This story is a bit old but I never got around to writing about it. This is one of my prouder moments in life.
I have this student. We’ll call him Terry. He can be an amazing student at times and at others he can be an absolutely hot-headed little terror. Teaching him is always like walking on eggshells because he goes from amazing to terror in about 3 seconds flat.
One day, Terry had extra time before going home so he came to my classroom to talk with me, as many students do. We were talking about what we were going to do on our upcoming weekend (him- study, me- animal shelter) when he just looked at me with absolute amazement and said, “Teacher, you respect Korea.” Hmmmm. Knowing that what I understand that sentence to mean and that what he meant it to be are probably two very different things, I asked him to explain.
“You learn language. You help community. You like Korea. You respect us.” He said.
Why yes, of course I do. I try to at least. This is his country and I am a guest. What else would l do?
Rhetorical question, of course. There is the very valid stereotype of rude, drunken, disrespectful foreigners and there are more than enough examples to help prove this true. I’ve witnessed situations of foreigners being extremely rude in restaurants because they don’t like how things are served. I’ve heard many stories of Westerners yelling at taxi drivers because they can’t understand our accent or of drunken vomiting in those same taxis. Some people move here and absolutely refuse to eat the food. Pardon me for being a little judgmental here, but… grow up. Going out, drinking and having a good time is one thing. Acting like an untrained hooligan is a complete other. While I haven’t always been the most responsible person, I would hope that I’ve always been a respectful person. My parents raised me better than that.
The point of this blog was not to rant about the sometimes less than ideal foreigner crowd. Sorry for the soap box. It is more the realization that even the students take note of this. Not just the adults. Any given student has likely gone through more than a few different foreign teachers and even if no one asks them, they see the differences, too.
While my Korean skills are terrible, my students see that I have learned a lot and can read and write Korean quite well. They see that I try. They like to ask me what I did on the weekend because they know that I am usually our exploring or trying something new. We talk about what Korean foods I enjoy and they recommend new foods to me. We talk about the differences in cultures because I’m just as curious of their culture as they are of mine. Students see this and it builds their own cultural pride.
Korea is a wonderfully welcoming country where instead of expecting us to learn a new languae, most Koreans will apologize for not speaking English well enough to help us. There is no excuse to get feisty when people stare at you or when you are kicked out of your seat by an ajumma (Korean grandmother basically). It’s no wonder that a lot of the older generation visibly doesn’t like us. There are rules and traditions that have been in place here for generations, then the government invites a bunch of foreigners over here and we disrupt the peace. You can’t blame the stereotype because there are certainly plenty of us that cause it.
Students (and adults!) love to learn about us and the magical lands that we come from, but it builds their pride in their own country when they see that we are just as interested to learn theirs. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that’s important. In getting hired to work (and play) in Korea, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. We pay taxes here. And while most of us send a huge portion of our paychecks home, we also put quite a bit of money back into the Korean economy. But most importantly (to me), when you are here you are representing something much greater than just yourself. You are representing your country. Your school. Your family. And all the other foreign teachers that worked before you and will continue to work after you.
I think this is something that I didn’t grasp completely until my student pointed it out to me. We represent all of the world outside of Korea to them. Most of them have never (and unfortunately will never) see anything else of the world outside of Korea, except on TV. If we show that we have interest in their tiny little country’s culture, maybe they’ll think the rest of the world does, too.