Ana’s experience teaching in the language school reminded me of the first time my supervisor observed me when I was teaching elementary German in the US as a PhD student in German literature. I was very nervous. At the end of the class she pointed to the blackboard where I’d made a mistake in elementary grammar—in subject-verb agreement or something like that. I blushed, and we laughed it off. At the same institution I took a linguistics class from an instructor whose illustrations of linguistic phenomena on the board always contained English spelling errors. That was a bit much, because she could have checked the spelling in advance, but we pointed the errors out, and she corrected them.
Confucian cultures, however, are “shame cultures” with little tolerance for mistakes or disabilities. Many people also don’t seem to distinguish between “professional” and “personal.” This story illustrates what can happen when Western employees work under Korean management—but also how the employee can eventually excel. Tip: Don’t provide any information the boss doesn’t need to know.
This interview took place over Skype while Ana was in South Korea and I was in the Philippines.
Before I came to Korea I was living in the United States. I’d just finished a master’s degree, which meant I could teach at a Korean university although my degree was not in language teaching or a related field. When I contacted a friend who’s teaching here, she told me I could check out jobs online or I could come over and find a job, since they were plentiful. I was skeptical because my only teaching experience was a year in South America. But I did come over, and I got an interview at a language school connected with a top university in Seoul. The woman who interviewed me was absolutely delighted with me. She became my boss. Her English name is June.
Nowadays to get a work visa as a foreigner in Korea you need a criminal background check and an apostilled diploma. I’d had some of the paperwork done before I left, but the police station where I had my fingerprints taken did it incorrectly, and the FBI couldn’t read the prints. I had to get them done again here. That meant waiting a month and a half. However, the school was willing to hold the job for me. Then I was sent to a Korean consulate in Japan for my work visa. I couldn’t start working until I had my visa in hand. Before I left, I stopped in at the office to say hello, and June said, “There’s something about you. You bring sunlight into the room.” It was the nicest thing anybody had ever said to me.
I was originally supposed to start in May, but my first day was in mid-July. June came in to observe. During the lesson I misspelled a word on the board. Ironically, that word was “embarrassed.” Afterwards June asked, “Why did you spell it wrong? Why can’t you spell?”
There was another teacher in the room, so I said, “Can I talk to you privately?” We went into another room and I explained that I’m slightly dyslexic.
She said, “I feel deceived.” She dismissed me. Her behavior turned very cold, like I was a horrible teacher. I couldn’t spell, and therefore I couldn’t teach. After that she kept repeating that I’d deceived her by not telling her about my dyslexia. She was talking down to me as if I’d been convicted of grand larceny.
Eventually, I said, “Deception is what you do when your intention is to hurt someone, but I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. I feel ‘deceived’ is not the right word to use in this situation.” I tried to let it go.
This was still within the first three days of my job. I was waiting for her to tell me the school wasn’t going to keep me on. At that point I was so disheartened I said, “I don’t know if this is for me.”
It was weird because she was so unhappy with me and she so disliked me, but she wasn’t firing me. She was also hammering away at another message: I needed to make it up to her. I’d wronged her, so now I needed to be perfect. I needed to prove to her that I could teach. I’d come to the school without a teaching degree, and she’d thought I could do it anyway. I realized she was telling me to make sure she saved face in front of her boss.
I became so sensitive that I believed everything anyone said was about me, whether it was directed at me or not. For example, the school had special classes where students could get extra help, but none were assigned to me. I thought it was because people had no confidence in me. It didn’t occur to me that I should be happy I didn’t have to take an extra class or that my assignments weren’t made to fit in with other people’s teaching schedules.
So there was this huge hubbub about my having misspelled a word, and then one of my coworkers confided that he was on thin ice. A few days later, between lunch and the first afternoon class, there was an emergency meeting. Someone took our orders for coffee from a nearby gourmet coffee shop. I heard, “It must be really bad if they’re buying us gifts.” At the meeting they told us they’d had to let somebody go. They wanted us to pick up his classes. So I got another class.
In the meantime, June had taken a leave of absence for a month because she wasn’t feeling well—a nervous condition or something. Within the second week of her absence, I was waking up in the middle of the night panicking that I was going to sleep through my alarm. Every day I hated it. I was going to work with a big fricking smile on my face, but I felt trapped. I felt ill all the time. On top of that I had a full course load. I had four classes a day. That’s seven hours of teaching, every day, Monday through Friday—and the extra pressure. But when I took the job I’d made a vow to myself that I would give it 110%, and I did. I never was never late for a class, and I was never unprepared.
Maybe two months into my five-months’ contract, my boss called me into a meeting and said, “We’re not going to rehire you.” I hadn’t planned to sign up again anyway, but it was still a blow to my ego, and my feelings were hurt. Then I started feeling jealous of my co-workers because they were enjoying their jobs while I was in my own private hell. Fortunately, I had friends outside of work I would see on the weekends.
Things started changing when a friend said, “You need to get a thicker skin.” Other people told me to stop fighting and let it go. “Stop trying to make it right. Stop trying to read meaning into everything. As soon as you stop fighting it will be different.” And it was.
When I stopped internalizing everything, it all shifted. I’d find myself in a negative thought, and I’d tell myself, “Stop. Don’t go there.” I realized I was bringing in stuff from the past that had nothing to do with the current situation. I told myself I needed to have a different attitude. I needed to pick out the things I liked about the job and say to hell with everything else.
I got along fine with all my coworkers, all the other foreigners. One day when June snapped at me in front of other people—which was embarrassing and unprofessional—they said, “What was that all about?”
“I don’t know, she just really doesn’t like me, I guess.”
They said, “Why?”
The head teacher of the Korean staff, a woman named Young-ah, was nice and supportive and kind. I have a lot of respect for her. Even in the thick of things, when she saw me in the hall, she’d always stop me and say things like, “How are you doing? How are your classes? You look really nice. All I’m hearing are good things from your students.”
I had the most wonderful group of students. They were amazing people. At first I’d been nervous because my students are business people, and I’d heard how chauvinist Korean businessmen can be. Ninety percent of them were so nice. Drinking is very big in this culture, but when we went out after class and I said, “I don’t drink,” they didn’t make a big deal of it. They just bought me a soda. They were really genuine people.
It made all the difference to focus on the good things. In the future when I get to something that’s difficult, I can remember being in Korea and feeling trapped. After a while I had started enjoying myself, not only because the end of my contract was near but because I was having a good time with my students. I thought, “Wait a minute, I really like my job. Maybe I have to see my boss twice a week, once at a meeting and once in passing. I can do that.”
Fast forward now three and a half months, and my coworkers were having problems with the boss. For example, there was going to be a North American-style Thanksgiving dinner. June made a big deal about including the wife and two kids of one of the teachers. Then the day before the dinner she called him into the office and said his family couldn’t come. Another teacher, someone who had problems with the boss, wrote her an email expressing her feelings. That didn’t go over well. Since I had already worked through all that negativity, I found it interesting to sit back and watch other people act like babies, responding in a very reactive way.
Then there was the episode of the skiing trip which was supposed to be for the staff and the students. [In Korea and Japan attendance at supposedly solidarity-building work functions is mandatory.] The boss was talking about how we could rent a bus, we could start drinking after skiing and then go bowling at night. I really didn’t want to go, so I told them I had family coming to Korea. Other people were saying they wouldn’t go because they didn’t like the boss, like the guy who couldn’t bring his family to the Thanksgiving dinner.
So in response to your original question, “Would you see something like this in America?” I say no. I think an American boss would have asked me what she could do to help. In the States I’ve made mistakes on the job without getting talked down to. When I ran into another foreigner who used to work with June, he was surprised. “Why is she so close-minded? I’m not a good speller. People make mistakes. That’s why we have spell-check.”
This is a shame culture. Your exterior has to look spotless. My students are in class from 8:30 to 5:30, Monday through Friday, for ten weeks. During the week they live here. On the weekends they go home to their wives and their husbands. Then they come back here and do another week. They told me they feel like robots. It’s almost sad. Here if you screw up, you don’t apologize, you don’t show your face. You’d better just fix it. People around you will remember.
One day the office manager, who was always on someone’s butt for something, realized she’d forgotten to tell the students their pictures were going to be taken. It was time, and nobody had showed up. She didn’t say, “I made a mistake,” she just crumbled. She said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that.” She was in a real panic, and then she squatted down and covered her head like someone was about to beat her. One of my coworkers made a sarcastic remark about her not running a tight ship. People were saying, “God forbid anyone should make a mistake.”
I’ve heard so many horror stories about teaching here that I honestly don’t think my situation is any different. I was never told straight-out what they wanted. I had to read between the lines. One of my first experiences had to do with textbooks. My boss held up a book and said, “This is what we usually use, but I want you to go to the bookshelf and pick out one you’d rather use instead.” I picked out two I liked. When I showed them to her, she said, “Oh, no, I want you to use this one.” Another time she asked, “Do you have time in your schedule to take another class?” I said, “No, I only have a small amount of free time, and I need some time to myself.” She said, “But we really need you to do this.” It’s like they give you the illusion of choice, but there’s only one right answer.
June came up to me last weekend and asked how many weeks I had left. I told her two weeks. She said, “I’d like to take you out to dinner.” At the staff meeting beforehand, I said I really enjoyed working there, people had helped me a lot and given me guidance, and I appreciated the head teacher, who had always been nice to me.
I get uneasy around June, but at dinner I told her how I felt, that I had vowed to do a good job and after everything happened there were times when I wanted to give up, but I was really glad I’d stuck it out. I thanked her for the opportunity, and I meant it.
She listened. Then she talked about holding the position open for me during the long wait for the paperwork. She said in Korea dyslexia was looked upon as a disease, there was such a stigma attached to it. She said, “I refused to look at it that way.” She told me she’d had to meet with the dean. Other teachers hadn’t wanted me to stay, because the school was run like a business and they were afraid their clients wouldn’t like it. Even though her head was telling her it wasn’t a good idea, she’d wanted to give me a chance. She said, “You worked so hard, you’re genuine, you’re honest.” She went on and on.
I thanked her. I reminded her of when I’d walked into her office and she’d said I brought sunshine into the room.
She said, “I still think that. I’m not taking any of the other teachers to dinner, and I don’t care whether they like it or not. You’re probably among the top ten most amazing people I’ve ever met. If I ever meet someone else with dyslexia I’d like to share this experience. Can I use your name?”
It blew my mind. I told her I was flattered. I felt she was being genuine. Dinner was a really nice gesture.
Many of the readers of this story on Facebook made positive comments. The majority were English teachers working in Korea.