Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Crap That I'll Miss: Fun, Smart and Hilarious Kids

Nothing is perfect and working with children can be a challenge at times. This is particularly so in Korea due to cultural differences and very demanding parents. However, pretty much since I've arrived, I've had tons of fun working at winter or summer English camps. Maybe it's because, in some ways, I'm a kid at heart. I love clowning around with them but also getting serious and seeing them absorb information from me like sponges. Now I'll be 100% honest and also say that I love sending them home at the end of the day because it's truly exhausting too. I discovered that I liked teaching kids when I taught as a substitute teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, some camp experiences have been better or worse than others. That depends on a number of factors. The most important is the experience level of the management team because a micro-manager can make a camp hell to work at. Unfortunately, there are a lot of micro-managers in Korea. One camp I worked at has a manager so into control that he made teachers sign out for copy paper and locked their classrooms after the kids left to force all the teachers in the library to write their lesson plans and prep for the next day. That was weirdness on a level I'd never seen before and, luckily, haven't seen since. However, I can count the truly unpleasant camps on one hand, so that's not too bad if you calculate 8 years. There was maybe one or two times I elected not to do a camp, so that's around 14 or so of these. Even if the camp is a nightmare on the management side, usually, the pay is decent for a two to three week assignment if you're already in the country. I don't think I'd ever do one if I had to cover my own airfare to get here though. But people are coming here sometimes to get a feel for Korea before deciding to work here for a year or use being in the country for a camp as a way to start looking for an annual position.

The perk for me is changing the type of student I teach from college age young adults to young whip smart kids. There are behavior issues, for sure. But there are behavior issues with college students too. The kids know, just as we do, that these things are temporary and some take advantage of that. However, most of the time the kids are great. I'll miss the few weeks each summer and winter that I spend doing it. This time around it's much more of a challenge because now I'm simultaneously trying to keep up with my writing and interviews. That's truly exhausting.

I also have to say I hope it helps these kids develop a more open perspective to race and people who are different. Prior to being taught by me a lot of these kids have never had much contact, if any, with a black person. Most of these kids are children whose parents are white collar workers, so they have the means and then some. Mostly all have had interaction with foreign teachers and quite a few have lived abroad. It's just the reality is that most teachers here are white and some of them are less than subtle about their views on race.

That's still really weird for me to imagine. As a kid, I remember my first teachers being white and that was no issue. I don't recall gasps or blunt observations of differences. One reason is, probably, as minorities in a white dominated society, whites simply aren't a novelty to a black child in the inner city. I remember being in a class with both black and Hispanic children when I went to schools near my home. When I started going to more integrated schools, it took me no time to develop lasting friendships with my white classmates too. So it still boggles my mind at how Korean culture is so very "us versus them." Here, anyone who isn't northeast Asian (Korean, Chinese, or Japanese) is a novelty. I get it intellectually, but I do wonder sometimes how it feels to be inside a mind like that where everything is either just like you or in stark contrast to you.

It also points to maybe one reason why it just seems so difficult for Koreans to process an interest in and knowledge of their culture by people who aren't ethnically Korean. In conversations with my Korean friends, I point out that the Chinese actually brag about their diversity. They are also neither crestfallen or defensive when you don't like something about China. Also, both the Chinese and Japanese are experts in exporting certain dimensions of their culture. It's an interesting contrast for sure.

I've wandered off the path a bit into cultural-based musing. However, to sum it up, I'll miss the fun, smart and hilarious kids I've had the pleasure to teach while I've been here.

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  1. They'll miss you too.
    No doubt, you've left a positive mark on all those you've taught. They'll remember you forever, which in retrospect, is an overwhelming thought.

  2. Thanks for your comment! (You writing it made me read what I wrote again and I caught a typo.)

    You're right. I still remember my teachers. Korean kids have exponentially more teachers than I would ever have due to the excess of after school academies they have here.

    I just hope that whatever my impact that most of it is positive ;)

  3. I'm sure that you made quite a good impression and a positive impact on the kids. :)

    Let me just say that, part of the reason why non-Asians in Korea are a novelty to many Koreans is, obviously, because there aren't enough people like you who are willing to visit or live in Korea, so Koreans still aren't used to seeing as many foreigners as Japanese and many urban Chinese do, for example. And if there really is an "us vs. them" mentality, I'd argue it's precisely because most foreigners throughout the years have not expressed an interest in Korea or in Korean culture that Koreans are very surprised to see a foreigner who does.

    As for the relatively few foreigners who’ve visited Korea, well, some of them seem to come to Korea only to criticize it, and sometimes end up publishing their criticisms to the world (which have often been false b/c the language and cultural barriers often leave much room for miscommunication). Just to cite one example, there was an American reporter who traveled to Korea some years ago to write a brief article on Korea, and he was introduced to a dish called “jui-po,” which is a type of dried fish that many Koreans like to eat as a snack. Well, the first syllable “jui” is also the word for “mouse,” and I guess there was some miscommunication, because the reporter ended up writing in his article that Koreans eat rats and criticized the people for eating such “filthy things.” I don’t know how much of a sensation it caused in the U.S., but apparently it outraged many Koreans.

    That’s just the shortest and one of the most obvious examples I can think of. Of course, there’ve been many others, like the American gentleman I saw in Gwanghwamun while I was in Korea who walked around yelling, “I hate this f*ckin’ society and all you Koreans, etc, etc.” He was probably just a madman, but I was still seriously ashamed to think a fellow American citizen would do something insensitive like that (I guess he could’ve been Canadian, but I’m sure from his accent that he was American). I remember seeing all the shocked expressions on the faces of Korean passers-by who watched him as he said that and walked into Burger King. And the worst part for me was, he was the first non-Asian foreigner I’d seen in Seoul in weeks. So I think in a place like Korea where there aren’t so many non-Asian foreigners, one foreigner can make a huge impression on Koreans. Of course, more and more Korean students are studying abroad in English-speaking countries these days (I’ve heard that Koreans are the second largest group of international students studying at U.S. colleges, after Canadians), so I think you’ll find a lot of the college students and young adults to be more open-minded and culturally aware, though the really young kids might be surprised to see a white or black person b/c they haven’t yet been exposed to people outside their race.

    So I think what you’ve done and what you’re doing in Korea is awesome, and I really wish there’d be more people (Americans in particular) who’d show an interest in Korea, b/c it really means a lot to Koreans when they see a foreigner who shows genuine interest in their culture, although they might be a bit hesitant about sharing it at first b/c of potential misunderstandings and criticisms. And believe me, no one criticizes Korean society or culture more than Koreans themselves. But they’re still proud of their country, and rightfully so, so it hurts sometimes when they see foreigners finding faults with it, or worse, comparing it with China and/or Japan.

    A Korean friend of mine once put it very bluntly: Korea’s been invaded throughout its long history by the Chinese and Japanese (blame it on its strategic geopolitical location). Korea had to borrow much of its culture from China, and when the Koreans thought they were well on the road to developing their own rich and distinct culture, the Japanese came and colonized them for 35 years. The Japanese wiped out almost every remnant of Korean culture they could publicly see, and banned Korean from being spoken in schools. And then once Korea was liberated, civil war started less than 5 years later, after which the whole country was devastated and indefinitely divided. Thus, Korean culture never really had the chance to fully develop, and things were wiped out and stolen from the Koreans. In short, Koreans were left with pretty much nothing but pride. And it’s their pride that has enabled them to overcome all odds to get to where they are today.

    So, as I see it, of course Koreans are going to pride themselves on their solidarity and common identity, which have allowed them to surmount great obstacles. Whether this really constitutes an “us vs. them” mentality, I don’t know. But whatever it is, I don’t see it as being necessarily a purely negative thing; in fact, it might be one of the things that has kept the country alive.

    The Chinese brag about their diversity because China’s so huge and diverse, with many different provinces and so many different dialects people can’t understand each other sometimes. And they don’t have to be crestfallen or defensive when a foreigner criticizes their country, because their country’s all the craze these days (although from my own personal experience, every Chinese person I’ve met has been very defensive whenever someone criticized China). It’s such a huge and populous country its power and status can’t be ignored, and the Chinese know that, so no matter how many people die from tainted products or how many foreigners complain about the polluted air, people are still going to flock to China, study China, eat, drink and sleep China. You wouldn’t believe how many students at my alma mater took Chinese and Chinese studies classes and went to China.

    And yes, I’ll admit, the Chinese and Japanese are pretty good at exporting certain aspects of their culture. But that’s also partly because they’ve had a longer history of established contact with the West, so most Westerners are already more familiar with those two countries, and, of course, many people’s perception of them as being “important countries” naturally incite interest in their culture, history, etc. And as I previously mentioned, many Koreans would admit (however reluctantly) that traditional Chinese and Japanese cultures are richer and more distinct b/c they’ve had more chances to develop; after all, they’re the ones who invaded and pillaged Korea, and not the other way around.

    What’s been upsetting a lot of Koreans nowadays is that despite Korea’s technological advances, economic development, flourishing pop culture (well, in Asia at least), etc, etc., in their eyes Korea still isn’t fully recognized for what it’s worth by much of the world and is constantly being treated unfairly and unequally. You see it in Korea’s negotiations with the U.S. (beef issues, incidents involving GI, etc.) and Japan (Dokdo/Takeshima issue, Japan’s changing of its history textbooks, etc.), you see it in the way that the American media treats Korean people or Korean culture in relation to other countries (I could give you a whole list if you want), you see it in the way that things that are part of Korea are attributed to other countries (e.g., there’s a popular global Japanese restaurant chain that is selling mostly Korean food but claiming it to be all Japanese), you see it in the way that foreigners are constantly comparing Korea with China and Japan, and the list goes on. These are the types of things that Koreans constantly have in the back of their minds and have talked about openly on some occasions but that have usually fallen on deaf ears (and, perhaps, people with short attention spans). To me it seems like the country’s ready to burst out and say, “Hey world, look at me! I’m important too!”

    I don’t mean to specifically target the Japanese or the Americans—heck, I’m an American myself. But one really can’t help but mention these two countries in particular when talking about these things. You start to see why so many Koreans harbor a bitter resentment against the Japanese and feel like they’re being constantly bullied around by the U.S., though I hope and think these feelings will subside as time goes on. I’m not here to take sides, but sometimes I feel this irresistible urge to “paint a bigger picture” so that people may realize that there are often numerous and complex reasons that explain the Koreans’ behavior, mentality, customs, etc.—that there’s more than meets the eye.

    Whew, I’m done. I didn’t intend for this to be so long-winded. I’m starting to wonder if this might be part of the reason why so many Koreans simply give the “You won’t understand because you’re not a Korean” excuse and just don’t bother to provide a detailed explanation.

    Anyway, sorry, I got really off-track, well, kind of. I’d just like to reiterate that you’re doing a great job by teaching those kids during their formative years. Please keep up the good work! Korea really needs more earnestly devoted English teachers like you!

  4. Thanks Regina (which feels weird because Regina is my name too). This is your lucky night because I don't even have the energy to reply to all you had to say in depth ;)

    That's not a bad thing. It's only bad when I vigorously disagree.

    I do think with Korea being misrepresented, that it's up to the Korean press, writers, academics and Koreans in general to say so. They need to set the record straight.

    One thing I have seen is this "if we build it, they will come attitude." No. If you build it but don't tell people about it and don't take ownership of it, no one will come. Furthermore, no one will be any wiser when it's attributed to someone else.

    Just Google "Seoul Fashion Week". What's absolutely horrible is the coverage of the event was almost non-existent. I had a prominent attendee, fashion icon Diane Pernet, ask me why the paper I write for didn't cover the event at all during her stay. I couldn't tell her because I'm not an editor, I don't send reporters out to cover events and write stories. I simply couldn't not explain why a major event, which was both economic and artistic, wasn't covered by either the business desk or the culture desk. But, then Koreans complain that no one knows about it and that their fashion week isn't as prominent as others. Look if you don't tell people about it and if you have most press released at the last minute and almost only in Korean, how are they supposed to know?

    That applies to food, language, culture, norms, history and just about anything else too. I do hope Koreans learn that because there seems to be this expectation that people ought to just know and that's simply unrealistic.

    With the FTA and other issues, it's a matter of perspective. The food market in Korea is actually an anomaly. Most economies have buyers who want to get the highest quality for the cheapest price. Korea is odd that people here are willing to pay more for rice that is Korean grown than to import cheaper rice grown abroad. To preserve the status quo in their industries, farmers' collectives have tied cultural identity to food. I'm not saying Korean farmers are bad. American farmers have huge subsidies and lobby for many forms of government support too. However, re Korean farmers, it's pretty clear that they've done it successfully tied food how Koreans perceive themselves. There are people who really think if they don't eat Korean grown/made products that they're somehow not true Koreans and that foreign grown/made food is bad.

    I pointed out to a student of mine that if the US and the rest of the world took that attitude towards foreign products then Korea's export-driven economy would be screwed. If I only buy American then all of the products that the Korean products that are sold in the US will collect dust. After the Korean War, the US intentionally opened its market and helped open the markets of its allies to Korean made products. This was done to help give this country economic stability. Now Korea has had that for awhile now but there is a lot of selective memory or straight up lies about how this success was achieved. Yes, South Koreans worked long and hard. But the bottom line is this, if there was nowhere to sell the products there wouldn't be any big export companies to work for.

    There is some self reflection that Koreans need to do. This is a self reflection that all nations have to do. The US has a version on its own right now. However, with a strong economy, education system and infrastructure, it's unappealing seeing Koreans still trying to blame all this stuff on external players. Some of this stuff is the creation of Koreans and no one else.

  5. Ok, wow, I feel like we could go on debating these things endlessly. But I think these sorts of discussions are good b/c it’s interesting to see differing perspectives on these sorts of issues, and I think this is really what Korea needs—more dialogue with foreigners that might give them more insight as to why the world perceives Korea in a certain way, etc. Funny thing is, I actually interned for the Korean foreign ministry for about half a year—for the division responsible for handling cultural matters, to be precise—and I can tell you first-hand that Korean government officials are currently doing all they can to try to come up with ways to promote Korean culture around the world, but the task is proving to be quite difficult trying to reinvent the Korean national image and trying to get other countries to be interested in Korea. All the more difficult b/c there isn’t even a consensus as to what needs to be done and how, and there really isn’t much coordinated effort between the government and other organizations and industries.

    So the Korean government, press, academics, etc., have actually been trying hard to set the record straight and get the word out there about Korea, though I agree with you that sometimes they need to be better w/ their marketing and advertising. I don’t know what happened with Seoul Fashion Week b/c I’m not in Korea right now, though I did discover a lengthy Korea Times article about it when I googled it.

    Koreans try to rectify what they can and to promote knowledge of their culture and history, but their efforts have often gone unnoticed, or worse, even backfired. Again, as an example, Koreans have been urging the Japanese government for years to tell the truth in their history textbooks about Korean history and the history of Korea-Japan relations (and no, it’s not a matter of perspective, it’s simply a matter of acknowledging what really happened. Even foreigners living in Japan who know about Japan’s true history will tell you the country makes up some stuff in its textbooks.). But, of course, the Japanese won’t listen and many Americans could simply care less (or have sided with Japan, the country that’s more “important” to the U.S., as we have done in the past with the Dokdo/Takeshima issue). A Korean academic even came to my university once and gave a lecture on the whole issue with Japanese history textbooks. And for years Korean and Korean American students at my alma mater (an Ivy, by the way) petitioned our school’s administration to establish a Korean Studies class, only to constantly hear the reply, “Sorry, but we don’t think Korea’s important enough for us to study.” Well, there was one Korean Studies course they offered once during my four years there, so I guess the students’ efforts might have paid off somewhat.

    My point is, I get the impression almost everywhere I go that people are quick to either ignore or criticize Korea without even trying to understand it, and sometimes the media only seems to reinforce these negative stereotypes. For instance, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Oprah incident several years ago when she invited Lisa Ling to the show (who’s not even Korean) who subsequently bashed Korean women, and perhaps the Stephen Colbert Show where he mocked Korean singer Rain (and, indirectly, the Korean language) and said in one of his lines, “Kimchi—what else is Korean?” Probably funny from an American standpoint, but culturally insensitive, and it ticked off a lot of Korean Americans and Koreans studying in the U.S. Yes, these are just two American talk show hosts, but two of the most powerful ones in the U.S. might I add, who indirectly influence the minds of many Americans who watch them.

    Well, I’m glad that there are at least people out there like you who know South Korea’s a developed country. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who absolutely know nothing about Korea and think it’s a backward and poor country. And then, I’m like, well, your cell phone/car/computer/etc. were made by a Korean-based company, and then they’re like, “Really? I thought it was Japanese” or something.

    So while many Koreans continue to try to promote their country, such incidents in Korea and elsewhere, when added up, can prove to be rather disheartening. And of course, there are foreigners who’ve come into their country and harshly criticized its society before beginning to really understand it, which hurts. I’ve read stuff on some other expats’ blogs, and while I think some of the criticism is valid, a lot of it is also biased, false, and sometimes unwarranted.

    Anyway, about your comment on the food market in Korea, hmm, when I was there I didn’t get the sense that Koreans were eating Korean rice or Korean beef b/c they wanted to support their country or whatever, I don’t think such nationalistic and protectionist thinking even crossed many of their minds. They simply think some Korean food products are more palatable to their tastes (after all, many of them were grown or made with Koreans specifically in mind!). I’m not sure about rice though b/c I’ve only tasted Korean rice in Korea. Plus, I don’t know what you mean by “cheaper rice” b/c Koreans don’t like basmati or jasmine or other kinds of rice that Southeast Asians or Americans might like b/c they’re not used to them, besides, it probably wouldn’t go well with the side dishes anyway :P And as for white rice, my relatives say they can tell which white rice tastes good to them and which don’t, though I usually can’t :/

    As for beef, well, I tried Korean “hanwoo” beef (which are mostly from grass-fed cattle, I’m told) and could tell the difference in taste. I guess it’s like what Angus beef is to Americans. I’ve only had it twice b/c it’s so freakin’ expensive, but both times thought it was tastier than the cheaper, supposedly imported beef I’d eaten.

    So no, I personally don’t think it’s odd that Koreans choose their own beef or rice over those grown in other countries, and Koreans probably wouldn’t think so either. I mean, why settle for less when you can have better? Quality and taste are what Koreans usually look for anyway; price is often secondary, especially when it comes to food.

    Also, Koreans are huge consumers of imported goods, but you’re right in that Korea is a largely export-driven economy. But that’s mostly b/c it’s what has worked for them very well in the past, and b/c most of its current exports consist of electronic and transport equipment, which the U.S. and many other countries have a high demand for.

    And yes, I know that the U.S. and other countries, even Japan, opened up their markets to Korean goods following the Korean War, but the trade balance then was heavily in their favor—Koreans at the time were importing foreign products (esp. American ones) like crazy, and they only really exported small items, like shoes or clothes. But you’re right that it did help Korea’s economy from crumbling (after all, trade benefits both parties involved), and I think most Koreans do know and acknowledge that. Many Koreans I encountered (particularly the older generation) seemed grateful for all the things that America did for South Korea immediately after the Korean War. As for Japan, I’m not so sure, b/c I don’t think any previous help from the Japanese combined could make up for the harsh memories from the Japanese colonial period (which my parents and most of my aunts and uncles lived through, and which younger Koreans are fully aware of).

    But the opening up of export markets was just a starting point. The seed was sowed, and it was up to the Koreans to do pretty much the rest and take care of themselves (i.e., build up their domestic industries and infrastructure, invest in education and technology), which they did in a short amount of time and largely through their own efforts. Can’t say the same thing happened for other countries when the U.S. intervened (I mean, look at U.S.’s efforts in Iraq and what that led to—greater instability, though time will only tell). After the IMF crisis in 1997, Koreans pitched in to help their failing economy by giving away all of their gold jewelry and other items to the government, which, I’m told, helped save the economy. I think it’s largely this pride in their country, this collective spirit that they’re all in this together, that has led them to where they are today. Of course, I’m not saying it’s the only factor, but a major one that cannot be ignored.

    And, as I said in my previous post, Koreans often do criticize their society and blame many of its problems on themselves (probably much more than foreigners do). It’s just that when they see foreigners criticizing their society and passing their judgment based on their own Western (or whatever) values and perspectives, especially in a demeaning or patronizing way (however subtle), they could get a bit defensive, and I don’t blame them for it. I mean, even though I’m Korean American, I seriously have to cringe when I read some of the other expat blogs, because the way the writers say certain things is just downright offensive and culturally insensitive, and to think that these comments are coming from people who have actually made the effort to visit and work in the country says something.

    However, I do think some of the criticisms are plausible and valid, and, like you, I would like to see Koreans take these criticisms and use it to their benefit to improve, and I think more actual dialogue and interaction with foreigners would be a great start, because I think Koreans often don’t know how their actions, customs, etc. might be viewed differently by a non-Korean.

    And back to my first point, I think the world will take more notice of Korea in the future though. It might take time, but it’s starting to happen already. It takes time for people’s perceptions to change.

    Sorry for writing another long post. I guess I just can’t stop writing sometimes :P


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