Any of my Korean students will fetch me a cup of coffee if asked and occasionally they will buy me one from one of the numerous coffee shops in my area. I’m reminded of the time, when as a new teacher in my first post, I had taken a coffee into my classroom and when I came to drain the dregs discovered a couple of drawing pins lurking therein. I only took cups into my classroom on a few occasions and quickly decided it was dangerous to drink from a cup left in the presence of students. I also learnt to check any seat before sitting as upturned drawing pins were also a common means of abusing staff. Even a jacket I once left on the back of my chair was removed, thrown on the floor with my opened wallet and bank cards discarded on top. I can narrate these events to Korean students and they will be mildly shocked but there are some ‘stories’ I wouldn’t dream of attempting to narrate as they are simply too shocking for naive Korean sensibilities: boys masturbating under desks, on one occasion a boy flashed his dick to a female colleague, or girls giving boys oral sex in view of the staff room.
Recently (now a year or two ago) however, an event occurred in a British school in which a boy stuffed his penis and testicles in a female teacher’s coffee mug, took a photo of his exploit and then posted the photo on his Facebook account. The teacher subsequently drank from the cup before discovering what had happened. Unfortunately the only major link I can find for the article is at the Sun, Britain’s crappiest, and most widely read daily newspaper. I originally read it on MSN News. Incidentally, another incident in the same week involved a girl putting laxative in teachers’ coffee. I had difficulty telling the cock and sac story to all but a few very close Korean friends and certainly couldn’t explain it to a class of Korean 16 year olds whom I can mortify by simply sucking my pen. They would not be able to comprehend why any student should behave in such a manner and would see only disgust and depravity in the act. However, I could easily tell it to British 13 year olds many whom would find it funny and a valid reprisal to make on a teacher. Indeed on the MSN comments associated with the news report, some individuals questioned why a teacher would have a cup in the classroom while some simply claimed a teacher deserved such treatment.
I wondered where those ESL teachers come from who claim Korean kids are as bad as British kids given there are so many blogs and books written by full-time British teachers who are appalled by the current standards. Indeed, it’s usually only school managers and those who’ve had to prostitute their personal integrity to gain promotion, those who live in self-denial in order to maintain their sanity and preserve at east a little self-respect, or the lucky few in truly decent schools, who will deny that something is seriously amiss. I could form a small club with the number disgruntled teachers I know and I’ve known a number of excellent teachers who’ve left the profession because it excessively frustrated them. The idea of returning to British shores to teach fills me with dread.
Britain is not the worst country in the world so why pick on it and not a really bad country? The point is I’m not incensed by the inadequacies of other countries! I don’t’ own their passports: I’m British and I’m forced to write that on official forms and documents. When it comes to learning we encourage students to accept criticism as a means of bettering their ability but many people erect a brick wall when it comes to the criticism of their nation. I’m not unpatriotic, conversely I am patriotic. (Indeed, at one time ‘patriotic’ encompassed the criticism of your country as it was borne out of good intention and the desire for your country to better itself). And of course, I have been socialised in the UK, I speak English, I have an ancestry in the British Isles. Everything about me is British and more specifically, English.
When I have lived abroad for long periods, especially in radically different cultures, I start yearning for England: English mist, damp mornings, English rain, green grass, decent tea, an English Christmas, Oh!… and the wonderful sounds of Elgar, even though I hate the nationalism it has come to represent. I miss those orchestral marches with their majestic dignity that is so vividly depicted by the characteristic combination of clarinets in their rich chalmeau register fortified by the cellos and in the background the pizzicato pulse of basses. There is no hurry, the pace is relaxed and only the British have quick marches which are so leisurely you can almost hear the snort of immense cavalry horses. And when the little timpani roll climaxes with the brush of cymbals, a thrilling, gentle ‘tushhhh,’ an orgasmic tremor, evoking a tiny tinkle of brass, breast plates, dangling swords and medals, how staggeringly imperial! The culmination of an epoch of world domination depicted not by Sousarian vigour; its thrashing cymbals, blasting trombones amidst the bling-bling sparkle of patent leather, staybright and plastic, but by sublime subtlety. And what of roast beef, bitter, lazy English villages and English eccentricity? When I’m away from England, Britain, for too long, there is a yearning, almost at the genetic level which reminds me of my roots and kindles what little allegiance I have. I too am British and this memory, this imaginative kindling is my England and ultimately the place, for better or worse, I feel at home. In this context one can argue it is very patriotic to voice a concern that it has a scummy façade, that it is not aspiring to be better either in terms of its physical being or in the nature of its citizens.
©努江虎 – 노강호 2013 Creative Commons Licence.
As an Englishmen, I get pissed off at the fact so many Koreans think there are only two English accents; namely British and American. And I get even more pissed off by the fact so many place a higher value on American English. But this is hardly surprising as I’ve probably spoken to five Americans in my life who told me they didn’t have accents and perhaps because America has had such a profound impact on the peninsula, Koreans mistakenly believe there is only one American accent – if an accent at all! How ignorant do you have to be not just of the nature of your own country, but the world beyond, especially with TV and movies, to be unaware that you have an accent! I don’t place too much faith in British education but British people are very aware of their accents not least because for centuries it has been a mark of social class.
Rab C Nesbitt and his hard Glaswegian accent…
I know of at least one English hagkwon franchise in Korea that insists its teachers teach with an American accent and I wonder which accent they prefer you to use. One internet source, the validity of which I have no idea, claims American accents can basically be categorised as follows:
Pacific Northwest English
Southern American English
Acadiana: Cajun French
Central and South Florida
St. Louis and vicinity
The Inland North
Northern Cities Vowel shift
Eastern New England
Mid-Atlantic Region Dialects:
Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley
Buffalo New York English
And then there is General American, which is what most Media Broadcasters use.
As for English accents (not including Scotland, Ireland and Wales), there are probably just as many under the main divisions, initially by region, eg. South, North, West and East and then by town or counties, including: Oxford English, Queen’s English, Cockney, Bristol and west country, Lancaster, Yorkshire, Tyne, Scouse, Mancunian, Brummie, Geordie, Essex and Cornwall, etc. The interesting point about English-English accents is that they often have their own names, ‘Brummie’ for example, is the accent associated with Birmingham. Perhaps this highlights a greater awareness of accents among English (British) people and certainly English people often rank accents according to an unwritten social hierarchy. And let’s not forget the wonderful BBC English accent that was pertinent only to TV and which reigned during my childhood.
Notice how the American boy doesn’t know he has an accent…
If you watch British television, and it is probably the same in every other English speaking country, exposure to other major accents has developed a familiarity with foreign accents and viewers are as comfortable watching a show with an American accent as they are New Zealand, South African or Australian. Indeed, in Britain, some people would actually be more at ease watching something in Australian than from the other end of their own country.
With increasing globalization it becomes even more necessary to interact with major and even regional accents and insisting teachers speak only with ‘an American’ accent is doing students a disservice. Every time I ask a Korean what their hobby is, they pull a dumbfounded face at which point I rescue them by saying, ‘habby.’ Rather than running from accents, students should be exposed to them and would very quickly learn the differences are actually fairly small.
As for the amusing video…
This post was actually prompted by the above video which I first saw on Wet Casements
©Bathhouse Ballads – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
So many Koreans and students like to utter the phrase ‘TGIF’ but generally do so without any emotional content. My boss actually uses the phrase ‘thank God it’s Monday,’ and she’s not joking! The use of ‘TGIM’ suggest a lack of cultural understanding and is a little like uttering ‘phew’ when you’re about to run up a hill rather than when you’ve reached its summit. But such lack of emotion is understandable, after all, for many Koreans Saturday is simply another working day and hence ‘TGIF’ or ‘TGIM’ are pretty much the same. ‘Thank God it’s Friday,’ (TGIF) is even the name of a Korean restaurant franchise whose mantra, ‘it’s always Friday,’ couldn’t be more depressing for customers who have to work on a Saturday and for the staff it’s probably their most hated day of the week.
For middle and elementary school students, nol-to (놀토), ‘play Saturday,’ is dead. Now, every Saturday is a ‘play day.’ Of course, like so many things Korean, all isn’t what it seems! Holidays are never really holidays, family vacations never really vacations – at least by Western standards, and exams are only ever final if you’re in your last year of university. In the demise of the ‘nol-to’ lurks a wolf in disguise whose emergence should come as no surprise.
The new Monday-Friday study week came into effect at the beginning of this academic year, in March, and resulted in the termination of state school Saturday study for all but high-school students. However, the changes seem to offer little real benefit to students as classroom contact time was increased and in some cases, vacation time reduced.
The reaction to the death of the elementary and middle school ‘nol-to,’ by my students was mixed and if anything, slightly more students seemed to prefer the old system where daily study consisted of six lessons instead of seven. And to cloud the issue and perhaps weaken opposition, it seems that schools have some individual leeway in allotting the extra hours they must now incorporate into their timetable.
While ‘nol-to’ was universal for school students, I used to sense they were special days. The bathhouses for example, were always busy with children especially in mid morning and afternoons, in the streets and downtown there always seemed to be a buzz in the air and the batting cages and trampolines were occupied.
Was it the case that the ‘nol’to,’ because there were only two a month, were sacrosanct? Yes, some children studied on them but they generally seemed relaxed and were imbued with a sense of holiday. I very much suspect that now Saturday school has been banished, students will gradually be compelled to academies, study rooms, and tutors on every Saturday and worse, on Saturday mornings. Indeed, I already have students who now study in either ‘study rooms’ (공부방), or ‘reading rooms’ (독서실) from early Saturday morning until after lunch – on every Saturday.
And so it would seem, that many students have been hit with a double whammy; not only have their weekly school hours been increased and in some cases holidays lost, but every Saturday is either at risk of becoming simply another day of study, or is so already!
©Bathhouse Ballads – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
Every now and then I’m handed a piece of writing from a student that encapsulates not just the uniqueness of the Korean way of life but captures some universal element associated with childhood.
박민수 영어일기. Sunday I went to the Homeplus (Tesco) with my family. First I cut my hair. Next I bought bananas, Nintendo battery, soccer ball and we bought many things.
My hair is very bad because I say: ‘don’t cut short!’ cut small! But hair dresser make mistake he cut very many hair. Now I am ashamed and very very ugly. I want to wear cap and return time.
박믄수 영어일가. I was told off by my mom because I was late my academy because I playing soccer. I be beaten with broom. I cry because my mom is very stronger looks like bear. Maybe I had many bruis on my bum. It was my mistake. Sometime all people make mistake. So broom is unfair. Fortunately, today is very many academy so I not get beaten.
©Bathhouse Ballads – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
I’ve always enjoyed reading The Supplanter. Being a fellow Brit I enjoy his humour and we seem to share a common ground in our experience and analysis of Korean culture. Of more importance, it nearly always elicits a smile. When I first stumbled upon The Supplanter, around three years ago, I remember sitting up to the early hours of the morning reading some very amusing posts. Originally based in Korea, The Supplanter has relocated to China but he still publishes occasional posts on issues relevant to South Korea. The following is an extract from Teacher Bloopers:
Middle School, speaking test preparation after school class:
Me: ‘What’s your Father’s job?’
Student: ‘He no work’
Me: ‘He doesn’t work. Or you can say He is unemployed’
Student: ‘No, my Father dead’
Me: ‘Oh, erm, sorry to hear that’
Women’s University, Seoul, speaking test:
Me: ‘Describe your ideal man’
Student: ‘I don’t like men’
Student: ‘I’m a lesbian’
Me: ‘Good answer’
At Elementary Summer Camp, Seoul, speaking to a parent about her son’s strange behaviour:
Me: ‘Your son pulls out his hair and tries to eat it. I’m very worried about him’
Mother: ‘Yes, he does that’
Me: ‘Do you know why?’
Mother: ‘The doctor says he’s worried about things. Stressed’
Me: ‘Yes, clearly he’s very stressed. What did the doctor say to do?’
Mother: ‘Oh doctor said he’d grow out of it and if it gets bad we can get a …? I don’t know the English …’ (Mimes)
Me: ‘A wig?’
Mother: ‘Yes! That’s it – Wig!’
Exiting from building in a Chinese university:
Me: [Walks into knee high metal bollard] OH FUCK ME!!!
[Shocked students turn to observe foreign teacher hobbling away in agony]
Me: [Looking up] ‘Oh, hello Dean … I …’
In conversation with a teaching assistant, University, China:
Me: ‘I really think you should change your English name, Enoch is not a good name if you’re British’
TA: ‘Why? I like it’
Me: ‘Well, it tends to make British people think of Enoch Powell, who was a racist politician’
TA: ‘You mean he hated black people?’
Me: ‘Well yes, amongst others …’
TA: ‘Me too’
Me: ‘Umm, that’s a terrible thing to say, but he’d also hate you too!’
TA: ‘Why? I’m not black!’
Me: ‘He didn’t like anyone who wasn’t white – or British – or not Christian’
TA: ‘Well, I’m not Christian, maybe he’d like me!’
Me: ‘… I think you’ve misunderstood, let me put it another way … Just change your name, ok?’
Responding to text from Female Chinese Student in Advanced English class:
Student: ‘I really like your class! Your so funny! But, I need some help, can I come and see you?’
Me: ‘Thank you, glad you enjoy the class. Come and see me before or after the lesson’
Student: ‘No, I mean we should meet up’
Me: ‘Yes, before or after lesson is fine’
Student: ‘No, I want to come to your apartment. We can hang out, watch a movie. I stay with you because dormitory close at midnght. Too early’
Me: ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea. Bye’
Middle school, Seoul, in conversation with the baseball coach:
Korean Teacher: ‘Discipline is hard these days … students think they can do what they want …’
Me: ‘Well, they’re much better behaved than English students’
KT: ‘Really? I always thought English people were well behaved’
KT: ‘Hmmnn … I got suspended last semester because I disciplined a student’
Me: ‘Really? What happened?’
KT: ‘Oh I just hit his legs with a baseball bat … and not broke but …’
KT: ‘Yes – fracture! His parents complain … so I got suspended. You can’t harm students these days, parents complain about everything …’
Eliciting from low-level students, University, China
Me: ‘So, here are things you like [indicates board] But what about things you don’t like – or dislike?’
Me: ‘What do you dislike? Don’t like?’
Student 1: ‘Hate?’
Me: ‘No. Too strong. Dislike – Don’t like.’
Student 1: ‘Japanese?’
Student 1: ‘Hate Japanese’
Me: ‘No, no … not hate … and not Japanese. Dislike – don’t like – Hate [gesticulates] too strong’
Student 2: ‘Japanese people?’
Me: ‘No, no, no!’
Student 3: ‘Japanese culture?’
Me: ‘No! something else – forget the Japanese’
Me: ‘Anything else you dislike – don’t like – but not the Japanese’
Student 1: ‘Chinese people … Chinese people cannot forget Japanese’
Me: ‘Ok – write on your sheets things you don’t like – dislike – but NOT JAPANESE’
Me: [Checking answer sheets] ‘So, everyone has written Japanese …’
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
Okay, I’m 56 this month and I’ll probably return to the UK late next year because I need to get a decent job that pays well before I’m too close to retirement. Unfortunately, that means teaching in a British school, a prospect that fills me with terror. I dread returning to Britain, not just because I find the place boring and the people aggressive and somewhat backward, but because I feel I am going home to die rather than going there to live. Britain, as quaint as it can be, as beautiful, has become a little like the Elephants’ grave yard.
Britain on the one hand is rich in culture and London is an awesome city but as in so many cultural areas, its culturally void. Accessing the rich variety of British culture is both expensive and inconvenient. It’s one thing for a country to have a vibrant culture but not so great if it’s focused in a view places, thin on the ground, and expensive to access. Take going out for a meal: I eat out everyday in Korea mostly in a range of mid-standard restaurants and occasionally in fancy ones. In the UK, even on a fairly decent wage, eating out is expensive especially if you have a family. While there are plenty of fast food restaurants, and a few top-notch places, finding a decent middle of the road restaurant is difficult. In Korea, there is a restaurant on every street corner in even the smallest towns whereas my village in the UK has 3 restaurants, all small and expensive to serve a community of 55.000 people.
In terms of sport, patriots will boast about British prowess but the reality is that while there are excellent facilities in key locations, elsewhere facilities are poor. For example, Colchester, UK, population 155.000, has one mediocre swimming pool and no outdoor swimming facility. Further, it has no concert hall and hence you can’t see the ballet or opera, or a big pop concert. While it does have a decent theater, there’s only one. However, there are hundreds of bars and clubs to get sloshed in, mostly pumping out pop music accompanied by enormous plasma screens and juke boxes. And when you’re pissed and staggering you can lurch to any number of greasy cheap fast food places and then take an expensive taxi home. This pattern, is a major lifestyle for a great number of Brits. Yes, I know not everything is doom and gloom in the UK but my point is that if you want to eat in a decent restaurant every day, possibly twice a day, and do things, it is going to cost you! And then there’s the violence, crime, vandalism and the hordes of a what constitutes a drongo underclass that dominate the streets. Britain is not a nice country and if you think it is you are blinkered. In all my years in Korea I have never walked into an environment in which I felt threatened or intimidated but in my rather small hometown (Colchester), there are places I wouldn’t want to be even in broad daylight. And the rather nicer village in which I live nonetheless feels like a sanctuary protected by the fields and a university which separate it from less savory areas and less savory people.
Going back to the UK is a massive step down in terms of lifestyle, cultural opportunities and quality of life and even the massive hike in terms of pay can’t compensate for living in an expensive, insular little enclave surrounded by a cultural wilderness. My home town has a crappy library designed to appeal to the towns large population of drongoes, a couple of small bookshops, no shops which specialise in classical music and apart from bars and restaurants and sport, there is little else to do. I find it hard to imagine life without PC bangs, multi bangs, singing rooms, health centers, bathhouse, jjimjil-bang, stationery stores, coffee shops, medical clinics, dentists, opticians, hospitals, taekwondo, hapkido and comdo schools, cheap taxis and the rich variety of restaurants. So much of British life and British culture is the product of a large drongo population. We are denied so many facilities or social niceties as the scum elements we tolerate ruin them. My local town has a rather attractive public garden but it has to be locked at night because the bowls green and gardens are regularly vandalised and when resident swans pair up and produce cygnets, they are killed by local yobs.
Going back to the UK sucks and I dread it! There is no doubt if I was younger I would consider buying a property here and settling long-term.
©박민수 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
- Colchester – Yob Town (porthole2.wordpress.com)
Early morning, 7.30 am and I’m outside the local boys’ high school to watch the ‘suneung’ students arriving for the most important exam of their lives; an exam which for most students will have been their sole goal for the last three years, if not longer. As always, a few students arrive with just enough time to run into the school before the exam begins. You ask yourself how students can be late on the suneung morning, an event they have been counting down towards for the last year but of course no matter how significant the suneung is in the Korean psyche, the unplanned and unexpected problems of life get in the way; an alarm clock that suddenly ceases to work, the parent’s car that has a problem starting, the unexpected traffic jam.
The school stands on the brow of a hill, its front entrance, in the common tradition of poong-su (feng-shui, 풍수), faces east. Behind the schools lies the Warayong Mountain in which the infamous ‘frog boys’ disappeared in March 1991, their murdered bodies being discovered in 2002 (Five Boys Meet Death Where the Dragon Dwells). In the distance, at the foot of the hill, the wail of a police car cuts through the murmur of morning traffic. Unable to meander through the congested traffic, it mounts the pavement and drives up the footpath towards the school. The car, lights flashing, stops outside the school and to a round of applause by parents and congregated well-wishers, a boy jumps out and hastily runs towards the examination rooms.
As much as I try to avoid making comparisons with my own country, suneung always forces me to acknowledge the immense ideological abyss that separates Korea and the UK in terms of education. Suneung is an event which has a profound impact on Korean society and is reflected not just in the annual countdown to its manifestation, but in public regulations, guidelines, a host of gifts and items to aid exam success and a range of ‘gimics’ popularly ‘believed’ to aid exam performance. And after the exams, post suneung students are enticed, rewarded, with a host of reductions and offers appearing in shops, health clubs, cinemas and restaurants. Most profound and quite different to my western experiences however, are the attitudes to education. Try explaining to Korea kids that in your country it isn’t cool to be clever, that intelligent students are often bullied and the cult of anti-intellectualism rife, that a teachers dare not leave their coffee mug on a classroom table for fear of it being spat in, smeared with a pair of testicles or ladled with drawing pins or paper clips (Metro, Feb 2011). And then try explaining that achievement is leveled so that those who do well or are exceptional go unrecognized while those who were bone idle and lazy hide. In recent years one teaching organisation suggested removing the word ‘failure’ from the teacher’s diagnostic lexicon and replacing it with ‘deferred success’ (BBC News July 20th,2005). My university, Essex University, no longer awards graduates’ degrees in academic rank from 1st class honours to pass, and instead, degree ceremonies are ordered alphabetically. The graduation ceremony allows for no distinction between degrees earned by three or four year’s hard work and those the product of a permanent party. In the politically correct world of the UK, we are compelled to down play success and hide failure behind Mickey Mouse courses and useless qualifications both of which are given the veneer of parity with subjects that demand hard graft.
However much British politicians and school mangers blab about the importance of education, it is mostly hogwash. Most school are more alike than different and innovation is curtailed rather than encouraged. The quality of the teaching staff in schools, where some excellent teachers do exist, is basically bog-standard because job specifications, in the pursuit of politically correct ‘fair-play,’ castrate all applicants who have qualifications or skills not asked for by the specifications. It is totally irrelevant that an applicant can miraculously turn failing students into ‘A’ grade students, or is qualified to teach any subject on the curriculum, if such a skills or abilities aren’t requested on the specifications. Though rules can be circumnavigated they cannot be seen to do so and in the politically correct environment ‘fair-play’ and notions of ‘equality’ are dictatorial. It is a contradiction that any institution can have the ‘best staff’ when those with skills, qualifications and experience beyond the remit of the post’s specifications, have been rejected.
I can’t name one Korean celebrity who I would say is a dimwit but there exists an army of British celebrities who not only aren’t particularly bright, but whose lack of ability is celebrated. A good number of our football players lack a decent education and some are so repugnant and base they are detrimental to the boys who idolise them. And not only does British society tolerate celebrities who abuse themselves with alcohol and drugs, it financially rewards them! After being exposed as a cocaine snorter in 2005, super-model Kate Moss’ earnings between 2005-2006, increased by 3 million dollars. (Forbes. cited in Wikipedia) And in dumbed-down Britain, we love to celebrate mediocrity and stupidity. Jane Goody was a prime example of the failings of British education; despite eleven years compulsory education she was probably one of the most ignorant and dumbest adult humans ever to appear on TV. But more alarmingly, despite her tartish behaviour, foul mouth and racist attitudes, an enormous fan base developed even prior to the time she was diagnosed with cervical cancer (Jane Goody, Wikipedia). For many Brits, Goody was an idol and an example of how brute dumbness, lack of class and vulgarity can triumph. Forget education, manners or decency, just behave like a stupid slag and you too can become a millionaire. And I know it’s pitiful and sad, but once diagnosed with cancer and the mostly moronic public were even more willing to both idolise and defend her.
I remember when the Spice Girls were being interviewed ten years ago and one of them joked about the dismal report she received from her music teacher. The teacher’s suggestion that she not consider music as a career, was pathetically dismissed with the response, “and look at me now!” I doubt any of the Spice Girls could have distinguished a bass clef from a treble clef and other than miming and pouting the lips like a blow-up doll, doubt they had anything but mediocre talent which certainly wouldn’t have survived a facial attack with acid or a vigorous chaffing by a cheese grater.
I have probably had to teach in one capacity or another in around twenty different British schools and in all but a couple it was hard and degrading work. Most British kids need to be force-fed learning and the high percentage of bad attitudes, behaviour and disruption have a detrimental effect on most classes. Most British teachers are highly defensive about such accusations despite having little or no experience teaching in anything but their own country and school managers are quick to defend their schools and berate the competition in just the same manner the boss of a Burger King will slag-off McDonald’s.
Yes, Korean education has its faults but I prefer being in a system where students know where they stand instead being fed a lot of guff that their nail care technology or business studies course is the equivalent to traditional academic subjects such as maths, history or science. In all but two schools in which I’ve taught there has been a pool of retards in every grade. Of course, most are retards because they behave like scum, abusing teachers and disrupting the learning of their fellow pupils. However, I don’t think I’ve really met a Korean retard and I certainly haven’t met a Korean student who can’t read or write or doesn’t know where their country is on a map. And I’d claim that a number of my students have better English writing skills than kids I’ve taught back in the UK.
Britain has lost all sense of values and the dumbest, least talented and badly behaved are often able to earn huge sums of money. It was only a matter of time before the dregs of society and their middle class chums, the army of do-gooders who form the politically correct brigade, were able to crown a cretin like Jade Goody. Indeed, one tabloid compared Goody with Princess Diana who despite an elite education wasn’t particularly bright but at least she had class. Britain needs a good dose of Korean education to rescue it from its anti-intellectual disposition and in the process it needs to purge itself of its predilection for mediocrity. Moron celebrities, bad parents and dimwit football players need public ridicule and condemnation and bad behaviour, especially in terms of drugs and alcohol abuse, requires termination by censorship.
The whole of society, and most especially those involved in education, have colluded to tell the dregs they are ‘in with a chance’ if only they will apply themselves, which with many of the phony courses and qualifications provided, simply means, ‘attend the course.’ A cabbage has potential but only within the limitations of being a cabbage. You can tell a cabbage it could be an award-winning poet but there’s not much chance of that happening because the poor cabbage doesn’t possess the awareness it’s a cabbage. What many of the dregs require, other than a massive brain-over, or better, a total brain transplant, is to be told the truth.
‘Hey kid! You’re a fucking brassica, a fucking cabbage head, a total semi minus moron and you’re going nowhere!’ Then they should be forcibly administered a powerful chemical concoction by the Pest Control Corps to prevent the possibility of ever being able to breed.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
Suneung (수능) this year is on Thursday 10th of November and so as of today the countdown is D-10. I have written extensively on this subject in the past. The suneung is the exam day for all high school 3rd grade students and probably one of the most important days of their lives. However, entry to university is not necessarily premised on this exam. High School students have several ways to gain a place at university and for some students an unconditional offer can be made before the suneung is taken.
Among the entry methods are the ‘su-shi’ (수시) and ‘cheong-shi’ (정시). The most common entrance method is via ‘sushi’ (수시) in which ability is judged on the student’s entire high-school grade. For ‘cheong-shi’ the applicant submits thier su-neung grade and undertakes an additional interview. However, an applicant can be given an unconditional offer if they have been a grade, or in some cases, a class president for three years. Ever wondered why parents are so ecstatic when their kid is elected president? Now you know why!
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
Speech impediments have always amused me and as a child I knew a shop in Edinburgh, where I holidayed every summer with my sister, that provided us a double treat because not only was it a sweet shop, but the owner had a massive problem pronouncing sibilants. Visiting her shop for a bag of cinnamon balls and some sour plums was one of our first adventures when we arrived in the city, for summer. Even to this day, my sister and I still reminisce about the, ‘Yesh lady,’ and the various means we used to illicit her to say ‘yesh’ or ‘shower plumsh.’
If I still had a childish sense of humour, and was ignorant to the detrimental effects such humour has on successful second language acquisition, I could have such fun taking the piss out of badly pronounced ‘Engrish.’ Let’s see, ‘I’m pine!’ is a very common blunder. Then there’s ‘I like flied lice’ or ‘egg flied.’ ‘Pacuum-creaner’ always fucks them as does ‘pish and chips.’ Unfortunately, my professionalism stifles the potential for amusement.
But have you noticed that Korean kids will take the piss out of your attempts at Korean. Almost on a daily basis I will hear students commenting on my pronunciation and even mimicking my attempts. Okay, the kids I can tolerate but when adults do it, though never ill-intended, it gradually grates. I have numerous friends, truly good friends, who nonetheless will ridicule my best efforts. I’ve even had friends write down my mistakes so they can subsequently recount them. Some of my gaffs concern confusing ‘eagle’ with ‘oak’ and ‘ginger’ with ‘thinking’ which have resulted in my asking for ‘eagle curd’ and ‘thinking’ in the supermarket. Then there is the confusion between ‘Dan Goon’ (단군) the legendary founder of Korea and ‘dang geun’ which is the common garden carrot! Indeed, the moment you start to use any languages that veers from the basic, especially idioms or snippets from the Thousand Character Classic (千字文 – 천자문), and you can guarantee you will deemed highly amusing.
And if I make an amusing cock-up the chances are its nature will be shared with every class in my school. I don’t mind someone having a giggle at my gaffs but have the decency, after you’ve had a laugh, to help me correct them! I used to criticise those foreigners who’ve spent ten years in Korea and can’t string a sentence together and now I am approaching my sixth year on the peninsula I am beginning to realise that it’s probably much easier to learn Korean back in England than it is in Korea.
As a nation, Koreans are immensely selfish at turning every encounter with a foreigner into an opportunity for them to learn English. How many times have I discovered a Korean who spoke little English and could tolerate my ponderous Korean only to have them ask several days later, if I could teach them English. I’m sure a great many friendships between Koreans and native English speakers are inspired through the desire to extend English speaking skills and though I admire conviction and single-mindedness, some of my friends have forgotten the original ‘contract,’ namely, that friendship was mutually beneficial in terms of our respective languages. In more than one case, I have friends who used my help and years later are now competent English speakers while I’m still waiting for my first lesson. And the boredom that flits across their faces if I ask a Korean-language related question deters all but the most important inquiry.
It might be assumed that living in Korea would be a massive advantage, and it probably is if you are working or studying in a Korean speaking environment, but for English language teachers it is often the case that they are dissuaded from making an effort to learn Korean. The less Korean you speak the greater your value for money and the less you will understand your working life – something which seems to empower some bosses. On ESL job boards for China or the Middle East, lessons in the native language are often included in the employment package along with other standard incentives such as internet connections or air conditioning. In Korea however, though there are exceptions and more enlightened employers, there seems a complete ignorance that many westerners come to Korea not just because it’s a job but because they want to experience and better understand Korean culture.
Koreans treat language as an academic tool, as almost exclusively a qualification the mastering of which provides a rung up the academic and social ladder. This is evident by the structuring of Korean-English exams where the emphasis isn’t on an ability to communicate, but to identify and correct grammatical errors. Occasionally, the questions that have to be answered would puzzle and bewilder the most proficient and articulate of native English speakers. Recently, a top Korean school attempted to change the nature of its instruction and to focus on effective communication. Parents however, weren’t happy and demanded a return to rote learning and grammar because English in Korea is not about communication and is treated in much the same way as classical Latin or Greek, in other words, as a ‘dead language’. Not forgetting that both the USA and UK have the world’s poorest second language acquisition, there are westerners on the Korean peninsula for whom learning Korean is not an academic tool but a means of communication which has the potential to help better understand Korean culture and the Korean psyche.
How Koreans perceive second language acquisition has been influenced by their experience of the language learning process. If language is about grammar, is predominantly written rather than spoken, if it is taught in isolation of history and culture, it if is about grades and exams, if written English is given more importance than spoken English, then it is understandable why they should be so negative or dismissive of a foreigner’s interest in learning Korean. Of all the potential approaches to the study of a language, Korea has managed to extract and venerate the most boring and I would imagine the learning of classical Greek or Latin, where at least you are treated to primary sources, would be more engaging. Considering the number of years Korean kids learn English, I rarely meet ones whose command of spoken English impresses me. On the other hand, a great number of them have superior writing skills to their native English speaking peers. And we should not forget, Koreans do better job learning languages than we do in dumbass Britain where a recent report claim 10% of ten year old boys have the reading age of a seven year old – and that’s in their native language!
In Korea, if you want to learn Korean you’re very much on your own! And though you would think it easy to find a Korean student or adult to help you in your quest, the reality is few have sufficient free time. Koreans are either too obsessed with the development of their own English skills, too busy using you to earn money, or too constrained by other pressures, to help you learn Korean. Of course there are exceptions! Korea is an amazing country but personally, of the numerous places I have lived for an extended period of time, Koreans have been the least helpful in improving my skills and the most demanding in the pursuit of improving their own. And if you find a Korean friend who has not the slightest interest in learning English, and they do exist, you are truly blessed.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
A few weeks ago, I was showering in the bathhouse. The soap is always provided which is something which irks many westerners. Somehow, we seem to find pollution everywhere but on ourselves and are quick to condemn a number of Korean habits, including the ones concerning communal hard soap as opposed liquid soap. I have cited, on numerous occasions, the research on the hygiene of British people where a culture of super-clean toilets seems to mitigate the need to actually wash your hands. When you take a dump in a nice clean toilet with white tiled walls, devices that automatically jettison a fragrance into the air to mask unpleasant smells, and mop up with two ply, scented toilet paper, it is easy to forget how dirty shit is. In 2008, a major British study revealed 25% of those tested had faecal matter on their hands and 33% of home work surfaces were contaminated by faecal matter and strains of E-coli (Daily Telegraph). It is no exaggeration to say that British people have so much shit on their hands they might as well have mucked themselves out manually especially when international research ranks Britain as the third most contaminated society after India and Malaysia and more contaminated than Arabic countries where one traditionally cleans their bum with a hand and water. So, among Brits at least, I always titter when they bang-on about how dirty it is to use communal soap because only 43% of British mothers see fit to wash their hands after changing their baby’s nappy. The chances are, a great number of people who condemn communal hard soap are the same people who ‘shit and go,’ without bothering to wash their hands.
So, there I am using one of a hundred bars of communal soap and I notice it is rather hairy; in fact it’s so hairy I can feel the coarseness on my skin. For a moment, and it is brief, I am repulsed but then I’m pacified by the thought, it’s only hair, Korean hair and in that moment, not only do I continue using it, but I start to reminisce.
My family shared soap in the bathroom as well as towels and I can even remember we shared bath water. Back in the 60’s you didn’t shower every day, but on a weekly basis. For many children of the 50’s and 60’s, Sunday was traditionally bath day and for me that meant stepping into second-hand, scummy-gray water and wanting to get out as quickly as possible; not because the water was gross, but because by the time I got to use the bath the hot water had expired.
Maybe it’s the memory of the bathing experience as a child which makes me wallow in the luxury of a Korean bathhouse. I am not surprised we bathed on a weekly basis and hated the process. In the days when central heating was an emerging luxury, and before double glacéing and hot-water-on-demand heating systems, bathing, especially in cold weather, was unpleasant. Then there were the damp towels, the dubious face cloth and sponges whose possible journeys and uses, as a child, I never contemplated. Eventually, when the final dregs of gray scud whirled and gurgled down the drain, the final bather had to prostrate themselves at the edge of the bath, Ajax in hand, and scour away the crusty tide mark. Drying my face with the ‘family’ bath towel and detecting an odour, the origins of which I don’t wish to recall, was an experience a lot less traumatic than had the odour belonged to an outsider. I think most of us are more tolerant of ‘dirt’ and ‘pollutants’ when we are either related genetically or are familiar with the owner. In sexual relationships, most people will happily rub their faces in the gutters of the human body but the moment they have to wash their hands with a communal bar of soap and they are offended. I have known numerous dog owners who would happily let their dog lick their face and lips, or lick their ice cream, after it had sniffed and tasted the back-end of every other dog in the neighbourhood. Familiarity has powers of sanitation far superior to the most stringent bleaches and cleaning agents, and as for sexual passion, the atomic bomb of hygienics, in its radiance all filth and the veiny, mucous-lined channels from which it oozes, are deified.
I want to see that bar of soap as a Korean sees it, not because I want to be Korean but because in its comprehension lies something of the mystery of what it means to be Korean as a Korean and which as a cultural phenomena, eludes all outsiders. How Koreans perceive a simple bar of communal soap, I am beginning to think, shares a proximity to communal plates and bowls, the communal bowl of odeng which has almost disappeared, the act of drinking a shot of soju from another person’s glass, sharing water in the bathhouse, dipping your toothbrush into a communal bowl of salt, and cascades down through various other social interactions far removed from ablutions and yet intrinsically connected through their relationship with the community. This is not to say Korea doesn’t have taboos and social mores, it does. You can cough in someone’s face and share food from the same plate, picking at it with your chopsticks, but suck the end of your pen and you’re ‘dirty.’
The bar of soap reminds me how human reactions to ‘pollution’ are affected by familiarity and hence a mother will find the contents of her baby’s nappy much less disturbing than if it belonged to that of a stranger. I have quite often seen Korean men pick an Italy towel or razor out of a bathhouse bin and proceed to use it and indeed, some of my friends do this. It’s easy to condemn this as a disgusting act but we have all used each others’ Italy towels and razors and the only difference between using your friend’s towel and a discarded one, is that your friend has a relationship with you and you know for sure they haven’t got face fungi.
Korean society is far more homogeneous than that of the UK where our gene-pool has been thoroughly mongrelised. Many Brits, often comment on how ‘orientals’ all look alike but the fact is Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Thais etc, all have their own distinguishing features and it is only ignorance and lack of familiarity, which masks them. I can tell apart a Korean from a Chinese or Japanese person, with far greater accuracy than I can a Russian, Frenchman, Englishman or German. And the process of mongrelization in Britain, started well before the Viking raids and French conquest of 1066. That Koreans are more homogeneous genetically, plus their isolationist past, the influences of Confucianism and recent history in which their national identity was suppressed, have conspired to produce a society with a strong sense of group identity.
There are many points at which you can observe Koreans expressing their identity through a shared framework and one of the most obvious is through the values surrounding education. Regardless of social position, every Korean parent has much the same academic expectations for and of their children. In Britain, educational values, and sometimes the lack of them, tend to divide society. Other examples, if practiced in the UK would be deemed archaic, even invasive. I don’t think I have ever heard a British school child talk about their future aspirations in terms of ‘their country’ but Korean students often tell me they want to do something to ‘help’ or ‘better’ their nation. The National anthem is not only heard more often that it would be in the UK but most people can sing the verses. The national flower, the mugunghwa (Rose of Sharon – 무궁화), is a well know image. National Service is often perceived by many, though indeed not all, as a duty towards ones country. Even kimchi and Korean martial arts are important facets of Korean identity. Perhaps, because the formation of modern Korea and its struggles with both foreign aggressors and internal political fracture, are relatively recent events, the important historical figures, the Korean founding fathers, are well know to all Koreans. If you should praise Korean society, many Koreans will be quick to thank you. Meanwhile, back in the UK, political correctness has tarnished the Union Jack and anything British with slurs of imperialism, racism, and oppression. Indeed, I think it not wrong to claim that in Britain, British culture is a dirty word and British culture the most inferior of all the cultures now inhabiting the British Isles. Meanwhile, the influences which shaped European and British history have been discarded and the significance of Marathon, Thermopylae and anything else pertaining to ancient civilizations are deemed crusty, boring and thoroughly elitist.
In western society, we value individuality and see its development as worthwhile and important and whenever we cooperate or interact with others we very much do so as individuals working with in a group. And if a person were to exhibit characteristics which conflicted with the group, their subsequent labelling as ‘an individual’ could be very positive. We respect ‘individuality’ even if we don’t agree with its content. For westerners, it is possible to develop as a respected individual without any need of group associations and one can forge an identity in isolation. For Koreans however, it is the group which defines their roles and gives them their identity and they can be quite lost without the security of its parameters. I have on numerous occasions seen students ‘shut down’ or socially paralyzed because group dynamics weren’t quite right. Identities articulated around work, the army, school and university, ferrying individuals through the various stages of life are integrally important, lifelong points of reference.
And at all times in Korean society, you notice the importance of hierarchy. You can chuck western kids together, mixing ages, abilities and gender randomly and they will basically work but Koreans are likely to suffer almost a trauma if the groups aren’t structured properly. Difference, for Koreans, is much more difficult to deal with. Age cohorts are incredibly important and Koreans constantly refer to their position either currently or in the past, not only through age cohort terms like ‘first grade’ or ‘sixth grade’ but by larger structural ones such as ‘high school student’ or ‘university student.’ That you can address a young person as ‘student’ is reflective of both the pivotal role of education and age banding. I have know a number of Korean high school students who, after spending a year abroad, returned to Korea to be put back a year into a class with students younger than them and they found the experience quite difficult.
The importance of age in Korean society can never be underestimated and it is for this reasons they always want to know how old you are. Without knowing your age, a Korean is not only unsure what language to use addressing you, but is unsure how to act towards you. Knowledge of your age allows them to place you in the appropriate group from which they know how to treat you. And don’t necessarily expect relationships determined by such factors to change over time or with familiarity, as they would in the west. I’ve taught English students who very quickly treated me in manner which in Korean would be seen as intimate; that is they use familiar terms of address and treat you as an equal. But Korean ‘friends’ I taught almost 12 years ago, when they were high school students, still address me as ‘teacher’ and some find it difficult not to. Another, who will use my first name, finds it difficult to smoke in my presence and may turn their head while drinking alcohol. And you will be sorely reminded if you make a blunder and assume students belong to the same age cohort when in fact they occupy adjacent ones.
The Korean Language expresses both collectivism and hierarchical stratification. Indeed, Korean is a language of built-in deferentially and when using it you are constantly aware of your position in relation to others. The terms to address people are rarely their names, but their function within the group. Koreans rarely uses personal pronouns as these are seen as intimate and in the wrong context rude, and position, rank, family relationships or specific occupations commonly replace these. In terms of collectivism, Koreans refer to their parents, schools, universities and the largest structural unit of all, nation, by way of ‘our’ rather than ‘my.’ Whenever I refer to ‘my mother’ as ‘our mother’ I am a little unsure whether this is correct, or possibly bizarre, as I am not Korean and not part of the collective.
There is probably no better example of the differences between ‘collective’ and individualistic’ ideologies than in the conflict westerners often encounter when the ‘interest’ of the ‘individual’ clash with the ‘interest’ of work. In the west, we are used to a very clear division between work and ‘play’ and it is not appropriate to spring meetings on people at the last moment, ask them to change their plans for that evening, or expect them to ‘stand a friend up’ in order to work. If this is a necessity, financial recompense can be expected. When Koreans expect westerners to behave in the same manner as Koreans, they do not really understand the sacrosanct nature of free time and the importance of individuality as an expression of identity. Koreans however, will suppress all individual pursuits, interests or engagements, if work requires some additional input. Koreans do not divide work and free time so absolutely and they will work way past their contracted time if the organisation requires this and not expect a financial reward for doing so – though I suspect they would expect their diligence to be acknowledged and perhaps foresee some in-lieu benefit at a future date. (Of course, it is equally as plausible to interpret this work ethic as exploitative and manipulative). And, in terms of obesity, the collective ideology is definitely more judgmental. I sense, that whenever I am in the presence of a Korean who is proportionally fatter than I, I can relax because it seems a far greater social offence to be a fat Korean betraying the parameters of the Korean frame, than a fat foreigner.
In the West, the rights of the individual are so crucial that it is almost the case that the rights one person can easily trample on the rights of another. I am reminded of the time I witnessed an argument about someone playing loud music at an inconvenient time and where the perpetrator claimed playing loud music was, his ‘right.’ As with many facets of life in Korea and life back home, there is a clear polarization where both extremes each seem too extreme. As much as I love living in a society that is a collective hierarchy, and enjoying the benefits it brings, it is as a foreigner and outsider who is absolved from transgressions and given leniency. I would certainly hate to be part of that collective and stripped of those component parts which I believe are integral to my individuality and identity. I actually shudder to think how my Korean friends, and especially my boss, perceive my passions and would imagine that for all the importance I attribute them, they probably view them as trite and puerile and in some way detracting from my responsibilities.
And so my little sojourn returns to the bar of hairy soap where this epic began. I realise of course, that most of the other bars are hairless and that I suspect the hairs are mine. Westerners, we’re gross! I love the Korean physical homogeneity because my western body, my British body is riddled with the mutations of cross breeding, of mongrelism. And, I’ve inherited that horrid propensity for chest hair, and worse, back hair which is just too great a reminder of my primate past. I can tolerate the soap with Korean hair attached, but with those western straggles matting the surface of the soap, I’m both revolted and ashamed. Westerners, we’re just too different, not just physically but mentally. We cling to immobile markers of identity and individuality, our sexuality, our colour, our religious and political affiliations, mountain dew, pop groups, and a ton of other crap, with such passion that our differences and the importance of our affiliations hinder and obscure that which we do share. When we do identify with each other to the extent of it representing some tangible community, it tends to be through trivia such as the royal weddings, football, Big Brother or Pop Idol. For so many westerners, their name and their sexual, political, religious, ethical or sporting affiliations are fundamental components of any social introduction are often of more importance than work. For many Koreans, the most important topic is work and for most adults life comprises of little much else.
And so I come to the conclusion that if my Korean friends can use someone else’s Italy towel, they can just as easily tolerate the hairy soap and do so because they are familiar with the hair’s owner, who was in all probability, a Korean and possibly a distant relative with whom they have much in common. Meanwhile, the westerner perceives that last person as anything but a relative or countryman and instead a dirty fucking stranger who probably has a hideous skin disease.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.