Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Message To The Children English Teachers of Korea

Dear English-teaching westerners in Korea,

I was spending the afternoon with my Korean wife and our three year old nephew June-young and we happened into the play place on the 10th floor of the GS Square Department Store in Bucheon. After spending a substantial amount of time playing nearly alone, the after-school rush seemed to come in and the place started to fill up with kids, most of them between six and eight.

June-young wanted to play on one particular ride, a revolving palm tree with very low-hanging beanbag coconuts that the children try to hang from. One older boy was pulling one of the beanbags so that the whole thing was revolving very quickly, so I, who had been watching from afar, came over to help June-young. A little girl, who was riding at the time, said to me in English “He’s too young for this ride.” My first reaction was that she had spent substantial time abroad, as while she did have an accent, she spoke very well. I helped my nephew up and as I walked away the little girl said to me “You are an alien American.” with a cloying, twisted-mouthed accent, torturing out her R’s and straining her little chipmunk cheeks. I assume she was referring to my shaved head or something like that, and shot her a patronizing “Yeah, sure” sidelong Cheney smile as I continued to walk away. Then she continued in her grating faux-American accent “Do you have an alien card?” and I knew what was going on. She clearly hadn’t lived abroad, but rather learned English at an expensive English school (hagwon) right here in Korea.

June-young left that ride and went into a balloon room. The annoying little girl, whose one and only desire was clearly to bother a foreigner, followed him in, and was joined by her friend, who apparently also spoke English well. I wasn’t listening, but my wife heard them talking, and heard them conjecturing that June-young was my son. They took him aside and said something to him that upset him. He came out and seemed to be hiding behind my wife and me.

We asked him what they said. “They said my father . . . It’s a secret.” He didn’t want to repeat it. He was very aggravated. My wife asked him if they said his father was an alien, and he said yes. I saw red. I spent the rest of our time at the play place keeping the two little girls away from June-young. He and I played video games together, and when the first cloying little girl came over and tried to talk to me I brushed her away like dust without even throwing a glance her way.

I could see it all as if it were really there. This little girl, sitting in a classroom in an expensive immersive English hagwon here in Bucheon. In walks her teacher, Evan Teacher. ‘애벌레 (caterpillar) Teacher!’ the kids shout disrespectfully, but Evan teacher thinks it’s awesome that he got such a creative group of kids. Evan is twenty five, tall and a little doughy from too many nights of fried chicken and too many pitchers of cheap Korean beer, unshaven and wearing a wrinkled shirt and jeans. His boss, Wangjanim, is so cool that he lets the teachers wear jeans, although franchise policy is dress pants only. Evan’s got a useless liberal arts degree from a decent school and now he’s in Korea. Everything he knows about Korea he learned from the other foreigners at his school and a few cursory glances at Korean television on nights when CSI Miami isn’t on cable. He genuinely thinks he’s a great teacher, partly because the students he’s teaching are so good at English and partly because he’s never heard any of the complaints that have been lodged against him.

Evan teacher just got a copy of the book his kids will be studying this month from Stacey, his Korean coteacher. Gogo Loves English, level three. Gogo looks like a red charonosaurus head on E.T.’s body. Evan looks down to see that the kids already have the book. Good old Stacey Teacher, what would Evan do without her? She taught him how to get pizza delivered to his house, how to write “I love you” in Korean, and now she’s given out the books as well! Evans students have already read the title of the book.

“Wa, Gogo loves English! Gogo is a 외계인!” an alien.

“No speaky Korean!”

“Evan teacher, Gogo comes to the . . . Evan teacher, what is a 외계인 in English?”

Evan Teacher has no idea, but it isn’t that hard to guess. “Alien.” Just then Evan realizes that a brilliant teaching opportunity has arisen. “I am an alien too!”

The children are skeptical. “Evan Teacher no, you are American!” Evan pulls out his wallet and draws his alien ID card.

“See kids, this is my Alien Card, because I am an alien!”

“Wa, 애벌레 (caterpillar) Teacher is a 외계인 (alien)! 바보 멍청이 Teacher가 외계인이라구!!” (”I said stupid idiot teacher is an alien!”) And peals of laughter echo out into the halls.

Yep, I sure am a great teacher, Evan thinks to himself with a self-satisfied nod of approval.

See I was an English teacher for years and I still teach English when I have to, but I think just as important as teaching English to the kids here, we also owe it to them and ourselves to teach them to respect us as teachers and foreigners as human beings. You may think your kids love you because they give you ridiculous nicknames and climb all over you and are ‘cool’, but what they actually think is that you’re an ineffectual joke and that it’s fun to ridicule you.

Worst of all, your students, who have little choice but to think of you as little more than a dancing bear, leave the classroom and carry that attitude into the world. And it leaves a lasting impression on these kids.

So please, for your own sake and the sake of your kids and every other foreigner who ever sets foot in Korea, comport yourself with a modicum of self respect.

  1. Don’t say “Assa!” anymore, because you sound like an idiot when you do.
  2. Don’t take a ddongchim (finger playfully thrust up your ass) lying down.
  3. Don’t let your kids give you dumb nicknames.
  4. Don’t let anybody call you crazy in Korea.
  5. Don’t call kids crazy and try to stand on some lame principle that “They should know how English is really spoken.” It only makes you sound like a pompous idiot.
  6. If you’re bald, don’t let your kids touch your head.
  7. If you’re fat, don’t let your kids touch your belly.
  8. If you’re hairy, don’t let your kids rub your forearms.
  9. Don’t tell your kids stupid lies about your home country. Don’t tell them that you’re an alien, even though it may be hilarious to them.
  10. Never, ever hand over the power to punish your students to a Korean, whether it be your co-teacher or the owner of the school. You will soon find yourself completely powerless.

You’re not their friend, you’re their teacher. To be anything less is to let them down.

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