Friday, March 19, 2010

Cultural Taboos and Native English Teachers in South Korean Public Schools

When a new foreign teacher first comes to Korea and walks into their new school and teacher office it could be compared to an actor walking into a play in which they don't know the following: how to speak the language the play is written in, the cultural behavior rules for how to interact with other characters, power dynamics and hierarchies, and the social conventions for the different situations which arise in each scene of the play.

After working in Korea for five years and having attended several orientations and workshops for foreign teachers I have yet to see a presentation that addresses the most common situations and challenges that new foreign teachers experience during the first couple of weeks at their new schools, while settling into their new living environments, and throughout the course of their first year in Korea.

If any of the following materials are used as a part of an orientation or new foreign teacher training manual I would appreciate being cited as the author (if it’s something that I wrote) and or as a source from which the materials were taken from (if it’s something I found and arranged and posted on the Net). I’ve spent a lot of time and energy writing and blogging and would appreciate the citation. Thanks.

Now I should preface everything I write below by saying that I'm pretty sure most if not all foreign teachers can adopt and embody several Korean aspects to being the 'ideal model new foreign teacher.' (The definition of what is 'ideal,' however, seems to vary a lot. Sometimes it also boils down to just saying yes all the time and doing whatever is being asked of you--this meaning that you're being a 'good' foreign teacher.) But the flip side of this coin is that everybody has psychological and behavioral boundaries they just won't cross, or modify, and there's a limit to how much one can assimilate themselves into a culture that may at times be incredibly alien and stressful--from a foreign perspective.

With this in mind I decided to write about the following situations below.

14. Failing to be patient with the bureaucratic school culture paperwork and how Koreans get tasks done that are directly related to your work and living situations.

New foreign teachers often complain about how slow and inefficient public school bureaucracy is when they first arrive in Korea. They need to bear in mind, however, that they really don't understand the processes involved, and generally the large number of Koreans involved in completing one seemingly 'simple' task.

Try to keep in mind that there is generally little to (usually) no cross-cultural training for your Korean co-teacher (and when there is it's only for your ONE primary co-teacher, and fails to include all the other Korean English teachers at your school, some of which you'll likely be working with, but who never get the training) let alone all the other Koreans in your school that will be involved with things relating to your life in Korea. As a result of this when Koreans are talking about something and/or doing something for you they don't know how to include you in the process. If the ritual way of doing a task hasn't been modified to include the foreigner in a situation in Korea then the foreigner pretty much doesn't exist.

New native teachers are often frustrated about the language and cultural barriers that exclude them from active participation in decision-making processes, lol. For example, when a school is setting up the teacher's apartment, or perhaps even just learning that they need to find one for you AFTER you've already arrived at the school straight from orientation (yes, it's happened to me, and may happen to you) the new foreign teacher needs to keep in mind that the school admin office manager, a secretary or two, their co-teacher, the vice-principal, principal, the apartment building manager, the apartment owner, and toss in a few Koreans I'm probably forgetting . . . they are ALL involved in completing this ONE TASK. Add to this that Korean culture is a very ritualized culture with what to a foreign teacher appears to be an 'obsession' with attention to rank and respect and only one way to do something and yeah, everything begins to look like it's moving in slow motion IF you compare it to how things get done back in your home culture--DON'T DO THAT!

Sit back and let the Koreans work out what needs to be done and how, and occasionally ask your co-teacher to translate the key parts of what is going on but be prepared for most if not all decisions to be made for you, without asking for your input, to HELP you (though you may not like how you're being 'helped'). The assumption is being made that since you can't speak Korean, and have never lived in Korea, that you must not know how to do anything in Korea--literally! This is not to say that the Koreans are being mean, or negative in any way towards you; it's just the way Korean culture views a young unmarried adult in their mid to late twenties . . . especially one who doesn't have any older family members present to make decisions and do things for them--which is the norm here even if you're a 25+years old university graduate. After you've been in Korea for a while and met some Koreans who are in this age bracket you may realize that it's pretty true that older married mid-30s to mid-50s Koreans have to help the 20-something generations to do things that in western culture it's taken for granted that the young person can do--in Korea, that's just not the case. For example, a 20-something Korean guy cooking a simple meal or doing his laundry . . . many have no idea how to do these things.

Another issue that new teachers may not consider is that how work tasks are prioritized is very different. The task that gets given priority is always the task coming from whoever has the highest social and workplace rank in the school. If a school office admin manager is working on doing 10 tasks, and one of them comes from the vice-principal or principal, it's pretty safe to assume that completing the bank account deposit form for the new foreign teacher's monthly salary deposit is going to drop lower in the task priority rankings--even if pay day is tomorrow, or even worse, yesterday. The Korean admin office manager is in Korea for life, and has to do what is best for their career and future; dropping all other tasks regardless of the social and work rank of the Korean who needs it done in order to do something for the new foreign teacher who is likely to only be in Korea for ONE year . . . yeah, not likely. Be patient and be friendly to the admin office manager in your school because this person especially handles tasks that you NEED done. Also, if you're the first foreign teacher at that school, and/or the admin office manager is new to their job, they may not know what to do and how to do it which will also make the whole process take longer (add to the mix that every public school office admin manager and university secretary/co-ordinator I've worked with has never been given any training or mentoring on what foreign teachers need done, and how to do the paper work--expecting them to do their jobs quickly and well when it's a task they've never even heard of before is not really fair so be patient and know that things will eventually happen . . . eventually, lol).

13. Failing to adapt to what may appear to be an extreme loss of independence and autonomy at work and in your personal life.

A lot of new foreign teachers arriving in Korea, myself included, are shocked at how much independence and autonomy they have to surrender at work and in their personal lives. I'll never forget the first time I told my primary co-teacher in 2005 that I was going to go to Seoul (from Ganghwa Island) for the weekend and how she showed extreme agitation and worry about how I could possibly survive 72 hours without her, or someone older than I was, to 'help' me.

Now remember, she was operating under that general assumption that if you can't speak Korean, don't know the culture, and don't have an older family member to supervise you that you're pretty much a helpless child . . . and no, I don't think that this is an exaggeration.

I looked at my co-teacher and told her that if I could survive basic training in the Canadian Army that I'd be able to 'survive' traveling to Seoul and back, finding a place to sleep, finding food, and walking around Seoul amusing myself. She continued to ask "How will you . . . ?" questions in spite of my attempts to reassure her and I finally just gave up and told her that I'd call her day or night (HA!) if I needed her help (I didn't, lol). Telling her that I'd rely on her to tell me what to do if I needed help calmed her down a tiny bit, but I'm sure she probably spent a good portion of the weekend worried about me being 'all alone and helpless' in Korea, lol. (As an aside I think it's much more preferable to have a co-teacher who cares about your well-being than one who has no interest at all in helping you and/or how you're doing during the first month or so in Korea!)

There are a huge number of situations in Korea that you actually will feel 'helpless' to a lesser or greater extent.

a) getting a cell phone

b) getting Internet and Cable TV installed and an account set up

c) getting a bank account (though KEB is pretty decent if you want to go alone)

d) going to the hospital for your health check, or if you're sick (go with a Korean co-teacher who can help translate things (it's 70-30 that you'll get a doctor that has fantastic English) and be willing to sacrifice your privacy for the sake of accurate translations to aid the diagnose and treatment. Also bear in mind that everything your co-teacher hears and sees is fair game for discussion with other Koreans back at your school!

e) going to the immigration office to apply for your alien registration card and to get a multiple re-entry visa (I cannot urge you strongly enough to NEVER go there alone, always go with a co-teacher or a Korean from your school)

Some foreign teachers manage to accomplish tasks in spite of the language and cultural barriers on their own, but I suspect that many if not the vast majority need help from their Korean co-teacher when they first arrive in Korea. You can do the things I list above, and more, ALONE . . . but they often exact a high cost of stress and difficulty if you go it alone; getting your co-teacher or another Korean to help you generally speed things up in ways that you may not understand right now--just trust me, it's 99% of the time it's easier if you have a Korean helping you.

It's a really really hard thing to do, however, giving a Korean stranger/co-teacher complete and utter power over you in a situation to get something done for you, but it's something that often has to be done no matter how much you might hate it, resist it, and really don't want to do it. It can be very surreal to sit in a bank setting up a bank account and have no clue what is going on most of the time because your co-teacher is speaking in Korean, and the bank officer is speaking in Korean, and very little translating is going on other than the bare minimum. Yet the alternatives are not being able to get something done, it taking a thousand times longer than if you'd just let your co-teacher help you, and the thing being done incorrectly (often because of misunderstandings, and often a Korean will make assumptions based on Korean cultural norms about what you need and want that are the OPPOSITE of what you have specifically said in ENGLISH and they didn't understand or just assumed they know better because you're new to Korea) which can cause more problems in the future.

12. Failing to understand that there is a hierarchy and you are at the bottom of it (most of the time anyway).

In Korea there is a very highly structured social hierarchy based on age, gender, job title, and other factors (whether or not you're of Korean ethnicity, in my opinion, also plays a major role in this). In public school culture a new foreign teacher who is in their mid-to-late 20s, unmarried, can't speak Korean, doesn't know Korean culture, and doesn't have a high ranking job title . . . well, you have about as much rank as a 'recruit' entering army boot camp in the minds of the Koreans you'll be working with. Do not be confused by all the attention and flattery and compliments you're getting from students and faculty because in terms of having the authority and/or power to request something you need or want you have to go through the chain of command first. Even if you're an older foreign teacher, for example someone in their fifties, you'll not be treated the same way as a Korean teacher in their fifties; I should add, though, that most Korean teachers who are younger than you will be fairly deferential to you, but that that is not always the case (as I've heard from older foreign teachers, and also witnessed first hand).

When a fresh out of teachers college graduate/new Korean teacher arrives at their first school to begin their teaching career they're pretty much everyone's 'lackey'--to put it lightly. Every task that nobody else wants to do--give it to the newbie. I've talked to several young Korean English teachers and ALL of them, especially the young unmarried female teachers, tell me that they have a really stressful time at work because of the rigid social hierarchy within the school culture. Basically, they can't say 'no' to pretty much anything a senior ranking teacher tells them to do without severe social and professional penalties being enacted on them by their 'seniors.'

Juxtapose what young new unmarried Korean teachers go through when they arrive at their new jobs and schools with how new native teachers are treated and I think it's safe to say that in general we're treated a lot better even though we're at the bottom of the school's social/workplace hierarchy. (Oh, and if you're Korean-Canadian or Korean-American and you can speak Korean semi-fluently to fluently YOU SHOULD HIDE THIS FACT!!! If you don't you WILL be treated almost exactly like a new Korean teacher. You'll be asked to do translation tasks, stay late, and basically you'll lose the ability that new foreign teachers have to claim "I am not Korean" and say no to things like doing extra classes on Saturday mornings, and other extras that most Korean teachers cannot refuse to do.)

If you think you can somehow LIVE AND FUNCTION as a teacher outside this social hierarchy and somehow sidestep it, and create your own power dynamics with the Koreans you work with--well, let's just say you're in for a really long and stressful year in Korea. I am NOT suggesting you say yes all the time and act like you're in the Korean army. I am suggesting that a drastically increased sensitivity to rank and power politics and cultural issues is a good idea.

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Click on the link below to see pictures and read more at Kimchi Icecream: The Second Serving . . . . I've moved over to and will be blogging there from now on.

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