Today I had three classes worth of speaking tests . . . and I heard the worst answer I’ve ever been given in the course of five plus years of testing English speaking skills in Korea with middle, high school, university, and teacher training programs.

A student answered the question, “Who is your hero?”, when I asked him with this response,

“Hitler.”

I blinked, took a deep breath, and told myself that his pronunciation must be terrible . . . or that I must have misunderstood him somehow.

I asked him again, “Who is your hero?”  This time the friendly look in my eyes and patient smile on my face that I try to maintain at all times during speaking tests were gone.

He gave the same answer.

Now I’ve been in Korea long enough to know that the holocaust and Antisemitism are things that some/many (?) Koreans don’t seem to have any education or understanding of how they are perceived in western English culture (and many other languages and cultures around the world), but it still rankles me that there’s such a huge degree of insensitivity to this issue.

After hearing the student give the same response again that Hitler was his ‘hero’ I checked one final time to see if I still wasn’t mishearing him somehow.

I spelled it out, “Are you saying “H-i-t-l-e-r?”

“Yes.”

Now that any benefit of a doubt or error on my part, or his part for that matter, had been erased I had to decide very quickly whether or not I would say something about his response while in the middle of testing . . . I decided to say something.

“That’s not good.” I also added an extremely disapproving look.  But I had to stop there because it was neither the place or the time to try and educate this kid about the holocaust, and that Hitler was an evil monster.

To compound the issue I don’t think I can rely on getting any kind of help from the student’s Korean English teacher because all too often in Korea when issues of racism arise in a classroom situation with a native teacher and a co-teacher there is a gross lack of cross-cultural awareness about racism and taboos in English.  For example, if a student yells out the N-word when I’m showing a video clip or have a picture with black people during a lesson, I reprimand the student, and then ask the co-teacher to reinforce my reprimand in Korean to make sure it sinks in . . . well, in this kind of situation the co-teacher has often been laughing with the class at the racist comment, or thinks it means nothing and therefore doesn’t merit any kind of serious reaction on the part of the teacher.  I’m not saying this happens all the time, but it happens with far too high a degree of frequency . . .

I remember in 2006 a situation that happened while I was doing a Remembrance Day World War I and II lesson that focused on women in the wars for the all girls high school I was teaching at.  Upon seeing a picture of the devastation that happened after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki one girl bellowed “GOOD!”  I’m pretty sure my jaw hit the floor, and I said “No, not good!” back at her.

But again, I was put in a situation where the limited language abilities of the students mixed up with the seemingly complete and utter lack of awareness that saying dropping the bomb was ‘good’ is a horrible thing to say (and in a country where Buddhism is a major religion, seriously!) . . . what do you do?

The next slide in that power point had some facts about the Koreans who had been kidnapped and taken to Japan as forced labor, and I can’t remember the exact number but I think it’s something like 10,000 Koreans were killed and/or injured by the atomic bomb blasts in Japan . . . yet this girl thought that it was only the Japanese who were hurt, and thought that it was a ‘good’ thing.  I have to wonder what kind of historical content is in the high school textbooks about the atomic bombs because you’d ‘think’ that the fact that Koreans were killed by the Americans dropping the bomb might be something the nationalists would fight to have students learning . . . but maybe not.  I don’t know.

Ah, here is an entry on wikipedia, “During the war, Japan brought many Korean conscripts to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki to work as forced labor. According to recent estimates, about 20,000 Koreans were killed in Hiroshima and about 2,000 died in Nagasaki. It is estimated that one in seven of the Hiroshima victims was of Korean ancestry.[8] For many years, Koreans had a difficult time fighting for recognition as atomic bomb victims and were denied health benefits. However, most issues have been addressed in recent years through lawsuits” (my italics and bold).

That’s really sad.

I think I might write a post about native teachers and cross-cultural issues that come up in the classroom, and focus on the issues of race and racism that I’ve personally had to deal with, and also stories I’ve heard from other native teachers over the years.

It’s definitely a topic that I haven’t seen a lot of blogging about (then again, I haven’t done much research so there could be a lot of blog entries about this topic) on the Kblogosphere.  I have read a few posts here and there, mostly written by African-American native teachers, about stuff that has happened in their schools and classrooms.  But I don’t think I’ve read any posts about situations that have come up, and how the teacher dealt with them, and what they’d suggest to new teachers, and veterans for that matter, who are coming to Korea to teach.  Definitely something that is worth writing about, I think.

Alright, time to end this post with a positive story about teaching in Korea.

One guy that had his speaking test today made me laugh.  He walked in and before sitting he paused, crossed himself, looked up and kissed his hand, and then sat down, LOL!

I know for sure that I’ve had Catholic Korean students before–but I’ve never had one cross themselves and pray before taking a speaking test with me!  LOL!

Well, time to go do some listening test recordings and then watch the soccer game tonight.

J

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