Do Koreans regard all foreign teachers as potential paedophiles?
One of the lines you will read on some Korea blogs is that Koreans regard all foreign teachers as potential paedophiles/molesters/sex deviants. Take Gusts of Popular Feeling – now, I like that blog. Matt’s stuff is always sourced and I don’t think he makes broad generalisations. He documents – as the name suggests – the sentiments of the Korean population, as reflected in media coverage, towards foreign teachers. Just the same, when I read that blog I often feel that I am living in a completely different country to the Korea Matt lives in, because my experience of it is so far from the world he describes. There is a selection bias there – by linking to and writing about stories of a certain type, he gives an impression of Korea as a dark, suspicious, and racist place. It is his blog, and he is under no obligation to present a balanced view, but when he writes posts like this and this, I think the impression given is that Koreans generally regard native English teachers as potential sex offenders and paedophiles. And this is not my experience at all; quite the contrary, I am often surprised at just how little suspicion, compared to Australia or other countries, is raised by mundane yet possible-to-misinterpret scenarios.
I’ve tried to think of any time that I’ve been regarded with suspicion while teaching here, and can think of only one situation. I was talking to a student in my local park, and her mother happened to call. The student told her mother she was talking to her English teacher in the park. Her mother – I think understandably – told her not to go off somewhere with me, because I was a stranger.
Now, contrast that with some situations where I have been treated with not the slightest suspicion:
– Eating at pizza and gimbab places with students, outside of school
– Taking photos of students
– Going to an amusement park, outside of school hours, with three students (whose parents I’d never met)
– Taking photos of strangers’ kids doing cute things at festivals
– Having conversations with students via text message
– Spending time with students in my local park outside of school hours
All of these things might raise eyebrows in Australia, and I suspect in other Western countries. The paedophile moral panic that exists in these countries these days causes a lot of innocent activities to be regarded as out of bounds for the sake of propriety, if they are not regarded as outrightly suspicious.
Take talking to my students via text message – and, these days, more often, by Kakao Talk / Kakao Story (Zackary at Scroozle wrote about this recently). When I first came to Korea, my students sometimes asked me for my cell phone number, and I refused to give it, as I wanted to maintain appropriate boundaries, and this is not something that a teacher would do with his elementary students in Australia. This lasted until I taught a class on phone conversations with my co-teacher, and as a joke she substituted my phone number for the number in the given dialogue, and told all the students they should call me. OK, I thought – I guess it’s different here. Since then I’ve given plenty of students my number. I generally tell them not to call me, and I never call them, but if they want to message me and practice their English, that’s fine.
I have been confronted by a parent in my local supermarket about my phone relationship with their daughter (the student had just recently gone to middle school). The conversation went like this:
“Hi. I’m Ji-U’s father.”
“My daughter likes you. Do you have her phone number?”
“I think so.”
“Can you call her sometime? She would like to talk to you. It would be good for her to practice English.”
Not much suspicion there.
This topic was brought to my mind because I recently went on a three day trip with my new school. My new school is tiny, so I was invited along, I think mostly as a favour. There was, however, a theoretical justification for my being there: the trip was for the fourth through sixth grades, and all the relevant grade teachers are women. On day two we would be going to a sauna and somebody needed to keep an eye on the boys. The vice-principal, a man, was also coming, but for some reason he wasn’t any use for this task (as it turned out, it was hard to know what task he had been brought along to perform; he seemed to spend the entire trip wandering in a bored daze, talking to no-one). So I had been brought along to make sure the boys didn’t get into any trouble in the sauna.
I’m not completely ignorant in Korean ways – when the idea was first brought up, I checked: “I won’t have to get naked in front of students or teachers, will I?” And I was assured that I would not have to.
For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to ask if the students would be naked. I should have known better, but for some reason I was picturing a Swedish-style sauna, with hot rocks and pine panelling, or else some sort of traditional Korean thing. If they’d said “jjimjilbang” or “hot spring” I would have been better prepared.
Once we got there, all the boys wanted to know if I was going to be getting naked with them, and I realised that it really was that kind of sauna. I demurred. Ho-Un tried to persuade me. “Teacher, I am not going to go. But if you go no clothes, I want to go.”
As if this wasn’t enough, he then laughed and pointed to my groin. “Teacher, one touch-y,” he said. Any slight possibility that I might remove my clothes disappeared in that instant.
(The comment needs some explaining. Ho-un has a riff with me – he thinks I have a large forehead. He likes to lift the hair from his brow and point at his forehead, and then at mine. “Teacher, very big,” he says.
The first time he said this, I told him it was because I was very smart. So now he follows his opening line with, “Teacher very smart?” To which I say yes.
He then holds up a finger and says, “Teacher, one touch-y,” to which I say no. The idea of his “one touch” is that he plans to thwack me in the forehead with a pulled-back middle finger, this being a popular punishment at my school for losing games of rock-paper-scissors and the like.
So, in context, you can see his “one touchy” line, pointing at my groin, is actually pretty funny. It sure didn’t make me laugh at the time, though.)
We arrived at our hotel, which was where the sauna was, and honestly the thought of how I was going to navigate this experience was pre-occupying me. We all got our room keys and I went up to my floor with the other teachers and a couple of sixth grade girls. My co-teacher initially pressed the wrong floor for me, and I corrected her, telling her in Korean I was on the sixth floor. At the same time, one of the sixth grade girls said that my room was 614 (the rooms had been announced on the bus). This made my co-teacher and the other teachers laugh.
My co-teacher asked the girl how she knew my room, and the girl – a nice, shy girl at that awkward stage – shrugged and looked embarrassed. My co-teacher, pressing the point, asked the girl what the vice-principal’s room number was. My student didn’t know. The teachers laughed, the elevator doors opened, and my co-teacher playfully shoved her and suggested that she should go off to my room with me. It was pretty funny, but more than a little wrong…
I decided on underwear for the sauna. I collected the boys – about twenty had decided to go to the sauna – and we went down together. We went into the change rooms, I stripped down to my underwear, and was immediately surrounded by twenty naked boys making fun of me for wearing my underwear. We went into the baths, and I got in the pool part, but it was immediately full of naked boys, and I found myself in a scene off the side of a Greek vase, or out of a paedophile’s wet dream. Boys kept climbing up the pool’s railing and their groins were far too close to my face, so I bailed after a few minutes and went and sat outside with the attendant and watched Korean TV.
However, this was the whole rationale for my being on the trip, and the boys were incredibly noisy, so I had to keep going back in and checking on them. At one point they were having a massive water-fight across the whole sauna with some hand basins they’d found. I had to go around demanding hand basins from them all, which they were reluctant to give up, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so awkward – trying to use my best scary teacher demeanor while demanding handbasins from naked twelve year olds.
I went outside again. The two ajussis who had been using the sauna had been driven out. One complained in Korean about how noisy they were – the other said, they are children, what can you do?
I went back in. Some had gone into the actual sauna part, while a bunch of the rest had Oui Chan, the tiny fifth grade boy, pinned down on what looked like a vet’s metal table. They were trying to blast his genitals with a shower hose. He was laughing. It looked halfway between a gang-rape and the bathing of a pet dog. I told them to stop, then got out of there, wishing I could erase that image from my mind…
Eventually they finished up and came out. The sixth graders then spent twenty minutes playing with the hair products and trying out mohawks. Eventually, we left, and I went back to my hotel room.
My co-teacher sent me a message: “Are you OK?”
I said I was fine. Nobody got hurt, and it was certainly a memorable travel experience – the only person embarrassed was me.
I would like to add that I had been a teacher at this school for about five weeks at this point. Despite the impression some blogs give, my conclusion is that Korea is extraordinarily unsuspicious of the idea of a native teacher being a potential child molester – or, really, of anyone being a child molester, unless they are actually suspicious in some way (there are a couple of scary mugshots up at my school in the staff office and outisde the girl’s bathrooms(!) of local sex offenders.)
On balance, I think this is a good thing – I feel that paedophile hysteria in Australia has gone quite a way too far. As with many aspects of Korea, though, there is a negative side to this as well. The Gwangju Inhwa School scandal comes to mind.
Finally, because I have some experience with what kind of visitors you get when you put the word “paedophile” on a blog post, and because I’d hate to think of some creep reading this and deciding that Korea is a great place for paedophiles to go to, I would like to point out that I have good relationships with my students, am not remotely interested in them sexually, and hope and imagine that were that not the case, students, teachers or both would perceive an aberration fairly quickly, and the situations I’ve described here would never come about. But as for the idea that Korea regards all foreign teachers as potential child molesters – I’m sorry, it’s rubbish.