I had to work overtime today, much as I was in need of a long lie-in.
It was the school’s open day, where parents of potential new pupils came in to be persuaded that this was the best school for their children – presentations, guided tours, brochures, that kind of thing. Alex, Clare and I had to show up as the school’s prized possessions: the all-important native English speakers.
It’s weird, the fascination with all things Western in Korea. The schools are desperate for English speakers, because school here is Big Business. The parents pour obscene amounts of money into their children’s education, and each private school is in competition with the rest to draw in more pupils. More pupils = more money. And how do you draw in more pupils? You parade your “native speaker teachers” in front of the parents. That is all.
They stood us on the stage and made us step forward one at a time while the principal talked about us in Korean. It was a bit disconcerting, standing there with what I hoped was a warm and sincere smile on my face, while someone said a lot of things about me which could all have been lies for all I knew. Then I gave the polite bow that I’m getting used to performing now, and that was it.
The Korean teachers were busy mingling, giving tours, making presentations and suchlike, while the three of us, unable to communicate with the parents, were left in the kitchen, drumming our fingers on the table and smiling politely every time someone came in to stare at us.
It’s kind of like being a caged animal in a zoo, murmured Alex through his smile. Here’s where we keep the English teachers! We let them out for classes, and we’ll feed them when you leave. And really, that pretty much sums up what it’s like to be a foreigner in Korea. People stare at you. They stare a lot. Clare and I were walking home the other evening and a middle-aged man walked past us, his head turning to keep us in sight as he passed. Then he actually stopped, turned around, and continued to walk backwards, staring quite openly and unashamedly at us with his mouth open. It was so completely ridiculous that we quickly bypassed our instinctive annoyance at being gawked at in a way that we Westerners consider to be extremely rude, and just started to laugh.
Taxi drivers will slow right down when we’re standing waiting to cross the road, because for some reason they assume that because we’re foreign, we must want a taxi. Other cars slow to a halt just so the drivers can stare at us. Absolutely everyone we meet in the street will look curiously at us. People across the road will stop and point. They don’t even try to hide it – it’s completely open. We are oddities. We don’t belong here, and we unconsciously carry some kind of Western appeal that makes Koreans stand in awe of us a lot of the time. They get shy in our company, they gaze at us, they are eager to give us gifts and get their photos taken with us. They want to hear about our home countries, the food, the culture, the music, the clothes, the lifestyle. They want us to try their food and tell them what we think of it. They watch us intently while we speak, and hang on every word with admiration and fascination that feels completely undeserved and a little embarrassing.
And for the schools, appearance is everything. They’ll hire just about anyone to be an English teacher, regardless of whether you can spell, teach, or relate to children. If you’re willing to come and be the face of the West in their school, they’ll hire you. I wasn’t hired because I’m an excellent teacher, or because I have tons of experience working with children, because neither of those are true – no, I was hired because I am white, and my first language is English. If you can tick both those boxes, you’re in. And then you’re their most valuable asset, because if the parents see a foreigner in the school, they feel confident that the school will teach their child good English. That, and there’s the possibility that being in contact with a foreigner every day will somehow rub off on the kids and Westernise them.
It’s so strange. They are incredibly, fiercely proud of their country… and yet they seem to hold our countries up as something to aspire to. Don’t do it, Korea. You’re lovely just as you are – and just as fascinating to me as I am to you.