I started teaching an intensive non credit winter program today, and I was reminded of one important fact about teaching adults in Korea.
We don’t have the proverbial elephant in the room, our issue is the ajosshi in the classroom.
At 9am sharp, I called out the students’ names, and all but one were there sitting alert in their desks. We discussed the expectations for the oral communication part of the course, briefly went through the concept of follow up questions, and practiced a few as a group. Then, I split them into small groups to interview each other and report back by the end of the class about the three most fascinating pieces of information they had gleaned about their partner from their discussions. I was pleasantly surprised by their level of English as I roamed around the classroom and excited by their willingness to talk freely with each other despite their lack of vocabulary and not knowing each other previously. I was dreaming of all the things this quiet but forthcoming group of level ones could accomplish over the next 5 weeks when, at 10 minutes until the end of class, the door burst open and an ajosshi strolled in. He didn’t seem the least bit apologetic for coming in 40 minutes late. He didn’t seem concerned about being the only one who didn’t have a textbook. And he certainly made himself right at home in the room strolling around and spreading out his things at a few different desks before settling right at the front in a desk surrounded by no one and stared at the board.
I broke away from one of the small groups I was talking to, in order to ensure that he really was supposed to be in the class and to direct him to join a group. He nodded in understanding, so I went back to finish the conversation with the other group, only to look behind me a few minutes later to notice that he was still in the same spot facing away from the rest of the class and discussions. So I returned to him, thinking that he had not understood me. He gruffly replied that he wanted to check out my stuff, and I noticed that he had taken my textbook and was paging through it and was reading over a syllabus he had taken from another student. When he seemed satisfied with my syllabus, he got up to join the group I had recommended, but as one might expect, the easy going banter which had been going on for 20 minutes between the two other students halted, and the students’ bodies noticeably stiffened.
I should say before I go further, that I enjoy teaching conversation to groups of ajosshis. (Writing is another matter). They’ve had more life experience than your average freshman, and they are more confident in their discussions. And of course, I myself am married to an ajosshi and hang out with his ajosshi friends, so I have a lot of experience talking to middle age men. I should note that I think there is a difference in men in their mid 30s to late 40s and in their 50s. The ones who hover just below to just over 50 do tend to be a bit more difficult, but I have taught many older men, and they can be fun. When they are in their element, and being their own culturally normative people with other people of the same age, cultural differences based on age are easier to accept and embrace because things are working in their ‘proper order.’ However, age differences not just age matter in Korea. So when you have 8 university students in their early 20s and one late 40s/early 50s ajosshi in the same class, you have a problem.
It’s extraordinarily difficult for women who take time off of work to have children to re-enter the workforce because although times are changing, most companies still associate promotion, positions, and power with age. If you are just joining a company at 35 in a junior position, you are working alongside 25 year olds at the same position according to the company – except you aren’t socially at the same level according to Confucianism. That means two coworkers of what amounts to a ‘radically’ different ages in Korea have to work together, but at the same time, one person has to speak differently, listen differently, and share their thoughts differently in deference to the other person. Age difference undermines group coherence because two people of the same company position cannot share ideas, gripes, and strategies freely. People of various age differences absolutely work together in the same team in companies, but their ages are usually connected to their position in the company hierarchy and thus this is the way in which Confucian values and modern company stratification are brought into harmony.
But, what makes the classroom situation so much more complicated is that the 20 year old and the 50 year old are paying the same amount of money. It is money that makes the hogwan so different from the public school system. Money radically shifts the Confucian hierarchy of teacher and student (or sometimes teacher, paying parent, and younger student). Teachers cannot but help to submit to money because paying parents or older students vote with their registration and their tuition. So with this 20/50 divide, you can see this whole mess of realities and expectations going through the students’ minds. There’s an older man in the room. We should ‘respect’ older people in Korea, which traditionally means actually listening to, abiding to, and submitting to their opinions. We have to temper our speech – actually change our Korean speech, we have to be careful of our opinions, we have to fit our opinions to those of our elders…and so the free flowing conversation has to be redirected to what the ajoshhi wants to talk about, to where the ajosshi wants it to go. And yet….and yet….the 20 year old has paid the exact same tuition, has registered for the class with the same expectation that he or she will be able to have the same amount of practice as everyone else, and the same amount of time to state opinions and have words corrected. There’s a disconnect here.
I ran into this problem in a big way in my second month of teaching in Korea. But this time it was a 20 year old female student vs. a 40 year old woman in an advanced reading/writing class. We were discussing relationships between older and younger people in response to what we had been reading. The 40 year old said that younger people were disrespectful toward their elders. The younger girl waited her turn and then said politely (in an English sense) that she thought sometimes people made mistakes or were only thinking about themselves, but that overall most younger people respected their elders. The 40 year immediately retorted that the younger girl had disagreed with her and thus showed disrespect. She then told the younger girl to never disagree with her again. There was…a dead silence in the room. The 40 year old is not actually in the wrong in terms of how older people often interpret the word ‘respect’ and in how it has been often interpreted in the past (although she was far far far more forceful about this position than most other people I’ve encountered). And the young woman was right in terms of how the younger generation understands respect. But in class…there was a clash. All the younger students looked immediately frightened. Could they not share their opinions anymore? Should they just stop coming to class? (Mr. Lee often reports that younger classmates in his conversation classes drop after being paired with older, more Confucian, and more dominating classmates). Everyone’s head swung toward me. What was the 25 year old teacher going to say?
I tried to be diplomatic. Yes, Korea has a proud Confucian tradition and value system I said, and perhaps outside of class we should follow this system; however, inside class (and while speaking English), everyone had the right to speak their opinions. The 40 year old had this look of pure hatred on her face, and she tore out of the classroom, found the 60-ish American head teacher, and pled her case. He, of course, sided with me, but it was my very first realization of this complicated dynamic, and how difficult it can be as a younger female (and expat!) teacher to juggle all of these different expectations.
I’m not sure what to do about the current situation. After 7 hours of hanging out with all 20-somethings today, the older student might decide that this program is not really meant for a person like him. Being the first class in the morning, he may always be quite late and thus just a student I have to find a spot for on occasion without worrying about the overall class dynamic. Conversely, he might be an alert student sitting upright in his desk every morning at 9am. Or, he might turn out to be a terribly open minded and generous older man who uses his age position to encourage the students…it’s happened….a few times….We’ll have to see. I do have 5 years more of age on my face, a ring on my finger marking me as an ajumma – a young one – but still an ajumma which gives me a bit more power – and I have much more experience in terms of knowing how to negotiate intergenerational dynamics in the Korean classroom. And if all else fails, there’s the 40ish American head of program who has a Korean FIL who can be brought in if there’s another incident like the one in my first experience in Korea.
But there’s no doubt that the ajosshi in the classroom – and the strange ‘equalizing’ effects of money in the form of tuition – make for an interesting dynamic in the Korean classroom which is perhaps indicative of the larger changes happening in this society.