What color do you want to be?

Every student in Korea has a photo of themselves, which is pasted into each homeroom class attendance book.  For two school years now, (I didn’t know better the first year) I’ve asked for a copy of these photos and/or a school year-book, and the request basically gets ignored.  I’ve seen that the Korean teachers sometimes photocopy these pages, and I would do this myself – borrow the homeroom attendance book long enough to copy them – only it’s more complicated for my situation, since English is broken up by level testing and academic or technical education streams, so each English class of each grade is a mixed bag, difficult to sort out.

I’ve also requested electronic copies of the list of student names, and this request was also overlooked but finally got some response after repeated requests.  At first, the excuse was that the teachers didn’t know how the kids would be distributed and then it was promised  and then, after weeks, one of the two teachers actually sent me a file but it was in a format that can only be read in Korea’s equivalent of Microsoft office. I requested having it converted to excel – but that, too, was ignored. Finally, finally I managed to extract a photocopy of their lists from them.  Grrr.  So then I had to face writing 300 student’s names in hangul so I can give them a grade…and people look at us foreigners like creeps because the students are never referred to by their name…

To top that off, 25-45% (depending on what source you read) of Koreans have Kim as their last name, another 30%(+/-) have the names Park or Lee or Choi and the remaining % hold the rest of the approximately 250 total names.  I guess there used to be a few more last names, but near the end of the Chosun dynasty some people bought/bribed themselves more prestigious names like Kim and those without surnames were assigned them during the Japanese occupation.  To make matters even worse, about 75% of the girls have bangs and unlayered haircuts, and very few are allowed to color their hair lighter than chocolate brown – the majority of what I see every day is a sea of black hair.  Their facial features and personalities are, thank God, pretty distinct, but even that loses its meaning after about student #100…

Soooo, I handed each one an index card (called memory cards here) and asked them to write down their name in Hangul, an English nick-name, three things they are interested in, and what they want to be.  Maybe 1/2 of the students could not come up with an English nick-name, 1/3rd could not list anything they were interested in, and about 10% wrote only their name in Hangul.

I also brought my camera and took a photo of each student.  Most of the students (like me) didn’t like or want to have their photo taken, but most cooperated when I explained that I needed it to help me match their names with their faces.  Some just flat-out refused.  Because they were afraid it would end up on someone’s homepage (Konglish for website) Then, there were those who were too busy sleeping.

You’ve no idea how frustrating it is to teach to the living dead!  Sometimes I walk around and rap my many silver rings on their desks next to their heads to wake them up.  Hopefully that annoyance will be remembered and avoided.  But teacher, “she’s very tired.”  Oh yeah?  I’m tired too…but there’s no sleeping in my class.

And then I have to remove one boy from a group of four goofing off, and as soon as I do that, one of them immediately lays his head down and tunes out.   I go by and say, “umm, no sleeping in my class.”  And he throws me a hate bomb.  And then the co-teacher comes by and says, “but he says he’s sick.”  and she pats his head.  “So what is he doing here if he’s sick?” I ask.  And he puts his sick head triumphantly back down for a nice nap.  He wasn’t sick ten minutes earlier when he was goofing off…

How can we foreign teachers maintain respect with this kind of undermining going on every day?  “It’s just that they hate English.”  So what?  That’s still no cause for being rude.  And besides, I’ve interviewed many teachers at my first school and they ALL have the same problems, irrespective of the subject matter.  Yesterday, I made the observation that if an alien were to visit Korea, they would think Koreans have no neck bones, since they can’t seem to hold their heads up.  At least the co-teacher laughed.  (there were about ten heads on desks at the moment)  I just succumb in her classes most days.  It’s not the kids – it’s having my authority undermined which forces me to not be consistent.  Since I can’t bitch her out, griping here is my only recourse…

I think if Obama saw what really goes on in real Korean classrooms, he’d think twice about using Korea as a model for education…

But back to the title of this post…One of the students wrote, under What do you want to be?

I want to be white.

Holy crap.  He actually wrote that.

And then there was last year in discussion class where we were talking about plastic surgery, and one girl just flat out said she thought that a lot of the surgery was because people wanted to look like white people.  And then there was the time in class where I spoke about how westerners find Asian females exotic and beautiful and the co-teacher said, “Really???”

In my little tiny town there are actually a couple English hogwans.  It’s really weird to be here in the country, walking down the street where the traveling five-day market is set up, only to pass a store-front with four foot high laughing faces of white children.  Now, to put this into perspective there’s not one white student in my school, nor one white child in my town.

That Fashion of Cry show I hate so much but accidentally hit sometimes freaks me out.  On every episode it seems they take two girls (who look just fine to me) and give them a make-over.  This make-over includes cosmetic surgery.  And interviews with the girls breaking down in tears talking about their appearance.  Noses get the side fat taken out of them to look bizarrely aquiline, nostrils are carved away, and bridges are kind of faked in.  Jawlines are shaved…

Right now the t.v. is in the background and an Estee Lauder BB (basically an acne medicated skin-colored blemish-covering moisturizer) whitening cream commercial.  And the model isn’t Korean, but white.  Seems like all the western makeup companies peddling in Korea have a bleaching product, as they don’t want to miss out on that market.  And the beauty industry in America just PALES (no pun intended) to the Korean beauty industry.  The profits here must be astronomical.

To my eye there are only a couple acceptable Korean molds, which hardly anybody fits into.  At my school, for example, only a couple girls are pencil thin.  The rest are stocky or have cankles or acne or wide faces or all manner of variations that are NOT the girls you see on t.v.


So this morning I’d forgotten my Bad Kitty Gets a Bath book I was going to read a chapter to the kids from, and had to fill fifteen minutes with something, so I fielded questions about America.  All the questions were, surprisingly, about image!  Would we be short in America?  Do Americans hate small eyes?  Would I be pretty in America?

I try to tell them that American’s just aren’t as concerned with physical image as much.  OK.  We KNOW Americans are self-conscious and driven people too – but that pretentiousness usually comes out in different ways…I think I’m going to include a couple of pages on vanity in next semester’s broadcast book.  And maybe we’ll study the lyrics of “You’re so Vain.”  People – that much mirror-checking is a sign of insecurity – can’t you see that?

I think it’s time to pull out my lessons on being Asian in America and an introduction to multi-culturalism.   Never mind that the commercials are inundated with multi-cultural images (purportedly a campaign by major companies to reduce attrition due to racism in their ever-growing ranks of foreign workers residing here).  Koreans toy with and are fascinated and repulsed by  the idea of the forbidden fruit of African descent, but the only color anyone here aspires to is white, white, white.

I used to think, when I first came here, that this notion of conquering white supremacy through the wish fulfillment of being them was a lot of bunk, but now I’m not so sure.

On a positive ending note, I am happy to witness a big change in the “What do you want to be” answers this year.  I have a huge number of students who want to be chefs, a lot of teachers, and I (yes me) bought two dove bars for the students whose answers were:



a good person

I don’t, as a rule, give out rewards, incentives, or bribes.  but I gave out a purple suede planner to a really quiet and shy girl last year who got every nuance of every tip I gave for pronunciation, and these two girls get the best chocolate I can find for thinking out of the box.

Some days I really enjoy my job…

4 thoughts on “What color do you want to be?

  1. I wonder if well-behaved high school students are an American peculiarity. I remember visiting a German Gymnasium (college prep high school) years ago when I was a U.S. high school student. I was shocked at how poorly behaved the German students were. There was always a din in the classroom when the teacher was lecturing, and often the teacher had to shout in order to make himself/herself heard. I never saw anyone take a nap, however.

  2. “To make matters even worse, about 75% of the girls have bangs and unlayered haircuts, and very few are allowed to color their hair lighter than chocolate brown – the majority of what I see every day is a sea of black hair.”

    Aren’t bangs the norm in Asia? When I was in Taiwan, I rarely ever saw a young child or adult without bangs, not including parents.

  3. Cedric,

    Speaking to my expat friends recently they told me how well-behaved, RESPECTFUL and studious the Thai students were.

    I have noticed, observing the dialectic between the Korean teachers and their students, a strange sort of banter. It has a certain amount of tension to it – almost always the student is in a challenging role. On a good day, it seems (I of course don’t understand what they are saying to each other) almost exciting. But more often than not, it seems like a test of the teacher’s good humor. There is certainly not a lot of real respect.

    There also is a palpable acknowledgment by the Korean teachers (along with verbal recognition of this in our conversations) that they are abusing the students with education, and so there is this pathological pattern of punishment and rewards, cracking down and booby prizes. It’s very much based on guilt and has a sadness attached to it that they aren’t best buddies.

    In addition, I can often hear the cadence of remnants of military call and response, where the entire class responds in a chorus of “nae.” (or whatever the script happens to be for that lesson)

    On any given day there will be some student at the teacher’s desk, weeping with some personal problem, or whining horribly, or being punished, or being lectured, or being patted on the back, or being given treats. In the American school, the teacher’s office is their sanctuary and if the students have a problem, then they have to wait to speak with the school counselor, right? American teachers complain about having to be social workers and intervene with families at times, but Korean teachers have to be surrogate parents. Dysfunctional parents. There are no regularly scheduled parent/teacher conferences, for example. The teachers only see a parent if a situation has gotten really extreme in their eyes. And there will be weeping involved or formal complaints filed by the parents.

    I think American teachers are a welcome alternative to family life, but in Korea where family obligations dictate everything, the students’ REAL “family” seems to be everywhere but at home, and that’s because the kids are hardly ever at home. So it seems more like the kids love/hate their teachers to a higher degree than in the U.S., because they are the ones left by default to mold them into functioning members of an ever-changing Korean society.

    I wonder if there are some corollaries between the German school system, its social education, its home-life, and its militaristic history. It was my understanding that German students had to test into gymnasium and that there was little choice for them regarding what they hoped for self-actualization vs. what they were allowed to study.

    I certainly feel privileged for my American (maybe this is true for all of the Americas?) education which, from the first day in kindergarten seemed to emphasize personal best instead of competition or what was best for the state instead of the individual.

    But I’ve no training in any of that stuff, these are just my casual observations.

  4. Years after I got back from Germany, I read Society and Democracy in Germany by Ralf Dahrendorf. In this book, Dahrendorf criticized the German educational system for emphasizing knowledge acquisition over innovation and discovery. Basically, German students were (are?) being taught to have a comprehensive familiarity with existing knowledge in a field rather than being taught how to make new discoveries. If this is an accurate characterization, then this certainly could explain the lack of curiosity that was manifesting itself in those Gymnasium classrooms.

    Sorry about the late response, I’ve been pretty busy lately.

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