When a new foreign teacher first comes to Korea and walks into their new school and teacher office it could be compared to an actor walking into a play in which they don’t know the following: how to speak the language the play is written in, the cultural behavior rules for how to interact with other characters, power dynamics and hierarchies, and the social conventions for the different situations which arise in each scene of the play.

After working in Korea for five years and having attended several orientations and workshops for foreign teachers I have yet to see a presentation that addresses the most common situations and challenges that new foreign teachers experience during the first couple of weeks at their new schools, while settling into their new living environments, and throughout the course of their first year in Korea.

If any of the following materials are used as a part of an orientation or new foreign teacher training manual I would appreciate being cited as the author (if it’s something that I wrote) and or as a source from which the materials were taken from (if it’s something I found and arranged and posted on the Net). I’ve spent a lot of time and energy writing and blogging and would appreciate the citation. Thanks.

Now I should preface everything I write below by saying that I’m pretty sure most if not all foreign teachers can adopt and embody several Korean aspects to being the ‘ideal model new foreign teacher.’  (The definition of what is ‘ideal,’ however, seems to vary a lot.  Sometimes it also boils down to just saying yes all the time and doing whatever is being asked of you–this meaning that you’re being a ‘good’ foreign teacher.) But the flip side of this coin is that everybody has psychological and behavioral boundaries they just won’t cross, or modify, and there’s a limit to how much one can assimilate themselves into a culture that may at times be incredibly alien and stressful–from a foreign perspective.

With this in mind I decided to write about the following situations below.

14. Failing to be patient with the bureaucratic school culture paperwork and how Koreans get tasks done that are directly related to your work and living situations.

New foreign teachers often complain about how slow and inefficient public school bureaucracy is when they first arrive in Korea.  They need to bear in mind, however, that they really don’t understand the processes involved, and generally the large number of Koreans involved in completing one seemingly ‘simple’ task.

Try to keep in mind that there is generally little to (usually) no cross-cultural training for your Korean co-teacher (and when there is it’s only for your ONE primary co-teacher, and fails to include all the other Korean English teachers at your school, some of which you’ll likely be working with, but who never get the training) let alone all the other Koreans in your school that will be involved with things relating to your life in Korea. As a result of this when Koreans are talking about something and/or doing something for you they don’t know how to include you in the process. If the ritual way of doing a task hasn’t been modified to include the foreigner in a situation in Korea then the foreigner pretty much doesn’t exist.

New native teachers are often frustrated about the language and cultural barriers that exclude them from active participation in decision-making processes, lol.  For example, when a school is setting up the teacher’s apartment, or perhaps even just learning that they need to find one for you AFTER you’ve already arrived at the school straight from orientation (yes, it’s happened to me, and may happen to you) the new foreign teacher needs to keep in mind that the school admin office manager, a secretary or two, their co-teacher, the vice-principal, principal, the apartment building manager, the apartment owner, and toss in a few Koreans I’m probably forgetting . . . they are ALL involved in completing this ONE TASK.   Add to this that Korean culture is a very ritualized culture with what to a foreign teacher appears to be an ‘obsession’ with attention to rank and respect and only one way to do something and yeah, everything begins to look like it’s moving in slow motion IF you compare it to how things get done back in your home culture–DON’T DO THAT!

Sit back and let the Koreans work out what needs to be done and how, and occasionally ask your co-teacher to translate the key parts of what is going on but be prepared for most if not all decisions to be made for you, without asking for your input, to HELP you (though you may not like how you’re being ‘helped’).  The assumption is being made that since you can’t speak Korean, and have never lived in Korea, that you must not know how to do anything in Korea–literally!  This is not to say that the Koreans are being mean, or negative in any way towards you; it’s just the way Korean culture views a young unmarried adult in their mid to late twenties . . . especially one who doesn’t have any older family members present to make decisions and do things for them–which is the norm here even if you’re a 25+years old university graduate.  After you’ve been in Korea for a while and met some Koreans who are in this age bracket you may realize that it’s pretty true that older married mid-30s to mid-50s Koreans have to help the  20-something generations to do things that in western culture it’s taken for granted that the young person can do–in Korea, that’s just not the case.  For example, a 20-something Korean guy cooking a simple meal or doing his laundry . . . many have no idea how to do these things.

Another issue that new teachers may not consider is that how work tasks are prioritized is very different.  The task that gets given priority is always the task coming from whoever has the highest social and workplace rank in the school.  If a school office admin manager is working on doing 10 tasks, and one of them comes from the vice-principal or principal, it’s pretty safe to assume that completing the bank account deposit form for the new foreign teacher’s monthly salary deposit is going to drop lower in the task priority rankings–even if pay day is tomorrow, or even worse, yesterday.  The Korean admin office manager is in Korea for life, and has to do what is best for their career and future; dropping all other tasks regardless of the social and work rank of the Korean who needs it done in order to do something for the new foreign teacher who is likely to only be in Korea for ONE year . . . yeah, not likely.  Be patient and be friendly to the admin office manager in your school because this person especially handles tasks that you NEED done.  Also, if you’re the first foreign teacher at that school, and/or the admin office manager is new to their job, they may not know what to do and how to do it which will also make the whole process take longer (add to the mix that every public school office admin manager and university secretary/co-ordinator I’ve worked with has never been given any training or mentoring on what foreign teachers need done, and how to do the paper work–expecting them to do their jobs quickly and well when it’s a task they’ve never even heard of before is not really fair so be patient and know that things will eventually happen . . . eventually, lol).

13.  Failing to adapt to what may appear to be an extreme loss of independence and autonomy at work and in your personal life.

A lot of new foreign teachers arriving in Korea, myself included, are shocked at how much independence and autonomy they have to surrender at work and in their personal lives.  I’ll never forget the first time I told my primary co-teacher in 2005 that I was going to go to Seoul (from Ganghwa Island) for the weekend and how she showed extreme agitation and worry about how I could possibly survive 72 hours without her, or someone older than I was, to ‘help’ me.

Now remember, she was operating under that general assumption that if you can’t speak Korean, don’t know the culture, and don’t have an older family member to supervise you that you’re pretty much a helpless child . . . and no, I don’t think that this is an exaggeration.

I looked at my co-teacher and told her that if I could survive basic training in the Canadian Army that I’d be able to ‘survive’ traveling to Seoul and back, finding a place to sleep, finding food, and walking around Seoul amusing myself.  She continued to ask “How will you . . . ?” questions in spite of my attempts to reassure her and I finally just gave up and told her that I’d call her day or night (HA!) if I needed her help (I didn’t, lol).  Telling her that I’d rely on her to tell me what to do if I needed help calmed her down a tiny bit, but I’m sure she probably spent a good portion of the weekend worried about me being ‘all alone and helpless’ in Korea, lol.  (As an aside I think it’s much more preferable to have a co-teacher who cares about your well-being than one who has no interest at all in helping you and/or how you’re doing during the first month or so in Korea!)

There are a huge number of situations in Korea that you actually will feel ‘helpless’ to a lesser or greater extent.

a) getting a cell phone

b) getting Internet and Cable TV installed and an account set up

c) getting a bank account (though KEB is pretty decent if you want to go alone)

d) going to the hospital for your health check, or if you’re sick (go with a Korean co-teacher who can help translate things (it’s 70-30 that  you’ll get a doctor that has fantastic English) and be willing to sacrifice your privacy for the sake of accurate translations to aid the diagnose and treatment.  Also bear in mind that everything your co-teacher hears and sees is fair game for discussion with other Koreans back at your school!

e) going to the immigration office to apply for your alien registration card and to get a multiple re-entry visa (I cannot urge you strongly enough to NEVER go there alone, always go with a co-teacher or a Korean from your school)

Some foreign teachers manage to accomplish tasks in spite of the language and cultural barriers on their own, but I suspect that many if not the vast majority need help from their Korean co-teacher when they first arrive in Korea.  You can do the things I list above, and more, ALONE . . . but they often exact a high cost of stress and difficulty if you go it alone; getting your co-teacher or another Korean to help you generally speeds things up in ways that you may not understand right now–just trust me, 99% of the time it’s easier if you have a Korean helping you.

It’s a really really hard thing to do, however, giving a Korean stranger/co-teacher complete and utter power over you in a situation to get something done for you, but it’s something that often has to be done no matter how much you might hate it, resist it, and really don’t want to do it.  It can be very surreal to sit in a bank setting up a bank account and have no clue what is going on most of the time because your co-teacher is speaking in Korean, and the bank officer is speaking in Korean, and very little translating is going on other than the bare minimum.  Yet the alternatives are not being able to get something done, it taking a thousand times longer than if you’d just let your co-teacher help you, and the thing being done incorrectly (often because of misunderstandings, and often a Korean will make assumptions based on Korean cultural norms about what you need and want that are the OPPOSITE of what you have specifically said in ENGLISH and they didn’t understand or just assumed they know better because you’re new to Korea) which can cause more problems in the future.

12.  Failing to understand that there is a hierarchy and you are at the bottom of it (most of the time anyway).

In Korea there is a very highly structured social hierarchy based on age, gender, job title, and other factors (whether or not you’re of Korean ethnicity, in my opinion, also plays a major role in this).  In public school culture a new foreign teacher who is in their mid-to-late 20s, unmarried, can’t speak Korean, doesn’t know Korean culture, and doesn’t have a high ranking job title . . . well, you have about as much rank as a ‘recruit’ entering army boot camp in the minds of the Koreans you’ll be working with.  Do not be confused by all the attention and flattery and compliments you’re getting from students and faculty because in terms of having the authority and/or power to request something you need or want  you have to go through the chain of command first.  Even if you’re an older foreign teacher, for example someone in their fifties, you’ll not be treated the same way as a Korean teacher in their fifties; I should add, though, that most Korean teachers who are younger than you will be fairly deferential to you, but that that is not always the case (as I’ve heard from older foreign teachers, and also witnessed first hand).

When a fresh out of teachers college graduate/new Korean teacher arrives at their first school to begin their teaching career they’re pretty much everyone’s ‘lackey’–to put it lightly.  Every task that nobody else wants to do–give it to the newbie.  I’ve talked to several young Korean English teachers and ALL of them, especially the young unmarried female teachers, tell me that they have a really stressful time at work because of the rigid social hierarchy within the school culture.  Basically, they can’t say ‘no’ to pretty much anything a senior ranking teacher tells them to do without severe social and professional penalties being enacted on them by their ‘seniors.’

Juxtapose what young new unmarried Korean teachers go through when they arrive at their new jobs and schools with how new native teachers are treated and I think it’s safe to say that in general we’re treated a lot better even though we’re at the bottom of the school’s social/workplace hierarchy.  (Oh, and if you’re Korean-Canadian or Korean-American and you can speak Korean semi-fluently to fluently YOU SHOULD HIDE THIS FACT!!! If you don’t you WILL be treated almost exactly like a new Korean teacher.  You’ll be asked to do translation tasks, stay late, and basically you’ll lose the ability that new foreign teachers have to claim “I am not Korean” and say no to things like doing extra classes on Saturday  mornings, and other extras that most Korean teachers cannot refuse to do.)

If you think you can somehow LIVE AND FUNCTION as a teacher outside this social hierarchy and somehow sidestep it, and create your own power dynamics with the Koreans you work with–well, let’s just say you’re in for a really long and stressful year in Korea.  I am NOT suggesting you say yes all the time and act like you’re in the Korean army.  I am suggesting that a drastically increased sensitivity to rank and power politics and cultural issues is a good idea.

11.  Getting visibly and openly upset/angry/negative about something in the teacher’s office (or anywhere in the school where faculty and/or students can hear and see you).

For most new foreign teachers there will inevitably be something that makes you so angry you could spew molten lava out of your mouth and it still wouldn’t convey how angry you are with whatever is going on.  DO NOT YELL or use an angry/critical tone of voice with a Korean teacher/office admin manager/vice-principal/principal . . . you’ll lose 99.99999% of the time in terms of getting whatever it is you need or want from them.  You’ll also likely make every other Korean who is within earshot immediately label you as ‘the enemy’ and the school’s faculty will likely close ranks against you; you’ll be ostracized to a degree that is generally not seen in western culture workplaces.  You may still get what you’re fighting for–but at the same time you’ll be PAYING a severe social penalty in terms of the damage you’ve done to your reputation and relationships with Koreans at your school.

During my first year in Korea I got really sick in about my second month.  I had a high fever, cough, and flu symptoms, and in general felt like I was dying.  My apartment, unfortunately, was only 50 feet from the main school building.  I told my co-teacher that I just wanted to be left alone to rest and try and recover as quickly as possible.  I told her that I would not answer the door for anyone (it’s VERY common for your co-teacher, vice-principal, principal, and others to ‘visit’ a foreign teacher when they’re sick-which is NOT fun) because I was sick, taking medication I’d brought with me from Canada, and didn’t want visitors.  This drove my principal bonkers and I later heard that he stood for hours one day watching my apartment door from the teacher’s office windows to see if I’d come out.  At one point during the day I ran out of juice and water so I hauled my sick butt out of bed and began slowly walking across the school courtyard towards a nearby store.  The principal saw me and literally ran through the hallways to catch me.  He wanted to interrogate me about every detail of my illness in KOREAN, and didn’t think to bring my co-teacher with him to translate.  He fully expected me to stand and communicate with him in spite of the fact that I was terribly sick and DIDN’T SPEAK  A WORD OF KOREAN . . . oh, and the other thing he wanted to tell me: he’d set up a dinner meeting with a friend of his he wanted me to meet on a Monday night at 7pm and expected me to go no questions asked.

While standing in the courtyard of the school with this 61 year old Korean principal talking to me in lightning fast Korean I didn’t have the first clue what he was saying or what he wanted from me, but when I tried to walk away he stopped me by grabbing my arm, and speaking even faster to me in Korean.  I snapped . . .

I became furious and gestured to him that he follow me.  I marched through the halls of the school and up to the teachers office, and in front of the entire school’s faculty I read him the riot act about how he was not to bother me when I was taking a sick day.  I asked my co-teacher to translate this, which looking back now I find hysterically funny because I assumed she would actually translate a nobody-rank criticism of the god-king-ranked-principal . . . and after she asked the principal what he wanted from me, she told me about how he’d set up a dinner appointment for me outside of the 8 hour work day, on my personal time, without asking me if I wanted to go . . . well, I lost it and got really angry and lectured the god-king in front of all of his subordinates.

The principal pretty much turned nuclear-red (if such a color hadn’t existed before it was born that day) and stalked out of the office.  He didn’t talk to me or even look at me in the school hallways for almost 3 weeks.  Later, when I wasn’t feeling like death warmed over from my illness I realized how big a cultural taboo I’d broken by figuratively spitting in the face of the highest ranking Korean in the school, and in general Korean society also a very high ranking person.  I went into the principal’s office and ate probably the biggest crow (‘eating crow‘) of my entire life.   The principal, after hearing my co-teacher translate and seeing my meek attitude and desire to beg his forgiveness (don’t forget, I was 12,000km from home and living in a two-street village next to a mountain on an island–yeah, I needed the guy who could make my life a living hell to forgive me!) . . . said he accepted my apology a little coolly and that was that.  It took about another two weeks before we were back to being on friendly terms, and later I found out his nickname for me was “The General” because of what had happened.  I WAS DAMN FREAKING LUCKY, and I think if, for example, I’d been living in Seoul and had done something like this things would have been really really bad . . . I don’t think I’d be fired, but I imagine that going to work would be a nightmare for a very long time.

All of this boils down to one simple rule: if you think you’re going to lose control and speak to another Korean in a very angry or critical tone of voice GET OUT OF THE OFFICE!  Go to an empty classroom and call a friend to talk to them and cool down.  Go outside the school building and take a walk and cool down.

If you really feel the need to talk about whatever is bothering you ask the person you’re upset with to go with you to an empty classroom or somewhere where you can talk alone.  But I’d suggest that it might be better to wait a couple hours, if not a day, and think things over.  There are not many issues or problems that cannot wait a few hours, or until the next day, till you’ve thought things through, and calmed down a bit before you start a conversation you may really regret afterwards.

NOTE:  You should also consider that most Koreans will almost never express anger or criticism to anyone who has a higher social/workplace rank than them.  If you decide to express anger or criticism or anything negative towards a Korean who is older than you are, or has the higher social rank, you should expect things to get very very difficult, and most of the time it is highly unlikely that you’ll get what you need or want from them or the situation–it is more likely that you’ll make things worse, and it will be even harder after that to try to accomplish what you need or want.

The indirect approach is generally the best strategy to get what you need and want in Korea.  Ask a Korean who is older and has a higher rank than you, and most of the other Koreans involved in the situation/issue (this is great because the older Korean outranks the others and can put pressure on them if they choose to) to help you solve your dilemma.  Then let the backroom social politics play themselves out.  This is really hard to do for people who are very assertive, proactive, and independent when it comes to problem solving . . . but unfortunately it is almost always the only way anything might possibly change.  The backroom politics allow for the Koreans involved to save face–which is a HUGE thing here.  Believe me, I know, and this comes from really stressful experiences I’ve had in Korea.  Think about it.

10.  Open confrontation and being assertive.

In western culture there is a very different sense of the cultural behavior rules and norms for when it’s okay to openly confront another person, and when it’s not.  The same thing applies for when it’s okay to be assertive and not.  In Korea the rules are different, and if you don’t know them you can set yourself up for some bad experiences.

There may be problems that happen at your school regarding teaching, administrative things, and/or living condition issues.  Whatever understanding you have about the concept of professionalism back in your home culture/country you SHOULD ERASE THEM FROM YOUR MIND for the duration of your time in Korea–often these standards, procedures, norms and values are NON-EXISTENT in Korean culture. Do not expect and assume that professionalism will support your efforts, and direct how Koreans respond to whatever the situation is.  You are NOT in a western cultural work and living space anymore!

The problems you’re dealing with may be really bad (for example, severe mold in your apartment that threatens your health), and you will probably tell your co-teacher about the problem, and then expect the school to do something about it–and nothing happens, or nothing seems to be happening and no one seems to care.  Whether or not this is the case (sometimes it’s hard to read what Koreans are truly feeling, and you may misread attitudes so be careful), you should try to avoid open confrontation and being assertive about whatever the issue might be . . . even if your apartment looks like there are giant black mold clouds on the walls and ceiling.

If you decide to openly confront a Korean about an issue/problem that you think is serious enough to warrant it (based on WESTERN cultural norms) things will likely go from worse to terrible very quickly, and you might have even more problems getting what you want and need.  Confronting an older, higher social and work rank Korean, EVEN IF YOU ARE 10000% IN THE RIGHT, usually only results in one thing: damaging the relationship between native teacher and Korean teachers/school faculty, and damaging the native teacher’s reputation and image in the group consciousness of the school.

Taking the indirect route is almost always the best thing to do.  But it’s also freaking hard to do especially if you’re an independent person who is used to being very proactive about problem solving.

Some strategies for getting what you need and want in a crisis.

1) Politely tell your co-teacher what the problem is.  Then leave it for at least a day or two.  (Unless of course it’s something truly critical like a fire in your apartment, or infestation of fleas, etc).

2) After politely telling your co-teacher about the problem, send them an email repeating what you’ve said (sometimes the teacher’s English ability may be low and they need to have the problem written out so they can dissect it and figure out what you’re saying to them) or give it to them in a polite letter (actually, a letter is probably better as Naver and Daum tend to see Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo as spam and your co-teacher might never see the email).

3) Talk to other teachers at your school.  Tell them about the problem.  Paint a picture of yourself needing help, and how you hope someone will help you (basically, paint a picture of yourself as a  helpless victim who needs to be rescued), and avoid placing blame and openly criticizing any Koreans at the school.  Korean public school gossip networks are incredibly efficient about spreading any and all stories about a native teacher.  By the end of the day EVERYONE will know about your problem, and this will likely make it a higher priority to be taken care of.

4) If you can talk to an OLDER Korean English teacher (older than your primary co-teacher) and get them to understand what is going on, what you need and want . . . they will often talk to your co-teacher or the office admin manager about the problem when you’re not around and push for things to be dealt with.  This is a fantastic way of getting things done that helps to build relationships with co-teachers, and at the same time avoid confrontations and being overly assertive (in the Korean context).

5)  The NUMBER ONE THING YOU MUST DO: Keep your relationship with your primary co-teacher, and school faculty, in good condition.  (I just asked my co-teacher about strategies 1-4 and asked her if there’s anything else I should add.  She said, ‘keep the relationship good’ very emphatically.)

Every native teacher will deal with problems and issues differently, and I know that I haven’t always followed the advice I give here, but it’s good to know what the ideal way is to do things in Korea even if you choose not to use these strategies or are unable to for whatever the reason.  But remember that if you damage your relationships with the Koreans at your school you’d better hope that the reward is worth the VERY HIGH COST.

9.  Asking “Why?” when a higher rank teacher, office admin manager, vice-principal, or principal (pretty much anyone who is Korean and older) tells you to do something.

In Korean culture when someone who is your ‘senior’ (meaning a higher social rank) tells you to do something you’re generally expected to obey, and to do it right away.  Everyday life culture in Korea has a lot of military-style power dynamics because all able-bodied Korean men do military service; military culture is embedded in everyday civilian culture to a very large degree.  A lot of new foreign teachers experience pretty big culture shock when they arrive in Korea, especially when they think the school workplace is not an army base–but in some ways it is.

Also, Korean Neo-Confucianism has very strict rules for power relationships and hierarchies.  I would use the military example again as a way of explaining that every person (solider) has a rank (both socially and at work), and that the rank is extremely specific in terms of what you can say and do, and what you CAN’T say and do, and how you can and can’t interact with higher ranking and lower ranking Koreans.  This takes a lot of adjusting to, and most foreigners figure out what they’re able to conform to, and then try to develop coping strategies for those things they just can’t do.

A good example of this strictness in social interactions might be experienced during the first month or so at your new school when you may be asked to sign forms that are in Korean language and your co-teacher may or may not translate and explain everything on the form.  When you try to insist they explain everything they’ll likely be shocked, and perhaps even insulted or hurt.  It is expected and assumed to such a degree as it is usually unconscious on the part of the co-teacher that you should blindly trust them because you have been assigned to their care, and they are your ‘senior’ (they outrank you).  Think of this as a kind of modern day patron-client type relationship wherein your patron does things to help you be successful in your career and daily life while at the same time expecting a high degree of respect and obedience to whatever they ask you to do in return for their patronage.

8.  Refusing to accept gifts.

Koreans will offer you gifts of food and other small things as a gesture and offering of welcoming and/or friendship when you arrive at your school.  Regardless of what you think or feel about the gift you should accept it.

Even if it’s a food, for example dried squid (a common snack food in Korea), that has an insanely pungent aroma (I’m being diplomatic here, lol), you should accept the food.  If you can do it you should also try to eat a little bit of it in front of the gift giver, and tell them no matter what you truly think and feel about it that the food is ‘delicious.’

7.  Refusing to drink with other teachers during dinner parties

Native teachers should know that public schools often have teacher dinner parties.  Drinking soju and beer is very common at these dinner parties for most of the male teachers (the female teachers generally do not drink at these dinner parties, though I have been at a few where they did).  Eating and drinking together, especially for Korean men, is a HUGE BONDING RITUAL in Korea.  This is one culture shock experience that still boggles my mind: if I get drunk with another Korean, even a Korean who can barely string together 3 words in English, they will vehemently tell everyone the next day at school that they’re now ‘best friends’ with me.  This is no exaggeration.  This is also not limited to Korean-foreigner drinking episodes.  I also have seen this happen between Koreans who are strangers  to each other.  During one of the 6 month Teach English in English training programs I taught in, two young female teachers enthusiastically told me that they were now best friends, in the early stages of the program, because they had gotten drunk at the previous night’s dinner.  That’s how powerful sharing food and drink is in Korean culture (though this is NOT the case for all Koreans, it’s usually male Korean teachers).

If you refuse to let another Korean pour you a shot of soju you are causing them to lose face, insulting them, and publicly announcing you do not want to be their friend.  Of course, the teacher’s personality type and other factors influence how they react to this, and some just chalk it up to you being foreign and ‘not understanding Korean culture’ and they move on down the table to find a more compatible drinking buddy–but other teachers will write you off in terms of trying to develop a friendship, and they may influence other teachers at your school to see you as ‘unfriendly.’

If you don’t drink alcohol then it’s a really good idea to start planting this idea during your introductory conversations with teachers at the school.  Ask them what the drinking culture is like in Korea, and then say you’re worried about what to do at a teacher dinner party (see, indirectly manipulating the situation is always best, you’re painting a picture of yourself as needing the help of the Korean you’re talking to), and that you don’t drink alcohol, and need some advice from the Korean teacher on what you should do to avoid being ‘disrespectful’ when someone offers you soju.  Ask a Korean co-teacher to explain to the other Koreans at the dinner that you don’t drink alcohol.  But you should still expect that a few Korean teachers will make exploratory invitations to drink.  They’ll walk over to where you’re sitting, and offer to pour you a shot.  In this case, do what the female teachers do.  Hand them a bottle of chilsung (Korean version of 7Up/Gingerale), and let them pour you a shot of the soda, and then you should take the bottle of soju, and with your left hand held under your right forearm, pour them a drink holding the bottle with your right hand.  This will impress them greatly because you’re pouring them a drink in the traditional Korean style.  Also, keep in mind that Koreans will insist, sometimes rather forcefully, that you accept something from them THREE TIMES; each time they offer they will increase the enthusiasm and forcefulness of their offer.  This can be intimidating to some new native teachers, especially young female teachers, and you should just firmly and politely say “I’m sorry.  Thank you.”  Try not to say ‘no’ directly and firmly, especially to the older male teachers.  Make sure you sit beside your Korean co-teacher, and try to get them involved in the situation so they can help you by speaking in Korean to the enthusiastic Korean (who may be anywhere from mildly drunk to red-faced and VERY ‘happy’ to see you).

Also, some people who do enjoy a good alcoholic beverage, whether it’s occasional and you consider yourself a social drinker only, or those that really like to hammer it back, you may find that soju is . . . well, ‘unrefined strong wine’ (that’s the most diplomatic way I can think of putting it) that is about 20 steps away from reaching the definition of what western culture would consider a good drink.  (Actually, I’ll confess the first time I did a shot of soju I thought the Koreans I was with were pulling a practical joke on me, and that they’d given me  a shot of rubbing alcohol–yeah.)  If you can handle doing a few shots of soju, regardless of how you feel about the taste (and ‘interesting’ sensations of the fumes running into your nasal cavities) it will earn you huge social points with the other male teachers.

The best way to get out of drinking the mass quantities of soju that can be consumed at teacher dinner parties is to apologize several times and explain that you have to teach the next day and don’t want the principal to get angry with you for being hungover.  Make sure your co-teacher translates for the other Koreans who don’t speak English.  This usually works fairly well, though the drinking teachers will still be disappointed that you’re not ‘part of the gang’ hammering back the shots, and bonding.

Oh, lastly, Julianne just reminded me to give this cautionary: don’t say you think soju is disgusting or any other negative thing about it–for many Koreans who love soju this would be tantamount to saying you don’t like kimchi!

6. Rejecting invitations to go out for dinner and other social outings.

Say ‘no’ once to a Korean making an invitation and you very likely guarantee they’ll never invite you to do something again.  In Korean culture it is generally expected that if someone who is ‘senior’ to you invites you to dinner or to do something (i.e. go hiking on the weekend) you should say yes.  Saying ‘no’ to higher ranking Koreans even if it’s an invitation to do something on ‘your time’ (private time and public time/work time is pretty much a foreign concept in Korean public schools) you should try to rearrange your schedule if you have something else planned and keep the senior ranking Korean happy and accept their invitation.

If you really don’t want to do the outside of work time activity, make sure to use an indirect response/excuse.  Apologize many times and explain that you ‘must’ do something with someone else who is older than you, or that you have a doctor’s appointment, or something that a Korean will see as important in the Korean cultural context.  Do NOT say ‘no’ explicitly, and if possible don’t refuse the invite right away . . . say you will have to check your schedule, or need to think about it, or something like that.

But be aware that saying ‘maybe’ is, in Korean culture, usually interpreted as a ‘yes.’  There is no middle ground, or negotiation of probability, for this kind of thing.  You’re either saying yes, or you’re saying no . . . ‘maybe’ is a ‘yes’ to most Koreans.

5.  Refusing to eat snacks with other Korean teachers in the office.

Eating is a VERY communal activity in Korea.   Korean teachers will often bring in fruits and other snack foods into the office and put it on a table (there’s usually one somewhere in the office with a few couches and chairs around it, often in front of the vice-principal or head teachers desk where they entertain guests/parents when they come to visit the school) and begin preparing it.  Everyone in the office will usually take a break from whatever they’re doing and have some of whatever is on the table.

If you refuse to join the group bonding through eating you risk creating an anti-social reputation with the other teachers in the school.  In Korean culture the maintenance of relationships within the social hierarchy is critical to being accepted as a member of the group, and if you refuse to fulfill your group eating role it will negatively impact how other Koreans in the group treat you when you’re in other situations.

Also, it’s a good idea to bring in some snacks you buy (get a bag of apples from a fruit truck vendor, or buy some bread and jam at a bakery) and share the food with your fellow teachers.  The Koreans will be very impressed and happy that you are actively participating in the teacher’s office social culture.

4.  Getting upset about ‘last second notice’ aka ‘last minute notices’ about schedule changes.

“Short term planning is ‘what’s for lunch?’ and long term planning is ‘what’s for dinner?'”  This pretty much sums up organization and planning in Korean school culture.

There are some things to keep in mind when you are told your class schedule times have changed.

Often Korean teachers themselves don’t know what is going on with the daily school schedule, and are not told by others about schedule changes.  Getting upset that your co-teacher didn’t tell you about a schedule change can sometimes backfire on you because it was IMPOSSIBLE for them to tell you cause they didn’t know and weren’t told by whoever is in charge of scheduling.

During the first two to three weeks of every semester, and especially in March which is the beginning of the school year, the public school schedule is subject to several changes on a daily basis.  As a native teacher there is NOTHING you can do about this other than keep politely asking your co-teacher if there have been any changes to your class schedule every morning as you arrive at school.

Again, keeping your relationships with the Koreans at your school positive and friendly is, unfortunately, far more important than any western cultural education standards and professionalism norms you might be upset about . . . keep the peace with others and just do your best to adapt to the changes as they come.

You can read more about Korean public school scheduling culture here.

3.  Refusing to eat Korean food, refusing to eat in the cafeteria with Korean teachers, and/or saying Korean food is disgusting.

When new native teachers arrive at their schools they often have to overcome food culture shock in the school cafeteria surrounded by several Koreans all watching their reactions very closely.  There will be many completely ‘alien’ (try to think “different”) foods that you have to eat (there’s only one menu each day for lunch), and it’s important that you don’t freak out and say things like “That’s gross!” or “That’s disgusting!” about every day Korean foods.  Especially, NEVER say anything bad about kimchi!

Also, I’ve heard some native teachers say that they go into the cafeteria ONCE and walk out without trying anything, and openly criticize the food quality and type.  This is a really bad idea as a nation’s food culture often combines with the national identity, and if you criticize the food or say you hate the food or refuse to eat the food . . . you’re essentially, for many Koreans, rejecting Korea.

My suggestion is to take a little of everything and fill up your lunch tray.  Even if there are foods you don’t like, take a small portion and everyone will be happy to see you have a ‘full’ tray like they do.  They may notice you don’t eat some things on your tray but you can claim you’re full or make some excuse that allows you to avoid being painted with the stereotype about foreigners not liking Korean foods.

Eating with your co-teachers every day is one of those critical relationship building times, and if you don’t eat with them you lose this opportunity to develop and grow your work relationships.  If the only contact you have with co-teachers is in class, and sporadic chats in the office, it is much harder to create a good relationship; without the foundation of a good relationships it is almost impossible to co-teach successfully in Korea–in fact, I’d say it is impossible.

2.  Refusing to answer personal questions–it’s how Koreans ‘place you’ so they can talk to you.

As I said earlier Korean English co-teachers do not get cross-cultural training about English cultural information (although that seems to be changing a little from what I hear in a few places, but I’d like to seen what the cross-cultural content is, and how it is approached before I say this is changing), and they typically use Korean cultural norms for getting to know you.

Koreans ask questions in order to place you in the social/workplace hierarchy.  Based on your answers they then know how to talk to you (unfortunately using Korean cultural norms while speaking ENGLISH, often because they just don’t know what the English cultural rules are for being polite and avoiding English culture taboos like talking about your body weight and appearance openly).  While teaching a 6 month teach English in English program one of the courses I taught was “Understanding English Culture/s” and in it I gave a 3 hour lecture about how to be polite in English.  As I taught the material I realized that in the past I’ve been a little too harsh in my criticisms of Korean English co-teachers for how they’ve spoken in English to me, and how they’ve interacted with me.  They DO NOT KNOW many of the English cultural rules for how to be polite, and also what the taboos are too.

To make things even more complicated is the negotiation of power between a NET and KET as to which language culture rules will dominate the relationship.  Some KETs feel that since you’re in Korea you should follow the Korean cultural rules all the time; some Koreans go with following the English rules all the time; a very small minority of Koreans are open to negotiating the rules and creating a cross-cultural hybrid kind of relationship that is fluid and open to communicating and evolving as time passes.

I’ve actually heard some native teachers tell me they refuse to answer many of the common questions that Koreans and Korean English teachers always ask.  Refusing to answer personal questions is your right IN WESTERN CULTURE, but in Korean culture some of the questions we might normally refuse to answer need to be reconsidered if as native teachers we are to build strong relationships with Koreans.  Otherwise the road blocks you set up with privacy barriers will cut short any kind of journey you might share with your co-teachers as you go through your time in Korea.

1.  Refusing to bow to Koreans of higher rank.

This has to be one of the biggest, if not THE biggest Korean cultural acts I’ve ever heard native teachers say they refuse to do.  Refusing to bow to the god-king also known as your principal is tantamount to refusing to stand when, for example, an American president walks into the room.  Actually, it’s a BILLION TIMES worse in Korea.

In western culture bowing is generally framed in the sense of a master-slave relationship.  It is seen as anathema to equality, independence and individuality.  Yet in Korean culture bowing is the primary visual representation of social order and harmony–refusing to bow is a direct attack on the very fabric of Korean social reality, and the dissonance this causes is HUGE.

Koreans may not exact a physical punishment on native English teachers who refuse to bow, but the native English teacher who doesn’t bow is committing a form of social suicide in which any positive image they may want Koreans to have of them is destroyed, and any positive relationships (which are the foundation of life in Korea) they need in order to survive and thrive in the public school environment, while they may not be destroyed, they certainly are severely diminished in terms of their potential.

I’ll finish with two final thoughts.  It is important that new native teachers realize that for every taboo a native teacher breaks their primary co-teacher has to bear the brunt of the responsibility and shame according to Korean cultural rules.  Before a native teacher considers saying to hell with following Korean cultural rules, they might want to consider that while the Koreans in their school will ostracize them as punishment if they break a big enough taboo, the punishment dished out to their Korean co-teacher can and may be worse.

While many Koreans might wish native English teachers could just ‘become Korean’ for the duration of the typical 1 year contract (I think something like only 40% or so re-sign for a second year contract) this is just not possible.  Decide for yourself what aspects of Korean culture you can follow, and what aspects are just too much of a sacrifice in terms of your own cultural identity and well-being.  As for the Korean cultural elements that you cannot adapt to it is then critical to research them so that you can find coping strategies that will help you to deal with any problems and stress that arise due to cultural misunderstandings and conflicts.

Good luck.

J

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