Being the single non-Korean person in an entirely homogenous workplace is quite a unique experience.
In some ways I feel like I benefit greatly from it, and in other ways it’s quite difficult.
So today I’d like to talk about the relationship between the Guest English Teacher/Native English Teacher/Foreign Teacher however you like to call it (me) and the other non-English teachers at the school.
Of course, as always, this is not how it will be for everyone. I know that many of my friends have quite different experiences and a lot of it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with your predecessor, your Korean, their English, and if you teach elementary or middle school.
This is going to be a combination of my personal experiences and observations I’ve made across the board.
Let’s start with a bit of my background. So I teach at a middle school and there are about 40/45 teachers total 5 of which are my Korean English Co-Teachers. This is post is not about them. The others are of course the teachers of various subjects and administrative staff.
I work in the grade 3 teachers office and so on a daily basis I pretty much only interact with them. There are 11 of us total. I see them all day, everyday, and we share the particular fun/horror that is “The Grade 3 Office.”
(The grade 3 students are… tricky. It is a truth universally acknowledged.)
All the other teachers in the school know that I’m in that office. So often if a teacher says anything to me (more on that soon) usually the first thing they ask me (with a concerned look on their faces) is, “Soooo, the grade three students?” And my response is something along the lines of, “They’re like that in my class too.”
For the first semester the other teachers seemed to settle into two categories of either 1. kind of leaving me alone or 2. humoring my attempts at Korean or trying to use what little English they have to ask really basic questions. Most fall into the former category.
So here’s the catch 22. I appreciate that people don’t fawn over me too much. I haven’t gotten a lot of that “let me take care of you” stuff that many foreigners feel from the Korean teachers. And it makes me feel good, like I’m the same as any other teacher here. However sometimes the fact that no one ever initiates conversation with me is pretty lonely. Mostly I feel this at lunch time.
This is where basically all of my interaction with the other teachers happened last semester. Usually we walk down to lunch with the people in our office. So sometimes I go with the other English teachers and sometimes I go with the Korean teachers.
And I guess I should have anticipated this before I got here but it can actually feel pretty sad to sit in the teachers lunch room with about 25 other people and have no one speak to you. It starts to feel like I don’t exist.
That’s the worst of it. Don’t feel too bad for me, we’re going to get to the good stuff soon. But if you’re thinking about coming here please realize that not everyone is going to think you’re interesting or want to talk to you. And that’s totally fine.
It’s not your fault, it’s not their fault, it’s just the situation. I’m not really sure who can and can’t speak English at my school because I don’t speak to the other teachers in English. I made that decision in the beginning because I didn’t want to scare them away or assume they could speak English. 1. Because they don’t have to. We live in Korea. And 2. because I was hoping to get to practice my Korean with them.
But because of that, and where my Korean skills were most of the semester, I pretty much didn’t talk to anyone besides the English teachers. A few teachers have approached me in English one or twice, but before this summer break, I would have only said that there are about 2 teachers in the whole school that I am friendly with. And when it came to the end of the semester one of my co-teachers told me that the other teachers are a little bit scared of me because they’re afraid I’ll speak English to them.
So despite all my efforts I couldn’t escape that stigma.
Here’s another thing to note.
The Korean teachers perception your (especially at first) will not have much to do with you at all. It will be very much related to who you predecessor was or any other foreigners they have interacted with in the past. So despite that fact that I have NEVER, not once, initiated conversation in English with a non-English teacher at my school, they were still afraid that I would.
Do I regret that decision? To be honest I’m not sure. But I do know that it paid off in some unexpected ways.
Because I’m the youngest person on staff at the school, and due to Korean culture, my “silence” seems to have been interpreted as politeness. I had a lot of teachers compliment me on my manners, which sounds really weird, but here it makes a bit more sense. Korean culture, especially work culture, has a lot of rules. And I think they really notice and appreciate that I try (try being the key word) to follow them.
And I also think a lot of it paid off during this summer break. Without the other English teachers in the office I have finally gotten to properly try to speak Korean at work. And it turns out that basically no one knew I could understand and speak a little bit.
But now that they know, they love explaining things to me and asking me questions. For the first time yesterday someone actually asked me what my opinion was about something they were discussing.
I think they now also feel an added weight of the responsibility to include me the conversations since I can understand a bit of what they’re saying. Even if it’s just making eye contact with me aswell when we talk in groups. But even just that really makes me feel more included.
It’s easy to ignore someone who doesn’t understand you. It’s harder, and it feels rude, to ignore someone who understands what you’re saying.
The other day two of the teachers in the office spent about an hour and a half looking over and correctly some of my Korean grammar practice sentences, explaining all of my mistakes, and giving me ways to sound more natural. It was amazing.
After, I tried to thank them in a way they would feel how grateful I was, but one of them immediately said, “No no no, this is our language. We are proud of it. We know it’s hard but we want to help you understand.” (And probably a lot of other things to but I still only understand about 20% of anything that’s being said.)
And that brings us up to where we are now. While they were helping me with my grammar we also just started talking about other things, namely the best cafe’s in Daejeon. I’m a big café lover, and it turns out the one of the other teachers is too. And when we were talking about her favorite one she said, “Lets all go together!” and so the three of us made plans to go out last Monday.
It was organic, it wasn’t a pity invite, and it was the first time any other teacher (besides the English teachers) had asked me to hang-out outside of work.
Then we went for Korean BBQ and to a really trendy coffee shop after. It was the same thing I’d be doing with any of my other foreigner friends, except that I wasn’t speaking English. Like I said before, depending on the topic, I can understand anywhere from 10-30% of a conversation. I feel like it usually hovers around 20%. 30% is only if I’m really lucky.
But I didn’t feel like I was so different from them. They talked to me like I was their equal, and left space in the conversations for me to speak even though it takes me a while to get out what I’m trying to say. We laughed together, complained together, and I felt an incredible overwhelming sense of being valued.
There’s this adverb in Korean 열심히 which means like earnestly, or zealously. I usually use it in the phrase “study hard.” But it is used in so many different ways in Korean than that translation is used in English. You can live your life 열심히, you can eat 열심히, study 열심히, work 열심히 and play 열심히.
One of the teachers told me that she can see I try to live that way, by how I work, and study, and enjoy Korea. And that those are “her style” of people.
That is a part Korean culture that I love. Not that everyone does, and not that I do either, but the goal is to do everything you do earnestly. 열심히. People here work incredibly hard, and then play incredibly hard as well.
This summer I’ve turned a corner. I feel so much more comfortable trying to speak Korean, so much more comfortable with the other teachers, and so much more comfortable in my own skin.
I’m so excited to start the semester again armed with a bit more confidence, and a small army of teachers who now know that I can understand them a little, and who like bragging about me to other teachers.
I’m sure there will still be a lot of silent lunches, and the truth is that my Korean will probably never be good enough to completely participate in all the conversations that go on around me daily, but I’ve gotten a taste of what it could be like. And now that I have, I’m even more motivated to keep working hard.
So, all this to say. Your relationship with the Korean teachers will be mixed bag. The same way that any work environment would be, even in your home country. Some of them will think you’re a cute and interesting. A novelty. Some will ignore you. And some will actually see you for what you are. It’s up to you to be who you are and then let the rest just happen.
Thanks for reading!