Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Few Harsh Truths

There comes a point in every ex-pat's sojourn in a foreign country when the host country just seems to get the better of your sense of peace and balance.  For some, it comes sooner rather than later while others manage to last years before succumbing to this storming of one's emotions. 

For the past month, I've been trying to put my finger on the cause of my seemingly constant irritability and general annoyance with so many things around me lately. I've finally reached the conclusion that I'm simply tired. I'm tired of being stared at like I have two heads instead of just being a regular person - albeit from a different ethnicity. With the increasing number of foreigners in Korea over the past decade alone, I cannot find any reasonable justification for Korean people to stare so openly at those who are not Korean - particularly in cities. To some extent, I can understand this happening in the very rural areas where fewer foreigners are been seen but in a city with over 3,000 foreigners (teachers and military personnel), I find it rude that people still stare and still feel the need to point out the 'waegookin' on buses, in stores, at the cinema, on the street, etc.

I'm tired of people talking about me in Korean while I'm standing/sitting right beside them. With complete strangers, I can still understand (again, to some extent) the ignorance of the belief that most western foreigners don't understand much Korean. However, I cannot excuse the ignorance - and arrogance - of colleagues and students who do this. Surely after nearly three years at a school, people cannot be so arrogant as to think that I don't speak or understand any Korean. 

I'm tired of being asked, several times a day, if I'm not cold because I'm wearing a short-sleeved top in early spring while my colleagues and students are all wrapped up in jackets and light sweaters. Surely, at the age of 31, I'm old enough to know when I'm cold, and smart enough to put on a sweater or something warmer if I were actually cold. If I were to constantly ask them if they were not hot because of their choice of clothing, they'd be equally annoyed and probably even think me rude.  My all-time favourite though is when teachers stare at me open-mouthed like I'm walking around naked simply because I am wearing summer clothes while they are still bundled up and whining, "Ah, Chuwayo" every five minutes. I'm hot-blooded and I don't get cold easily; accept it and move on.

I'm tired of being talked at in Korean when I've already said I don't understand what is being said or I'm clearly not interested in talking. It's rude. I don't have to say, "Hello" to every Korean student or adult who screams it out at me while walking down a street and minding my own business. It's rude. I don't have to answer random people asking me where I'm going, where I'm from or what I do. It's rude. I don't have to tell people how much money I earn. It's none of their business.  I have a skill (I'm actually a qualified and experienced teacher outside of Korea) that is in demand in this country and I work exceptionally hard for my money; it's the law of economics around the world. I did not get my particular job simply by being a native English speaker and, even if I did, if you object to it, take it up with the government - don't harass me about it.

I'm tired of backstabbing people but thinking it's okay as long as it's done with a smile or you give an embarrassed laugh when you're caught out. I'm tired of hearing that I make so much money for so little work when I actually work harder than some Korean teachers. I've written three guidebooks and one textbook for my school.  I've taken work home most weekends and, lately, almost every day, and I work through every lunch break. I've initiated several programs to help maximise speaking opportunities for students, offered to teach conversational classes for teachers, and comment on approximately 120 journals most weeks - all of this is on top of preparing lessons for classes that have no textbook and no clear syllabus in a course that is formally assessed, which is different to the situation of most foreign teachers. While many of my colleagues chat over coffee, go for long walks/lunches, play badminton during break times, study Korean (foreign teachers), shop online or watch movies, I'm often sitting and commenting on journals or doing some form of editing. I more than earn my salary each month.

I'm tired of listening to immature students who can't see the world beyond Korea but think they have such hard lives because they're at school until 23:00. Granted they're at school longer than most westerners but they don't actually work harder or longer hours - and many students are just as lazy here as they are back home. Korean students are becoming increasingly rude and disrespectful. The gangs of middle school girls who roam the streets in loud, giggling and silly lines of four/five while dominating sidewalks and not caring who they plow over are among the worst. The constant mirror checks to straighten bangs and do lip-gloss checks while in lessons is like a throwback to another century when women were expected to be little more than a pretty distraction for men. The cram and regurgitate method of education annually graduates robotic students with little independent or creative thought.  Any attempts to deviate from this method are increasingly met with resistance and defiance: crossed arms, scowls, exasperated sighs or, if you're lucky, sleeping in class.

I'm tired of hearing that Korean food is too spicy for foreigners - maybe we just don't like certain things. And, no: We do not eat pizza and hamburgers every day - we also consider that to be junk food.  We're not all fat - we have different bodies. And even for those of us who are overweight, it's rude to constantly comment on it. Speaking Korean while miming and pointing at a person makes it obvious what you're saying even if we don't understand the words.

I'm tired of being pushed and shoved constantly by older (and not so old) people who think that age gives them preference to behave in any manner they like or simply that not being Korean makes me inferior to them.

I'm tired of the hurry up and wait approach, and the speed check out in stores where checking out always turns into a race of who can shove through the line the fastest even if the person ahead of you is not finished with his/her purchases.

The sad reality is that while teaching in Korea is becoming increasingly frustrating, it's still generally better than teaching back home. What disappoints me the most is that the mindset of the Korean nation in general seems unchangeable in so many ways. I defended Korea for so long when I heard negative comments and I excused a lot of rude behaviour under the guise of culture or age  but the truth is that the longer I stay in Korea, the less I can excuse. When people my age and younger  make utterly ridiculous comments or are overtly racist/rude/ignorant/arrogant, it takes every ounce of my patience not to reach over and slap them.

I take my hat off to foreigners who have lived here for 10 years and longer even when not married to Koreans. I hope that I will again discover more of the things that I once loved about Korea because this constant frustration and annoyance is exhausting and depressing. It's not that I hate Korea right now; I'm more disappointed that certain realities have become rather stark this year. I know that there are many good things about Korea still, and I truly hope that these harsh truths don't over-power those positives that I have seen in my time here - even if they currently appear to be preparing for the world championships of hide-and-seek....

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