It's a Cultural Thing

My mate Steve was having a good old whinge at lunch today about his co-teacher and the lack of communication between them. He gave as an example a time when he asked to learn the dates of his upcoming vacation and he was told that he would be informed of it 'the month of'. Another time, after he had asked his co-teacher for information and she had been unforthcoming, he had contacted his parent company for the same information and received for his trouble a bollocking for going over his co-teacher's head.

In his troubles, he is not alone.

I'd say the most common complaint I hear from other expats in this country is the piss-poor communication within the workplace and the huge lack of productivity that occurs as a result of it. If we consider for the sake of argument that not one of the people who comes to teach on this peninsula will learn enough Korean to get by, then there are clearly going to be communication problems due to language. This is unavoidable. However, it goes much further than that. It runs much deeper. It descends into the realms of the dreaded cultural difference.

Korea isn't a particularly religious country, split pretty much 50/50 between Christianity and Buddhism as it is, because no God could ever be as important as Grandpa. Let's have a look at the social pecking order in Korea -
  1. Old Korean males
  2. Old Korean females
  3. Middle-aged Korean males
  4. Middle-aged Korean females
  5. Young Korean males
  6. Young Korean females
  7. White males
  8. White females
  9. Dogs
  10. Black males
  11. Black females
  12. Belly-button fluff
  13. The Japanese
This social ordering is based on Confucian beliefs of which I understand too little to explain in any great detail. It essentially comes down to your social status determining everything from the way in which you are spoken to to the order in which you get to eat your food. Men are deferred to in almost all situations and, when two Koreans meet (or even when a Korean meets a foreigner) the first item on the agenda will be to establish age. They might do this discreetly (by asking for their year of graduation, for example) but more often will just ask outright, 'How old are you?' By getting this information, they are establishing who has the social status and will thenceforth act accordingly.

There is also the hugely important 'face-saving' to be taken into consideration and the way this effects your life in Korea is very hard to explain. Let me try.

It is annoying as fuck.

No, I can do better than that. Okay, essentially, you should never ever cause another person to 'lose face'. You should never embarrass another individual, cause them to look stupid or at all inferior and you should never embarrass yourself by losing your temper or going out of your way to question authority. I mean, it sounds easy because most nice people don't do these things anyway, but when this way of thinking manifests itself in the workplace, problems occur. Often.

In my first year of teaching it was mainly the case that I would never be told if I was doing anything wrong. My boss would hide complaints from me and never criticise my style. When I asked for help with my teaching I was told I was perfect. Prior to this my teaching experience amounted to 2 weeks in a Grade 1 class when I was 13 years old on work experience so a bit of feedback about where I was going wrong would have been extremely helpful. But this is not the way it works. To tell me I was making a mistake would have caused me to lose face. So I couldn't improve.

This year, the situation is slightly different. The new rule seems to be that giving us information would cause us to lose face. We don't get any. Honestly, I think it must be that to acknowledge myself and Matt (our school's other native teacher)'s inability to speak Korean would be to cause us to lose face and so they don't go to the effort to translate things for us. Or maybe they don't realise that we don't understand what's going on and need it translating. Or maybe they don't give a shit if we don't know stuff. Either way, it is becoming increasingly common that we are kept out of the loop, and sometimes about very important stuff. We've not been told that classes are cancelled until the point we should be in the class teaching them. We are constantly asked to sign papers without knowing what they are for. Just today, in fact, Matt and I were thrown into a classroom full of kids and their bloody parents and asked to help their home-room teacher with the lesson. Half an hour earlier we had been given a couple of sheets of A4 with something masquerading as English on it. That was our prep. It is a good job me and Matt are gifted improvisers otherwise the whole thing could have been a disaster.

We have to sit through a staff meeting every Monday even though it is all in Korean. We have to go out of our way to the Vice-Principal's office every morning in order to bow at her and collect a newsletter that we can't read. I've even heard of native teachers arriving at an empty school on a Monday or Wednesday or whatever, only to realise that it is a school holiday and that nobody informed them of it.

There are a million frustrating things about being an expat in Korea and the level of annoyance, for me, tends to go through peaks and troughs. Since I returned from Thailand, the land of eternal smiles, the little things that I previously dismissed as cultural differences have really started to grate on my fucking nerves. I am starting to wonder how much longer I can last in this country.

But, I know that in a short time it will be Spring, the cherry blossoms will be out, some complete stranger will do something kind for me and I will start to love this country again. I'm also sure that, come the Autumn, I will miss it when I'm gone.

But, if I do miss Korea once I've left, I certainly won't be telling anyone about it.

Wouldn't want to lose face now, would I?

Love, Smithy x


spitfire said...

Belly-button fluff is your new name. Seriously. But don't be embarrassed, I wont tell anyone.

Postman said...

Have I mentioned how grateful I am that you're posting more often? What's the only thing better than Smithy? More Smithy.

Seriously man, the relevancy and humor which you manage to combine in these expository essays on Korea and its culture (and the vitriol which you usually employ in doing so; "annoying as fuck," ha!) are an unending source of joy. Way to go, pal. Another good post. As usual, I can readily identify with what you're talking about. Sounds like you're having a tricky time of things out there, but good job keeping on. Being a gifted improviser sure does come in handy, sounds like.

P.S. Your "Korean cultural rating system" is priceless.