Published On: Tue, Dec 27th, 2011

The hell with you if you try to take this from me Korea

Every morning when I walk into the Teacher’s room I say hello to everyone in English. I was told by my co-Teacher to follow the Korean way if at all possible. As a result, I obey the guidelines of the school, custom when out eating with the staff and everywhere else were called forth.

But last night it appeared that’s not enough. I must lose the English greeting as well.

One of the Korean Teachers who is not in the English department made a comment when my Korean Teacher and I were talking as we all ate sushi and some of the younger Teachers walked around with soju bottles toasting the Principle, Vice Principle and everyone in charge. Then one of them stops at our table and the conversation went on between him and my co-Teacher. Then she stopped talking to him and turned to me and translated “when in Rome do as Romans do”.

Then I thought to myself for a second, if we are all being Romans this world is going to get very boring really fast. But to humor him I asked why this sudden quote? He said in broken English, when greeting the Teachers in the morning, you should greet them in Korean.

Now this is a request that I have not problem with but I had a problem with how and when he requested it. He did it in a group setting while being the loudest in the room and drowning even the Principle’s voice. Basically he is new to the school and thus singled me out in order to establish some sort of authority. If he pulled me to the side and said this I would not be writing this post. This paragraph was added after publication of posts and some of the comments below to better clarify on the issue: 9/12.

Let me first state, no other person has made such a request. Not the Principle, not the Vice Principle, and not my co-Teacher. So, what to make of this? I know Koreans are patriotic as hell. Patriotic to the point that if you say or don’t like even a intsy bitsy thing about Korea whether jokingly or seriously, it’s like offending them personally.

Well, I am patriotic too but not in that sense. This is how I see the situation.

  1. I am an English Teacher
  2. You hired me to teach English
  3. You asked me to have staff lessons once a week for the Korean English Teachers
  4. Just to drive it home, I am an English Teacher

As a result of the aforementioned, I think you are asking for too much. Because in accord with your custom and to aid in creating an harmonious working environment I have,

  1. learned Korean phrases to communicate.
  2. Drank my soju even though I don’t like it very much and have done so facing away from you because you are older.
  3. Replaced hand shaking with bowing to better accommodate and assimilate.

Thus I think your request is over reaching.

Conclusion

As English Teachers abroad we are expected to make changes to better assimilate into the culture in which we have surrendered ourselves for the duration of the contract we sign. It is fitting to comply therefore to the requests of your employer when reasonably requested.

But in complying, should you then forgo the teachings and the making of your own culture? Emerson once said, “imitation is suicide”. Meaning, the more you learn from others and assimilate in their ways, the more you lose your true self.

I am aware of the pettiness of this request and perhaps the topic but from my vantage point of view it is a big deal because I am not the suicidal type. Although I want to comply and assimilate, I am also here for a short period of time and in that time I don’t want to completely lose myself for a sake I cannot pinpoint as of yet. I find the request unreasonable for reasons I have stated and thus refuse to comply.

But then again I could be wrong. I often am. And could be making the situation much bigger than it is, am I? What do you have to say? And have you experienced something like this while abroad? I’d love to hear your comments below!

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Displaying 13 Comments
Have Your Say
  1. Stuart says:

    Although I understand the general feeling behind the article and agree to some extent that as a foreigner living in a foreign country, we don’t want to lose our sense of identity, I have to say, on this point, I think I would go with the Korean greeting for a couple of reasons.

    Firstly, I believe (and this is simply my own opinion) that there are six words you should always learn and use when in another person’s country: Yes, no, please, thank you, hello and good bye.
    These words are simple in any language, and the knowing and using of them is in no way going to effect your feeling of self. However, it is a simple way of showing you respect your host country.

    Secondly, and closer to your specific comment, although you are an English Teacher and you have been asked to teach staff lessons in English, you are also a staff member of a Korean school. Teaching is your job, but while in the staff room, you are not teaching. I feel that if a Korean teacher, in a Korean school greets you in Korean, common curtesy says you should reply in the same. In this circumstance, I think the saying “When in Rome…” is fairly accurate.
    If you are greeting a whole room of Koreans, as in the case where you enter the school in the morning, then it is polite to use their native greeting.
    I also think if you switch between English and Korean fairly regularly when it is a one to one situation, you will find most of the Korean Teachers, including the older ones, will do the same.
    When it comes to the kids, of course use English as much and as often as you can.

    In short, for the sake of keeping peace, and showing respect, I think in this one instance, using a Korean greeting is not going to be much of a hassle to you, but will go a long way to making others happy and believing you are trying to fit in and be a part of the group… something which is very important in Korean society. However, in other cases, I agree that we need to do what we can to hold on to our identity as best we can.

    • Tate says:

      Ah a point well made. I really like the second point. I guess in the context and lack of topic relevancy the problem more than anything was to me how the request was made. Sometimes I forget that tact is not a blessing many can claim. However he made the request I am in accord based on your explanation and do feel the same way about what to know and how to act when in a country that is not your own.

      Showing respect and “being a Roman” is a big deal to me too and the reason I go a long way to acquiesce as much as possible. Holding on to our identity is as you say just as important as adding onto it. Great points, thanks for your tutelage :)

  2. Leonie says:

    I find it fascinating that they expect you to give them your entire hand when you have given them a finger. I don’t know if that saying makes sense to you but in my country it means that once you have made an effort they expect the full package. Tate, you are very respectful and considerate. Most Teachers don’t even bother greeting everyone in the morning. You can’t live your life trying to please everyone.

  3. Tate says:

    The conversation on facebook about this article is going like this:

    Alison Kenny: I understand where he/she is coming from, but I think it depends how much you care about these things. I think I would also be annoyed by that comment, but I don’t see the big deal in greeting the teachers in Korean. I don’t think you’re “lose your true self” in this way.

    Kim Jones: Honestly, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. Don’t think of it as “Koreans taking something” but gaining knowledge (a new phrase). Like you said, you’ve learned phrases in Korean to use with them, so why the fuss over another one that you can and will use every day in Korea?

    Gemma Lasenby: Personally I think it is much more respectful to greet your Korean co-teachers in Korean especially principals, vice principals etc, unless they like to address you in English. They get excited when you display an interest in their language and when you come out with new words.

    For my Korean English teachers I always greet them with hello, same for my students. It’s almost refreshing walking into the teachers room with an “anyang haseo” after walking through the corridors and saying hello, hello, hello, hello, hello 50,000 times every time you walk past a student. Sometimes I just want to put a bag over my head.
    about an hour ago · Like

    Will Atkinson: interesting. I sometimes find it grating how koreans I’ve worked with knit-pick over things I find to be near-irrelevent. After I get too annoyed I have to remind myself to pick my battles so I dont come off as someone petty who contends with everything sent my way.

    On that scale, saying “good morning” In Korean seems to be the moliest of molehills and if this person writes an entire complaining of something that small gives me an indication of an absence of the kind of flexibilty required to live and work in this country.

    To further illustrate this, I am sure this person’s coworkers have to speak english around him or her. How inconveinient is THAT?

    Will Atkinson: This person won’t last long in Korea.

    Will Atkinson: that came off a little abrasive. my apologies

    Gemma Lasenby I hear ya Will – but you miiiight just want to do an author check :)

    릊테리 My public school supervisors and above complain that if I speak any korean it is too much because we are here to teach English.

    Will Atkinson: who wrote it? I didn’t see an author?

    Alison Kenny: The person who posted it ;)

    Will Atkinson: Ok. All I really mean to say is that I think picking battles is essential to being here. we have to meet them halfway on stuff.

    Like Terry my school wants me speaking no korean around them

    Jim Schreitmueller Just do both? Follow it up with a “hello”?

    Tate Although it may seem irrelevant and or petty in many ways, I have worked both in public and in private and the requests are as petty both in arguing over them and in being requested and we have to face them. That being said, we all know in the back of our heads that complying is not an issue; however, no matter how small the requests in the beginning in due time they slowly gravitate to once that are unreasonable and affect the very nature of you living and working in Korea. Yet you are expected to comply. Sometimes you are not even asked. So, isn’t it then necessary to see what others think about such matters so that you can examine yourself if indeed you are being petty for pettiness sake?

    Kim Jones The next thing you know, they’re going to expect you to be fluent in Korean!

  4. Matt Mullally says:

    I like kimchi

  5. Matt Mullally says:

    On a real note, I think greeting in Korean is not a bad idea considering we make the choice to come here to teach. If it was polite to teach i class in swim trunks and a t shirt, I’d likely get some billabong trunks and cowabunga all day long. Such is not the case, but there are some customs that are generally viewed polite. I try to comply with these because they have been doing so for a very long time. We get the opportunity to work here. The least we can do is try to respect these type things. At the same token, if I knew it was a standard level of politeness to steal candy from students, I’d never come to Korea (or would I muhwahwahwa). If it doesn’t hurt me, I dun mind. Just my opinion :D

  6. Katie says:

    The request is over-reaching? You’re in Korea, it’s not that hard to say “annyeong Ha-se-yo.”

    Also, it’s teacher’s room, not Teachers room.

    • Tate says:

      You fail to realize Katie that it’s not so much the request but the manner in which it was requested. I have been in Korea too long to not be able to simply comply and my Korean is not bad either but I don’t take kindly to public requests meant only to massage the requester’s ego.

      I am not graceful with grammar as in dancing but I do get occasional Grammarians and punctuation experts whether looking for work or self gratification.

  7. Ryan says:

    I think the real problem wasn’t clearly made in the post. It’s not about being there to teach English. It’s not about not wanting to greet people in Korean. If his boss called him into the office and said, “Hey it would be great if you could greet people in Korean in the mornings, ” there would be no problem. What has this chap chaffing, it seems, is the fact that some bozo approached a coworker at a social event and demanded that this guy start greeting people in Korean. This is quite inappropriate and nothing more than a Korean person’s petty way of trying to assert some kind of dominance. We’ve all seen it a million times–just ignore it!

    • Tate says:

      Exactly Ryan. That’s precisely what it was. And because of that and the lack of tact the chap had, he is no longer at the school. 4 months and he was out!

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