Public school teachers in Korea are (generally speaking) treated with a great deal of respect from others in society. And likewise, they are expected to maintain respectable lives, worthy of this respect. They are afterall, guiding the youth of Korea through their early development. In many cases, teachers could be considered to play a larger role in a child’s development than their own parents. This is due to the immense amount of time children spend at school, greatly reducing their time to grow and learn under the guidance of their parents.
However, a respectable life is a matter of perspective and often, the perspective of the school’s administration do not match that of the teachers. For Korean teachers, serious breaches of the administration’s view on a respectable life could result in ill treatment, reprimand or firing. For a foreign teacher working in a Korean school, the punishment is likely to be the same, however more slack is given due to cultural differences.
Now you might be thinking that this is all fair, that a teacher should be expected to maintain a clean and respectable life, and yes, I absolutely agree – within their role as a teacher. But to what extent should their personal life be governed by the will, expectations and whims of the administration? When you are a public school teacher in Korea, your personal life is not entirely your own. Your actions outside of school if they are discovered, can and will affect your working life. Is this really fair? After all, we do not live to work, we work so that we may live. Do schools have the right to control a teacher’s personal life (vicariously by placing pressure and expectations on them) when it does not affect the school, the students or their teaching?
But I’m rambling; so let me cite two recent examples that have directly affected me. I recently had a great fight with a fellow foreign English teacher over some holiday photos we had taken, specifically a short video clip. The video was taken at Jeju Love Land (제주러브랜드), a comedic sex themed sculpture park found on Jeju island. Picture giant penises and vaginas made out of every conceivable object doing just about every conceivable sex act and you’re pretty close. It’s not pornographic, rather it’s a lot of fun and even explores Korean sexual culture and identity somewhat. (Particularly well done through a series of dioramas) But I digress, the video featured a Korean English teacher animating a kind of ‘wind up’ sex sculpture (essentially two outlines of people having sex, you wind a crank and the man moves up and down) with accompanying sex sounds provided by myself, off camera. The video was clearly in good fun and when we played it back, we all had a good laugh. However the laugh was cut short when paranoia immediately took place, stirred up by my friends comments about ‘don’t post this on the internet’. An argument took place and the video was hastily deleted (against my will) within about 5 minutes of viewing it. Friendships were damaged in the subsequent fight and it was this incident that caused me to think so deeply about this problem. And it is a problem.
Map of Jeju Love Land
Given time to reflect on this incident I can now understand the irrational panic which encapsulated the Korean teacher. If the video were viewed by other teachers, they may question the subject’s lifestyle and ultimately, question the influence the teacher is having on the children. All these questions, based entirely on a twenty second video, taken in personal time, in a Korean amusement attraction, amongst adults and friends, completely within the law. If administration were to view the video, I can only imagine the same questions would be raised but enforced by harsh reprimands and threats of job loss. If the video were to find its way into the public media, I can easily imagine a scenario were the truth was thrown by the wayside and elaborate stories and fantasies were created about a promiscuous teacher holidaying under the influence of foreigner’s without morals. You may laugh, but I don’t believe that I’m at all stretching the truth.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Cementing these views comes a more recent incident and one that is much closer to home, occurring between myself, the Principal and the Vice Principal. Now before I start I should emphasise that my relationship with my school’s administration, Principal and Vice Principal is particularly good. We generally treat each other with mutual respect, I practice golf with the Vice Principal in the morning before school (actually, he teaches me) and he often treats me (with some embarrassment on my behalf) like his son. So it was all the more surprising when I was questioned in some depth concerning my activities outside of the school.
Word had reached the Principal and Vice Principal that I had been going to Hongdae, a university area of Seoul famous for clubs and young nightlife, for dancing. The assumption had been made that I was going to clubs to dance, which was far from the truth. When the Principal asked me if I had been going to Hongdae for dancing, I however, replied yes, for this was true. Most Mondays I travel to Hongdae to take part in a Merengue class. (Merengue is kind’ve like a two-step salsa.) Immediately I was simply told not to go to Hongdae for dancing because I was a teacher and that ‘To go, is to die’. (This isn’t the threat you might believe it to be, but when English is limited it’s a simple way to get your point across). After a great deal of broken English and broken Korean I managed to explain that I wasn’t going clubbing, rather I was going to ‘sports dance’, that it was clean, respectable and presented no problems. They seemed okay with this answer, although they still reminded me not to go. (I suspect because they assume I may later go to clubs.)
So this incident was fairly harmless, but again it got me thinking, what if I was going to clubs in Hongdae once a week? What if I was going, even nightly? It clearly isn’t affecting my teaching, nor is it being passed on to the students, my co-teachers could testify to that. So why is it relevant to my position? If I were drinking to excess and partying in the school uniform, then my personal life suddenly becomes relevant, but otherwise, it is just that – my personal life.
Hongdae - Part of the problem (apparently)
Again, the media is partly to blame for these problems. There have been incidences in the past with Korean newspapers reporting on the supposed shady activities of foreign teachers, but this is a different problem and should not prevent individuals from seeking satisfying and fulfilling personal lives.
Further to this though was the contradictory nature of our outing. The discussion took place during a teacher’s hiking trip and was followed by a teacher’s lunch. The Vice Principal and Principal had brought well over 30 litres (a conservative estimate) of wine to this lunch for the teachers to share. Very nice of them really. What was more interesting however was the implications of the pre-dinner speech, where the Principal urged us all (bear in mind this is my memory of a translation provided to me from another teacher) to ‘drink all of this wine and don’t let anybody use the excuse of I’m driving to prevent them!’ Say what?! Perhaps this was an error in translation or a misunderstanding, but whatever the case, it’s safe to say that getting (really) drunk together with the other teachers is perfectly acceptable behaviour. Dancing with friends and a single drink in Hongdae however, is not. I suppose I should mention that in western years, I’m 24 in age and the university districts are very much populated by my demographic.
So what should we make of all this? Honestly, I’m not sure and I certainly don’t claim to have any answers to these issues. But it’s interesting to consider how intrusive Korean workplaces seem to be on your personal life. So ask yourself, particularly if you are working in Korea, do you live to work, or do you work so that you can live?