3.04.2010

More on being foreign.

It's been an interesting day, kiddies. Not in the sense that anything interesting actually happened, other than the whole shattering of the EOZ door thing, but in that I got to talking to a few different people about a few different things.

South Africa came back to my office today, after second period, just to talk. And when I came back after lunch, he was waiting outside the office door -- "You're late!"

"Sorry. I didn't know we had an appointment."

"No just... I just came to talk to you. I waited."

And again, after school. For two hours. Where I learned something I should have figured on, but for some reason didn't, which adds a whole other level to his strange social situation with the others, which is that in Korean, he still sounds like a foreigner. He struggles immensely in his Korean class, and speaks in a way that sounds weird to his peers, which they definitely are not used to, my rough little neighborhood boys out here.

After he left, my co-teacher (his homeroom teacher) popped her head over the cubicle, where she had been working quietly, not interrupting. "It's really lucky for him that he can come in and talk to you, you know. He is Korean, and his parents are Korean, but part of him too is foreigner. But his parents and his little brothers and sister are not. So I think he can relate to you a little bit more." I told her I was shocked at him hanging around all the time all of the sudden, because he hasn't been too eager to so far. I think having her as my only office mate, and her being his homeroom teacher, he feels comfortable enough now.

Also, there was something that came up in the conversation yesterday that I didn't think much of at the time. I asked him if there wasn't some way he could get out of his English classes, because I know how painfully boring they are for him. He said, "To do what? Come and talk to you?"

"If you want to."

"But you're too busy."

"I'm not that busy. Anyway, you're my student. I can always make time for you."

Today he was really into telling just about everything he could -- talking about his girlfriend, about how he had his first drink when he was in the second grade (elementary school), how all his friends always pester him to ask me questions about personal things they want to know. He talked about his father is a pastor, and how it's annoying to be a pastor's kid, because he can't ever do anything wrong.

He's a good kid. I hope he keeps finding time to stop by.

On the other hand, he's a frustrating reminder of how, even though together we've found a lot of ways around it, I'm limited in how well I can get to know my other students, and how well I can let them get to know me.

In that realm of things, I've had another rewarding experience already start this semester. There's one student who I had pegged as a total troublemaker (and he is one... I've seen him outside the student discipline office with his ass in the air often enough to know this for a fact). He would completely freeze up with a look of total despair and humiliation every time I would approach him during class, until he finally decided to start acting up in retribution. It came to a head one day near the end of last year, and I took him down to the office after class to have a translated conversation with Coteacher. He explained to her that he didn't know he had given me a bad feeling, and he really didn't want that. I was surprised (as I often am, since starting to teach children) at his genuine innocence in the situation. It's easy to assume that students who stir up shit do it out of malevolence, but I've often, often come to find out that they're quite embarrassed once they understand how much they've upset me. They're human beings, after all, if only partially formed, animalistic ones.

At any rate, not long after that incident, I caught him outside the school building holding a sign in repentance for something he had done (a common punishment in Korea -- they students have to line up holding a sign outlining their crime as all their schoolmates file past out of the building). I always make a point of stopping by this line and making the offenders explain to me in English what they did wrong, much to the amusement of the PE teachers who run the discipline office.

When I got to him, the same horrified look clouded over his face and he turned bright red. I leaned over and pinched his cheek -- "아 귀엽다!" He broke into a huge smile, and ever since, these days he comes running toward me when he sees me in the halls or on the streets waving and smiling. It feels good, to turn one around from time to time.

I finally got a chance to talk to my new co-teacher properly for a bit today. She's been running around like crazy since her return. I asked a lot of questions about her time in the States, and was instantly transported back to being a university tutor in New York. She talked about how she feels like she can understand me better now, because there were times when it was really awful being a foreigner there. She was largely ignored by everyone, treated as though she barely existed by the American students around her. I told her I was really embarrassed about that, and how it's a good reminder to me of how it's hard to be a foreigner everywhere, including my home country -- not just in the ROK.

People like to talk a lot of shit about "Koreans" and their xenophobia, arguing that their home countries are more evolved, civilized and developed in this realm. And in a lot of ways, they might be, but in a lot of ways they're still not. I don't excuse nasty racist behavior anywhere in the world, including in this country. And there's no excuse for some of the outright violence that foreigners have experienced in Korea, particularly our foreign brothers and sisters from non-English speaking countries, or those with darker skin. But the truth is, we Americans have a long history of foreign interaction -- we basically all are foreigners, if you go back two or three hundred years, so there's really absolutely no excuse for the way foreigners get treated in the States a lot of the time.

As much as it frustrates me to feel like I'm largely not taken seriously in Korea, as an outsider, to feel like there are huge social barriers I may just never be able to break through, the truth is it's really no different from how things are in my home country. None whatsoever. And you can argue that in the West, there is at least recourse for seeking punishment for some of the more violent or systematized forms of racism and xenophobia, it really makes little difference in one's everyday life, when it comes to forming social networks and feeling, for all intents and purposes, like you're considered a decent human being.

Yeah, we get giggled at on the streets and on buses. We get harassed by large groups of drunk Koreans who think it's funny to speak random bits of English out at a restaurant on the weekends while we're trying to enjoy a quiet meal with our friends, with some amount of dignity. We get gawked at, screamed at in passing, treated like idiots or children, counted out of any serious social interaction. But at least we don't get fucking ignored, treated like we don't even exist. Blatantly overlooked or passed over, because it takes us a little longer to form our sentences in a foreign language, which we've spent years of dedication and hard work studying (how many of us can even form a sentence in Korean, to begin with?).

I'm just saying. It's not to make excuses, engage in cultural relativism, or fall all over myself being a race traitor -- it's to keep things in perspective, for my own mental health and well-being. And for my own happiness here in this country I'm calling home for a time.

Finally, I had another long, interesting conversation with Smalltown on the phone, about the future, leaving or staying in Korea, figuring out how to be an artist in all of this, and the implausibility of ever being able to go back "home". But that's a discussion for another time.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a date with a bowl of 육개장밥 and my boyfriend, Anthony Bourdain:

6 comments:

The Korean said...

::applause::

I'm no Picasso said...

Thank you, The Korean. It's good to have you stop by here. I like your stuff.

MH said...

Whilst I agree with the gist of your post, there is a reason why Amnesty's main focus in 2010 in Korea is the treatment of migrant workers. We are clearly at the top of the list of foreigners. Unfortunately, not all foreigners are treated as well as us. There are some very, very interesting reports published by NGOs out there which examine exactly this issue. If only more of the English speaking foreigners were aware exactly how we are treated in comparison. There would be a lot less complaints about how 'racist' Koreans are.

I'm no Picasso said...

I certainly hope you haven't assumed that I've categorized "foreigners" in Korea as "Westerners" -- especially since I made special mention of those from non-English speaking countries.

Also, have you ever spoken to a migrant worker in the southern US? I think you'd find that the point about the US being no different also stands.

MH sometimes I think you have a hard time not assuming everyone is more ignorant and less informed than you are....

MH said...

I assumed no such thing. I was merely commenting. Unlike what you've done at the end of your comment, but we'll get to that in a second.

I've been volunteering within the area of migrant workers rights for a number of years (about 7 or so) in a couple of centres back home. It's what I want to do and is one of the many reasons I've come to this part of the world. I've been involved with one group out here for 8 months (4 months editorial work before I came, 4 months within their centre actually working with non-native English speaking migrants). The fundamental differences between the treatment of migrant workers here and the UK, at any rate, are stark. Out here the entire EPS legitimizes ill-treatment of migrant workers by allowing employers to exploit, abuse, and do all manner of incorrect things without fear of reprisal. Back home there is at least a judicial attempt to punish those who mistreat migrant workers. How that results in the workplace is open to debate. With a judicial system which fails to punish offenders and almost exclusively is geared towards punishing the migrants (and with a current government who systematically have eroded civil liberties for the individual over the last couple of years), it's certainly likely that there is considerably more mistreatment out here than there is back home as there is undeniably less infrastructure in place to punish employers (of course, the US may be different). Witness the Yeosu incident, for one, for proof that the judicial system is more concerned with going after the workers. Until Korea changes the whole judicial system to confront employers, it's unlikely that people will reevaluate their perception that there are racist policies towards foreign workers and racist attitudes from sections of Koreans towards foreign workers. But hey, what do I know? I've only edited hundreds of articles and read thousands more, researched workplace legalities to help migrants, etc., etc., etc. during all the time I've volunteered in the sector. If you want to get involved I do know a NGO looking for someone to work with prostitutes who have come to the country on the assumption that they had a legitimate work visa only to find otherwise.

As for the last comment, sometimes I think you have a hard time not assuming you know someone from a few posts online.

I'm no Picasso said...

"And you can argue that in the West, there is at least recourse for seeking punishment for some of the more violent or systematized forms of racism and xenophobia, it really makes little difference in one's everyday life, when it comes to forming social networks and feeling, for all intents and purposes, like you're considered a decent human being."

I'm aware of the gaps in the Korean judicial system, which extend well into women's rights, as well as dealing with racial minorities. What I was addressing is the day-to-day social interaction.

It's important -- crucial, in fact, I think for Western foreigners in Korea -- to understand how life is for foreigners in the West. It's easy to say that we get treated like outsiders here, and bitch and moan about everything under the sun, while very, very few people seem to be aware of the social issues faced by foreigners in the West.

You've worked in the field of migrant workers' rights back home -- I've worked in the field of foreign student education back home. That's my experience and my perspective, and what I have to add to the conversation. There wasn't a week that went by where one student or another didn't break down during our tutoring sessions about how utterly invisible they felt. How it was absolutely impossible to find American students who would take them seriously, or treat them like true friends. That is something that nearly every foreigner I've met in the ROK is completely ignorant of. And that is what I was addressing. This is a blog written by and read largely by NESTs in the ROK -- that is my audience. And a huge portion of their complaints and frustrations (as well as my own) center around feeling locked outside of Korean society. It's important for us all to understand and remember that that aspect of our respective cultures is exactly, *exactly* the same.

As for the rest, I think any foreigner in the ROK who *isn't* aware of how we are treated compared to migrant workers, or even how white teachers are treated in comparison to teachers of other races, is living under a rock. Hence my bristling at the commentary -- I didn't address those issues at length, because those were not the issues I was addressing -- simple as that. That doesn't mean that I'm not aware of them.