Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I am aghast

Today before pre-school I spotted some writing on Rosa's calendar (her desk is next to mine) mostly in Korean but with our names and some classes listed; I determined that it was the breakdown of which English Native Teacher will cover which of Canadian Jon's classes after his last day, which is tomorrow(!) So, I pretty much figured that the coverage of his classes and the status of his replacement teacher (or lack thereof) would be the main topics of our ENT meeting this afternoon.

I have to teach two of his classes during the interim until we get another teacher. The good news is, they allegedly hired someone -- he accepted the job this morning. The bad news is -- he just accepted the job this morning. Director Michelle said she thinks it will be about two weeks before he is here. I suspect it will be closer to three and a half. He is from England. Now it will be even: two Canadian against two English, and me the fifth wheel American.

So for a while I will lose my beloved Tues-Thurs schedule of only five classes and I will teach six on those days, and my afternoon class schedule will start 45 minutes earlier. That class is little tiny beginning 5- and 6-year-olds, level "Fun 1." In other words, they are new and they know even less than pre-school, so we will sing a lot of songs and play alphabet games and I could possibly be annoyed a lot. The other class I will be subbing is Mon-Wed-Fri evenings, and it is level 11 adolescents, hurrah! I know them from subbing there once before, when Jon had a vacation day. They weren't bad.

However, none of this is the reason that I am aghast.

The reason I am aghast came at the end of the meeting. Today's meeting was conducted by director Michelle (see previous blog entries such as "Ironical Pajams," "Yeah but you should see the five-year-old!" and any entry about my apartment woes) and assistant-to-the-assistant-to-the director, a young woman by the English name of Winnie, whom I just don't get along with (see previous blog entries and hear any given day's rant).

At the end of the meeting, Michelle and Winnie thanked us ENTs for our cooperation and help in taking on Jon's classes (blah blah, yeah, that's all fine and good). We have all been on the edge of our collective seat awaiting news of who will replace him as the candidates have bailed, one by one. Plus, a few weeks ago, every foreign teacher in Korea had to present his/her actual diploma at the immigration office and sign a sworn statement that it was a real diploma and we truly had a university degree. You can see that this is a big issue here. It was kind of amusing, that day, when we foreign teachers, including my roommate the Chinese teacher, all piled into a cab and went to Immigration, signed a paper for all of two seconds, then came back to school. But apparently during that time there was a mass exodus of English teachers from Korea! Caught! Busted! I heard a rumor that 75 left Daegu alone. Our directors have told us that the sudden severe shortage has contributed to their trouble finding a replacement for Jon.

But HERE'S why I'm aghast:

After Michelle thanked us, she lamented a bit about how hard the candidate search has been this time around. She was partially speaking to us and partially speaking in Korean to Winnie. She said something about South Africa -- that we knew about, that they had considered but hoped not to hire someone from there. The reason is that it is considered scraping the bottom of the barrel accent-wise. New Zealanders aren't looked upon too highly either, for reasons of accent, and Australians just above that. There are a fair amount of Irish teachers here, but I've met only one from South Africa and none from New Zealand. The vast majority of teachers here are from Canada.

And then I caught a familiar word in Korean I couldn't quite place, as Michelle lamented. Winnie smiled and turned to us to translate, "Yeah, and black people, and everything." Then it was, Ahh, but now all's well, now we've found someone, breathe a sigh of relief, OK, on with our day.

I said, "Um - what? What just happened?"

My fellow ENTs clued me in: "Yeah, they won't hire black people. The parents don't want them. They want to see white foreigners. Daegu's a conservative city..." And on and on and on, it was like the room started spinning as these comments were hurled at me. 'You must be joking,' I thought. "You must be joking," I said aloud. The meeting was ending. Four of us ENTs stayed in the room chatting for a bit. I was shocked. Aghast, I tell you! Canadian Bram said, "Yeah, don't you think that's why we had to e-mail our pictures in the beginning of the hiring process, to make sure we were white?"

We went back to the staff room and I sat and stared at my desk, hunched over, trying to collect my thoughts. I thought about talking to Rosa or assistant director Betty, the people I like and consider the most reasonable, but then I was like, you know what? No. This is a clearly a situation for dialogue, and if I really plan to be a human rights lawyer in the peacemaking business I'd better be able to discuss uncomfortable issues with people I dislike, right? So I turned around to Winnie, who sits behind me.

"Winnie, I have a question about what just happened in the meeting," I began. I think she was basically shocked (aghast?) that I was speaking to her, as she and I have carefully cultivated a relationship of avoidance, despite teaching a class together and everything. I asked her if that notion of refusing to hire people who are black actually strikes them as normal or acceptable?

She asked me if I thought it was discrimination. "At least!" I replied. She told me there is discrimination in America. Well, no kidding. I did point out that you can't go around saying, "We don't want black people to work here." I mean, actually saying it! Yes, I think it happens in the U.S. in insidious ways, but that was not the point of this conversation yet. I was asking if the blatant dismissal of the candidates struck them as acceptable. And I was getting, if not a resounding yes, then at least an echoing yes. A couple other Korean Teachers were lurking about, listening.

Again with the "the parents don't want them." Ahhh, yes. The parents of these little Ding Ding Dang-ites. "The parents" are the reason given why we should dress up on open house days, never give bad grades, and, as of yesterday, not wear loose, "silky" (rayon) pants. This is a money-making venture, and I have clearly seen how that takes precedence over, say, making the kids learn English. Keep the parents happy!

But this is different. I was sitting there at my desk ready to walk out of this job in protest. Honest to God. I did not have a qualm with that. What stopped me was the thought: would that help? Or is it more helpful for me to be here to try to "brighten the corner where I am"? To teach my pre-schoolers not to solve their problems with violence. To teach my level tens not to say that the U.S. is bad "because it has a lot of gays." To teach my level 13s that the n-word is unacceptable, even though they heard it in the film Boyz N the Hood. And now, to advocate for equal employment opportunity, or something like it. To find the children of "the parents" and to show them a different perspective.

I've mentioned before the antipathy toward foreigners here. This put a whole new spin on it.

I asked Winnie, "What do 'the parents' actually say?" I wanted exact words, not a vague impression. I also wanted to see how much was "the parents" and how much was perfectly agreed with by Ding Ding Dang. I thought that Winnie was hemming and hawing as she talked about "not actually saying anything" and "not having heard anything." I pressed the point, and she clarified, "There has never been a black teacher. Not at this Suseong branch, not at any Ding Ding Dang. So, I don't know what they'd say, because they don't respond to it, because it has never happened. Never. It won't happen."

I see. You know, if I weren't so busy being appalled, I might also like to point out that they are idiots to refuse to consider people based on race and then to be all, Oh, woe is us, we have no teacher. What the...?! I swear I should refuse to cover Jon's classes out of protest.

I managed to gather the impression from various teachers that it is "maybe a little different in Seoul" although Winnie insisted it is the same "in all of Korea." Bram and I talked more about it during our prep period (which won't be a prep period for much longer, as I'm taking on Jon's "Fun 1" class). Bram shared several anecdotes about horribly racist comments the kids in his classes have made.

I'm really at a loss here, folks. What should I do?

The next class I taught was my totally beginning "Fun 2" 6-and 7-year-olds, and we were practicing the letters "S" and "T." The workbook had the letters in rows with one letter backwards. They had to circle the one that didn't match. I was writing "s"es on the board to demonstrate and said, "Circle the one that is different. Which one is different and doesn't belong?" Needless to say, Ani DiFranco pounded in my head:

"When I was four years old, they tried to test my IQ
They showed me a picture of three oranges and a pear

They said, which one is different?
It does not belong
They taught me different was wrong...
I sing sometimes like my life is at stake
'Cause you're only as loud as the noises you make...

If more people were screaming then I could relax
But a good brain ain't diddley if you don't have the facts...

For every lie I unlearn I learn something new
I sing sometimes for the war that I fight
'Cause every tool is a weapon - if you hold it right."

-- ani difranco, 'my IQ'


Kim Diaz said...

If it was me, I might start throwing in some African-American cultural/historical references - the easiest for me, since I'm a musician, would be to give them a history of jazz breakdown, replete with pictures - PICTURES - of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, etc. Also, Langston Hughes has written a book or two for children. Work that stuff into your classes - work it from the inside out. Because you probably have the power to do that wothout too much argument, right?Want me to send you anything?

jnap said...

I am with kim diaz.

Unfortunately, racism and bigotry is not an American phenomenon. I made a comment once that American English is replete with baseball references, actually sports references. Another area of "culture" in which you can introduce African-American references.

Unfortunately, the best thing would be to teach other cultures to learn from the American Experience about the extreme harm discrimination, slavery, subjugation, etc. does to an entire country.....

Pick your battles. Protest from without may not work as well as (disguised) protest from within.....

Monni said...

I agree with the others. I to understand about the racism. I am African-American and I will actually be coming over to Daegu, in the next week and a half. The whole proces was a struggle for me. I had never experienced anything like it before. I also actually applied with Ding Ding Dang as well as many other schools and they wanted to hire me I even spoke with them on the phone and after I sent them the picture, that is when I never heard from them again. I believe it is for the best anyway, that I most likely would not have been happy at those places. I was truly amazed that people were so open about their feelings of not hiring people of a different race. I think if you start by teaching the children positive things about African-Americans, it will be a great start. If you want some ideas please do not hesitate to email me at smwc04@sbcglobal.net Good luck with everything!

Catherine_G said...

Can you believe that this was the post that got me riled up enough to sign up for a Blogger account so that I could comment?

I agree with everyone else, Linda. Pick your battles, but also try to incorporate some cultural and historical references into your lessons. That is, if you can.

Baby steps, you know. Every step counts.