Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Little Perspective (15 April)

Having taught in South Africa for several years, I’m used to student discipline being one of the biggest parts of my job.  My school in Korea has been rather easy in this regard…which is why we were all shocked to the core at the scandal that occurred at school last night.  I barely make it into the school this morning before one of my co-teachers, who is clearly bursting at the seams to share the news, pulls me aside and fills me in on shocking news.  Your school may have had problems but could it possibly be any worse than this…

Scandal Abounds

Bearing in mind that this is one of the most elite schools in my province, behaviour is seldom a problem.  Last night’s events, however, were so shocking that it was necessary for the parents of the students concerned to be summoned to school immediately and the homeroom teacher was required to fill out a detailed incident report.  From cities nearly three hours away, distraught parents rushed to school, late at night, demonstrating the severity of this incident and the students concerned with dealt with rather strictly.  Communications continued until close to midnight and it was agreed that a disciplinary hearing will be held to determine the most appropriate form of discipline for the two disgraced students.  Disappointment was evident in the faces of all and teary promises that this would never happen again.  

Such a terrible crime must surely involve underage drinking, smoking, drugs or some other illegal activity.  It’s far, far worse than anything you could possibly imagine and the students were stupid enough to be caught doing taking part in this illicit activity outside the store across the road from the school (in front of my apartment building!) – in full school uniform!

What, exactly, was their crime?

They were caught kissing!

The vice-principal apparently saw the students kiss, told them to stop and they ignored him then tried to run away.  Naturally, like any scored educator, he chased them and caught the boy – one of my best and sweetest students.

My colleagues are shocked but I can’t stop at the ludicrous hardline approach the school has taken.  One of my colleagues commented that “these students have had a relationship – they were smooching.  What if they now have a baby!”  I tried to reason with my colleagues by pointing out that teachers back home have caught students doing far worse than kissing but they were not amused.  I hope that next time the students have enough common sense to at least go behind the building to kiss.

Understanding a New Perspective

The reaction of my Korean colleagues is somewhat understandable:  Public Displays of Affection are frowned upon in Korea; kissing is something intimate and should be reserved for the bedroom or, at the very least, the privacy of your own home.   Even holding hands is frowned upon by some older Koreans.  

Statistically, most Koreans live at home until they get married.  Unlike Western countries where a 30 year old man living at home with his parents would most likely be labelled a ‘loser’, in Korea, this is quite common for both sexes.  A lot of Koreans will try to convince you that high school students are not having sex and I’ve had many older Koreans try to convince me that pre-marital sex just does not happen in Korea.  Of course, this is contradicted by the sheer number of Love Motels that exist in every city – particularly in university areas – and exist for the sole purpose of renting rooms by the hour.  Since so many young Koreans live with their parents until marriage, getting down to the dirty deed in the comfort of one’s own home is not exactly possible – enter a lucrative business opportunity that caters to this natural human need.  Love Motels are pretty decent accommodation, however, and can be great places to stay overnight for a reasonable price.  

I should probably also add, as so many other bloggers before me have commented at length, that Koreans do not ‘date’ – they have relationships.  My colleague’s comment of the possibility of these students having a baby since they’ve ‘smooched’ is a direct reflection of the conservatism that is so evident at times in Korea.  Since kissing is reserved for the bedroom, along with other things, this reflects her train of thought: the students kissed, therefore they’re in a committed relationship, and (despite their denial of teenagers having sex) are probably doing other relationship matters too.   

As a homeroom teacher, my colleague is like a substitute parent for this boy (who is in 11th grade in high school) and therefore feels that she has failed.  Since the students spend more time at school than they do at home, she is responsible for his moral guidance and ensuring that he (and other students in her class) toe the line.  From a Korean perspective, his behaviour is a direct reflection of her failure to provide this guidance – something that the vice-principal did not hesitate to tell her.  She was hauled over the coals and told to increase her vigilance of her students.  If the students had been caught having sex, she would probably have been fired, charged with negligence and never allowed to teach again.

This preservation of innocence is simultaneously frustrating and endearing. It’s endearing to meet adult Koreans who are still pure and Korean men generally have a reputation for being very sweet and considerate of their partners – they make sure their girlfriend is never bored, will go out of their way to make sure that you’re always entertained, are true gentlemen, even insist on carrying your handbag and will generally bend over backwards to make you happy.  I’m not saying that this is necessarily ideal but it is certainly different from the Western approach.  

A Foreing View

The frustrating downside, however, is that many grown men in Korea can still seem rather childlike at times.  I can’t help but look at my students and wonder how on earth they would function if they ever live or work outside of Korea.  While the sweet, gentle and innocent approach may be universal in Korea, such behaviour outside of Korea would, perhaps, be laughed at.  My high school students don’t really know how to talk to members of the opposite sex and this is something that seems to continue into adulthood for many.  Granted, the reasons for this apparent shyness may have more to do with Confucianism than anything else, but it can be frustrating for many foreigners.   Girls seem to be programmed to be cute in Korean culture and are viewed as fragile and emotional but many Korean men – which explains why some of the male teachers at my school treat me the way they do.  

Of course, this is not to say that all Korean men are like this or even that all Korean women are meek and mild.  I’m also not saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing – just different and the cause of many interesting (and frustrating) misunderstandings when Koreans and foreigners engage with one another.

The scandal at my school is true eye opener.  However, after having dealt with teenagers swearing at me and students assaulting teachers at my previous school, I’m truly grateful that something so minor in my own culture is the extent of the ‘serious discipline problems’ at my school here in Korea.  


  1. I wish I'd found your blog sooner. I can't tell whether this is a new post, or from April... It's pretty interesting to read about your perspective as an English teacher here. I'm a U.S. Air Force guy who's been stationed here for the past fifteen months. Obviously, we see Gunsan and Korea through different lenses. No doubt, some of my counterparts have left a bad impression on you, but hopefully you've met one or two American servicemen or women who've surprised you pleasantly. I'd say that many of your observations about Korean culture are accurate from my point of view. The ones I disagree with are likely the result of our diverging set of experiences. During my time here, I've met, "dated", and married a Korean woman. You certainly right about that... I couldn't even get a kiss until I agreed that she and I were in a relationship. Well, it all worked out. If you're still here, I hope you're having a good time.

  2. Fascinating how Public Displays of Affections vary so much from culture to culture.
    Some years back I was in Japan, I knew a young woman who was about to leave for Europe and wouldn't see her mother for at least 2 years. Her mother escorted her to the airport. At the moment of parting, they were standing about a meter apart, both with tears streaming down their faces, bowing over and over to each other, but would not or could not embrace. Or didn't want to. Uninterpretable to the western mind, I think.

    At the other extreme, I was working in France year before last in a french company. Every morning, in a settled routine, as people arrived they would go and make the 'greeting' rounds. Men would shake hands with each other, men and women or women and women would kiss on both cheeks. None of this fluffy air-kisses either - a good and proper smack. Didn't matter if you knew the person or not, or what you happened to be doing - the morning greeting rounds took priority. For me it was just bizarre, several times I was in an early meeting, at the white board, talking about some engineering point, when in would walk the director's young secretary, give me a half embrace and two kisses. And then walk out. Different.