Monday, March 2, 2009

New Foreign English Teachers in Korean Public Schools -- One Foreign Instructor's Take On Some Major Cultural Differences

The writing below is from a selection of writings in an orientation program I wrote and put together.

I'll preface the writing below by saying that it is based on my own interpretations of the socio-cultural experiences that foreign teachers have in Korea. It is also based on listening to, and reading, many foreign teachers stories about living in Korea, and teaching in the Korean public school system.

And again, if you copy this and use it please cite the source: Jason Ryan.


Some Major Cultural Differences

The general attitude and advice of Korean teachers (and Koreans) to foreigners about Korean culture is, "When in Rome do as the Romans do." Many Korean English teachers have used this expression to try and convince NET’s (native English teachers) to learn Korean culture, and to follow Korean cultural customs and traditions—basically to try to "become Korean." Each native English teacher will be able to learn and follow a large number of Korean cultural rules of behaviour—but there will also be some customs and traditions that you choose not to follow, or are UNABLE to do.

Korea is to a large degree still a mono-cultural country, but in the 21st century of globalization there is a growing need to learn how to interact with different cultures and peoples. English native speakers are coming to Korea to teach English, and a large part of learning English is also learning about English cultural practices. (The flip side of this, though, is that to teach Korean students successfully we need to learn about Korean culture too). Individualism, privacy, and personal space (to name a few things) are very central concepts in most English cultures around the world—but many Koreans, not all, think of individualism in the context of selfishness, greed, and a general attitude of not caring about others; privacy and personal space also tend to fall into this kind of negative cultural context. There will be many opportunities to talk about cultural differences, and they can be very positive and fun conversations.

Yet the idea, and perhaps wishful thinking, that many Koreans have of foreigners "becoming Korean" is something that needs to be thought about carefully—but usually the question, "What is "Korean?" is not asked in a critical thinking manner. If you took a survey and asked 1000 Koreans of different ages, gender, and class this question, more than likely you would not have 100% agreement on the definition and list of things that are "truly" "Korean." But this kind of Western cultural thinking is also generally a foreign concept here in Korea. I think that it is fairly safe to say that most (not all) ‘Koreans believe that all Koreans believe the same thing’ about general cultural norms and behaviours, and anyone who disagrees with them—yes, anyone—is "therefore" not Korean.

1. Personal Space: Physical Interactions and English Cultural Taboos

The Korean cultural concept of "personal space" is radically different from what you will be used to back home. A kind of "Social Family" logic dominates in Korea, with the general belief that we are all family members of one national family structure. The Korean language is embedded with this family organization of familial rank titles, and interactions between people are structured and shaped by the hierarchy of this sytem. You will quickly be put into many situations where the familiar and intimate attitudes and interactions of Koreans will surprise and in some cases shock you—the more you learn about Korean culture the better you will be able to think, feel, and act in a positive and adaptive manner that does not cause conflicts for you, and create unnecessary stress.

Many kinds of touching or physical contact for Koreans do NOT need permission from the other person—you—first. Many native English teachers talk about the "inappropriate" (assumption/definition based on western cultural rules) touching that Koreans do when they first meet them. Casual touching of the arm and shoulder are not unusual. Grabbing your hand/wrist to lead/show you where something is in the school. When sitting next to a Korean (usually of the same sex) in a restaurant for example, a casual placing of the hand on your shoulder, or knee/thigh, is not seen as sexual or "inappropriate" to Koreans. Holding hands, and/or walking arm in arm with a friend while walking down the street . . . All of these things are a part of Korean social body language norms, and social family culture. Remember that Koreans interact with you according to Korean cultural norms. While I was writing this, I had my co-teacher read the paragraph; she summed up the general Korean personal space attitude as this, "We see those things as similar to shaking hands."

2. Personal Space and Personal Information

In Korea, there are 5 questions that most Koreans asks a foreigner:

1. What is your name?

2. Where are you from?

3. How old are you?

4. Part I a) Are you married?

b) Answer "no": Why not?

Part II a) Do you have children?

b) Answer "no": Why not?

5. Why are you here?

How old are you? is generally not asked by English people during a first meeting, at least not within the first minute. But in Korea your age is one of the criteria (age, sex, marital status, job, etc) for a Korean to figure out HOW TO SPEAK AND INTERACT WITH YOU according to the Korean language system of titles/ranks and the specific kinds of pre-scripted behavioural codes that come with them.

Are you married? Is something that is also not usually asked right away in English culture. Share with your co-teacher that Western people always wear their wedding rings all the time, so in Western culture if you want to know if someone is married you look at their ring finger—you don’t ask them directly. Korean people/teachers can do the same thing: look and see if the foreign person has a ring on their fourth finger on the left hand—no ring, and there’s your answer.

After being asked the question "Are you married?"—if the answer is "No."—expect to be asked, Why? or Why aren’t you married?---this is NOT considered a major invasion of personal privacy by Koreans. While this might be considered very rude, and to show a strong lack of Western cultural social skills and knowledge—in Korea it’s similar to asking a person, "Do you like ice-cream?" Answer, "No." "Why not?" Also, depending on your age, expect to be encouraged (it may sound like an ‘order’ due to language limitations) to find a girlfriend/boyfriend, husband/wife, and then start having children—NOW.

The next question, Do you have children? also tends to be perceived by westerners as rude and an invasion of privacy--especially when talking to a stranger for a brief period of time. But, yes, in Korea, it’s a normal and acceptable question. So, if you say "no"—then expect to be asked more questions: "Why?" or "Why not?" or "Why don’t you have children?" All of these questions are extremely "personal"—so again, use this as a cross-cultural education opportunity to explain that this kind of information, for an English person, is usually not shared with the general public, co-workers, supervisors, and people who are not family or close friends. Bear in mind that more than likely, after you are finished explaining all of this to your co-teachers, that they will then tell you that "You should get married soon, and have children"—yes, even after you’ve explained the cultural differences to them; so, smile, laugh, and say "Thanks, I’ll do my best . . ."

One strategy that you can also teach Koreans for dealing with the cultural differences between Korea and foreigners is that they can say, "May I ask you a personal question?" Explain that this gives the foreigner time to prepare for an unusual question that might shock her/him; it also gives you the opportunity to politely say, "No, I’m sorry, that’s personal / or / I’m a private person." Explain that a "private person" is someone who does not share most personal information with people outside their family and close friends. You may also want to define what "personal information" means for you, as it won’t translate culturally, either.

NOTE: Bear in mind that if you refuse to divulge information, and refuse to answer the majority of questions your co-workers, and other Koreans, ask you it may result in difficulties for you over the course of your year in Korea. Try to be flexible and adapt as much as you can to Korean cultural norms and expectations.

As a foreigner living and teaching in Korea, these things may seem to be ‘bizarre’ cultural attitudes and it is very easy to fall into believing that Korean people are "ignorant," but we need to realize that we are using a set of WESTERN cultural assumptions about what is ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ to judge what Koreans think is normal and ordinary. Educate yourself about Korean culture, and share your knowledge of Western culture, and keep a fun and friendly attitude about the differences, but also respect them too.

NOTE: The idea of a "compromise" (in the true sense of the word) when it comes to cultural differences, is also something that is a "foreign concept" in Korea. Trying to negotiate, to find a balance, a compromise, or some middle ground when dealing with your cultural preferences/expectations for a situation, and a Korean’s cultural preferences/expectations for a situation, will generally result in frustration and stress. In Korea, the person with the higher social rank, and professional rank, almost ALWAYS makes the decisions: negotiation and compromise do not generally take place; one way or the other, black or white, this way or that way—a decision is made—but don’t expect to be able to find "middle ground" in Korea, it generally doesn’t exist.

The other thing that complicates this even more is that the modern Confucianism that is still embedded within today's modern Korean culture usually has specific pre-scripted ways of thinking, feeling, and acting for any and all situations; so to try and go ‘off’ the pre-written script of Korean thinking, speaking, and acting almost never happens (especially within schools). That being said, try to navigate your own experiences and see what happens.

Here are some common questions that you will probably be asked while living and teaching in Korea . . .

Normal Questions in Korea--'Taboo' in Western Cultures

1. Why aren’t you married?

2. Why don’t you have children?

3. When will you get married?

4. When will you have children?

5. Why don’t you have children?

6. What is your blood type?

7. Do you like Korean men? Do you like Korean women? Why? Why not?

8. How old are you?

9. Do you go to Church? Why? Why not? Or, What is your religion?

10. How much do you weigh? What is your weight?

11. How much do you make? What is your salary?

Personal Image

"A good looking rice cake is easier to eat." Korean Proverb

For the vast majority of Koreans IMAGE is EVERYTHING. This might sound excessive, and a gross generalization, but consider the idioms, "First impressions last forever," and, "A picture is worth a thousand words." Then imagine that the thousand words the students, teachers, and other Koreans are thinking is in the Korean language, and the Korean cultural context of icons, symbols, and signs; on top of all of this are the Korean image stereotypes learned from Western popular culture which have been co-opted into Korean popular culture in ways that often re-contextualize and recode meanings and representations. In my case, I have a shaved head and earringsso even if I am wearing a nice dress shirt and tie, and my face is clean shaventhe image stereotype that if often used is criminal, rebel, or bad boy.

Another image stereotype that has been directed at me is that I must be a bad teacher if I do not conform to the parameters of the Korean conservative professional teacher image’—many of my adult Korean students are shocked when they first see me, but eventually they realize that the stereotyped image and logic that they used to judge my appearance on meeting me is not correct. The adult students are wonderful and friendly peoplebut in some ways I have to work harder to make a positive impression due to how my image does not conform to Korean image expectations and norms for a teacher.

During the first encounter with your co-teachers, vice-principal, and principal, it is a very good idea to dress up in professional attire, and to have exercised good personal grooming habits that morning. Simply put, wear what you'd wear to an interview each day of the first week at your school, and after that relax your attire and wear what you're comfortable teaching in. Look at what the other Korean teachers are wearing, and use that as a basis of comparison. If you are trendy, or "in vogue," your students, co-teachers, and vice-principal and principal will respond in a very positive way as people who follow the latest fashion trends in Korea generally get a positive response. At the end of the day the most important thing, however, is dressing in a manner in which you are comfortable and can teach effectively--use your discretion.

Lastly, one other thing to bear in mind is that the "teacher fashion culture" in Korea is based on a very conservative teacher/school culture. So, with all of this in mind, choose what you feel is right for youbut be very aware that hundreds, if not thousands of students, and Korean teachers, and your vice-principal, and principal, will all be evaluating you based upon the IMAGE that you present to them on your first meeting; remember that they will also be using a completely different set of IMAGE norms and expectations and values in their judgments and comments. All of these things will STRONGLY IMPACT HOW THEY INTERACT WITH YOU. Finally, take every comment (many will be shouted full volume in very plain and brutally honest English) with a friendly smile and a laughotherwise youre in for a long first week at your new school in Korea.


Roboseyo said...

holy cow, man! is this series complete yet? I've linked it at The Hub of Sparkle; let me know if there's still more to be seen. This is awesome.

Jason said...

Hi Roboseyo,

There's a few more pieces of writing that I did when I was putting together the orientation program and book while I was teaching in the public school system.

I got tired of sitting at my desk just surfing the Net, and really really tired of sounding like a broken record repeating the same things time after time when I'd meet newbies just off the plane, or meet expats who didn't seem to have figured out some stuff about the culture here (though my own take on things might have its own problems that need clarification/changes), etc.

So over the course of about 8 months I wrote a lot of stuff, showed it to a few expat friends, and spent a lot of time trying to think of all the stuff newbies need to know, and a lot of the culture shock topics and items that people need to be warned about, and given some kind of explanation about so that it's easier for them to deal with when it happens to them.

Anyways, thanks for the linkage, and I'm glad you like it.

Bear in mind that all of the writing was also done almost 3 years ago. I think some of it needs to be edited but don't have the time as it's week 1 of the spring semester at my uni, and tons of stuff is going on.

I just hope enough newbies get to see the posts before the typical first newby experiences happen to them at their schools when they arrive and have no clue what is going on. . . lol.


Ryan said...

i've noticed that koreans asking for a person's name tends to be further down the list or non-existant at all. some, simply don't care to know your name for some reason. this is one of the characteristics of koreans that really, really piss me off.

Jason said...

Hi Ryan,

I think the reason for this, and good observation by the way, is that Koreans are more concerned about how to figure out what your social rank is within the system of defining how you fit into the society and culture here, and what forms of Korean language address they need to use--in terms of this your name is meaningless, it's your age, gender, marital status, education, country of origin, and job that matter more . . .

If they don't know the status defining information then many Koreans simply won't talk to you because the way the language is structured prevents them from speaking if they can't choose what form of rank/title address to call you by.

Names are also not used as much as we do in English. They call people by their social rank title instead of by name. So, instead of my sister saying Jason, she'd call me "Oppa" (older brother) when she speaks to me.

I'd suggest that you let this cultural difference go--there are bigger fish to fry in terms of what
is "worth" getting pissed off about than someone not asking you what your name is--and when they do, expect it to be mispronounced and/or truncated . . . lol.

Good luck,

marc said...

Good stuff.

I have to give a talk about cultural awareness to teachers of Korean students at a boarding school here in Florida and this has really helped.
It's been almost a year since I've come back from my year abroad and your article has refreshed my memory--good work!

Jason said...


Don't know how 'objective' my views are, but I do feel they generate discussions.

Good luck with your discussions.

Isaac said...

Hi Jason,

I just stumbled on your blog from, and it's been very helpful. I just read six of the *** articles, as I have only been in Korea a little over a week. I plan to follow this blog whenever I can, because you seem to know a lot about the way the system works.

I'm at a small school in Gyeongsangnam-do province (only 50 students!) and I think that I've been focusing all my energy on LIVING in Korea, and not enough on my job. I get along really well with my co-workers, and there was a staff meal and karaoke last night and I made a good impression and all, but... I haven't put enough energy into teaching.

I think the biggest thing I'm going to take from your blog is to put more of MYSELF into my lessons. There is still time to show these students who I am and to play a cultural ambassador, rather than just try to pick up where the last teacher left off, or going into auto-pilot.

Thanks, this blog was exactly what I needed after a long day!

From one canuck to another, thanks eh?

- Isaac