized incidents – relayed to me by a Fulbright ETA who was working in that school – in which a teacher's corporal punishment of directly student resulted in the death of a student (for those who want the details, a male high school student taught by an ETA in a town I won't mention was forced to run around the building all day long in the summer heat while being deprived of food or water, and on his way home, this otherwise healthy 18-year-old died of massive heart failure; the teacher was simply moved into an administrative position and the family bullied into silence).
My Korean co-teacher told me stories of the male teacher who, during night study hall, would force the girls he liked to come to the front of the classroom so he could feel them up, in full view of all the girls. He knew full well that he would never be reported, and he never was. I have a friend who right this very minute is planning to quit her job at her high school because of tensions that have come up from her complaining about male teachers on a school field trip bringing their female high school students into their motel rooms to do soju shots with them. When she complained that this was highly inappropriate, she was met with the anger and indignation of many of the teachers, who said that she "just didn't understand Korean culture."
It's no wonder so many Korean horror films take place in the vast darkness of high schools. And it's also no wonder so many sex comedies are made with young girls in high school being the sexual objects of fully-grown males. Because they are.
Not only have I been inside almost every level of the Korean education system – actually, the hagwon is one place with which I am the least familiar, something unusual for a foreign teacher – but I have been connected to a network of similar people who have all been doing similar work. For example, Fulbright has been the eyes and ears of American teachers in cities and towns from Seoul to Suncheon, Sokcho to Cheju. No Korean critic, journalist, nor KTU member can really say that I don't have some qualification to make intelligent, informed comments about the Korean education system.
That being said, I find the statements of the KTU factually dishonest, irresponsible, xenophobic, and guilty of plain old race-baiting – in addition to being simply counterproductive to solving the very problems it purports to be complaining about.
And let me make something else clear: I'm a union man. I support worker and trade unions; I support strikes when they're necessary; I participated twice in full-on strikes of the teaching assistants' union while at Berkeley. I think workers have rights, and being a schoolteacher is one of the most under-appreciated, important jobs in any society. I'm a teacher, too.
However, I find the Korean Teachers' Union to be one of the most self-interested, dirtiest, dishonest, and most despicable examples of a "progressive" organization I have ever come across or even heard about in my adult life, whether in the US or Korea. I know for a fact that they engineered anti-American hate campaigns using the public schools as their base in late 2002 (they were not, as they claimed "discussions" or "debates" to get children thinking, as they claimed).
Is Korea really so concerned about teachers molesting children? Then my recommendations are thus:
1) Do something about the by-any-means-necessary habits of hiring that make demand for anyone who speaks English natively able to inexplicably earn more than doctors in society. Stop the racist finger-pointing at the symptom of the problem and deal with the cause. Hagwons and schools who hire anyone white and with a pulse are the problem; if you don't have standards, then lower quality is the result.
2) Stop the bullshit argument that the root of the problem is cultural and foreigners have no sexual mores. I don't know about other countries, but in the US, there is a far clearer line between teacher and student than in Korea. And don't tell me I don't know because I'm a foreigner. I've worked in more types of schools than most Korean teachers – from middle to high to alternative schools and have taught at the university undergraduate and graduate levels. I have taught English as a Fulbright, US history and culture as a graduate student, and photography in the alternative schools. I know for a fact that American teachers would look at the blurry line between teacher and student in Korea as dangerously unprofessional in many cases, and I have seen with my own eyes teachers stroking students of the opposite sex, have heard of internal sexual harassment scandals within schools that were covered up, and actually know of Korean teachers who have have had sexual relationships with their students. And don't even get me started on the several sexual scandals I have read in Korean newspapers over the years, such as the teachers who raped two middle school girls in a noraebang, or the sex ring run by teachers in a Korean university recently. If I were to use the same "cultural" argument and paint Korea with a single brush, who would find it easier to say has a more "immoral" school culture? Let's start by drawing clearer lines between teacher and student in general, which would make these lines harder to cross by anyone, whether Korean or not. The fact that it's OK for popular romantic comedies to portray teachers falling in love with students – no matter what the bullshit particulars are in a given plot – should set off alarm bells; when I watched about 10 minutes of 어린이 신부 in a TV store, I felt like throwing up, or at least throwing something at the screen. Insipid, immature, irritating stuff. Sorry, but I'll have to go out on a limb and say that, from my observations, many more Korean teachers and professors and hagwon instructors fuck their students than any foreigners. And I don't mean this in terms of raw numbers, but in proportion.
3) Delink the unrelated issues of A) teachers who have illegal sexual relations with underage students, B) teachers who have inappropriate (but legal) sexual relations with adult students, and C) adult foreigners who have sexual relations with adult Koreans who are not even their students (wild Hongdae parties or stupid foreigners who go on TV and say they slept with 2,000 women are just sensationalist and ridiculous stories). If you separate A, B, and C, you'll quickly realize that what the newspapers are talking about is mostly B and C, but are trying to make it SEEM like there is a lot of A going on, when in fact, I haven't heard of any cases of A involving foreign teachers at all.
4) Admit that there are little to no cases of A going on. And the unethical and unprofessional Korean teachers' union needs to retract its ridiculous and racist statement that foreigners (read "white" and "Western") teachers have lower sexual mores than Koreans. Or, since they're making a sweeping generalization from the case in the English Village, since the alleged sexual molesters actually turned out to be Korean nationals, I guess they have to change their argument to "Koreans have lower sexual morals than foreigners." Since they won't do that, I assume they'll just say that the reason these Korean instructors allegedly molested those students was because they spent time in America or something. "Yeah, Americans are really that way – I saw so in the movies!"
5) Calm down and realize that the problem is structural, not cultural. To use the words of Bill Clinton – "It's the economy, stupid!" If Koreans could make $50–100 an hour teaching Korean in Norway, don't you think tickets to Norway would be bought up by a whole bunch of Korean 20-somethings who came out of 4-year universities but couldn't get a job in Korea's tight job market? And if, say, in Norway, people (especially girls) found Korean guys extra attractive because of decades of seeing hunky Korean stars in movies and television dramas, don't you think Korean men would be hopping on the plane in droves to make easy money and sleep with lots of blonde, blue-eyed girls with big mazoombas? Yeah, there'd also be some people truly interested in Norwegian culture and language, but not too many. And since Norwegian girls would see these average-Joe Korean guys as "looking like the stars I saw on TV!" and the Korean guys would be looking at these average blonde, blue-eyed Norwegian girls as the culmination of every boyhood fantasy of banging the girls they saw in Playboy Magazine – it would be a perfect linking of cultural power, sexual fantasy, and the politics of supply and demand. Sound familiar?
Jesus. Stop killing the messenger and start dealing with the structural causes of the problem, 대한민국! It may feel good to blame everything that goes wrong with Korea on outside causes (foreign invasion, foreign forces splitting the peninsula, neo-colonialism, IMF, sexually immoral foreigners, the FTA) and everything good in Korea on internal factors (5,000 years of history, racial and cultural purity, selfless sacrifice, and "하면 된다" determination), but in the end, the only victim is Korea and Korea's education system.
Why? What's really going to happen here?
A few foreign teachers will be blamed, shamed, and deported, the problem won't be solved, and business will go on as usual, except that xenophobia and irrational scapegoating will have increased. This will actually make the problems worse, since the already mostly-unethical hagwon owners and school principals will just mistreat, anger, and insult foreigners even more, which will make foreigners even more hostile to Korea, unprofessional in their behavior, and take themselves, their jobs, and this country much less seriously.
English education in Korea will still generally continue to suck, the elite will benefit from being able to get the fewer good teachers because of the premium rates they are willing and able to pay, and the everyday Korean salaryman trying to advance in his non-English related job by getting a higher TOEIC score, or the college student without the means to study overseas who is trying to improve her conversation skills for a (ridiculous) job interview conducted in English – they will both grumble about and focus their frustration on the phantom menace of the "immoral" or "unqualified" English teacher without looking at the real root causes of the problem.
And what, dear Korean friends, do you think makes many foreigners think of Korea as a sexual playground, or a place to make easy money, or as a country that is unprofessional and is not to be taken seriously?
In all these cases, I'll simply use that beautiful and apt phrase, "It takes two to tango."
And for those of you who think I'm full of shit, consider my qualifications, my experience, my knowledge of the culture and the language, and my many years spent living here; consider those things with the fact that I would still find it difficult to even get a job in a hagwon here, because I "look Filipino" or "they're afraid you'd speak in a black accent."
In a country in which a man with real degrees from America's most elite schools, multiple recipients of prestigious grants and fellowships, and with more experience in a broad range of educational institutions than even most Korean professional educators have would have little chance of getting the jobs that sheisters without high school diplomas but fair skin would get no questions asked – is the present state of thing surprising? I'll ask the honest question – does Korea really deserve any better?
And I'm not putting myself in there because of mere personal anger over this issue. I have looooong ago come to terms with the reality that my brown skin creates for me in terms of job prospects. What I am doing is making a bigger point, using myself as an obvious fulcrum in illustrating the fact that most of this "problem" is one that Korea has created for itself.
If the media and the people who blindly follow it continue this pattern of racist, nationalist scapegoating – the only people who suffer, in the end, are Koreans, albeit in small strokes. In toto, however, the effects are enormous and part of a larger pattern of mediocrity, pettiness, and the inability to be truly self-critical that keeps Korean schools uniform, boring, and ineffective, while keeping Korean universities out of the top 100 in the world.
It's far easier to metonymically blame the phantom specter of the "unqualified English teacher" or the "ugly American GI" for a host of frustrations and problems in Korean society than to look inherent flaws in the social structure or even in Korean identity itself.
Or maybe it might be easier to end this with the famous quip, "Don't blame me, man. I just work here." Ooh, ain't that the truth?