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Teach Me....NOT!

Your community hostess is no longer wreaking havoc in Japan. She's now turning Korea upside down. This isn't a very specific post, but try to stick with me here. It's been 6 months, so lotsa instances of culture-clash are flashing before my eyes.

Korea is not like Japan in the ways I thought and hoped it would be. Sure, I've had some good times here and I'm sure to have many more, but the business culture here is just...wow. Nn.

Common conjectures by the expat community go something like "This is Japan 40 years ago" and "Come back in 20 years - maybe they'll have figured it out by then". This will sound harsh, but business is conducted in Korea like a wino who's just won the lottery: they've got all this money - or pretend that they do - and just don't know what to do with it, so either it's spent haphazardly or barely at all. Example: First day of school, I walk into my filthy classroom and see no materials, no books, no games, nothing. Did they even know I was coming?

From my experience, their society doesn't seem ready to tackle the goals their leaders claim they can. The new president, Lee Myeung-Bak, wants all children in public school to be taught science and math in English! Wow! Great! Who's gonna teach them?!?! You can only pump out so many (great) English speaking Koreans from university and even then not all of them are going to want to teach elementary school (or at all).

Big plans...teeny tiny effort.

Their propensity for half-baked programing creates serious culture clash among foreign English teachers, who feel like they're wasting their time trying to work with a system that's got a lot of bark, but little bite. My biggest complaint at my last school was a lack of help. I was trying to do what they wanted me to do, but no one seemed interested in helping me when I asked and making sure things went smoothly. Turnover of English teachers in Korea has got to be a world record. It's hard to keep employees happy when they're tired of not knowing what the hell's going on and being told "Do This!" and then not getting the resources to "Do That".

Yes, Korea is hardcore when it comes to wanting to speak English. Hagwons for English learning thrive - one on every corner. Parents prod their children to "say hello" to the foreigner whenever possible (and damnit, the kid better - dad's spending thousands in afterschool programs!) The process for getting a visa has recently become more difficult, but rest assured they "want" us here. But that's a glorious facade that shields the fact that many of them are very literally afraid to learn/speak/encounter English on a daily basis. For all their English learning, many still don't know how to conduct simple human conversations. Like Japan, after a certain point, they stop learning how to speak and get bogged down in grammar, but it's also an odd case of xenophobia and resentment.* The president, with his grand schemes, seems to not realize that he's left the public in his dust. Amazingly, the people who seem to get along REALLY well with foreigners, aren't afraid to approach or be approached, are the Koreans whose English suck or is non-existent. I'm not sure if this is due to the fact that they just don't expect to understand precisely so it's okay, or is it a kind of 'ignorance is bliss' (don't mean that in a negative way) outlook that lets them feel comfortable around the "noise" of foreign-speak.*

A friend of mine, 42 and an experienced teacher, feels very unwelcome for a number of reasons despite all the backward bending she feels she's done for the administration, and I sympathize because I'm facing the same difficulties. The difference between us is that I've decided to play their game if but to make sure I'm making the maximum amount of profit for the headaches their practices give me. I stick to my guns, wave my contract around but still smile and thank them for their time.

Their culture, business and education-wise, is experiencing a major shift. The old ways have a death-grip on the new ideas that are being brought to the table. Japan, comparatively, has perfected the art of mixing tradition and international business, making my memories of employment with the government seem like a dream. I'm not quite sure how long it will take Korea to take a seat on the "sound international business sense" train, but right now, she's riding the roof.

* Sometimes I wonder if they didn't put so much value on English, if the resentment would wane, too. Also, the new generation, unlike the old, isn't sure that it "likes" the foreigners occupying the land. One article (not this one) I read described American forces only as occupiers and North Koreans as "cousins".
** I use "noise" because that is often how it sometimes sounds like, even for someone who's studying the language. Some friends of mine were actually asked (rudely) to "shut up" because they were speaking English


( 1 said — say )
Jul. 8th, 2008 11:50 pm (UTC)
I TOTALLY understand what you're talking about
Yep, I was in Japan last summer and I got that 'lets learn english -- yet we dont really like foreigners' thing. not only that, but i went to a school for japanese (hence, non-japanese students) and I was the minority, it was mostly Korean students!
I felt like they looked down on me with a "we dont need to know English" or some sort of resentment for knowing english. Also, in Japan, no one talked to me because I was a foreginer and they assumed i didn't speak Japanese or they were self-conscious of their english (like you said about the learn-english-then-get-bogged-down-in-grammar) This is a problematic situation since I plan to be an English teacher in Japan.
( 1 said — say )


"I think I'm lost"

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