Saturday, April 18, 2009

Alienation and the Law

Hi all,

Weird title, neh? I got to thinking this week about something odd, and decided I should bring it up here. So, most everybody who lives in Korea knows about HomePlus, but for those keeping tabs on me back home, it's basically a giant chain of, well, giant retail stores. Think WalMart on steroids, and you'll have a sense for how the place looks. Four or more floors of shopping, all at sometimes annoying prices (peanut butter at 5$ a small jar? Please!).

Anyway, gouging aside, they started a new advertising campaign featuring a rather famous Korean ex-ssireum wrestler. The fellow's on everything from Two-Two-Chicken (KFC, but better, because they have beer), to cell phones, to Home Plus, now.

I was looking at one of the ads, and I suddenly got this weird vibe, as if I was looking at it from outside my own head. Now, before you ask, no, I was not under the influence of anything--I was, in fact, depressingly off of caffeine due to a dentist informing me I couldn't have coffee for a week, until a filling set. The experience was, instead, one where I suddenly wondered what it would be like to be a Korean reading these signs, and seeing them as normal.

What would it be like, to be other than me? To see me as a Korean: I'm a skinny red-head with glasses who likes to jabber away in a Canadian dialect of English at speeds that make jumbo jets look slow. I mean, seriously, have any of us ever considered what it feels like for the other people around us in this country? We probably have, but it's that kind of alienation that made me stop and think.

I am, in this country, the quintessential Other. I have not learned Korean. I am decidedly Caucasian, and pale to boot, at that. I do not fit in--I speak my mind, often, make crude jokes when I'm in a bad mood, and while I respect the importance of being part of a social hierarchy, I tend to get annoyed when it is too rigid to recognize its own failings.

In short, I am a sore thumb, sticking out. I wondered, for a brief moment, what it would be like to be a Korean, living in Korean, and hearing me jabber away in English. I can understand how it feels, sort of--when other people speak Korean near me, I can't understand it, but it sounds like Korean to my ears, now. How might it feel to hear English for someone who is not able to speak or comprehend the language?

Weird thoughts, I know, but something to consider. How much of our language informs our thinking, or shapes what we believe? In English, for example, we place a lot of emphasis, not on class or status as in the Korean language (there are three versions that I know of for asking one's name: Ireumi-myoiyeyo, Ireumi-myoiyo, and Ireumi-Myoiya, in decreasing order of politeness and rank), but on time, and placing things in order as they occurred. Look at some of our stupid grammar tenses: past perfect progressive, or "I had been studying, when I got hit by a car." I mean, honestly, my kids are right to ask "Teacher, WHY?"

It's just a weird thought I had, but something I will undoubtedly ponder for a while. I know I am going to have culture shock when I come back to Canada--I will miss my Kimchi, and my cheap kimbap rolls, and public displays of affection between people of the same gender, and yes, there's a small part of me that will miss Korean illogic, and the hilarity that often ensues. I will miss my students, and I will miss my coworkers, but I wonder above all how much I will miss being the Other, of being able to speak in English and be fairly certain my conversation is private, and of being alone in a sea of people who are different yet similar to myself.

More than I thought I would, I think.


Legality and labor issues have come up a few times lately, both here and on other blogs, as well as facebook.

While I am not directly involved in the issues mentioned on those webpages linked above, nor shall I endeavor to intrude with my own thoughts, it's ironic to note some of my fellow staff and I have been curious about similar legal issues with our own school. We're lucky, in that our Korean staff are courteous, hard-working, and generally up-standing folks. We're lucky, in that our branch manager is not a bad person, and works hard at being good to the foreign staff in spite of the Korean management style.

So, we have not yet run into the issues these two women have, for which we are grateful. No, our concern has been that our Korean coworkers, particularly, the counter staff, have been working themselves nigh unto death on a repeated basis. Naomi, of whom I have spoken before, quit because she was stressed from 70-hour work-weeks. Now, we find out that the majority of the Korean staff do the same, and are not necessarily given time back (vacation hours in exchange for overtime) or paid for those excess hours.

I find it sad to say that I wasn't surprised or shocked by it. I am glad, however, to find that I can still tap a little of my old protestor rage when I hear such things. I am not, though, as unwise as I once was, and I know that I neither know the legal system, here, nor do I speak the language. Therefore, any attempt to protest the issue by myself will likely result in, at best, the attitudes of my employers and possibly my fellow employees, turning sour towards me (read, making my life hell, which is what managers do back home when you stir the pot about bad labor practices), or worse, getting fired.

Similarly, if there is to be change to the Korean labor system, it has to come from within. I am not Korean, and while I could try to challenge some of the unfair practices I see here, it is quite likely I will be dismissed for being A) foreign, and B) not sensitive to Korean culture. We have heard the latter before, and I can understand the concern: I wouldn't want someone from Korea coming to Canada and trying to tell me how my labor system is unfair. It goes back to my earlier point about alienation, but I am acutely aware of how little power I have here.

I did make sure to look up the Korean Labor Standards Act, which goes into some detail on what Korean laborers and managers should and should not do. I get the sense, however, that these rules are consistently broken. Hagwons are, in a way, a bit of a weird case--we're offering a public service, yet we're also a business. The chief employees are foreigners who do not understand Korean, or the Korean legal system. It is therefore sadly common to hear stories of how foreigners get into bad situations. I am wholly sympathetic to those who are good, hard-working teachers, and offer them my support and help, meagre though it may be.

But in terms of changing the system, there isn't much we can do. Canada had almost a hundred years of struggle by labor unions and others, to establish the legal rights we take for granted in the workplace. Korea, I suspect, is only starting this process, and while Korea is likely to be faster at getting the same result given that it is developing so fast, it is nevertheless still early goings yet.

This leads me to make a few modest suggestions, none of which should be construed as legal advice. I know next to nothing about Korean law, and my understanding of Canadian law is not as good as others, because I am not a lawyer. If you do have questions about the law, here, or are thinking of coming but are unsure about this, look up some of the stuff in the Labor Standards Act--it's been updated since the version I posted above. There's also the Korean Labor Board, which admittedly, apparently has little power. Similarly, check out options here and look up the issues on Dave's ESL Cafe. There is information out there, and you should be careful, but understand that the majority of schools are usually run by decent people. There are bad apples out there, but they are thankfully not the rule.

If there is a serious issue, find a Korean lawyer who speaks English, and that you can trust.

As to blogging--you'll notice I've never mentioned my school by name, right? That's another wise thing to do. Future employers do know how to read blogs, and the internet. If I was working in HR, I'd look up a potential applicant on google. I'm on there, as are most people, now. My one serious suggestion is to be careful what you talk about online. If you are going to be critical, or to comment, as I have, here, avoid naming too many names. I have included them where appropriate, but keep it polite, because you never know who might be reading.

I believe the only real advice that I or others can give is just that: to be polite, to be careful, and to use your common sense. Korea and Asia both are beautiful places to live and visit, and have a ton of things to offer expats looking for work. Remember that our conduct reflects not just upon ourselves, but upon our countries and others who come to work here, and that we must therefore exercise our best judgment when problems arise. Hopefully, Korea can be a fun and enlightening work experience for those that come here. If it turns into a challenge, know that you can handle it with common sense, courtesy, and effort. Just be careful, is all.

Keep on Trucking,


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Soccer and Easter

Hi all,

First, for those who celebrate it: Happy Easter! We normally have a family gathering with either Jen or my family, so it feels a bit sad to not be able to do so today. We made up for it, however, by holding a friendly ol' Easter potluck at the house.

After recovering from a bad hangover, we got up on Sunday and puttered about the house for a bit. we went out with a Korean friend of Jennifer's, and I made the mistake of trying to go toe-to-toe with him on drinking. I won't make that mistake again.

We went out to a Bluewings match, which, for the price, is the best show in town. I can't think of any sporting event in Canada or the States which would cost 10$. With beers, it's maybe 15-20, depending on how much one chooses to imbibe. A few people had a lot, especially some of the Ultras in the front.

It was nice to see David again, and Roger, both of whom were former coworkers at our Hagwon, and nice people to boot. The atmosphere at these games is insane: the stadium's not even full, but you can hear the chanting from outside the building!

It was a lot of fun, and definitely worth doing. We also plan to get back to Everland at some point, since Dave is a fan of rollercoasters--and so am I.

Anyway, we then went home to clean the place up and get set for the potluck. Our guests included Dave and Roger, Ashley and Sumi, and Jessica, all either coworkers or former colleagues. A good time, and we were all stuffed: I may have to have Jen roll me to work today.

Happy Easter, indeed.



Monday, April 6, 2009

A Quick Update

(A fun picture of the 'old gang,' Me, Jennifer, Daniel, Oliver, David, Stephanie (taking the picture), Ashley, Sumi, and Sarah)

Hi all,

So, a quick update this week. I know that I'm starting to wear down around the edges--I can kind of feel the cognitive blurring that happens when you get really tired. It'd be an interesting thing to study, were it not happening to me.

What's happening? Not much. We relaxed this weekend, both of us being exhausted, and I still managed to drag myself out of bed at 4 in the morning to Skype home, and play some D&D with some friends by remote conference. It was neat, and, I have to say, pretty amazing to be able to see my friends again, even if only digitally.

Wonders of modern technology, eh?

Speaking of which, I'm taking a TESL Certification course online, at It's pretty good, so far, although I've had some issues with their quiz design (4 adjectives in one sentence, and I have to guess which 2 out of the 4 that the computer will recognize as correct answers, oi).

I'm discovering that I really enjoy teaching ESL, and would love to continue doing it back home--maybe to adults, maybe still to kids. Either way, it's a decent living, and one that I feel good doing--always important.

Anyway, I'm going to grab some coffee and wake myself up--gotta do some grading.

Still hanging in there,