Though I think many people the world over still might not understand viscerally and intuitively why Westerners still seem to enjoy going abroad to teach English in Asia and elsewhere, I don’t care. I want to talk about something different in regard to the subject.
I could speak reams on why it is a very enlightening thing to do (insofar as living in “an opposite culture” is so self-educational and awe-inspiring), but I want to share some feelings, ideas, and solutions for the painful side of it, because there is one, and it is not about cry-baby complaints in the area of culture shock (although that can be starkly maddening). It is about the system, itself, and how unfair, self-defeating, and stupid it can be. This is said with good intentions, as always.
If you come away from this thinking I am anti-Korean or worse (with an unforgivably ignorant notion and tool-thought, like:) ‘that writer is “racist,” you either didn’t read carefully or you’re dishonest and employing the offended-card tactic. Read carefully. I number and letter my points for ease of refference.
(A.) One thing desperately needed in Korea is a test that would qualify people to teach English, instead of the ubiquitously stupid required “degree,” which proves nothing.
In a country where the general desire among the average people and the wish for them on the part of corporate and educational authorities agrees with the benefits of mastering the lingua franca, it makes no sense for the main qualifying factor to be only a document proving simple attendance from a “university” for a prescribed amount of time.
(B.) Teaching conversational English–(C.) which is what Koreans need to learn more than grammar–because it incorporates a greater and necessary innate focus on style (in addition to a need for a basic comprehension of grammar) is something any literate and cognitively intelligent native speaker is technically capable of.
(D.) However, this is, in reality, best accomplished by one with abilities found specifically in all three of these areas, but with added skills thrown in… in abundance: in (1.) communications, (2.) public speaking, (3.) in personality, and (4.) In social acumen.
After almost eighteen years of teaching and tutoring English as a Second Language, I have found there to be very helpful additional skills in the endeavor–especially beneficial in teaching English to high-context language speakers, such as Koreans, including (5.) singing, (6.) drawing, (7.) painting, and other creative abilities that monumentally aid in the transference of ideas, especially those involving intellectual concepts and linguistic notions of phonemes (most-especially where teaching children is concerned). We could call this (8.) abstract intelligence.
(E.) Only recently have Korean educational authorities and businesses begun to ask for degrees in English or linguistics (say in the last five years), yet the compensation, benefits, and conditions for these supposed professionals is abysmally small (and not much different from when I began teaching in Korea eighteen years ago), while the profits for the schools are relatively—and in many cases—very high.
How Can Korea Improve Its English Fluency?
My next point comes in the form of a question and a proposition, which is this:
(F.) If the Korean people sincerely desire fluency in English, why don’t they allow and offer holiday visas for foreigners and relax the restrictions on letting such people stay in the country?
(F.) This would vastly increase the amount, (G.) level and (H.) types of English heard, which contrary to closed-minded points of view, would (H.) take not only English fluency to new heights, but (I.) openness to foreign cultures, as well–which would help in students learning English and in understanding the world. Korean students come to America and are virtually comatose, socially, because of this lack of understanding. I know. I have taught them here and continue to associate with them.
(J.) Korea could also do as Singapore has done: make English a second ‘first language.’ This would incorporate it into the cultural lexicon as something “owned” and respected, instead of leaving it as something “scholastic,” and dreaded, academic and lofty, foreign and alien.
(K.) Language is a component of culture. English is a western-focused communication system. You cannot speak it well by shutting out western culture–or by simply paying lip-service to a cursory understanding of it–especially if you come from the Orient.
English is Occidental. At the risk of sounding a hundred years older than I am, I use these words for a reason. I am an Asiaphile, and as such I have come to know intimately and painfully that the cultures of the East–however similar to ours with their westernization–are really those of a veritable ‘other planet.’ (L.) So if people from Korea really want to master English in a “native” way, they must adopt western culture, from this, our veritable other planet–at least when learning and speaking the Western languages like English.
The same is true for we Occidentals who must adopt Eastern culture when attempting to learn or speak Korean, or Japanese, or Chinese. I know. My friends who attempt to speak Korean can never sufficiently pull it off as I can (and I speak Korean terribly, in my estimation); this is because they can’t “walk the walk.” They cannot “sound” and “act” Korean. It is the same with English for Koreans, generally.
How Do We Feel About How We Are Perceived?
(M.) It is a long-standing point of fact among foreign nationals that though Koreans appear generous toward people of other countries, they still seem to fear them like the plague and tolerate them like unsweetened cough medicine. (N.) I understand there are historical reasons for this, but (O.) these pale in importance next to the deleterious effects of parents and teachers perpetuating this ignorance-based phenomenon. (P.) This, and the degree requirement (instead of really ascertaining who can teach English), is a major impediment to improving English fluency on the peninsula, because it excludes many good teachers. I cannot be the ony one.
Who Was I As A Teacher? What I Did I Offer?
When I taught English in Korea, I had not yet completed my college degree. And I arrived when virtually no one cared. I never lied about it—and still everyone wanted to hire me, anyway.
Pardon my saying, I am told I am literate, interested, interesting, inspired, inspiring, educated, well-spoken, well-written and caring. I don’t do drugs, I hardly–if ever–drink alcohol, and I am a volunteer counselor. There is a point here; please read on through the self-congratulatory vein…
I taught myself English grammar, pronunciation and style. I even read Korean history. I answered the questions about grammar and style asked of me by foreign teachers who had degrees and visas in Korea, but who didn’t know these subjects and cared even less, apparently.
I was a favorite teacher everywhere I went, not only because I was said to be humorous, loving, dedicated, and able to convey the necessary points of learning English to my students, but because I learned enough of the local language to show I cared about the people; and I spoke it well enough to convey necessary meaning to Korean children–who often needed to hear their language for the seriousness of “the monkey” in the room to register in their minds.
Why would I not have carte blanche, teaching in Korea? Stupid laws, prejudices, and traditions. That’s why. We have the same stupid rules.
(Q.) The driving concept is that a college degree equates to a morally, upright, intelligent, educated, well-spoken, kind, and talented individual. Basically it is thought that if you graduated university, you are a gentleman or a lady. Especially in Asia, this is likely and largely due to the ancient concept of reverence held for the Mandarin system of China and the recognition of the educated status of the Yangban elite in Korea.
And Now? What Precipitated My Departure?
I left because a kindergarten I had worked for, two years prior, had been under investigation as part of a dragnet of teachers who had been hired by an agent who sourced too many teachers who didn’t have work visas. So one day I get a call from a friend (who was working legally, but who needed extra money and thus worked off-contract at the same kindergarten–because he was married and had a child). He says “Remember Samsung Yuchiwon…?”
It had been a great place to work. I had done a very good job there, too. (They betrayed me, in the end, in a manner of speaking, but that’s another story; the agent tried to run off with my money, too, and that’s another story, as well).
I left Korea in 2013, because I was concerned about being caught up in some investigation. I am no coward and am a fighter for justice (I have been an activist since I was eighteen), but I did not have the money for fines, nor did I want my ex-girlfriend to see me in possible trouble with the law (which never happened, actually). I also did not want to give my parents heart attacks (my mother doesn’t know China from Korea, legally-speaking).
Why would a much-loved teacher like me fear the law? Well, I had been working most of my time in Korea off-contract, and my luck seemed to be finally running out.
I worked Off-contract for Five Reasons:
1. The opportunity exists at every level of education in Korea–including at universities and with the government. I taught a judge’s children. They loved me in that family. I loved them, too. I taught at the Korea Deposit Insurance Agency. I narrated ten documentaries for Arirang TV, otherwise known as a division of the Korea National Broadcasting Federation. I made television recordings for national television contests and a comedy show–both of which went to Cannes.
No one should try denying teachers off-contract are in demand (or were, anyway). And teachers should not be penalized for it. (R.) Why should foreigners hired by citizens of a country be penalized for providing the service they were hired for.
Even immigration officials knew what I and thousands of others were doing. I could tell. One even gave me advice.
2. I wanted to be in Asia and was welcomed there by a good friend; I went with the best of loving and fair intentions, to be a kind guest, good teacher, and student of another culture. I did it and know people who did it. All educational entities try to satisfy the demand for teachers in Korea, and many prefer “illegals,” (or did). Most of the people hiring me were good people, too, but they all have to lie about it; and all have channels for hiring off the books, seamlessly. In many ways it is better; working undocumented for Korean employers as a foreign national–even in the best of situations–because working in Korea involves mountains of stress (Koreans themselves will tell you this) and often near-intolerable levels of compromise with one’s western cultural beliefs and cognitive programming in the areas of “common sense,” fairness, and tolerance.
3. Working for “Owners” in Korea is a Pain in The Ass (and in the head, and the heart)
There are often unfair and irregular changes to “the contract,” the provided living conditions, the schedule, the teaching method (per the day-to-day whims of parents—who are not teaching professionals), the pay, the taxes, the severance package, the working hours and days, the holiday schedule, the arrangements for foreign travel to obtain a visa, and the list goes on and on and on. It is the most talked about subject among foreigners in Korea. It is the subject of the comedy and songs and poems they write. It is what they fill blogs about and comment strings on social media sites. But the most aggravating issue is often just the fact that no matter how good-natured Koreans try to be and are (and I love them for this, sincerely—more than Americans at times!), they cannot seem to dilute the impression a foreigner gets that he is now a slave to new masters who are patently blind to his situation. It seems to stem from culture differences and differences in cognition; I felt it from girlfriends, even. It really rubs foreigners the wrong way—the the extent that many giving up working there, or give up working legally, and some even give up dating the locals.
This is not to say that living in Korea isn’t often nice, quaint, and quite “tolerable,” and I miss it because there are wonderful aspects of living there—and I am not talking about the girls or the money (despite what many locals think and say, we are the opposite of shallow, many of us… this is why we are there!).
4. With off-contract work, the pay is better and commensurate with the needs, expectations and stresses of living and teaching in Korea. It’s better for foreigners hoping to get a leg up in life, to afford compensation for being in such a vastly different and often antagonizing culture (some of us actually like that, but it is trying). This higher pay from part-time and private or otherwise additional work may afford the foreign teacher the opportunity to have greater “upward social mobility.” Female Korean nationals will tell foreign boyfriends ‘I could never marry you; you work at a hakwon (a private school) and live in a “one-room.’” This can change drastically for the good when one has more control over his or her own pay and the ability to earn more of it (Whether or not a guy still wants to marry into such a depressingly shallow situation is another matter). With the extra money, we could attempt more schooling, travel to see more of Korea and Asia (great for a teacher!), and perhaps pay off huge student loans.
5. The Boss owns your visa (unlike in Japan), and thus can control your life. For if you lose your job with him or her—or you want to change jobs—you lose your visa and thus your right to stay in the country. With off-contract work, one can have more than one job without much hoop-jumping. On a contract and with the visa it guarantees, one must keep only one job, or get permission to seek another one. And two is the limit. Private teaching is illegal. How communistic-ally and reprehensibly ridiculous. My uncle didn’t suffer through the war with the Japanese, freeing the Koreans, nor the war in Korea with the North Koreans and Chinese communists… for the South Koreans to be so controlling and “communist!” Laugh out loud.
What We Don’t Come For
Foreigners do not leave the progressive, egalitarian comforts of their communities in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, The UK and Ireland for “tolerable.” They don’t leave their families and neighbors and pets and friends for “tolerable.” Soldiers and “Doctors without Borders” go abroad to war zones and poverty-stricken African conflict regions for that. And that’s all admirable; one can go to the edge of civilization to teach English in “tolerable conditions.” We don’t go to Korea for that, and that is not what Korea advertises.
You see, the Korean government is not really worried about people learning English. It is worried about Korean won leaving the economy and it is worried about taxes, and the dilution of “Korean morals.” Go to Korea and figure out that last one…
I sent money home, only once—in fifteen years. It was about five-hundred dollars, sent–to my parents. I was really a migrant worker who made his life and living in Korea. So, I was a very helpful part of the economy. Korea lost nothing in me, and gained many times more.
And what about those who can teach in Korea, and probably shouldn’t be allowed to?
Who Teaches in Korea And Who Really Shouldn’t?
(R.) There are plenty of Philippine nationals and “Kyopos,” Koreans born and/or raised abroad, who speak broken English but who legally teach at institutes and in public schools in Korea, for which they have been granted a visa, apartments, health benefits, and salaries. (S.) And they work on the side, to boot, private tutoring, opening bars…. Why shouldn’t they? Everyone does. (T.) Work is a human right. But they are not a good example as teachers if they cannot speak perfect English. Don’t get me wrong; I am happy they have work. But why can I not teach in Korea, when I can do a better job of it than they can? (U.) If Korea is going to let them do it, why not let me? Several answers come to mind: Philippine nationals look something like Koreans. They are Asian, so have similar values—ostensibly. And, they blend in. It must be realized that there are still people in Korea who prefer to ignore the science (or are unaware of it), that says they (and other Asians) are not a different race, and these types would prefer Asians teach their children—unlike a few years ago, when it was discrimination against Korean, Japanese, and Chinese Americans which kept them from teaching English in Korea because it was felt that English should be taught from behind Caucasian skin and features. (V.) But in reality, I think xenophobia—though strong in Korea– is not the main factor contributing to non-native Asian people getting education jobs in Korea over people like me; (W.) I think it is just incompetence and (X.) convenience which are the culprits; (Y.) Philippine girls marry Korean boys, and so they can teach in Korea because they have a visa. The same is true for Americans, Irishmen, Britons, Canadians, etc., degree or no degree.
How is The Style of Teaching English in Korea Harmful?
Local Koreans (nationals) are the grammar teachers. Fine. (Z.) But they often wind up teaching conversation, incorrectly, in order to model the grammar. If I had ₩1,000 for every time I had to correct the incorrect speech I knew was coming from Korean teachers (or for every time I corrected the Korean teachers–and the “Kyopos”, too) I could have impressed some Korean parents enough to have married one of their daughters.
Someone like myself—who only has three years of college under his belt, but who is a fourth-generation American (yes, that makes me a better English speaker), a poet and a writer (however bad I am at poetry and writing), a speaker of accent-free standard north-east American English (that matters, too), who knows grammar and style, writes constantly, studies copy-editing and produces essays… who sings, dances, does voice acting, stand-up comedy, and draws… but cannot—however—teach English legally could be the poster-child for what’s wrong with the Korean ESL education system. So, no–it’s not about education. Hell, I even speak some Japanese and French; I exhibit perfect pitch (which also helps teach a language); I can mimic any accent, too. How am I not an asset? No one in power knows.
If things were set right, guys like me would not be running away or be getting kicked out (as the case was with other people); people don’t leave a good thing. Korea would be looking for us.
“Illegals” like myself, in point of fact, are more likely to appreciate Korea. We walked around with guilt and appreciation for being there.
What Do They Offer?
But Korea wants scholars to teach English in its parent and sheister-controlled “hakwons” for 2.2 million won a month, and for them to be happy in a one-room being managed by K-pop loving twenty-somethings? Have the planners of these little businesses ever been to the West? (Okay, by now, there are probably a handful of western teachers who like K-pop). They do not understand the people fueling their businesses at all–or didn’t when I was there–in most cases… in the best cases!
Why Not Get A Degree?
I tried to finish school while in Korea. I enrolled at the University of Maryland in Yongsan, at Eight Post (the US Army base), but I was also working and trying to rescue one of Korea’s forgotten and neglected daughters (not the first or last time): a girl who had gone to the illustrious Yeonsei University and who was an English teacher, herself (I saw her degree and teaching materials), but whose brother had committed suicide, and so she assumed the responsibility of supporting her parents. She had taken to working in Itaewon. Use your imagination. (No, I did not frequent such places as you are imagining). However, I succeeded. I got her out of it. She became a Buddhist and a teacher, again—leaving Itaewon. It was a hell-ride in the end, however, over which I ended up on medication for severe anxiety, and about which I lost a “good” job, in D’aechi dong working for a nice and tolerable self-professed miser and slave-driver. This affair took a toll on my concentration, not to have to mention, my job and life for years to come—because it affected other jobs and relationships.
There were other issues interfering with finishing school, some similar to the one above—in some ways (not dealing with the same things) –some about my often not being able to find a stable, fair place to work, where I wouldn’t be driven out (a lot of “hakwon” bosses were (still are?) more soft-hearted gangster and wash-up than educator). I had a run-in with gangsters in Korea, too.
Back to What’s Wrong with English Education in Korea
(Zz.) The foreign teachers are regulated in Korea. Heavily. Insanely so, as if they are criminals on a back-to-work-program, rather than educators (Yz.) who should be thanked for being so far from home and trying to help.
(Xx.) The institutes are NOT regulated. This, not “bad foreigners,” is why virtually every single teacher who has taught in Korea since 1995 has had a horror story about it, if not a string of them. Koreans, as kind tey can be, are generally in complete denial over this, mostly because they do not know.
(Ww.) The joke is, anyone can open a hakwon. (Vv.) Why is that, if it is so hard to teach at one legally?
(Vv.) My point is that Korea could do a lot better by its teachers (foreign and domestic) and its own citizens. Many who could do well by the Korean people, helping them enormously, are not allowed to teach in Korea legally, and it is ridiculous. (Uu.) It has more to do with xenophobia and money and being “respectful” than it does with anything else.
After all the effort I put in, I should not have had to run. Many students were deprived of a dedicated teacher when I left, and I was deprived of a life I struggled nearly two decades to grow accustomed to–and of people and a life I loved as well (despite the loneliness and hardship of the last few years–after my girlfriend’s father rejected me, because I was an American Catholic who turned Buddhist). It all has taken a terrible toll on my mind. But don’t worry, and don’t get defensive. This essay is a labor of love, and I am basically fine, hanging on–in New York. Human beings survive tragedy, injustice, and foolishness–somehow.
How Did I Teach?
I had written songs for every activity (it is a thing I do, because what I call “Periphery English” is often largely ignored in Korea–in a manner of speaking); I drew for the children, made them laugh, and taught them phonics in very original ways (I have invented an incredibly useful method that I have never seen before). I even taught them rudiments of grammar. I have done this for the students everywhere in Korea. Of course I did it for Pak Joong Hoon’s children. I did it at Korea University, at Hongik, at Hanyang, at Universal Student Center, at Weidei….
Anyway, I was grilled for two hours at the police station, into which I had voluntarily walked at their request–by phone. My interpreter liked me. He learned of the year I had worked on contract, of all my methods, of the appreciation I earned from students young and old, and from parents–as well as from administrators–who thought I was the best teacher they’d ever had–in some cases). He learned of my having been married for a while, to a Korean, of my language skills, of my having become a Korean Zen Buddhist. We still, occasionally communicate.
It shouldn’t have had to have been like this–my fear, my final run to America. It shames me. It has made my life enormously difficult.
How Could it Have Been? What’s It Like Coming Home?
I came home and looked for work for nearly a year. I am out of work, again, and often wonder what would have happened had I not had to fear staying in Korea.
I had begun teaching more business classes. I had been a success with Carrot English (당근영어)–having been sent to Geoje Island, where I taught and coached a temporary and intensive class of engineering recruits–well enough so that one of my groups won the final speech and presentation contest out of fifty-five odd students…. in a major government program for one of the biggest container ship, submarine, and rig-building companies in the world. Some of them cried when I left. Why did I have to leave? I got sick with a terrible migraine one morning and so the company vetted me, thinking I was a drug addict. The excuse was, “the government is coming to inspect the school,” and, of course, I didn’t have a work visa. Well, Carrot doesn’t sponsor anyone. They hire teachers with visas provided by other companies.
How About The Rules in The US?
The same stupidity goes on in America. You need a degree where one should not be necessary–just like in Korea: ‘You have a photography degree, a chemistry degree? Come on in!’ This doesn’t mean a person has the talent, experience, or knowledge sufficient to teach English as a Second Language (Remember, we are not talking about literature, biology, or Chemistry).
I passed my teaching demo at Kaplan International, Empire State Building, in New York City with exploding stellar colors. Dr. Pangborne, the academic Director loved my presentation. I had taught–with song and drawing, conversation and humor–the two most difficult verbs in the English language. Convincingly. To American teachers. He wanted to hire me as a teacher right away. He couldn’t.
I was not permitted to teach English without a degree, so I was given an academic assistance position; I proctored exams, did one-on-one level tests, led student tours and corrected the poor grammar and style of teacher reports from people with college degrees. Imagine how that felt.
That job lasted six months, until I wasn’t needed any longer. The union (which represents Kaplan teachers and journalists at the Washington Post) told me that Kaplan is known for this; I had reached the number of hours necessary to qualify for health benefits, which they did not want to pay for.
And I cannot teach in Korea, legally–not until I finish college–which I finally continue at in January, online. When I do finish, do you think Koreans or the Japanese, for that matter, will hire me–at fifty years old, if i am not applying to a college in the countryside. Will they hire me without a Master’s? That’s a whole other problem in Korea (and in Japan–my favorite place in Asia): age discrimination.
Is There A Future in Asia for An Experienced Language Teacher of Twenty Years?
Additionally, they don’t really want to sponsor teachers in Korea, anymore–if they can avoid it; I was routinely asked–my last few years in country: ‘how old are you?’ and, ‘Would you happen to be married to a Korean?’
Carl “Mando” Atteniese
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