I Get Knocked Down: But I Get Up Again?

Yes I definitely did just quote Chumbawamba. Enter me, Thursday midday, a video on Martin Luther King Jr. and 8 Korean 7-year-old girls. Which, in Western age, means they’re 6 (here, I googled that for you.).

The kids were super bored. Like crazy bored. I think every one of the 8 in the room had said “This isn’t a funny one.” What they really wanted was a video called Arctic Antics that sings about penguins and seals and the circle of life in the ocean.

“No, it’s not.” I rebutted. “But it’s something you have to learn.”

Ew, gross. I thought. I can’t believe I just said that.

Shake it off girl. And so we continued.

There’s something about the Korean language where the question word comes at the end of the sentence (that’s all I got for you; I’m only on my second Korean language class.). Anyway, this results in a lot of questions structured as such: “(dog) is what?” Below, I have provided a transcript of the barrage of questions caused by my boring MLK video from my students, followed by my attempted responses which I have summarized in italics.

“Teacher, slavery is what?” when someone is forced to work and not get paid. “Force is what?” attempted to compare “have to” go to the dentist with “forced” to go. Except some of the girls haven’t been to the dentist yet? Peace is what? no war. War is what? when people or countries fight. Murder is what?” die, someone else made him die.

When I asked why Rosa Parks couldn’t sit on the bus, Shine (not making up that name) responded, “because she didn’t have enough money?”

Damn. Good, logical guess.

I wish, gf.

Instead, I had to explain that this injustice was due to the color of someone’s skin.

Karen, from the front of the class, tipped her head, (imagine two braided pigtails and abnormally large purple glasses), looked at me, and flat-out propositioned: “But skin doesn’t matter?”

Just like that. Just said it. Like it was nothing. Because to her, it was nothing. Just a mere observation.

And it was in that moment, that I realized I was trying to convey abstract concepts from American history to 7(AKA 6)-year-old Koreans. And how futile it was.

But what I hated even more than realizing the futility of my efforts was the recognition that immediately followed: that I was informing them of things that no one else had.

Do I want to be the one to tell them that people still aren’t equal? That the color of someone’s skin still matters? It was terrible and disheartening to realize I was the first person, at least explicitly, to introduce that concept to them. I don’t want to be that person.

In the end, the translation we sussed out was that America had “bad manners.” Already reeling from the two maddening self-realizations about my job, I considered that a win.

Irene, one of the oldest in the class (who might actually be 7), then blurted out: “You are from America and we are from Korea and you’re trying to teach us something very important.”

And I opened my mouth to come up with another bullshit “you have to learn it” rebuttal and…I had nothing to say. Cause 3 strikes and you’re out, and that utterance from Irene caused what was the third ideological blow in a span of about 6 minutes. In forcing – see what I did there – children to watch a boring video on Martin Luther King Jr., which caused a straight-forward enough complaint from a frustrated/bored 7-year-old, is the perfect symbiotic complaint to describe how I feel about my experience so far teaching in a hagwon (private, for-profit language school).

You don’t fail students. You can’t even come close. You mark a student anything below “good” on their report cards, and…well, you just don’t. This was stated in my company-run training. The goal of a hagwon doesn’t seem to be proficiency in the material. The goal isn’t to make sure students are in the right class at the appropriate level. The main goal is to have them enroll the next month. Sure, actual teaching might result from aspiring to keep enrollment up, but I honestly think the biggest benefit they get from me is not what I “teach.” It’s just simply that they have a native speaker constantly speaking English to them, proffering absorption little by little.

This wasn’t a surprise to me. I was warned that hagwon-culture was steeped in for-profit ideals before I even started applying to schools in South Korea. It’s still pretty jarring, not only to experience it for yourself, but to fully come to that realization by getting knocked out by a gaggle of Korean children.


6 thoughts on “I Get Knocked Down: But I Get Up Again?

  1. I would get the occasional (or even more often than that) gem from a kid in my class, showing wisdom or sense far belying their age. They would also come out with the daftest shit.

    Like you, I would feel uneasy about being the person who might be the first to enlighten them about tricky issues, or even just basic math. In fact, I am worried there’ll be small group of Korean society in the future who won’t be able to do arithmetic without counting on their fingers because of me. Oh well 😉

    Damn good blog so far. Whereas you write blogs when you should be doing something else, I read blogs when I should be writing them!

    • Thank you!! Well as you can see, I haven’t been so good about constantly writing either…

      Haha I have had that same exact thought about basic math – will I have to un-teach the finger method in a couple months?! Seems like a lot of work that I’ll probablyyy try to avoid.

  2. I swung by here for the article about *that* beauty pageant (linked by The Grand Narrative) but always end up devouring the entirety of anything even vaguely resembling a ‘life-in-Korea blog’ I come across in order to nab ideas/inspiration! 🙂

    Going down the route of commentary or social analysis makes it a more interesting read than ‘just another travel blog’. I didn’t manage either while I was in Korea but might do a retrospective in my down time or be more proactive about blogging once I’m back in the country. Yours is fun and articulate, so keep it up!

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