I came across this article today in the Los Angeles Times concerning the Anti-English Spectrum and English language teachers in Korea. Is this simply a homegrown, right-wing nut group, similar to what one can find in the U.S. and other countries, or are ESL teachers in Korea really this problematic?
Where does the Korean begin? This issue has the potential to blow up in the Korean’s face in any number of ways, since many of AAK! readers are ESL teachers in Korea who are sensitive to this issue. So the Korean must begin with his clear and unequivocal position on what he thinks about Anti-English Spectrum (AES):
The Korean thinks that AES is a nut group. Its leader engages in stalking ESL teachers, and exhorts others to do the same. Having a group like AES is an embarrassment for Korea. It needs to go away.
But the influence of AES needs to be put in perspective. Korean society most certainly does not endorse stalking anyone, and Koreans who care about the situation – including AES members themselves – have roundly criticized this tactic.
Nonetheless, even an unsavory group like AES could serve as an indicator of how things are – and failure to recognize how things are comes at a cost. For example, most liberals derided and dismissed “birthers” who dominated town hall meetings in America and claim that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. Obama is obviously an American citizen, but that is not the important part. Liberals should have realized that many people in America were deeply pissed off at Obama for whatever reason, and that many Americans were willing to latch onto any dumb reason to vent their hate. Instead of sincerely exploring what was angering these people, many liberals blamed their usual parade of horribles – Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, racism, dumb rural Americans, you name it. And the result now is that liberals have frittered away their dominating advantage by losing the Senate seat that was held by the icon of American liberalism for decades.
Laughing at them is easy. But figuring out why they do this is the right thing to do. (Source)
(Here is the Korean’s unsolicited advice to future politicians and pundits: Never, never, never assume that people are stupid. They are not. There are stupid individuals in the world, but a group of people is never stupid. If you don’t understand why people are doing certain things, you are the one who is stupid – not the people.)
So what can the existence of AES tell us about the state of ESL teachers in Korea? Right now, Koreans are feeling deeply uneasy about their new reality – that there are many in Korea who do not look like them, affecting them in a way that they do not necessarily like. This uneasiness feeds into the tension between Koreans and ESL teachers. This tension right now is still mostly under the surface, because most Koreans are reasonable enough not to express that tension like AES does. However, there is always a chance that the underlying tension could blow up, sparked by a certain event. Therefore, it would be important to understand the factors that feed into the tension, and neutralize them in any manner we can.
The Korean believes that there is no party with clean hands in this situation – (some) Koreans and (some) ESL teachers must share the blame. To that end, the Korean prepared “blame scorecards” – the laundry list of everything wrong that everybody has done (that he can think of.) First up is Korea.
Blame Scorecard: Korea
· Half-baked Policy to Bring in ESL Teachers – This is the action that began the entire cycle. ESL teachers came to Korea as early as early 1980s, but the ESL teacher population exploded in the last 10 years or so. (As recently as 1988, there were barely over 1,000 non-Korean ESL teachers in the entire country.) This happened because as English education became more emphasized in Korea, Korean government loosened up the visa requirements for people who are known as NSETs (= native-speaking English teachers.) As a result, more than 20,000 NSETs entered Korea every year since 2002. For a country that has never experienced mass immigration, this was a very significant number.
But, as governments often do, Korean governments set up regulations that emphasized quantity over quality, which means they did not properly filter out unqualified NSETs – which blew up with the case of Christopher Paul Neil. Neil, an internationally wanted child molester, was arrested in Thailand after having fled from Gwangju, Korea, where he worked as an ESL teacher. When these loopholes were exposed, the government overreacted and swung to the other direction, requiring drug and HIV testing (that it did not require for Korean teachers) that nearly amounted to harassment.
Also, Korean government did not anticipate what should have been reasonably anticipated – that importing such a huge number of people to work in an area that Koreans care so, so much about (i.e. English education) -- would cause a lot of friction. Initially there was no real training that would get the ESL teachers ready for living and doing their job in a culture that can be radically different. Even though there are more trainings offered in recent years, they tend to be done in a manner Korean government is known for – bumbling and haphazard.
The idea to bring NSETs to assist in English education was not a bad idea. But Korean government’s execution of that idea was simply terrible. Problems that could have been avoided through reasonable anticipation were (halfway) mended instead through trial-and-error, pissing off everyone involved in the process.
· Bad Behaviors from Employers of the ESL Teachers – It is no secret that education business in Korea is very lucrative, which means it sometimes attracts unscrupulous characters who really should not be anywhere near education, period. Well, it was no secret to Koreans anyway; not so much for NSETs. Many ESL teachers were blindsided by the fact that their employers would cut corners and rip them off at any chance possible. To this day, the horror stories of ESL teachers getting ripped off by their employers are a dime a dozen on the Internet. (For example, here.) Not paying salaries? Arbitrarily changing schedules? Refusing to provide health insurance (as they are legally required to do)? Generally reneging promises? You name it, it’s there.
Even places that are otherwise reputable, like the public school system, sometimes give into the temptation of screwing over ESL teachers, since ESL teachers have a harder time fighting back compared to Korean teachers.
· Poorly planned use of ESL teachers – Even in cases where Korean schools act with the best of intentions, they often put ESL teachers in a position to fail. Particularly at public schools, ESL teachers are supposed to be co-teachers with a Korean teacher. Often there is poor communication between that Korean teacher and the ESL teacher, leading to confusion and resentment on the part of both sides. Many schools have no orientation process and simply tell the ESL teachers to go to it and teach the children. Considering that most ESL teachers do not have a previous teaching experience, much less experience in teaching English to non-English speaking children, they often fail even with their best efforts, frustrating everyone involved in the process.
· General racism of Korean society – As the Korean said previously, Korea was not (and still is not, although to a lesser degree,) a place where its people are used to dealing with race relations. This often conflicts sharply with ESL teachers who are from countries that are more more accustomed to dealing with race relations. (e.g. United States.) Because of this inexperience, Koreans often do not hesitate to ascribe particular characteristics to a given racial group and judge the entire race – which is exactly what racism is. Once a few bad apple NSETs emerged, the idea that every NSET is a drug-sniffing child molesters began to gain some traction in Korea, which made NSETs in Korea to feel unfairly persecuted. It also does not help that news media in Korea often play on Koreans' xenophobia by writing sensationalistic but factually dubious articles every now and then.
· Jealousy of Korean young men – This factor is not often discussed, but is very significant in understanding the actual people who fuel the tension. Korea has had a chronically high unemployment rate among young adults, which has been recently exacerbated with the global recession. These young adults – particularly men – are right now forming a very pissed-off social group. They have sacrificed much in their lives – grueling schools, going to college, serving their military duty, etc. – for the promise of having a good job. Understandably, not having a job after all the tribulations makes these young men very angry.
NSETs often provide a convenient target for their rage. ESL teachers are generally a group of young people who have no better education than Korean young people, but somehow they get a cushy job that pays well (by Korean standards) simply by virtue of being born into speaking English. On top of that, NSETs never served in the military.
Another thing – do you know what happens when a guy doesn’t have a job? A lot of things, but one of them is that he doesn’t get a date very often. And when you are young, few things matter more than getting a date. So when male ESL teachers flaunt the fact that they date Korean women (more on this below) – well, you can imagine the rest.
These men are most certainly not the majority in Korea, but the ability for these men to sway the public opinion is not to be discounted. They are generally tech-savvy, and all they have is time. According to a study by Naver – Korea’s largest search engine, with a format similar to Yahoo! – less than 1 percent of the people who view a news article leave a comment on the article. Predictably, 76.7 percent of all comments are men, and 61.1 percent of them were under 30. But the astonishing part is this: 3.4 percent of all commenters generated more than 50 percent of the comments. In other words, less than 0.0034 percent of all news viewers generated more than half of all comments. But that is enough to make the government overreact and put in restrictive policy towards ESL teachers, making them feel unwelcome in the process.
But again, the ESL teachers are not free from blame either. More blame game after the jump.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.
Continuing on with the blame game...
Blame Scorecard: ESL Teachers
· General Assholery – One should never underestimate Americans’ (and Canadians' and Australians') capability of making an ass out of themselves no matter where they are in the world. David at Ask a Frenchman! had this to say:
(Source)Why is it Americans students (even a minority) that always behave stupidly in public places though is still a mystery to me. Other foreign students usually behave normally most of the time. But yeah, for some Americans, abroad, especially Paris, is some sort of Neverland where nothing is real and everything is designed for their own entertainment, as if the US was an island floating on a planet-wide Disneyland.
Given that fact, importing a fresh college graduates from America (and other countries) en masse is a recipe for trouble. And indeed, they do cause trouble. Guess where the name “Anti-English Spectrum” came from? It is a reference to a website geared towards NSETs called English Spectrum that posted a bunch of pictures of ESL teachers partying with half-naked Korean women. Posters at English Spectrum also penned other eyebrow-raising posts, bragging how they do not give a shit about teaching, how they go to work smelling like liquor and how much they enjoy screwing Korean women who were often their students. And as if those posts were not graphic enough, some were big enough assholes to create a drunken ruckus in a Seoul subway, loudly singing a song degrading Korean and Japanese women, and posted the whole thing on Youtube. Real smart, these guys.
Particularly sensitive is drug use. In Korea, there is no distinction in criminal law between “soft” and “hard” drugs – smoking marijuana is equivalent to being a heroin addict both in the eyes of Korean law and Korean public. Some ESL teachers are apparently ignorant of this, and think it is a good idea to mail themselves marijuana. When they are arrested, the sensationalistic media takes care of the rest.
· Unprofessionalism at work – Continuing on the theme from earlier, some schools complain that ESL teachers were often late or do not show up to work at all. There are also complaints that ESL teachers do not come to the class with any preparation. In some cases, the ESL teachers would not fulfill the contract and simply run away. (And ask people how to do it on the Internet!) In some cases, ESL teachers presented fake college diploma to be hired. There were also complaints of sexual harassment.
· Ignorance about Korea and their place in Korea – Even when ESL teachers come to Korea with best intentions, they often come strikingly uneducated about Korean history and culture. Korea is a unique place; no other country in the world brought itself out of utter poverty to a leading economic power within a few decades while surviving two devastating wars under two different countries' occupation. Many things about Korea require a radically different mindset from any other country’s mindset to understand properly – which is really what being exposed to a different culture is all about. Often, ESL teachers fail to get into that mindset, and instead wonder why Korea/Koreans are so "irrational" or "stupid". (Again, remember -- if the only explanation you can think of to explain a group of people's actions is "stupidity", you are the one who is stupid, not them.)
Also significantly, ESL teachers are often totally ignorant of their place in Korea. It is actually a valid point that ESL teachers have it pretty good in Korea. Generally, ESL teachers in Korea are paid well and receive free housing for having no more than a college degree and no degree or experience in teaching. They generally get to hang out with an elite company of Koreans, since Koreans who speak good English tend to be from well-to-do families that can afford to invest in English education. Because ESL teachers do not know how good their lives are, they are also unaware that they come across as spoiled brats to Koreans when they complain about little things in Korea (that, to be fair, genuinely bother them.)
On a personal note, the Korean’s observation is that many ESL teachers – particularly white men – in Korea simply do not know how to live in a society as a minority. The rants about Korea (often without any real question other than “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH KOREA??”) that the Korean often receives from ESL teachers in Korea are simply head-scratching. You mean you did not know people would stare at you, or try to practice English with you? And you had no idea that sometimes people would tune out what you say just because of the way you look? And you think it’s unfair that you are branded as a child-molesting druggie because some other idiot of your race was a child-molesting druggie? Congratulations, you finally know what it’s like living as a racial minority! Your fellow colored Americans have been dealing with the same shit for years! Of course it’s not fair, but it should not be a surprise that no matter where you are – even when you are living in the least racist country in the world – racial minority will often be grabbing the short end of the stick.
* * *
At this point, allow the Korean to put a major caveat – for everything above, the Korean will emphasize that only some schools and private institutes screw over ESL teachers, and only some ESL teachers are assholes in Korea. Also, it is fair to say that one party’s fault brings out the other party’s fault. (For example, one NSET acts like an ass, Korean school overreacts and monitors its NSET closely, the NSET feels unwelcome and complains in words that are overly harsh on the Internet, those words are picked up by angry Korean young men and spread over the Internet, NSETs who did nothing wrong feel unfairly persecuted, etc.) This feedback loop between the two parties has been going on for so long that it is meaningless to figure out who is at fault for what.
However, progress has been happening. Korea is slowly becoming more used to the idea that more non-Koreans want to come and live or work in Korea. Korean newspapers often run a series on “the age of a million foreigners” and “living with multicultural families.” Korea is also attracting more high-quality ESL teachers, and the schools are beginning to learn from their experience. On the other hand, long-term expats in Korea are also trying to foster a sense of community, encouraging one another to do more in Korea than getting drunk at night and causing trouble. That’s really characteristic of Korea – things may not be the best, but they generally tend to get better over time.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.