Haiku and tripe

Last week Dan went to his school knowing that he would have to have a dreaded conversation with his director about one of his trouble classes (those of our readers that have been reading the blog regularly will know that three weeks ago Dan got fired and the next day then got ‘un-fired’).

The day he became ‘un-fired’ he sat down with his director to nut out the hard issues – you know tough stuff like not smiling enough and so on…. He was informed that one of the issues concerned a particular class and that he was pushing them too hard and changing too much of their essays (well as a teacher, in most cases, pushing a student to succeed is a good thing and changing unreadable and incoherent essays with shocking spelling, structure, and grammar is, again, a teachers job!). His director had told him that after the mid-terms she would give him the work that she would like the students to work from.

The dreaded conversation started when Dan asked for the work that the Director was going to prescribe for the class. He was told by a very embarrassed director that she had forgotten and Dan should organise the class. Dan was fine with that as he already had a bit of plan in the back of his mind. But just to make sure he said he would give a written lesson plan to the director to see before he taught the class.

For the next 45 minutes Dan typed furiously away putting together an excellent plan using Haiku to illustrate syllables, phonics, vocabulary and poetry. Being proud of the creative plan he gave it to his director hoping that it would not only be a good class plan, but also another step towards building the bridge between the issues of three weeks ago.

The director looked at the work and said “Why? What’s the meaning?”, (gotta love the top notch English there!), “I know syllables but I never heard of Haiku?” Dan explained that a Haiku is a Japanese poem that uses a 5-7-5 structure based on syllables.  “You’re not teaching this in my school”……….HUH?!?!?!

The director was not happy using a ‘Japanese’ poem and it would not be suitable for her school. Dan tried to explain that it was not about that fact its Japanese, it was the structure of the poem and how the students would learn from it… She wasn’t having a bar of it. “There are many emotions between Korea and Japan and Haiku is not good for Korean students…”

He offered to take out the words ‘Haiku’ and ‘Japanese’, leaving the lesson intact but taking out the offending items.  Still not good enough, he was informed.  She wasn’t having anything that had a ‘Japanese structure’ being taught in HER school.

Dan was flabbergasted. Haiku is meant to be a collection of words, a beautiful well thought collection of words. Who really cares if the form of Haiku came from Japan or Timbuktu…it’s the idea of it!

He went to his class and as he entered the Korean students put down their smart phones and started taking their pens and pencils from their Hello Kitty and Rillakuma pencil cases…wait a minute…Hello Kitty…Rillakuma…where do they come from??!

Racial Prejudice

Hello Kitty Yes, Haiku No

Japan Contraband

That night Dan got home and started pacing. All he could think was how wrong this really was…then he started writing Haiku…he started talking in Haiku…

 H-J looks at Dan

H-J’s face is unimpressed

Will he ever learn?

…in fact it got  to the stage that H-J had to clip him over the ear and drag him down the road to  put food in his mouth.

Thinking all the time

Getting worked up while pacing

Food will sort him out

We decided that some delicious street food was the answer to our pretty shitty day. So we stopped at fried guy who was serving a very affordable plate of offal. It was awesome!!! Heart, liver, tripe and Korean style blood sausage. Delicious!!

As we sat there eating our tripe, drinking our beer and cider, lamenting on the injustices of the day, we realised that there is a lot of tripe in this world. There is the good tripe – the yummy stuff. And then the stuff that is just a bunch of old tripe… like not being able to teach Haiku to kids because of the prejudice of a country.

Good and bad people

Then there’s good and bad tripe

Can’t we get along?

Racism is an ugly phenomenon.  It exists in every country but generally frowned upon by most of a population, with racist remarks/actions being looked upon with shock and judgement.

This has been the hardest thing for us to try and come to terms with in South Korea.  Racism and xenophobia is not just the cultural norm – but an actively fostered attitude.  And while you would think that schools would perhaps provide a more liberal safe-haven from this type of behaviour, as you’re probably starting to see, it’s just not the case.

A recent study in Korea published statistics showing that a mere 36% of Koreans are even open to the idea of multiculturalism.  We would love to know what the statistics show about the number of immigrant workers that live here propping up Korea’s massive industries in roles form engineers to grunt labour.  How would attitudes to multiculturalism change if all of a sudden Samsung, Hyundai, the numerous nuclear plants, petro-chemical industries and factories all had their immigrant workers taken away from them?  How would the average Korea teenager fare without the brand new Samsung smart phone immediately available at a cheap cost?

We are exposed to the attitudes of children aged 5-16 on a daily basis, so it’s a pretty accurate way to view what attitudes the next generation of South Koreans are growing up with…and believe us, it’s not pretty.

Occasionally, we use textbooks that have been printed in countries other than Korea and so have pictures of people who aren’t, well, Korean.  In one of H-J’s memorable classes the children (14 &15 year olds) opened their books to the day’s lesson and were presented with a picture of an African-American woman.  All the kids started hollering “ugly! ugly!”, “yuck”, “monkey”, “UGLY”…Most defaced their books, drawing additions on the rather beautiful black woman’s face.  One went so far as to take a pair of scissors to his book.

When mentioned to the other two teachers at the schools (both Korean) they shrugged it off and continued to play on their smart phones.  Neither the destruction of school books nor the blatant racism bothered them a smidge which is pretty telling in itself.  After all, kids learn this behaviour somewhere.

Another class involved looking at a map to answer some questions in the book.  When H-J pointed to New Zealand and asked “what country is this?” the response was, “trash”.

While supervising a middle school examination prep class one day, H-J pulled out a pad of Rillakuma writing paper.  Upon seeing the paper, one of the oldest and brightest students in the class started yelling, “Die Rillakuma!”.  This led to a chorus from a few other of Die Rillakuma, Die Hello Kitty.  While at first glance it seemed that they were just teenagers too cool for childish cartoon characters, it became quickly apparent that the hatred was much more pointed – “Rillakuma is Japanese.  Die Japanese.  We hate Japanese.  Die Hello Kitty.  Die Rillakuma.  Japan dirty.”

WTF?!  And just to really hammer the point home, the same racial slurs were reiterated the very next day by a completely different set of students.

Now we are not for one minute playing down the importance of historical relations between Korea and Japan.  Some evil shit went down.  And many Koreans are still angry on a daily basis at the Japanese for the current debate going on about the official name of the Sea of Japan/East Sea.  And a certain island that both countries lay claim to.

How on earth are children in this country going to be equipped to be global citizens when racism is constantly allowed to breed here?!  Its worrying.

It’s not just in the schools though.  The area we live is rumoured to have a high crime rate.  Why?  Because it’s full of immigrants from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Uzbekistan who “come over here without their wives.”  We’ll leave you to fill in the rest of what that comment suggests.

A recent attack on a mountain hiking trail led to the comment that it was “Indonesians or Ethiopians” that were responsible.  It seems unlikely that we would need to point out the HUGE visual differences of such races.  It doesn’t matter – the point was, it was foreigners.

Having recently made a couple of friends who are fluent in both Korean and English has opened up our ears to some “interesting” thoughts.  Our friend got the hard word from her sister as she had been spotted by someone “talking to the foreigners”.  Oh no, just when you were thinking that maybe being white here might make us immune, we get our fair share too.  People will take the long way around to avoid having to walk too close to us.  Mothers often push their children behind them or to the side of them for fear of us…? Well, we don’t know. Eating their children?  Kidnapping them in broad daylight?  Who knows!

Problems with discipline or behaviour problems at school?  Kids out of control, cutting up their books, yelling and being racist and rude – It’s not the kids EVER, its the white teacher. “They do things differently where they come from”.

Crime rates?  Bad things happening in your neighbourhood?  It’s the foreigners.

What a bunch of tripe.

Don’t get us wrong, Korea doesn’t always suck, but some days it feels like there is a lot more of the world you could be seeing.

Teaching pains growing

Only one way to stay sane

Let’s hunt caribou

Categories: Drinking, Food, Korea, Teaching, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation[s] with all their scintillating beauty.” Martin Luther King, Jnr

  2. Interesting post and I’m really glad you’ve included this and addressed it on your blog. I think it’s really unfortunate that you had to experience this, not just through observation, but that it directly is impacting you, both in your interaction w/ people there and your job. However, I think in the large picture it reaffirms that we’re all the same: no matter where you go in the world, there’s this unsavory side to society and people in general.

    • Thanks for the comments, John. While we try and maintain a fairly positive outlook on all the new experiences we’re having, we felt like we couldn’t quite leave this unsaid. And you’re totally right – there are crappy people wherever you are in the world, no place is immune. We are definitely looking forward to being in a slightly bigger town again one day though!

  3. Oh yes, you are really starting to experience Korea now. There is a lot to say about this issue, but it’s been said by a lot of people on a lot of other blogs and other articles. All I will say about Korean culture is that it is very much on the surface. I found that Koreans are generally not very good at hiding the negative aspects of their culture and often these attitudes aren’t thought of as negative. Korean culture, good and bad, is right there on the surface staring you in the face all the time. I actually consider this a good thing, since you can really begin to unravel the culture, which I found kind of interesting. Not only that, once you’ve figured most of it out, it’s quite easy to suceed. Contrast this to Thailand, where I live now, and most days I would actually prefer Korea, since Thai culture is very layered and difficult to understand. Even though Thais put on a very pretty face and make one of the best first impressions of anywhere in the world (which is exactly why so many people visit Thailand) it is not easy to get below the surface.

    Living in Korea is certainly a roller coaster experience and quite eye opening. On the positive side, even though Koreans are quite outspoken about their racist attitudes, there have been positive developments in government policy towards refugees. Just last year the country passed the New Refugee Act which allows for among other things legal assistance and an appeals process for refugees and asylum seekers. This is no coincidence because Korea is a functioning democracy where the rule of law usually prevails, which is not the case in most countries in this part of the world.

    As far as teaching issues go. I could give you a lot of practical advice here, but first you need to accept some facts. You are working for a private for profit cram school. As a result, the owner, answers to customers who are the parents. The parents although meaning well are not familiar with innovative teaching techniques. They are interested in their kid(s) getting into a good school and scoring well on tests. That is what they are paying for. Even if you are a qualified teacher, you have no power to tell the director how to run the school because the director does not answer to you, rather you answer to s/he. If the students are going home every night and complaining, then the parents will complain. Why?, because they are obsessed with their child’s education and they have no interest in taking risks with it. It also makes them feel as if they are part of the process. So, the kids have to like you first and foremost and your boss has to feel that you are towing the line and you love the company (What we call being a “team player” in the west.) The last part is important. Hagwons are not selling innovative teachers (well maybe 0.1% of them actually want innovative teachers), rather, they are selling their made (or stolen) educational system. The parents deliberately bought the system of this particular school over many other such systems. As a result, they expect it to be implemented. That is where you, the teacher comes in. It is your job to implement this system as opposed to trying to introduce educational techniques that Korean parents and students are unfamiliar with. Also, you are just an easily replaceable short term foreign contract worker who just happens to wear a white collar. You have little job security. Your only power is in the fact that there are tons of other places and people in Korea that will hire you for exactly the same job or as a well paid tutor. Once you accept these realities, you can actually start figuring out how to make teaching more interesting for yourself and the students, but don’t get too crazy. To put this simply, if it’s a choice between being a fun and likable teacher who tows the company line and being an innovative teacher who tries to really challenge the students and get them to learn, ALWAYS choose the former first. Also, did you study for 12 hours plus a day when you were a kid? What kind of crazy bat shit behavior might that have brought out in you? Finally, keep in mind that a lot of the private school issues are not unique to Korea, they exist simply because of the business structure and model.

    Wow, I said a lot, but your post struck a cord and I really enjoy your blog. Keep it up!

    • Thanks so much for your reply! Yes, we’re definitely experiencing the ‘real’ Korea. Its funny, every person we spoke to (prior to coming here) that had themselves taught in Korea previously had only said what a fabulous time they had and talked nothing of any kind of negativity. Having lived overseas before, of course we knew that there would be both ups and downs…you just never know what the particular downs are going to be. Racism was certainly not something that would have made top of our list of guesses. As for unravelling the culture, we are actually finding it the exact opposite to what you explain – yes, its very surface but the understanding of ‘why’ is very complicated and on the whole we have found Koreans very closed people and extraordinarily hard to get to know. It sounds like you spent a lot longer in Korea than we plan to though and no doubt got a much better taste of things. I think the difference between living in a big city and a tiny village really has a lot to do with how people are as well. When we think back to the people we spoke to, all of them had lived in cities with a lot of other ex-pats, a lot of support and a lot of booze consumed…

      Everything you say about working in hagwons is bang on. We came to terms with the fact that we are just ‘the face’ for an embedded culture of cram schools a while ago but we still think its important to document our experience and not just write about the ‘light and fluffy’ stuff. No kid should have to study for 12 hours a day (in our view) so we’re very aware of the fact that kids are exhausted and over it by the time they get to us. We’ve definitely learned to just keep our mouths shut, our heads down and our smiles firmly in place. Anyone thinking of working as a teacher in Korea needs to be fully clear about what their reasons are for teaching here – you’re not going to change lives in these schools. Once you get over that (and the fact the nine out of ten things you learn in a TESOL course are redundant in a hagwon classroom!) then the job itself is actually pretty sweet. It must be said though while being the fun and likeable teacher who tows the company line – which we are more than happy to be – it is sometimes extraordinarily difficult when you are also expected to teach them from a terrible curriculum at the same time as ignoring the behaviour of the particularly bad children as opposed to disciplining them (and therefore getting in trouble with the paying parents). We are yet to find the magic solution for achieving this balance! Haha.

      Thanks again for your response. Its great to have people involved with what we’re saying.

  4. People think I’m joking when I mention Asian-on-Asian hate, but it’s a reality. I’m sorry to hear you’re having to experience it 😦 I’m proud of being Korean – it’s my blood, it’s who I am – but this is one of the reasons I have no desire to go back to Korea, even for a visit. Having grown up in Canada, it’s too much of a shock going back there.

    • Thanks so much for your extremely honest comments. Its always a delicate balance for us about whether to include too much ‘negative’ stuff and certainly when it comes to heavy topics like this, our opinions are only two within the big, wide world. Living in Korea has definitely been a bit of an eye opener for us. It is just such a different mindset than we have encountered anywhere else so we can definitely understand your lack of desire to come back. Like you say, you’re proud of being Korean and there are many other ways to foster your roots 🙂

  5. crazy times! I was laughing at the post – mostly because of that “you have to laugh or you’ll cry” type of deal. Quite an experience for you guys. Glad you’re still finding the good stuff where you’re at!

  6. Wow – I guess I didn´t know this was an issue in Korea. How naive of me. I know when I first came to Spain I was quite shocked at what seemed to be acceptable but what I considered rascism, especially in rural areas where you never see a black or asian person. You really are experiencing the whole thing aren´t you – shame some of the experiences are not good, but you are certainly seeing life in Korea “for real”.

    • Its such a learning curve – and you’re right, we’re seeing the ‘real’ Korea. A small town is a challenge wherever you are but I guess, perhaps naively, you think that stuff like racism is only expressed by the minority wherever you are. I can’t pretend that we’ll ever really ‘get’ the Korean way of thinking but we’re trying really hard to find out more about what makes them tick!

  7. You’re both incredibly brave! Not only for admitting to your fears and concerns but because you both want big change in your lives! The world is a big place but sadly the worries & prejudices are still the same. Big change is definitely on the wind and exciting for you both too, fingers crossed!

    • Good thing there are heaps of awesome things to outweigh the crap! And that’s part of travel at the end of the day – you are exposed to things that make you feel uncomfortable, right? Looking forward to whatevers ahead 🙂

  8. Wow a very interesting blog. It’s too bad you had to experience that and as a teacher it must be even harder to accept. Being a Japanese-Canadian I’ve never been directly affected by this type of racism in Canada from Korens but it kinda makes me wonder if a trip to Korea is even warranted. It was kind of an eye opener when cindyhkim does not want to go back because of that…

    • I definitely think Korea is a great place to visit – I don’t know that I would recommend going totally out of your way to do so but if you were visiting somewhere nearby it would make an interesting addition to a travel itinerary as its extremely different from anywhere else. Seoul and Busan are fantastic cities with much to see, do and eat (we live in a tiny village where attitudes are much more ‘concentrated’)! I think living and working here gives us a more in-depth experience – and exposes us to that which would be much easier avoided as simply as a non-Korean tourist. I hope that makes sense! It looks like you are having an amazing time on your Asian journey! Was very jealous about all the yummy things you were eating in Hong Kong. That’s been one of my favourite food cities to date…!

      • yeah I gained so much weight eating, pretty much tried everything I could. Some touristy and some local. I just arrived back to Toronto Canada but already miss the hustle and bustle of the HK lifestyle. Good luck with your adventures in Korea and I hope to read more in the future. I know I have a bunch of new stuff to write about so hopefully you get a chance to read them.

      • Great, we’ll look forward to it!!!

  9. Hi! Thanks for following my blog! I’ve read a few entries but this one really hit close to home for me.

    I live in one of Seoul’s satellite cities and let me assure you, it’s no better! I was pretty unprepared for the racism, too. I’ve been here nearly two years now and at first I would say things like, “That’s not nice. Don’t say that,” to students telling me Chinese people were dirty or they hated Japan. I’ve gotten a lot more aggressive about it now though. I ask the kids “Have you ever met a Japanese person? Would you tell a Japanese person that you hated them if you met them? Have you ever been to Japan? Did you choose to be born in Korea?” etc etc. I’m know I’m probably just throwing myself up against a brick wall but I really can’t stand it.

    • Thanks for your comments! We’re interested to know whether you teach in a public school or a hagwon? Reason being, that where we work challenging kids on anything is a bit of a risky business – we’re likely to lose our jobs if kids feel threatened or don’t like us for whatever reason (seriously, Dan got fired for not smiling enough one day). There’s days where I want to hit kids with the textbooks they’ve been defacing…but sadly, just have to suck it up and remind myself that not everyone thinks like this! I think its awesome that you’re challenging them on their beliefs.

      • Actually I work at a very large hagwon but they’ve been surprisingly okay with some of the things I tell the kids. My manager’s very talkative (and cute!) daughter is in my kindergarten class so I’m pretty sure she’s gotten the full report on me saying things like, “Of course men can marry men! Anybody can love anybody they want!”

        Some of your experience might be colored by the fact that you live in a small town. I had a friend teaching outside of Daegu and her experience was atrocious. We still have silliness like the warnings about smiling and uber competitive helicopter parents (one mother demanded to see a video recording of a speech contest b/c she wanted to judge for herself if the winner was better than her son. Now we have to record all contests). A lot of the managers just power trip–they want to see you squirm and beg and wield visa sponsorship over your head. Maybe that’s what was going on with Dan’s school.

      • Very interesting! It takes all sorts of attitudes to make the world go round I suppose, haha. Our experiences here are definitely being shaped by the fact we live in a village – we really notice the difference when we go to the cities. And I think you make an interesting point about the fact that your bosses have spent considerable time overseas as travel definitely broadens the mind or at least makes you (hopefully) more sensitive to certain issues. A lot of the students (and parents) that we deal with have never been much further than Ulsan, which explains a lot.

        Crazy times in Korea, eh?!

      • I feel like I should also mention that my manager lived in Canada for 2 years and my Academic Director studied for 5 years in Canada/Australia. Nearly all of our teachers have spent at least a year in an English speaking country and my co-teacher went to college in the US and has also lived in Thailand and China.

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