Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Bullying in Korean schools and wangtta (왕따)

A photo I took after school one day. There was a fire next door and the smoke made the light amazing.
blue dot
Mar 01 2012

My co-teacher was upset this week by this story of a student committing suicide after suffering horrific bullying. I live and work in Daegu, so the story is close to home.

Following two days of questioning of the two students accused of harassment, police said references to harassment from Kim’s suicide note were substantiated, including allegations of beatings, stealing of money, and being dragged around by a cord around his neck. Regarding a reference to “water torture” from the note, however, police reported the students as saying during questioning that S brought water from the sink to perform the act, but that he decided not to after the other student said it was too dangerous.

Kids everywhere are cruel. Their awareness of social norms isn’t yet fully developed, nor is their empathy. But it seems that bullying may be a larger problem in Korea than elsewhere. My co-teacher thinks it is, and she says it has become much worse than it was when she was at school.

We talked about the phenomenon of wangtta (왕따), in which a Korean class collectively decides to ostracize another student. Wangtta is somewhat difficult to define clearly – it refers both to the phenomenon and to the victim – although in practice it’s easy to understand.*
*Of course wangtta, while a Korean word, is not an exclusively Korean phenomenon. Both of my Korean orientation groups – EPIK and TalK – had definite wangttas. I think the link is that at those orientations, most people were new to the country, with few or no friends here – everybody was very keen to quickly establish a group for themselves. Perhaps there is a human need to establish one’s self as part of a group by also establishing who is outside of it.

As noted in this academic paper on wangtta and PC Bang culture (pdf), wangtta can be seen as a by-product of Korea’s collectivist culture and emphasis on being part of a group.

At first, I was uncertain as to whether Wang-tta was being used as a noun to describe the individual “loser” (as it commonly tends to be used in English) or as a verb or adverb to describe the bullying situation. I asked for clarification, and obtained a hypothesis from an insightful informant. His supposition was that a primary motivator to play games in Korea was to achieve social acceptance among peers. In my interview with him, he also hinted at the PC bang serving as an arena of talent exhibition. That is, one might practice playing at home to “perform” at the PC bang where his or her talents in a game would then be scrutinized and “peer-reviewed.” Sitting across a table from me, he drew a diagram of many people in a circle, and lines representing negativity between those people and one isolated person away from the main circle. I asked for clarification:

F: So this one is the Wang-tta. The outlier is the Wang-tta.

S: The whole situation is Wang-tta [circling the whole diagram]. People say he is Wang-tta [pointing to the isolated person in the diagram]. If someone can’t play the game…that situation makes this [diagram] situation sometimes.
So everyone doesn’t want to be Wang-tta. That is why many people play games in Korea. Everyone likes a person who can play the game very well. That’s why every day students practice games at home.

I have a wangtta in one of my fifth grade classes. She clearly comes from a very poor home and has a malnourished look about her, and is frequently unwashed. She’s a little slow, although she’s quite sweet. Group and pair-work is hell for her. Other students will refuse to be on her team or read a dialogue with her. “Teacher, my partner is very dirty,” a student told me, when I instructed him to work with her. The casual cruelty of it was shocking to me. I initially tried to force other students to include her, but this was horrible for her – it drew attention to her, which made her freeze in fear. These days I just read the dialogue with her individually, and skip past her when asking the class to read their dialogues.

Her teacher does what she can, but I’m not sure what the solution is. However, this does bring up what I think is another problem, and a reason why some teachers can be oblivious or can ignore these students: they lack charisma. They are generally not cute and sweet, and teachers, humans too, have a tendency to prefer the charismatic students, as do their students.

This is something of which I’m trying to be more conscious. A resolution for next year is to make sure I know the name of every wangtta in my class, and do what I can for them.

An update on my wangtta

I’m happy to report that with the coming of a new school year and a new class, Na Yeon, the wangtta girl I talked about in the above post, is doing well. While I would still describe her as wangtta, her life seems much improved. She now sits next to a quiet, shy boy who, while not exactly friendly towards her, will practice English with her. Her new class is made up of good-natured kids who tend to be indifferent to her, rather than actively hostile.

Her home room teacher and my co-teacher have both made a lot of effort to help her. She has gained some confidence in English. Where before I used to say “Hello” to her, and get only a shake of the head in response, she began at a certain point to say hello back to me. One day, she initiated an actual conversation with me, asking me where I was going, and how I was – very, very basic sentences, but a huge step forward for her, and a measure of her growing confidence. My co-teacher and I were both surprised, and excited.

She seems to have some friends, too. They are much younger kids than she is, but at least she has somebody to talk to. Her home life is still awful, her school life still lonely, and her future doesn’t look promising – but she keeps trying. I genuinely admire her, and hope that somehow life will work out well for her, in the end.

Waegukin wrote these 1064 words on March 1st, 2012 | Posted in Best-of, Culture, Stories |


14 comments on “Bullying in Korean schools and wangtta (왕따)”

  1. Langella says:

    This really upsets me soo much :[ I hope the girl and the rest are alright!

  2. Chris says:

    I had never heard of this, untill today. Im still a rookie teacher here in korea, but this has shocked me so much!
    I hope the kid in your class is ok and sees that things can and wil get better, i would hate to her of another poor child becoming a statistic of death.
    Good luck man, and your doing the right thing making this blog people and teachers need to be more aware this is happening in there schools!

  3. Jayde says:

    I’m so glad that she has a teacher like you who can validate her and make life better for her, however indirectly. I know sometimes the direct approach doesn’t work, but it’s really great that she has someone to look out for her and check on her, and I’m glad to hear that she’s making progress.

  4. W says:

    Glad that things are starting to change for your wangtta.

  5. Anonymous says:

    this story is really depressing, i had no idea bullying was this bad in South Korea.. the girl did nothing wrong, its just like the students choose someone to be a “wangtta” just so they have someone to bully, and then they are stuck with this name for the rest of their life, so anywhere they go people will know they are a “wangtta” and will bully/ harrass them.. i feel really bad for the girl, and everyone else this happens to, i really hope that something is done about this.. its not fair how she has to work doubly as hard as everyone else just to get treated as equally.. i hope that her life will start to flow better now and that this bullying will stop

  6. ky says:

    This hurts me so much. And it’s one of the reasons whyI’ve changed my mind about teaching in Korea. I don’t think I’d have the heart to deal with bullying on a day to day basis and not be able to do much. Is there any way that I can send the girl in your class a gift?

  7. ditto says:

    I teach in an international school in Malaysia, and they have lots of Korean students (the number is pretty dominant compare to those from other nationalities).

    One Korean girl was withdrawn from the school by her parents because of verbal bullying by other Korean girls. The girl (i suposse that she’s the wangtta) reported to me that she was bullied to the core; the bullies went to Korean churches, restaurants, and societies to talk bad about her. Her parents felt so embarrased and withdrew their daughter for homeschooling.

    What made me sad was the fact that even the parents of the wangtta didn’t allow the school to sort it out, and prefer to withdraw their child. However, the bully girls are still roaming the school hallways to find another new Korean girls to be their wangtta. I really want to put it into a stop.

    Any idea?

  8. The Waegukin says:

    If the girl in question trusted you enough to tell you about her problems, you’re probably doing as well as I could. Trying to instill empathy in kids who seem to lack it is not something I’ve ever discovered how to do. Beyond being aware of it, stopping it when you see it, and providing a safe place for the bullied student, I don’t have any answers. Best of luck.

  9. Julie says:

    One of the first classes I worked in out of college was a first grade class. The school has a high population of Egyptian Immigrants and about 2 weeks before I started in the class, a new student, “Mark” moved in and spoke no English. Being so young, he picked up English very quickly.

    As is typical, children find it funny to pick on others who are different. When Mark initially began at our school he was at the receiving end of many jokes. So I simply explained to the rest of the class that it was very difficult to feel like an outsider- not knowing the language, eating foods that his classmates thought smelled “yucky”, etc. They soon began to embrace him.

    However, it was a difficult conversation to have with Mark when he and his friends (also Egyptian immigrants) found it entertaining to pick on a younger girl who was unkempt and did not as readily fit in. I simply pulled Mark aside and explained to him that in American culture it is impolite to isolate another person based on their differences. Needless to say, the “teasing” subsided.

    Obviously the students that are being taught IN Korea will not fully appreciate “American culture”, but most people are alike in the fact that they want to fit in. And most children want to please their teachers. Explain that they are learning English, and in this, learning about Western cultures (and we don’t like to be mean to others). It very likely will cause the students to want to stop the “bullying” so that they can appear to uphold the English culture.

  10. Anon says:

    I feel like Korean students are brought up in a culture where individualism is shunned and conformity is the way of life. If you don’t do exactly the same things that your peers are doing, you have a chance of standing out and that is certainly not a good sign.
    What the Korean education system needs is a dose of liberal-democratic mechanisms that will force students to actively voice out their opinions in class and not be afraid of appearing different. Instead of thinking that class discussions are a waste of time, both the school teachers and the students’ parents should realize that it is critical for children to learn to express themselves and respect the views of others at from an early age. This emphasis on conformity has affected Korean society very negatively. Koreans grow up thinking that there is only one right answer to every solution and don’t try to think outside the box (and the fact that 99% of their academic work from kindergarten to undergrad is assessed by multiple choice questions doesn’t help). So even if large companies like Samsung hire the best and the brightest from Seoul National University, these cookie-cutter, mass produced young graduates are only good at copying and improving on pre-existing ideas while trying not to violate copyrights and patents. Though an avid Samsung fan, I have to sympathize with Apple in all the lawsuits it’s making against the Korean company. Moreover, no Korean artist, author, or film director has managed to attain worldwide recognition for his/her creativity in the past decade or so.

    PS I think Gangnam Style is a freak occurrence whose level of popularity can never be reached for another decade or two no matter how hard the Korean entertainment industry tries.

    PSS Have you been to Gangnam? Conformity at its best. Every single woman between ages 20-35 with the exact same eyes, nose, eyebrows, bra size they grabbed from the conveyor belt of plastic surgery hospitals. Korean women of today are a whole different species than the one I was used to growing up.

  11. Liz says:

    Well no wonder South Korea has a serious suicide problem. The teachers in Korean schools would obviously be aware of this culture and probably know who the wangtta kids are, and I refuse to believe that there is nothing they can do about this. Most of them probably just accept it and are the ones who really to blame as they indirectly encourage it. When the bullying is as extreme as the example described above and it leads to the child’s suicide, the bullies should get time in Juvie. I hope all the surviving little Wangtta’s will have the last laugh one day.


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