Friday, May 16, 2014

An American Love Affair

This is a post that I've been considering for many months. It's one that's bound to provoke heated reactions from certain groups of people and quick judgments from others, so I ask you this: If you are easily offended by constructive criticism, please don't read this entry. It really is as simple as that. I'm not here to instigate a fight and have no interest in discussing politics. What I am interested in doing is sharing an opinion about a situation in Korea that even their national educational networks have questioned in the past six months.

The Sun Rises and Sets With America - For Koreans

For the first two years at my school, we had two Kiwis and myself (a South African) as the native English speakers. While my school never told any of us to use American accents in lessons - they even allowed us to use British spelling - there were always murmurings of how the school "needs an American teacher." Why? Why was an American teacher "needed?" If anything, the students needed to be exposed to the other Englishes of the world. What could an American do that we couldn't?

Two years later, one Kiwi left and the unicorn arrived: The school finally had it's American teacher. Part of me was tempted to ask if we commoners of the English world were expected to bow, scrape and grovel in his presence since apparently he was a better teacher than us by sheer virtue of his nationality. He can do no wrong. He's never at fault and any disputes with him as a native speaker are firmly the fault of the other party. Why? Because he's an American. At least, that's the reason that is never quite voiced but always hinted at. It's not entirely his fault though.

Now, before I continue, I want to clarify that this post is NOT to bash Americans. I have many - ok, some - American friends and, yes, I have spent some time in the US - 6 months to be exact. The way that Americans are viewed in Korea is more to do with the pedestal that Koreans have placed them on rather than the people themselves. Somehow, America has come to be seen as faultless, which is greatly ironic considering how derogatory so many Korean people can be of the American teachers here.

The Prejudice

There is a very strong prejudice in Korea that American teachers - or American educated teachers - are better than those from anywhere else in the world. Unless you happen to have graduated from Oxford or Cambridge, a degree from a non-American (and some Canadian) university is seen as little more than a certificate of some irrelevant course. Somehow, this makes us less qualified than our American counterparts even if we hold more relevant and higher qualifications for the job.

So many of the job advertisements in Korea either openly state "American and Canadian teachers only" or they subtly inform applicants of this with the less openly racist comment of "Bachelors degree from a North American university." Really? You would rather hire someone with little to no teaching experience - and possibly even a degree not related to education or even English studies - simply because they were born in the right country? A country that, let's face it, doesn't automatically have a superior education system all-round although it has many top-quality institutions.

KiwiKat once told me that a recruiter was very keen to help place her in a job because she's extremely experienced - she's taught in Korea for 11 years - and is actually a qualified teacher. She was perfect for just about any job but being from New Zealand was a serious mark on her resume because her accent wasn't "right." It wasn't until she got him on the phone so that he could hear just how neutral - and lovely! - her accent is that he agreed to bat for her. It's disgusting that credentials are insufficient in the face of an accent.

My favourite job posting was with a recruitment company that stated, in bold letters, at the top of its home page:
                    1. You MUST be from a country where ENGLISH is the ONLY official language.
                    2. Only NORTH AMERICAN teachers may apply.
My first response when I saw this? Morons. Not only are they being racist - racism does NOT only refer to skin colour - but they haven't even bothered to do their research. Anyone with half a brain cell and an internet connection could tell you that the second requirement negates the first one. The company would have looked less idiotic if they had said that only Bigfoot, Nessie, unicorns, dragons, and other mythical creatures may apply.  If you're not quite understanding why yet, I'll spell it out: North America consists of the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico. The third one is easy: Mexico uses Spanish. However, the U.S.A. has NO official language although English is widely used and Canada has TWO official languages. Thus, based on requirement 1, only teachers from England actually qualified.


EBS, the national educational network in Korea, did a four-part investigation into exactly this in November 2013. They looked at why schools and parents prefer American teachers and accents as well as if teachers from other countries have experienced discrimination when applying for jobs in Korea. The responses to both of these questions were overwhelming: For the first, after interviewing parents and teachers, the reason was little more than "it's the accent we're used to and what we hear on TV" while an overwhelming "YES" was the response to the second question.

Have I experienced discrimination? Yes. In applying for university positions - with four years of university teaching experience in SA, 3.5 years at a top level high school in Korea, a total of 10 years of teaching experience and a Masters degree in Applied Linguistics (specializing in ESL) - I was consistently told that "I was not quite what they were looking for." Ironically, I recently met someone who was appointed in one of the positions for which I applied and I asked him what his qualifications are: A BComm in Accounting with 4 years of teaching in a vocational high school in Korea - and American. He didn't graduate from a top university in the U.S. either, but apparently he was what they were looking for. What, aside from an accent, made him better suited for the job?

As a side note, I - and many other non-Americans - have experienced more difficulty with Americans not understanding other Englishes and accents than anyone else. We've had to repeat ourselves numerous times, slow down our speech and simplify our language in many situations for many Americans to understand what we're actually saying. In contrast, we're all familiar with both American and British spellings as well as Americanism because we're exposed to them daily. This doesn't make our English wrong or worse, though.

Sure, some accents are harder on the ear and can be very thick but American accents are not all high society and polished either! Have you heard those southern accents? What about the strong New York accents? Many American accents can sound extremely abrasive, abrupt and, to be honest, somewhat rude simply because of volume and the way some people speak. There are also many flaws in the American education system just like there are flaws in the Korean systems and those in other countries.

The answer is not quite as simple as telling someone to go home if they don't like the situation and yet, this seems to be the acceptable solution. Even my boyfriend, who considers himself to be open-minded and who lived in America for 10 years, constantly tells me how wonderful America is. He idolises the country and yet he can't tell me what the U.S. does that makes it so fantastic. In addition, he seems to have little interest in travelling abroad unless it's back to America. I don't understand how people can be so narrow-minded.

The Outcome

Korea is going to drive away well-qualified and highly experienced teachers if it persists with its superficiality and limited views of what to consider when appointing EFL teachers. In my case, I'm simply tired of being the go-to native English teacher at my school while people fall over themselves in their desire to be as American as possible.

Being American doesn't mean that you can teach English anymore than having a degree does. It's time for Korea to get over this one-sided love affair and obsession that they have with America and start focusing on what's really important. This is true of other areas of Korean society: Attending Seoul National University does not mean that you are smarter or better than someone who graduates from a lower ranking university. Being "beautiful" does not make you better and the unhealthy drive to achieve external beauty here is concerning to say the least. Big eyes, an oval face and weighing 40kg doesn't make you better than the person next you; if anything, it probably means you have less self-confidence and consider appearance to be your only strength.

In looking for a new job, I saw a post for a company that presents itself well on paper - until you look at their website! They seem to hire only female staff, which is not a problem in itself. However, the staff are introduced dressed in two outfits: a short black skirt with white blouse and a group photo in which they're all dressed in dresses (presumably of their own choice) that seem to serve no real purpose other than to emphasize their appearance and figures. My reaction? I won't even consider working for a company where the appearance of the staff seems more important than the ability to do the job. Accents are similar to this.

I truly hope that Koreans grow up and start to place emphasis on the important things like a quality education with highly-qualified staff rather than staff who come from the country that you perceive to be better than all others. After all, an American accent isn't going to stop you from speaking English poorly; it's just going to help you to speak poorly with an American accent.