I do not quote the article because my response is about the unstated assumptions and tone of the article as much as anything else. Honestly, it’s a poorly written piece and haphazardly put together. It’s clearly got more than one author. The authors implement a kind of self-centered and problematic narrative foreign teachers often use to talk about Korea and Koreans, thus it’s uncritical and self-affirming. It’s enough to ask a reader to quickly read the article and then my response. If you’d like me to address a point from the article, I’m more than happy to. Feel free to send me a note or reblog with a question.
It’s creepy the authors use the HIV, AIDS, STD tests as a tool to scold Koreans for their treatment of foreign teachers. These guys have been on about this for years, and longer than I’ve been here. For being such professional Korea haters, they have never left. They have comfortable, happy lives here. They always use the AIDS argument and they always use a comparison to the military. I’ll try to address the problems I see with both arguments.
The conservative Korean culture that tends to worry about purity and that might most benefit from the metaphor that AIDS is a sign of foreign contamination and that foreign men want to corrupt Korean women is not opposed to the US military presence on the peninsula. So, the comparison in the article that foreign teachers are the new American soldier doesn’t really work. The comparisons tell us much more about the men making the argument and what it is they are trying to construct—a better place for them to work.
The problem—bigotry towards foreigners and its persistence in spite of evidence to the contrary—is much more complex than the authors want to present. In many ways, American occupation of Korea during and since the US War here and American cooperation with Japan’s occupation has suited both the US and Korean governments and ruling elites. Let’s not overlook and forget that leftwing uprisings have been historically slaughtered while Americans looked on and did nothing. Sure, the Korean media is overwhelmingly conservative and spreads malicious rhetoric, from time to time, about foreign teachers as it does Americans, in general, but this propaganda has served US interests as well. I certainly don’t ever hear men like the authors complaining about the US in Korea.
As most conservative governance illustrates, its constituents must fear a persistent foreign influence. The US military presence has historically backed authoritarian conservatives for a reason. It’s the leftists in Korea who bang the drum to end occupation. This, too, is complex. Unfortunately, the left is rather nationalist with its relative anti-capitalist culture, pro-labor culture, and so Korean leftist action carries with it all the complications nationalism brings to any social action, like highly-structured bigotry against foreign elements within both the movement and nation. Additionally unfortunately, nationalism is rather complex and a response to Japanese and American occupations, and so it’s explicable and not simply bigoted rhetoric. Korean independence is not as simplistic as, say, American Exceptionalism, if we want to compare nationalist extremism. It’s not only more complex (one only need know Korea’s modern history to understand how complex) but it’s more aware of itself and its mission. Nobody has occupied the US, but American conservatives find foreigners to blame. Some particular somebody has consistently been involved with a project to occupy Korea and to discipline Koreans since the middle of the 19th Century. Their worries are justified. The elite (Korean government and corporate elites often historically with US backing) have every reason to help cultivate these bigotries.
The article I’ve linked to ignores this complexity in Korean attitudes towards foreigners for a self-serving purpose. It wants to compare the way Koreans think about foreign teachers to the way Koreans think about American soldiers. The comparison doesn’t hold. Korea invites teachers and offers them outstanding benefits in comparison to the shit we take for being foreigners. It’s a cooked up comparison that loses its punch under the slightest scrutiny. I really hate how the argument composes a Korean culture that is narrow and stupid and merely self-concerned, wrapped up in old myths. It’s just not the case that Koreans are of one mind about anything.
Sure, the bigotry is present and the falsehoods often appear pointless and harmful to everyone. It’s just not as simple as the authors make it. How long has it taken for the US to even attempt to begin addressing anti-black racism? We have never done it. Not yet. We don’t even like to talk about it. In fact, people tell lies about how racism is over. That’s how bad it is in the US. Koreans know they’re bigots. This isn’t a slight. All my Korean friends admit it. It’s shameful for me to hear the confession because I can’t even get my family members to address bigotry. Koreans are talking about these things.
The major altercations of the war are only just 60 years since and people are still coping with Japanese occupation. The economic ascendance of the peninsula is only two decades old. They rebuilt an entire country under the weight of authoritarian rule. They worked for their nation. Not for a teacher to feel comfortable teaching English in Korea. I get Korean contempt for foreign teachers who naively perform privileges and constantly complain about a backwards Korea. There’s a lot that Korea has learned about the world in such a short period of time. And it’s a lot of knowledge that I don’t have. It’s not that I know something they don’t know. And this is what the article assumes with its tone. That the authors and most foreign teachers are trustworthy for some reason that Koreans just won’t accept. This is simply bullshit; and a sign of another kind of bigotry that liberals always fail to examine. I don’t think it’s asking much to let Korea work out some shit on its own and learn what it means to navigate liberal, global capitalist culture without privileged intellectualist foreigners insisting cultural occupation persist until Koreans learn to properly behave.
In the 60 years since we permitted non-white people citizenship, how much has been done to find other ways to oppress foreign people of color in the US? Do I think that it’s silly and harmful for Koreans to circulate worries that foreign teachers are capable of infecting students with HIV, with AIDS, with STDs, simply by teaching in classrooms, or that, worse, we’re perverts? It’s silly and harmful. That said, foreign teachers do nothing to change public perception of them nor do they come from societies that have learned how to solve this problem of hating foreigners. Fulfilling contracts is not going to achieve any change in perception. You have to get out of the foreign ghettoes and get into Korea and make a difference.
Moreover, US, Canadian, and British citizens also express silly and harmful narratives about dirty and criminal immigrants. This is not a Korean concern. It’s international. So, we have an international concern about nationalism, authoritarianism, military occupation, the preservation of unique cultures, the stigmatization of sexual difference and illiteracy about illness. So, what do these authors who have decided they aren’t going to take it do? They make it a problem of convenience and ego. The article is clearly set up with the unstated assumption “judge me as an individual, not as a group” and that assumption undercuts any sympathy I’d be prepared to offer an individual who feels ashamed the result of a blood test their employer receives. It’s clear the authors don’t respect the group they want to be a member of nor do they respect the group they have constructed for themselves.
We all know for a fact that these authors aren’t activists. What work have they done? Not hard to complete research and find articles testifying about how harmful it is to be ignorant of illnesses. These are teachers who would never utter another peep about bigoted Koreans were Korea to legislate a more progressive Visa structure for teachers. Their concern is extremely narrow and strictly individualist. They don’t give a shit about the thousands of oppressed laboring immigrants in Korea. They only care about the teachers. All this whining about the UN response to their complaint is purely egoist bragging about a stupid moral victory over a perceived Korean bigotry that I have shown is much more complex and much more inclusive of the US bigotry than it would first appear.
This article is poor argumentative method and I think it’s implicitly homophobic and prejudiced. When people start talking about “gays”, bad things happen because “gays” are often treated as a monolithic identity and for purposes of establishing a kind of liberal social order in the discourse. Gays become a tool. These are straight men and women who want us to sympathize with them because their school wants them to prove they have no STDs and don’t have HIV or AIDS. In Korea, this is a means to suss out transgressive sexualities as much as it is to keep Koreans healthy. So, the teachers are embarrassed that Koreans think they are perverts. That’s what this is about. It’s terrible stuff. The authors aren’t being honest. I’ve always said, who do I care who sees a blood test result? But then I have a different experience with conservative Korean culture that these authors rail about. This dirty leftist teacher gets along just fine in spite of the annual hassle of renewing my Visa. I have never experienced one bit of pushback for who I am. Much more the opposite, in fact. I have experienced overwhelming curiosity. So, you know, the authors don’t represent me. And quite frankly they love saying they represent all of us when they clearly aren’t interested in different narratives just as they aren’t interested in other immigrants.
I may agree with their assessment of Anti-English Spectrum, much of Korean print journalism, the Korean government’s failure to appropriately address a problem that would be easy to fix, but I fail to sympathize with their methods, their rhetoric, their self-representation. The foreign teaching population is filled with self-loathing, alcoholism, sexual predation, illiteracy, and falsified credentials. None of these are so uncommon that we’re shocked when we learn about an incident. Teachers skip work when it serves them and breach contracts all the time. Sure, me and my friends, we’re dedicated teachers and work hard at our craft, but the schools and universities are also filled with teachers who simply don’t want to lose a good job and aren’t willing to do much to earn their keep. They’re in Korea for other reasons.
We have to deal with the complicated issues with care. And I don’t think these authors have ever approached this debate with anything other than a selfish sense of unearned ambition and desire to find ways to justify becoming more free and upwardly mobile within Korean society without having to actually do any of the social work necessary to transform the problems they purport to address.