Bullying in Korean schools and wangtta (왕따)
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.