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Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

On My Teaching Identity

Last fall I wrote this post about the challenges of being a 30-something female teacher in Korea. After aegyo and cuteness and being admired or rejected for your looks, what kind of identity was left for a teacher of my age?

I think I got my answer today in a student feedback form:

 “Professor. You are mother like teacher. At first, I was very bad presenter. But, you helped me like mother, so I changed.”

I guess Dragon isn’t an only child afterall…

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I returned to my office yesterday after my first class of the day and found everyone there in a tizzy. They were in the middle of lively conversation, and when I got there, it got even more animated. One male co-worker came over to the table where I was sitting and said he was sorry. Then another came over, slapped down a piece of paper on the desk, shook his head and walked away. As confused as I was about all of this, it only got weirder when a third co-worker started repeating ‘They want to get rid of the pregnant lady! They want to get rid of the pregnant lady!’

Eventually it came out that the third co-worker had done a ‘bomb shelter’ type activity in one of his persuasive presentation classes. In these scenarios, there is usually some kind of historic disaster on the way, and only a few people can be saved to start a new civilization or a new planet. Students are asked to choose who they want to save based on brief biographical details which may include age, background, and occupation. The activity is a great way to talk about ethical dilemmas, bias, and/or persuasive structure. Will the students choose the 70 year old female doctor or the 19 year old female prostitute? Will one person’s race trump another’s occupation? Is the solider with the gun a boon or a danger? It’s always fascinating to hear the combination of people students choose and the rationale for their choices. And in this particular teacher’s activity, there was a pregnant woman, and interestingly, every single student wanted to throw the preggo off the boat first.

The teacher played devil’s advocate and challenged the students as to why they would not want to save an obviously fertile woman who was, as the teacher later said, ‘An E-Mart 1+1 deal.’ The students justified their decision by stating:

1) Women are weak

2) The survivors would have 2 mouths to feed instead of 1 (breast feeding?)

3) The woman would require intensive medical care after giving birth

And…….

Wait for it……

4) Other than being able to have a baby, the woman has no special skills.

The last point was not made on any information given to the students but rather on the assumption they made based on the fact that she was pregnant. In other words, pregnant women have no intrinsic value other than the ability to bear children, and pregnant women are useless in terms of how the students view social contributions.

I found this highly interesting especially because in the class I had just returned from, I had talked to my students about a comment I had received from that class in my midterm evaluations Usually students complain that I don’t let them miss class or make them do too many presentations, but in this class, a student made a comment about how he/she was anxious about my ability to teach simply because I am pregnant (and that there was constant fear among students that I would not be able to finish the semester because pregnant women don’t have the strength to teach). I’m sure there was some of the standard ‘worried about my health’ sentiment in that comment, but there was also an underlying assumption about the abilities of pregnant women. The comment upset me because with the exception of not being an active participant in my students’ self defence demonstrative presentations, I’ve acted no differently in classes, and in fact have had more energy on occasions than before I was pregnant because I’m eating and sleeping better and taking better care of myself. I have strict attendance and participation expectations for my students, and I hold myself to the same standards, so it was upsetting to me that at least one person felt I was unfit to teach. And of course, being on my evals, I was worried that management would see the comment and question my place – or the place of any pregnant woman – on our faculty. So the students and I had a little talk about my performance in class and the perception that pregnant women are incapable of working. After class, a few female students came up and we had another chat about my hopes for their generation in the workplace and the strength we have as women. I hope they remember that chat in the future.

Of course, the views on pregnant women in the workplace above are just the views of a few students. I have no idea how far reaching they are within this generation. Maybe our students are an anomaly. However, I do think though that for all the media’s hand-wringing over the low birth rate’s effect on national productivity and our competitive edge that perhaps the media has missed an additional negative impact. Another effect of the fact is that pregnancy is no longer something many people encounter in their daily lives. And as many women still quit their jobs, or (and hat tip to The Grand Narrative for this link)- women are forced out of their jobs when they get pregnant, it is not normal to see what some women are capable of in terms of working while being pregnant. Then there’s the post partum expectations that women and babies should stay at home for some time after birth, and it becomes strange to even see infants in public. Of course, nowadays there are stronger laws and more teachers are pregnant, teaching, and returning to work after giving birth, but it makes sense that fewer women were doing this when this generation was younger and thus my students did not have the experience of pregnant teachers growing up. I’m the first pregnant woman in my department on my campus (the first on both campuses gave birth a few weeks ago), and in 3 years I’ve yet to see a visibly pregnant woman on campus. I suppose if my students rarely interact with pregnant women, then they probably have less idea of the value pregnant women can bring to the work place or the classroom.

Despite the negative comments, some really positive things have come out of these moments. First of all, one of the most fascinating things has been my male coworkers’ negative reaction to the dilemma activity. The teacher whose class it was is usually quite relaxed about cultural differences and problems that arise in the classroom, but he talked about the activity incessantly for about an hour. Honestly, I was worried about misogyny or backlash from coworkers when I announced I was pregnant because this is the first pregnancy in our office. Now, perhaps conversations have gone on behind my back, but in general, I’ve received a lot of positive support and feedback from my coworkers. I think that the fact that I am pregnant, working, active, and happy, means that others can see the potential value of a pregnant co-worker in the way they might not have seen if I wasn’t there. I’m sure it also helps that I work with some really lovely and encouraging people!

The other positive result is that I feel even more grateful for the women who have gone before me both in Korea and abroad. Despite the difficulties women face here when they are pregnant in the workplace, the path is smoother because of previous generations of women. Sometimes my generation is accused of not understanding the value of feminism in today’s society, or we are told that we are not continuing the fight with enough zeal. This is true sometimes. It is easy to become complacent. But being here (I’ll talk about my own mat leave journey in a later post), and talking to other women who have been refused mat leave/let go/faced pressure to quit has made me more grateful for those who have fought for better benefits for mothers and fathers in Korea and elsewhere, and I accept my role in this generation which is demanding employers follow the currently existing rules and groundwork. I’m also more aware of the fact that what this generation of women is able to accomplish will have a huge impact on my freshman students right now, and I want to make sure that in ten years when my female students are in my position, that life will be easier for them. This is the message I tried to convey to my female students. My staying healthy in part because I have supportive people around me who feed me with encouragement, my keeping my job by being an effective worker, and my pursuing my dreams to be a mother and a career woman have a very small but real impact on the possibilities open to them in the future. If they want to quit, stay at home, and be a full time mother, I hope they will have that option. But if they want to have a career and be a mother, I hope that path will be so much easier for them because of what is going on right now. And it’s exciting to be a tiny microscopic part of that movement.

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It’s that time of year again – the time of year where Mr. Lee spends hours and days and whole weekends and really, an entire month locked away in his work or home office putting together a mammoth business plan for the new year which will be promptly scrapped and rewritten come January when a new boss comes in and wants to place his own mark on the team.

Mr. Lee has to put something in English in the plan – usually a bunch of catchy marketing phrases or concepts. Now, Confucius only knows why this is a requirement…Mr. Lee is of course the only one in his team or even department who can actually speak English. But goodness – it’s gotta be there for sophistication purposes.

And like every year, the native English speaking wife gets roped into the making and perfecting of this part of the business plan – which starts out fun in a ‘ooo I get to be creative and use my mother tongue abilities to help my husband at work’ sort of way, but quickly turns into sighs.

You see – this is the only part of his life where my husband turns into ‘that ajosshi.’  You know the one right? The one who commissioned his native English speaking underlings to come up with exciting new KTO come to Korea slogans – then smiled and nodded when they gave their presentations – and once they left the room stroked out their versions and wrote ‘Korea Sparkling,’ ‘Korea Be Inspired’ and ‘Visit Korea Year 2010-2012’. Or ‘that ajosshi’ that brought you the café Sand and Food or……

I know it might not have been an ajosshi – it might have been a truly powerful ajumma…but the point is, there is ‘that person’ in the hierarchy who desperately wants to use English to look super snazzy and chic and also wants to show how globalized or urbane X company / restaurant / conglomerate is by using ‘English’…but also steadfastly holds onto Konglish as the ‘true English.’ And ‘that person’…at least for the last several weeks has been my husband.

Our recent conversations have gone something like this:

Msleetobe: This sentence is …. interesting ….but there is no verb in it.

Mr. Lee: ‘Feedback’ is the verb.

Msleetobe: No – ‘feedback’ in this case is a noun. You can give feedback or provide feedback or receive feedback, but the customer can’t feedback you.

Mr. Lee: But we use feedback as a verb. And Koreans love this word. We HAVE to use it in this business plan.

Msleetobe: ‘Feedback’ is a noun. If you want to use it, just add a verb and you’ll be fine.

Mr. Lee: Okay, what is the verb form of ‘feedback?’

Msleetobe: In this case there is no verb form. You’ll have to add a verb.

Mr. Lee: But that will be too long. Why can’t I just use ‘feedback’ as a verb?

Msleetobe: Because it is a noun. Why don’t you use another word as a verb in place of ‘feedback?’

Mr. Lee: But I have to use ‘feedback.’ Really…l can’t use it as a verb here? Maybe I’ll just use it.

Msleetobe: Look…You have two choices – if you want correct English you have to change it. If you want Konglish, then do whatever you want – but if that’s the case, why am I here?

(Both of us sulk)

And like ‘feedback’ there are always other words in the mix that ‘HAVE’ to be used because they are ‘in’ words in the world of Konglish, and you just aren’t cool if you’re not using them.

Another example:

Mr. Lee: What’s the word for a program or way to solve some specific problem with an existing program?

Msleetobe: If you are talking about technology, people often say ‘fix.’

Mr. Lee: Oh good, so I can call this part ‘ABC Shooting Fix.’

Msleetobe: Just ‘ABC Fix’.

Mr. Lee: Not ‘Shooting Fix’? Like troubleshooting and fix and…’Shooting Fix!!!’

Msleetobe: Nope – just ABC Fix is good.   

Mr. Lee: But we like ‘shooting.’ It makes sense. And we HAVE to use ‘shooting.’

Msleetobe: It sounds like you are shooting…killing the fix you have created.

Mr. Lee: But…’Shooting Fix!’…so cool! Fun!

Msleetobe: Once again…do whatever you want. But…why am I here?

(As I am typing, Mr. Lee just walked in the door from work and one of the first things out of his mouth was ‘My team boss really loved shooting fix! He said it was very easy to understand! But that other section we discussed…the one with the word ‘spearhead?’…my team boss doesn’t understand that. He thinks ‘spear’ sounds too much like ‘appear.’)

Like I say over and over again in these conversations, I really could care less what he chooses to go with. It’s for a team where the Konglish ability is high and the English ability is low. Plus, the business plan will be scrapped in a few months time anyway, and no customer will actually see the business plan although they will experience some differences when/if any part of the plan is actually implemented. But it just continually amazes me why – other than the fact that I am the native English speaking wife – I need to be consulted at all when everything I say will be disregarded in favour of those with a PhD in Konglish. However, it does give me great insight into the inner workings of the ajosshi mind…although I’m not sure why I want to know the inner workings of that mind.

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When I first got to Korea, one of the first ‘Korean’ words I learned was ‘cue-tuh’. Cue-tuh vs. cute. I started to make a very clear distinction between the two words because they were, in fact, very different words. At least in 2005 Canada, ‘cute’ was a word you used with babies, baby animals, baby clothes, and maybe just maybe what you said privately to your sister when your grandfather said something ridiculously adorable. But it wasn’t a word you would ever use to publically call someone in a position of authority and certainly not what you would say to compliment a career woman. I think I was lucky as a teaching assistant at a Canadian university. I was in a department with a great deal of emphasis on equality. I TAed for two female lecturers and a professor who was heavily invested in issues pertaining to equality. There was no real or perceived differentiation of TAs based on gender (at least with those profs), and we were given feedback on our competency, knowledge of course content, and ability to manage the students in our charge. And considering that religious studies, by definition is going to have people wearing hijab, monks robes, and kippahs, etc, or being from different cultures, races and ethnicities, any sort of negative comments about dress, appearance, or ‘difference’ was immediately rebuked. I didn’t realize how different the ‘real world’ could be.

But as a 24/25 year old teacher of adults in a Confucian country which is supposed to put teachers on a higher level of both respect and professional expectations, I heard the word ‘cuetuh’ applied to me all.the.time. I wasn’t complimented as smart, capable, effective, interesting, or a person who takes initiative. If a student wanted to say something nice about me, they called me cuetuh. The end. It was, to say it mildly, something I really had to wrap my head around.

I know that some professional career women in Canada also have a problem with perception. While men in positions of power or respect are often called assertive, confident, or a good leader, women with similar characteristics are often considered pushy, aggressive, or just…a bitch. Student evaluations can also be skewed by students’ bias for or against gender, race, and/or culture, so non white women sometimes have a harder time achieving positive student evaluations in North American schools.

But…I had never been called ‘cuetuh’ so many times in my life, and I had never encountered such a perception that I should, in fact, be cuteuh. My greatest struggle in the classroom in the early years was with middle aged business men – the ajosshi. Conversation class usually went well. The men were coming to class after hours – happy to be out of the office and into an environment where they could speak more freely and have fun. There I was cuteuh. There I was the unattached young white woman devoting her attention to her older male students. I have often felt that there were times where the only differences in my life then between a room salon girl and an English teacher was that I was wearing more clothes (on the last day of class, I was often expected to take my students out for drinks, and the older men expected me to…pour.drinks.for.them).

But I was also a writing teacher for a significant portion of this time. A writing teacher who was supposed to be teaching structure, organization, and grammar, and a teacher who was supposed to have her red pen out in order to mark and correct her students mistakes. In this role, I was not cuetuh. In that class I was the bitch. I told older men they were wrong – I said it with a smile, I said it kindly, but I still had to say it. I was unapologetic about their mistakes. There was no way to show my aegyo in my handwritten corrections. And even though I had students who contacted me later to tell me that they had gotten into post secondary programs overseas or been given promotions in their company due to their better writing skills, and even though I had many students repeatedly signing up for my classes – some as long as 6 months in a row – even then, my writing evaluations made it clear that I was not cuetuh. This problem has followed me to the university setting where, although I have students who are younger than me by almost ten years, I am still expected to act like a young girl. And as a young girl, you are expected to play the part and look the part.

Last year, I lost 40 pounds in six months for the Canadian wedding and to prepare for getting pregnant. This past semester, my evaluations improved dramatically, with one student leaving the comment ‘Dear Msleetobe, the longer the course runs, the cuter you get.’  There was that word back again. I was thinner, fitter, and….cuetuh-er than when I was 40 pounds heavier. I had also become better at integrating my cuetuh persona into my teaching.

Why I’m writing about this is that I am approaching my 31st birthday. I am married with a kid on the way. I am, by Korean standards, a total ajumma. I have been told many times I have a ‘young face.’ That’s a relief I guess. Because I’m not sure what is going to happen when I start showing my old face. What is there after cuteuh for older women? Plastic surgery? I shudder. I have sadly learned that I can be steadfast in giving out poor grades if I break the news with a touch of aegyo. I can force grammar and essay structure on my students if I do it with the hint of a dance or funny poses – just follow how the Kpop girls or the panel/guest stars on those variety shows right?. In short, I have learned how to modify my appearance and teaching style in order to be the cuetuh person I need to be so that I can get the “respect” I need as a teacher. But what about at 40? Will my face start to betray my age? And if I have an old face, will I be able to be as convincing in my cuetuh persona? Without aegyo will my students revert to being unable to accept critique of their work?

I’ve been noticeably silent about foreign male teachers in the adult Korean classroom. I don’t want to get into trouble. But but but. It DOES seem easier to be a male English teacher. If you are older and strict, you have the benefit of being an older male which in and of itself demands more respect. There are many reasons why women don’t tend to stay here as they get older. But one of those is certainly jobs. I’ve known two teachers in their 60s who had very good positions and a lot of respect despite being horrible human beings (and far from fabulous teachers). And while it is harder to be older and gainfully employed in general in Korea, it seems to be much much much harder to be an older woman and employed in the English industry or most industries here in general. There must be some kind of persona that works for older women? But I don’t know what it is. What is there other than cuetuh?

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Mr. Lee works for a rather well known company in Korea. Said well known company has a lot of connections with well known multinationals, and the day before I returned to Korea from Canada, there was an even between Mr. Lee’s company and an important multinational.  Mr. Lee’s boss had a hand in organizing, but since Mr. Lee’s boss doesn’t really speak English, and an important exec from the multinational who is German does, Mr. Lee was ordered to come along in case additional translation was needed.  Mr. Lee was pretty sure that there would be a translator provided by another division, but as it was a very strong order, he went along.

Pretty quickly after arriving at the event, Mr. Lee realized that the guy who was doing the translation was not very skilled. He was leaving out a lot of important information which was causing the executive from the multinational corporation to become confused. So he did what is what I think is one of his better qualities, but a quality he gets in trouble for sometimes in Korea; he stepped in and started adding additional important information. At first the guy in charge of translation was a bit pissed off. So Mr. Lee pulled out what has been a very effective excuse for all manner of things that make him weird at work.  “My wife is Canadian.” This was the best possible answer. Now to the translator, it wasn’t Mr. Lee showing off the skills which are polarizing Korean society to some extent, it was the phantom influence of his foreign wife which was magically affecting his ability to converse in English.^^ And so, Mr. Lee started taking over more of the translation, and he got to sit at the head table beside the exec.

Obviously I’m pretty proud of my guy. His second language skills put mine to shame, and thank God for his second language skills because our relationship would never have happened without them. But even more than that, I’m proud that he was able to overcome the stress of translating (a very different skill from simple conversation in another language), the much older age of the exec, the potential workplace political problems that could have occurred because of his higher level skills, and the stress of the important event itself in order to help his company. I think he was modestly proud of himself too, mostly because he has never felt very confident in his ability to translate, and so he proved to himself that all those years of consistently going to weekend English classes have paid off.

There’s such a desire among students, office workers, and job seekers to ‘speak English well’ which usually means ‘having a native speaking accent’ and ‘perfect pronunciation’ (whatever those mean) and high test scores.  Every year I have students bemoaning the fact that their English is not as good as X student’s because their parents are not rich and/or they were not able to go abroad for prolonged periods. Of course, language teachers know that the real test of good language skills is one’s ability to communicate effectively with others. Mr. Lee has a strong Korean accent. He mixes up his l’s and r’s and p’s and f’s just like everyone else. He hasn’t studied TOEIC or TOEFL in years. He did travel to Australia between military service and returning to university, but at that time, he realized that his English speaking skills only included ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘I don’t speak English.’ Those skills didn’t improve much as he backpacked. He has never studied abroad. He didn’t have extra tutors when he was young. He’s just been diligent and consistent. He did an intensive course at a local hogwan when he returned from Australia, joined some study groups, and has been taking  a 3 hour a week English class most weekends (partly for English, but mostly because he is able to socialize with a wide spectrum of people from all walks of life which is very difficult after establishing a career).

Of course, he now has a native English speaking wife, but he himself acknowledges that this really has not improved his English much. He is quite sure that his English was better before he met me because he had more time to study vocabulary and text. And if you are speaking another language in a relationship, you know that often your vocabulary is very limited and consistent, and that you reuse the same sentence structure and speech patterns repeatedly instead of introducing new vocabulary and structures as in a classroom setting. Really, 95% of what Mr. Lee knew about English, he knew before he met me. My contribution to his vocabulary has been things like ‘muffin top’ which I’m sure we’ll agree often makes its way into high level conversations. And most importantly, he had his confidence in speaking with native and non native English speakers far before he met me. It was the quality that stood out that first day in class.

In short, I think Mr. Lee’s English win at the event, and his overall English ability is a testament to a different way of approaching English learning and a different type of role model for ‘good English ability’ in Korea. No, he didn’t have a perfect accent when talking to the exec (of course as a native German speaker, the exec didn’t have a native accent either!). And yes, I’m sure there were one or two cute pronunciation moments in there. But if the true goal of English is communication, and if (some) Koreans need English in order to interact with the global world for business, cultural, political, or social goals, then Mr. Lee had his own little triumph that day. He communicated effectively, he created a positive atmosphere, and he contributed in a small way to forging better ties and feelings between the two companies. And so, I’m proud of my hubs. He helped his company just a little bit with the English skills he has diligently tried to maintain over the years, and he renewed his confidence in his ability to translate in English. xo

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On Plastic Surgery

There are a few things I try to stay away from in class – Dokdo, boshingtan, fan death…and often, plastic surgery.  I haven’t taught a conversation class in a while, so I’ve been able to avoid this topic through choosing or directing my students’ writing or presentation topics, but last week the topic came up in class.  The reason why I try to avoid it is two-fold.  First, it’s disheartening – especially when you get a group of girls together (the same can be said of weight loss as a conversation topic).  I feel my girls feed off of each other, and they almost feel like they have to talk about how ugly they are – how they want ‘big eyes,’ ‘high nose,’ ‘small face,’ or liposuction to be an S-line, or breast augmentation to have a W-line, or calve reduction or leg elongating surgery.  I think one upping each other on how much you hate your body is present in all media-saturated cultures, but it’s far more disheartening when not only are these changes major surgeries which can alter some of your key racial or ethnic markers (as opposed to changes that can be made through diet or exercise), but also because these girls’ mothers, their grandmothers, their professors (aka people should have more wisdom) AND the people who are interviewing them for employment or even unpaid internships are telling them that future success…including finding a marriage partner…cannot be achieved unless they have invasive medically unnecessary cosmetic procedures.

The other reason to avoid this topic as a white Western woman is that no matter what you say, you can’t win.  When my students asked for my opinion, I stated honestly that I did not understand the need to do such radical surgery, especially when it meant eyes, nose, or jaw bone, as these things are often done in a way which minimizes what makes Koreans’ facial features Korean.  I tried to be positive and optimistic and say that the females and males in my class were beautiful with the features they were born with, and that I hoped one day soon human resource departments would worry less about external appearances and just focus on finding the people with the best personalities and qualifications for the job.  These comments got the response that I’ve heard now and then that ‘Americans’ (ie. white Westerners), ‘fetishize Asian things, so American men prefer Koreans to look Korean.’  I’m not sure what this comment had to do with me, but I have heard variations on this opinion to the effect that Americans/Westerners/white people do not want Koreans to do plastic surgery because they prefer their ‘exotic’ features.  At the same time, if I had agreed with the students and told them that facial plastic surgery was a good thing, I would have become the foreigner who agreed that Koreans need to have plastic surgery.

Around the same time this was happening in my class, I watched a documentary over at Documentary Heaven called Bleach Nip Tuck:  The White Beauty Myth.  It’s horrific on so many levels.  The point of the documentary is to say that because ‘white bodies’ are the ‘standard,’ non-white immigrants and Britons want to alter their bodies to look more white through leg elongation, laser hair removal, breast reduction, breast augmentation, and double eye lid surgery.  According to the documentary, white women have large but not too large beasts, so black women want to reduce their breast size while Asian women want to increase their size.  On some level this is true; however, there’s also a whole lot of white women who change their breast size or other body features too.  The Asian woman blamed her single eyelids and breasts on her recent breakup and the black woman said that she wanted to look just like Victoria Beckham who is somehow, in her eyes, what a normal woman should look like.  And then just recently, CNN featured a 12 year old dancer whose mother decided she needed to get double eye lid surgery to look more beautiful, and the segment specifically said that the girl? her mother? (it was hard to distinguish who wanted the surgery more), wanted to change the girl’s eyelids to look more Western.  And then, just prior to these stories, I read the article Paper Tigers where a Korean-American makes some interesting (albeit angst-ridden) points about East-Asian identity in the US, but also talks about a course where Asian men who feel they are desexualized by American culture, learn to assert their manly sexuality with a woman wearing a blonde wig.  The point of the course is to try to alter what the men perceive to be a central stumbling block for East Asian men – their belief that Americans think Asians do not show their emotions on their faces, so these men need to have their ‘creepy fixed.’  Of course, the fact that they feel the need to learn how to be a sexualized man with a stand-in in a blonde wig isn’t seen as creepy at all.

Why I bring these things up, is that I find it interesting that Western media, and Asians in the West, tend to discuss plastic surgery trends in terms of wanting to be more ‘Western’ (read: white).  And certainly as a woman of a certain generation who moved in pretty left leaning/progressive/whatever you want to call them circles, I would say that I was also socially trained to see such altering of appearance as an internalization of cultural imperialism (Black Skin, White Masks anyone?) and a manifestation of cultural imperialism itself.  That line of thought is present in Korea, but there’s also a very strong opinion among some people that the trendy types of plastic surgery are about being beautiful (full stop), about idolizing K-pop stars (who are changing their appearances to be beautiful as Koreans not to emulate white appearances), or because they are being Korean through their following of such trends.  And thus, I’ve had people be hostile with me others for suggesting that Koreans should be happy with their genetic features as Koreans because this opinion is a fetishization of Asianness.  Perhaps there is something to be said for not trying to make these trends about wanting to be ‘white’ because perhaps it’s just another way to reconstruct some kind of a culturally imperialistic viewpoint.  But anyway, I feel there is no ‘winning’…no ‘good’ position I can take on these types of plastic surgery in the classroom.

Perhaps this is my ‘white privilege’ speaking – whatever that means in a Korean not a Canadian context – but I think all people need to get over comparing themselves with each other.  And this is coming from a person from Canada – the country that has built a lot of its present national identity on trying to assert how it is not the US.  I can’t think of any women I grew up with who loved their bodies.  They all wanted to be shorter/taller, larger chested/smaller chested,  paler/more tanned, have lighter hair/darker hair, smaller hands, larger lips, less body hair, be thinner, smaller boned, etc etc etc.  Nobody was happy, and everyone was looking at everyone else to see what they didn’t have.  (I just also saw this equally horrific documentary on labiaplasties….cause I guess some girls compare their labias and decide that they are not normal down there either).  As the girl with the 180 cm German farm-girl body (my husband – God bless his blunt Korean ways has told me ‘Your face is so small [good in Korea] because your shoulders are so wide!…), I envied the Japanese girl with the petite bone structure and tiny hips.  I also wanted my friend’s hair that she inherited from her South African father because my hair wouldn’t hold its natural curl once dried, and I was desperate not to have the sickly pale skin I inherited from my ancestors.  I loaded up on the tanning oil and spent a considerable time on year under the tanning bed because darker skin was more beautiful than my natural skin colour.  And so, while many Asians and blacks are bleaching the hell out of their skin, many whites are dying from skin cancer.  We humans are really smart.  Is the world trying to be white?  I don’t think so, but I think many in the world are trying to remake their image as someone they are not.

I am not okay with my body. Not entirely.  But actually, coming to Korea has helped my body image.  Again, maybe it is the ‘white privilege,’ but I am not the Korean stereotype of what a white woman should look like.  Not at all with the exception of my ‘small face,’ pale skin, and long legs (however, they are very muscular-thin, and in Korea, that now that means ‘healthy’ in a bad, aka ‘too strong and thus fat looking’ way).  When I first got here, I was incredibly self conscious.  I was used to being the tall one, but in Korea, at least among women, I was the Amazonian woman.  I was also super fat for Korea.  Store owners would take clothes away from me before I could try them on because I was going to ‘stretch’ them.  Even my tiny…smaller-than-you-could-imagine-for-my-height feet were an anomaly.  My feet are extremely narrow, and Korean feet tend to be wider, so even shoes that fit length-wise would often be too wide.  I just don’t fit in.  (My often size 0 sister who got inherited the petite genes in the family was told she was ‘plus sized’ in Japan).  And then one day, I walked by a pair of shorts that I wouldn’t have been able to fit my bum into even if I were 110 pounds because my hips bones are just built far too wide …. and then I realized that I was never.going.to.be.’normal’.no.matter.how.much.I.altered.my.appearance.  And that was an incredibly liberating thought:  liberation through acceptance of who I already was.  Obviously I do not have the same employment pressure some Korean women have; although I too need to submit head shots with my CVs, and people are lying to themselves if they think that image and looks (and gender!!!) do not play into student evaluations and administration perceptions of expat staff members.  Perhaps it is easier for me in a way because I am so different.  Perhaps if I had sort of the same bone structure and facial features of K-pop stars I would feel more inclined to do ‘minor tweaks’ (aka major surgery) to chisel down my jaw or reshape my eyes.  But I still hold strongly to the belief that no matter what is responsible for the plastic surgery revolution, sometimes the biggest problem is each individual needs to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery [because] none but ourselves can free our minds.”

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I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about Korean ‘Father School.’

“Traditionally, in the Korean family, the father is very authoritarian,” Joon Cho, a program volunteer, told me a few weeks before this session of Father School began. “They’re not emotionally linked with their children or their wife. They’re either workaholics, or they’re busy enjoying their own hobbies or social activities. Family always comes last.”

In 2000, Father School spread from Korea to the United States, and the program — part 12-step recovery, part Christian ministry — was tailored to meet the needs of Korean immigrant fathers dealing with Americanized kids who wondered why their fathers weren’t more like the touchy-feely dads they watched on TV. Since then, Father School has exploded. It now operates out of 57 American cities and has graduated nearly 200,000 men worldwide.

The article goes on to describe how the program uses group testimonies (of a parenting not religious nature), foot washing, and hugging as ways to break down barriers between men and their wives and children. I’ve never heard of this program here, but as I’m not involved in Protestant churches which seem to be the main groups signing up for such schools, it’s very possible that I’m just not moving in the right circles. I did an English language search and found this more in-depth article from 2009 written by a Korean American.

The men are encouraged to discuss these contrasting representations, but getting stoic Korean men to share their feelings is no easy task. A combination of guest speakers and testimonials by Father School volunteers, who are themselves former students, facilitate this effort. A volunteer at one conference I attended, for example, shared with the audience how, in an overzealous attempt to impart the lesson of poverty and the importance of studying, he once left his son on a street corner in a poor neighborhood and shouted in outrage whether he wanted to end up like the people there. With tears, the guest speaker expressed deep regret recalling the tears that had appeared on his son’s face that day. He realized there is a “better way” to impart lessons to a child.

While sitting at the table of 40-year-old fathers, I heard several men raise a number of issues related to generational conflict with their Americanized children. Many expressed frustration over their children’s disrespect for their authority, with one even revealing that his child called the police to report the dad’s use of physical discipline. As I listened to these men, I, the son of a Korean immigrant, started to recall my own dad’s use of “tools” like a pool stick or the pulling of a cheek to reprimand the two boys in the family. The linkage between Korean fatherhood and physical violence is an unfortunate stereotype, but at the same time, corporal punishment was long considered an acceptable practice in Korean society, whether within the family, school or military.

And yet, as I sat with these older men, I observed an uncommon scene: fathers choked up with tears and regrets about their past behavior. ”For several years, I was against the person my daughter loved and caused her considerable pain,” said Woojin, 57. Other dads confessed it was difficult to imagine their fathering role beyond breadwinning and scolding their children.

In my culture class, we’re in the middle of a module on different parenting practices, and a few weeks ago we looked at the Swedish government’s attempt to not only encourage fathers to take paternity leave, but also penalize families who do not make use of subsidizes for fathers. After discussing the NYT article on the topic, I asked students to discuss various questions pertaining to Korea in small groups such as ‘How often does your family eat together during weekdays?’ or ‘How often do you spend quality time with your father?’ I find that when students talk in small groups, they tend to be more honest than answering my questions directly because they don’t feel like they have to hide Korean social problems in front of the foreign professor. One student told her group that her family hadn’t eaten dinner with her father and mother together in ten years. Even on his days off, her father preferred to sleep, hike, or spend time with his friends rather than eat with his family. Another student said she hung out with her father about once a month despite living in the same house. A third said she rarely saw both parents growing up (she was raised by a family member because her parents both worked), and one of the male class members said that he always felt sad as a child because his father never came to any special events such as graduation. Not a single student agreed with the statement ‘I feel closer to my father than my mother.’ I haven’t talked about this issue directly with students since about 2007 when I taught at an adult hogwan, so initially I was hopeful that this younger generation had had more time with their fathers, but it does not seem to be so.

Back in 2007, I had one of those usual end of the month (end of the session), situations where I was sitting in an empty classroom hoping hoping hoping that I was going to get a 2 hour block no show. Alas, a female university student arrived 5 minutes late out of breath and apologizing for being late…until she looked around the room and realized she was the only one in class. I admit, I was a bit pissed off because I really really really wanted that no show! Not to mention the fact that the student was normally quite quiet and low level, so I really did not relish trying to pry 2 hours of conversation out of her by myself. But then we went to get coffee, started talking about her life…and she let slip that her father was a taxi driver. I say ‘let slip’ because what she was really telling me was that she was lower class, and as the conversation progressed, she admitted that sometimes other people made fun of her because her family didn’t have a lot of money. I told her that my father had been a blue collar worker, and asked her what the benefits were of a taxi driver father. She thought about it for a few minutes and replied that he was home far more than other fathers she knew because he did a lot of driving at night. He and her mother did all their errands together, he was always available to come to school events, they had father-daughter conversations as he drove her to school in the mornings, and he understood her very well because he spent time with his family. I have forgotten a lot of conversations with the thousands of students I have had over the years, but this one line will forever stick out in my mind because it was said with such joy on her face: ‘There is a lot of laughter in my house.’

Having a school for fathers seems a bit silly from a Canadian perspective, but as Koreans have come to rely on ‘academies’ or hogwans for almost everything these days, including how to get a date or how to smile like a flight attendant, and especially since it is hogwans that are actually one of the reasons why families do not have time to spend together, it seems actually pretty reasonable that a hogwan like program could be used as a culturally appropriate way to educate fathers and bring generations together. Confucianism, military culture, and the patriarchy have all contributed to this culture of absent fathers, but the biggest problem is that fathers do not have time, or do not think they need to make time to build a relationship with their children. On one level jung is supposed to be something that holds Koreans together based on their very Koreanness, and in the case of the family based on their blood relationship. However, when it comes to companies, employers recognize that jung does not happen naturally, but rather has to be cultivated through shared meal time, activities, and bonding time. Father School legitimizes time spent between parents, spouses, and children, as well as provides a safe place to share feelings which family members have not been able to share simply because they have not made the time and space to share in their own homes. It would be interesting to know if many non-Christian groups have Father Schools because I think this format also makes more sense from a Protestant sense by using public testimonies, utilizing cell group style structure, and emphasizing confession and forgiveness.  It would be interesting to see how a Buddhist, strictly Confucian, or avowedly secular group approached such issues.

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