Looking back on most of my blog entries, I realize that I rarely write explicitly about my cultural experience in relation to teaching Korean teachers. It may be because I’ve been here for a while, and I take our cultural roles for granted. Maybe I’ve become so comfortable with “the Korean way” that I have forgotten a bit of what “the Canadian way” used to mean for me. I tale for granted the little details about what it means to teach in Korea.
However, after having spent last night with my Korean family-in-law — it was my husband’s uncle’s 70th birthday (cultural-linguistic note: my adopted “Korean way” is now naturally prompting me to say “our uncle”.) – I remembered what makes many interactions in Korea so specifically Korean; it’s their need to try to make everyone feel comfortable in a social situation. Of course this will vary from group to group, but in my experience when it comes to hanging out with family or instructing a group of teachers, the moment will run much more smoothly if everyone feels comfortable.
So what does this cultural comfort look like? In Korea it’s all about knowing your position in a group, and behaving according to the rules if that position. I have to say this is one of the biggest challenges when I’m with a bunch of elder family members. Although they may have thought I was comfortable last night, I was a tad ill at ease. My Canadianess naturally inhibits me to know how I stack up on the totem pole, especially when it comes to Korean table manners. But I digress.
When it comes to meeting people in a closer circle of interest or age, the rules may seem uncomfortable to the unknowing Westerner (linguistic note: in Korea the foreign English teacher’s nationality is quickly replaced by the status of our perceived hemisphere; therefore, we simply become known as Westerner instead of Canadian or Australian.) Questions about age, marital status, and your personal experience of Korean culture can come within the hour of your first meeting. I know the Canadian in me used to be shocked by the seemingly personal invasion.
This kind of probing doesn’t stop in my classroom. Within the first week the teachers find out if I’m married. Then they ask if my husband is Korean. When I say yes, there is a hush over the crowd. They quickly want to know how we met. I must admit that my “love story” gets better with each semester. Each semester it is dubbed as our “love story”. Throughout the next five months, similar questions persist, but they usually connect to my experiences in Korea and Canada. I hardly bat an eyelid to these kind of questions anymore.
Most of my colleagues follow the same disclosure rules. They have lived in Korea for much longer than me, and probably have also realized that this is one of the ways we can create a comfortable atmosphere in our classrooms. By accepting the questions instead of opposing them, we become part of their way of doing. This is how we have adapted to the “Korean way”.
I have heard of “Western” teachers refusing to talk about their personal lives. They exclaim that it isn’t professional. They say students/trainees don’t need to know this kind of information since they are here to learn, and not to become friends. I don’t connect with this reasoning. However, I also realize that some Korean teachers are not ready to hear about the “unique” lifestyles of their Western colleagues. For this reason I can understand their need to protect their privacy. Maybe part of cultural dance is knowing what to disclose and how to disclose it.
I don’t share my stories to become friends, although I welcome such an evolution in our relationship. I have become close with many of my past trainees, would feel sad to miss out on such connections.
From my perspective, by refusing to open up about myself, trainees will feel less inclined to do the same. I know how important this kind of connection is when it comes to learning in general, but more specifically when it comes to learning language. When we communicate, we express who we are and what is important to us. If we feel that we aren’t among instructors that can take gentle care of our story, then we clam up. We feel more apt to learn and share when we feel that we are in a safe environment.
Within each culture the boundaries of safety and comfort will vary. I doubt Canadian teachers would feel the need to know about my “love story” in order to learn something from my classroom. When I juxtapose my experience with training teachers in Korea, to my own experience in teacher training at SIT, I shudder at the thought of asking for such information from my professors. I can just imagine myself asking Pat Moran during Approaches to Teaching Second Languages, “So Pat, how did you and the Mrs. Moran meet?” Not cool.
But we aren’t in the same context. The teachers I teach value this kind of information because it helps them connect to me on an intimate level. When they come to our program, they feel extremely vulnerable. They have huge doubts about their language ability and how that reflects on their ability to teach English. They lack confidence, and I believe it is my job to do what I can to connect with their fears in order to improve their confidence. When I see and empathize with their fears, they learn that it’s okay to expose them because they are in a safe environment. Sharing tidbits about myself is part of this process, because that’s part of the “Korean way”. It offers them some familiarity in an environment that can feel so foreign.
There are other ways that I work with the concept of safety and comfort in the classroom, but I’ll save that for another posting. For the moment I have explored this cultural reflection to the fullest. I now leave the debate up to you:
What are your boundaries of personal disclosure in Korea? Why do you, or don’t you expose your personal life to your students/trainees/participants? How have you learned to disclose your personal stories to your Korean students/trainees/participants?