On racism – both reverse and latent – exploitation, and whining native teachers

A couple of days ago I met a girl from California who was complaining about the fact that she wasn’t going to get paid her 퇴직금 (year end bonus) because she was quitting after 10 months of a year-long contract, unreasonably claiming she was entitled to having ten-twelfths of it pro-rated. “It’s just not fair,” she moaned. “I’m getting screwed.”  With her in mind, and after reading an article in my favorite Korean newspaper the other day, I was inspired to do a little key tapping.

This post is for those native English teachers who think that they have it rough, bitching and moaning about their terrible hagwon situations, despite making roughly the average income of a typical Korean, working less hours, and getting free accommodation out of the deal, even though they typically have little to justify these benefits beyond the fact that they were born in an English-speaking country. Unsurprisingly, this seems to have become a more widespread phenomenon after the economic crash of 2008 and the ensuing influx of young graduates who couldn’t find a job back in the old country – according to a very cursory glance of the statistics, the number of native English teachers in Korea more than doubled from just over 10,000 in 2007 to more than 23,000 in 2010. (In case you’re wondering, if this post was meant for anything beyond the blog, I would try and find the official statistics  - but being that the numbers seem to jive with my own observation, and I don’t feel like going through Korean government websites looking for stats, you’ll just have to live with the figures.)   To paraphrase my friend Howard, “that’s about the time that naive college kids with a sense of entitlement started to outnumber those who came to Korea just for the adventure.”

That’s not to say that foreigners don’t get a bit of undeserved stick sometimes thanks to our friends at the Anti-English Spectrum, deliberately misleading programming from MBC, sloppy journalism and the occasional pedophile or drug smuggler who makes life a little more difficult for the rest of us. (And let’s not forget our boys doing their bit to make the world safe for democracy by drunkenly mixing it up with the local police.)

On the whole, though, Korea is a pretty easy place to teach English, and playing that foreign card has brought far more advantages than not over the seven years I’ve been in the country. I would add though, that being a tall white guy probably has a lot to do with it. After all, I’m not directly affected by absurdities like blackface on 21st century television or cigarette ads featuring monkeys smoking the ‘taste of Africa’. Beyond chuckling about just how obliviously racist Koreans can be, of course.

Having said that, it is apparently not such an easy place to be if you’re an African performer of traditional arts.  A couple of days ago the Hankyoreh ran a piece detailing the appaling treatment of a group of workers at the African Museum of Original Art in Poheon. According to the article, the workers were being cheated out of wages, lived in moldy, mouse-infested rooms with no heating or insulation, and had their passports confiscated by museum staff. To top it off, when they complained about not being paid their promised salaries, they were supposedly told, “this is a lot of money in your country.”

Lending credibility to the allegations, the paper ran a follow-up story with pictures showing the living conditions of the workers and, as the head of vice president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Ju Bong-hee, pointed out in the article, they probably wouldn’t be out in Yeouido demonstrating in the middle of winter if they didn’t have some valid complaints.

Hopefully the attention from this story will result in some form of redress for these workers;  returning their passports and giving them enough back pay for a first class ticket to a country  which has a little more appreciation for their culture and talents seems like the least that could be done. Then again, given that the head of the museum, Hong Moon-jong is a ranking member of the Saenuri Party (not exactly known for its progressive stance toward unions), who knows what, if any, improvements will be on offer.

Bringing it back to the original point: unless you’re black, if you’re teaching English in Korea, you probably don’t have a lot of cause for complaint. So buck up, and remember the plight of the “African 12,” as I’m sure we’ll soon be referring to them. After all, they’re beating treated a lot worse than you are. And they’ve probably got a helluva lot more talent to boot.