Wednesday, November 11, 2009


originally posted elsewhere.

Acceptance is an interesting concept. As Americans, we accept many natural truths about our daily lives. We see homeless people but we don't care enough to do anything about it. Sure we're divided about how they became homeless or what to do about it but ultimately we accept them as a reality. Well, homeless people also exist in Korea. That's not my point.

My point for this post is acceptance in general. Are foreigners accepted as a part of daily life in Korea? Yes. Are they accepted as productive members of society? Not really. Will foreigners ever have a voice outside of the English teaching field? Sure. Eventually. But not right now. For now, it's a necessary evil - Asian-looking foreigners are here to work crummy conditions in factories and western-looking foreigners are here to teach the young people English so as to raise the international profile of Korea.

But, what is my place? I'm not here to teach English. I'm here to learn Korean history, the language, and to get married (what? you didn't see that coming?). So where do I fit in? Allow me to make an analogy.

I notice a lot of Koreans spitting in the streets in Seoul. Perhaps this happens out in the rural areas, too but I can only atest to the spitting nature of Seoulites. It is repulsive. But, it's an accepted part of Korean life. A small, accepted part.

That's kind of how I view foreign English teachers in Korea. A spit on a sidewalk. No, I don't mean literally and certainly don't mean any disrespect, but it's fitting in my mind. It's this unpleasant but fairly common sight to see - a foreign English teacher. Other Koreans think spitting is gross, sure, but it's accepted. Just like the sight of a Western-looking guy buying groceries, riding the bus, and holding hands with a Korean woman. Want your kid to speak English? Then accept the fact that some English teachers will be in the streets.

I had expected to not be lumped in the same category as the rest of foreigners because I love Korea; plus, I'm a "real" teacher at a public school, not an academy. Sorry again, I don't mean to look down on teachers without teaching degrees, but when your focus on ESL and actual teaching as an undergraduate, it's more applicable in the teaching job field than say, a degree in IT or Communications. Any 학원 teachers looking to leave nasty comments - try to be open minded. If the job market here was for computers or for speech giving, then those degrees would trump my teaching degree any day of the week.

Anyways, yeah I'm not a 학원 teacher, and I have a teaching degree. Fantastic. Too bad I have a white face...I'm the poster boy for America. I'm, therefore, an English teacher. Why else would I be in Korea?

This leads me to believe that no matter how fluent I become, no matter where I work, I'll still be immediately identified as an English teacher (at least at first glance). Teaching English to elementary school kids is not what I always want to do, so I'm not complaining nor am I venting. I simply am fascinated by this instant recognition - be it false or accurate. At the moment, it's dead accurate. But, five years from now? It had better be a different story.

It makes me think of old school 1860s Chinese immigrants to California. Chinese workers came in droves for promise of good pay to work on the new transcontinental railroad and previously, the gold mines. They likely had no interest in American life, its history, or its people. It was a job. However, some stayed in America despite severe discrimination. They were probably faced with plenty of Americans who looked at them and smirked "You're a railroad worker, aren't you?" They still preferred their new life in America over what they had back in China. Now, they were no longer exactly Chinese, not exactly Americans, but not yet Chinese-Americans. They were 'pioneers' in every sense of the word. My hat goes off to them.

But, clearly, no one looks at a Chinese-American today and think "Oh cool. You came here during the Gold Rush, right?" But that's why they came in such great numbers at first. Over time, some stayed, integrated into the mainstream society and are now are just as accepted as any other American. Chinese-Americans govern cities, own businesses, and are simply a natural part of what makes America so great. Sure, some racism still exists, but be reasonable, the system is set up to support minorities, no suppress them. Chinese-Americans have the same rights as any other American. They can work any job and do whatever they please just as all other Americans.

Unlike foreigners in Korea at the present.

Look, I'm not trying to say I'm a pioneer or that I'm doing anything as meaningful as building a railroad. But in the standard mold, I don't fit. I didn't come here to make money teaching and I didn't come here to be Korean. I don't expect to be instantly recognized as anything other than a young American teacher because frankly, that's what I look like. I don't get offended when people ask if I'm a 학원 teacher. I don't get offended when I don't get accepted in the group 100%. But, when other people such as myself come to Korea with a genuine interest in the culture, history, and language, it says something about the future of the country.

My Korean friends are much more open minded and accepting of me than say, the older generation. But that's indicative of old generations in any country. My friends are the young generation who will eventual rise up and replace the old generation in business and government. They will see foreigners like myself as something other than what their parents saw. They will simply see: 매튜. Just Matthew.

So, no, right now, I have no real rights or anything like that. No, I'm not fluent yet. But, I know that I'm in the right path.

My older brother Todd once shared with me one of the most profound life statements ever. "At the end of the day, can you honestly say that what you did today helped you get to where you wanna go tomorrow? If so, then you're doing the right thing. If not, do something else." How simple yet so incredibly insightful. If I never learn anything else from my brother, I will surely never forget this mantra.

It applies to me right now because I'm studying Korean now in order to be fluent tomorrow. I'm working as a teacher now because it affords me the time to study, network, and of course, pay the bills. I read Korean history books because I want to be prepared for graduate school.

One day, when my halvsie kids are running around, perhaps they won't be met with the question if they are in Korea to teach. Perhaps they will be seen as unique members of society and their individuality will be viewed as a positive contribution to the group. After all, Korea is already getting better at accepting mixed ethnicity kids in Korea - or at least in terms of accepting them as something other than the product of American military presence. Still not fully accepted but it's getting better for sure. 새미's work at YMCA is proof of this.

Anyways, here's to the future. I believe in you, Korea.


Post a Comment