Tuesday, April 14, 2009


...of the social variety, while you're living and working here in Korea, can be pretty odd at the best of times.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at my school. Based on the language barrier, I'm left fairly confident that the entire staff is enamoured with me - at least as much as they are with every Native English Teacher that comes here.

It's not an exaggeration. People are just generally jazzed about the presence of a foreign teacher who's willing to come to work on time and not be drunk, face-down on his desk. So far, so good.

People like to make very good first impressions here, which is perhaps why the younger women on the staff have been stand-offish. You see, Mrs. Lee, on my first day of observation, took the school staff yearbook and showed me the teachers who were still at the school this semester. For the majority of younger-looking female teachers, Mrs. Lee pointed at them and said what sounded like "singer". It was only after that I realized she meant "single." Oh, Mrs. Lee.

But she of course doesn't stop there, so most of the introductions to the younger women on staff involved Mrs. Lee bringing them into the room to meet me, Mrs. Lee uttering something in Korean while gesturing at me, then the young ladies covering their mouths, turning red and escaping from the room as quickly as humanly possible.

I remember last year when I taught at the hagwon and I was at first a bit taken-aback at how there was such a clearly self-imposed gender division among the students - boys sitting on one side of the room and girls on the other.

Well, the same thing happens with the teachers - at least at my school. At lunch time, the women choose to sit together and the men sit on their own - for the most part, this is true. A few times, I have tried to shake it up a bit and sit with the men, but afterward, Mrs. Lee would sometimes ask me why I didn't sit with my "colleagues".

It's really not that I mind. I did after-all work for seven years at the Calgary Public Library and last time I checked, the employee population there was something like 90% female. I got used to it. It was actually kind of nice to have an army of females to befriend, and learn from.

Here, I am pretty much surrounded by women too. In our office of 10, there are 8 women, myself, and one man who's due to retire next semester. He doesn't smile at me a great deal, and rarely has anything to say to the ladies. My opinion? He's probably pretty bitter about spending his twilight working years in an office full of women and a foreign dude who doesn't speak the language. Hmmm...

The thing is, through various reasons, until last Thursday I was pretty much left alone by the men at the school - save for the odd smile and wave as I approach the school in the morning, or as we cross paths in the hallway. At lunch a few times, Mrs. Lee would be approached by one of the male teachers, and she would return to me saying something like: "Mr. Chung wants to know if you like Korea." I would then look at Mr. Chung to see him smiling at his table. It was like getting a note passed to me in homeroom. A couple of times, I have even received an instant message on my work computer from male teachers who have said things like: "Hello, Dave teacher. Me and friends talk about you at lunch and we think you are very handsome and good. I hope you like our school."

As a side note, It's really not uncommon to be called "handsome" in Korea. For the most part, they are excited about our differences. Brendan, a blonde Brit that I taught with last year, after receiving weeks of screaming and unsolicited adulation from male and female students alike had this self deprecating to say about the situation: "I think they'd fancy a horse if it had blonde hair." He's not far off.

This past Thursday though, I was officially invited out with what I will from now on refer to as "The Gentleman's Club". There are less than 20 male teachers on our staff from what I can tell and as their numbers are a lot more manageable. This allows them to behave like the Royal Order of Water Buffalo - heading out once a month to eat and drink to excess with their male colleague counterparts. The Grand Poobah speaks to his people in encouraging tones.

It was my turn this past Thursday, and I had a really good time. It was the end of a fairly punishing day with few breaks, and I was really at a point with fatigue where I was about ready to say no to the evening. You can't really do that though - especially not on the first invite. We went for dinner at a traditional Korean restaurant close to the school where we drank excessive amounts of makoli (unfiltered rice wine) and I made a date for hiking with Mr. Han who is now teaching at another school.

From there it was off to a hoff (beer and food place) to imbibe some more alcohol, then those of us who remained stumbled into a bowling alley where I watched as Mr. Choi, one of the school's Physical Education teachers, bowled a near perfect game. And I do mean near perfect. He ended-up with all strikes save for two frames which he spared. I'm not kidding - the man was makolied out of his mind, but he was also coherent enough to bowl nearly a perfect game, and to walk on his hands down the street - hailing a cab for us with his feet on the way home.

In the end, I had a lot to drink on a Thursday night, ate stuff I didn't really want to, but chose to because of where I was and who I was there with. But ultimately I'm very glad that I went. I don't know how I remained one of the last 6 standing - what with the fact that I had no real lunch that day, and was needing sleep like I have rarely needed it before. But, I managed. They all seemed genuinely excited and pleased to have me there, and I went in with an open mind - however much it may have wanted to shut itself down for sleep.

It was all in all a good night - mostly of fun, but also of getting some insight into the minds of my male co-teachers. Mr. Lee - the youngest (and married) male teacher in the school shared how important the male club is to him and the others. For him, it is a way to feel as though they have "more power..."

Wait - hold-up, you say? Korea is the 1950's with technology, right? Well, yes, but here at Sindobong Middle School, and apparently in the whole Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, there has been a shift underway. Mr. Lee (who is adored by all staff) and who carries himself very gently and with great courtesy, expressed that he was worried about the fact that women teachers are now all getting paid the same wage as the men...


Yes, Mr. Lee, it's true. He was so sincere in his concern that I couldn't possibly laugh at or even contradict him. I just listened. I did ask though why he was concerned about it since it did seem fair. His response was that the male teachers have "greater responsibility." Hmmm... he must not have met the women in my room.

The day after, when I was walking to school, I ran into Kim Kee Yun teacher - one of my favourite co-teachers. She asked how my night with the men was, and though I didn't divulge any secrets so as not to have my water buffalo hat taken away, she expressed that the teachers must have surprised me with their behaviour - the drinking and all.

"Not at all'" I informed her. She then mentioned that she wished the women could manage their own club after school as well, but with their much higher numbers, it becomes more of a challenge to find a day that works for everyone. I commented on how I was a bit surprised that the great majority of teachers at our school are women. Mrs. Kim then told me that the numbers have shifted a great deal since new requirements were instituted for University teaching programs. Unlike the way it apparently was before, women and men teachers are now required to write the same graduation exam for their teaching subject. As a result, the male teaching population is declining a great deal. You do the math. Perhaps the best way to regain "power" in the workplace is to not rest on your father's laurels. Put that in your makoli cup and drink it!

Anyway, it was all very interesting. They are all good people, even if the men seem to get defensive about things from time to time. Yes, our principal is a man - a kind one, but our Vice Principal is a women and she's the real deal - certainly the de facto leader of the school and the one I would least like to cross. It's funny, the men and women here escape stereotypes at the same time that they're filling them. Mr. Choi - the bowling god and Jackie Chan look-alike invited me to his family's home for dinner next month. He also invite me to see the "flower room" he set-up in the school. He loves flowers, he told me.

Perhaps the most charming part of the evening was having the school's two custodians out with us for all of the festivities. They were introduced to me as being "variety men" - an apt term as that's exactly what they're doing - all of the odd labour jobs - from gardening on the rooftops to moving and installing new furniture in the classrooms. The variety men also had new names bestowed on them that night "MacGyver", or more accurately, "JunGyver and YunGyver" - a cross-breeding of names. Apparently the show was a hit here, and being that they ARE variety men, the shoe fits nicely. When I told them that MacGyver was Canadian, they were very excited indeed, and in their excitement, I was proud of my association to Richard Dean Anderson for the first time in my life.

These are gentlemen. Though he nearly broke my hand with his "power shot" in soccer on Friday, the women around the school speak of Mr. Choi - the P.E. teacher as being the most gentle person - almost in revered and hushed tones. There are divides here, but I look at them more sometimes as needing to find common ground as things are changing. There's a lot of ugliness here too - when it comes to gender roles awkwardly asserting themselves through Confucian ideals in the modern workplace. But here at my school where the boys are grossly outnumbered - they seem forced to be gentlemen. It's working, and it's kind of nice.


morjana said...

MacGyver filmed five seasons in Vancouver, but neither Angus MacGyver nor Richard Dean Anderson are Canadian -- both were born in Minnesota.

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Hmmm... I guess I stand corrected by a Richard Dean Anderson fan. Fair enough. I'm sure he's happy to know the MacGyver police are still at the ready.

I guess the show always kind of seemed "Canadian" to me. Maybe it was all of the Canadian Tire commercials that played during the breaks.

Anyway, thanks for the comment, though I think I'll let my co-teachers go on believing that MacGyver is from Canada. If I try to correct myself, they will have no idea what I'm talking about :)