One of the more unpleasant subtleties of Korean culture that I have experienced that has been hitting my radar lately has been the difference between what is perceived and what is really happening.
From what I have experienced in Korea, I have noticed that a huge amount of stress is placed on perceptions. This manifests in a variety of complex ways in my life here—both at the school where I work, and in my public life.
In my classroom, a recent development is the appearance of handy notes reminding me to “take care of my students”. These notes are always hand delivered in a timely fashion that is meant to alert me of the fact that a parent of one of the students is currently watching/judging my teaching that is being videoed live over CCTV.
The frustration here is that even if the intention behind the notes is honest—to take care of your students—the delivery of them not only physically interrupts my class, it also distracts from my original purpose in the lesson—which is always to teach and take care of my students. It also implies that because a particular parent is watching my lesson, I should somehow change my normal behavior and pay special attention to their son or daughter and in essence, put on a show for the camera. It is a good thing that the video feed does not include audio, nevermind the fact that most of these parents don’t speak English themselves.
To top it all off, I already know the students whose parents tend to watch my class. I see them when I exit my class and I always make an effort to wave, smile and bow. I guess I shouldn’t be so sensitive to the fact that these parents look past me in the hallways and ignore my smiles as if I am invisible and not one of the people who lovingly cares for and teaches their child.
It is increasingly tough not to take these frustrating situations personally. However, as the subtleties of culture shock so sneakily try to wear down at me, I remember why I am here and who I am. I am not here to change Korea or to bring justice to a broken system.
I am the nurturing, singing, silly Christine/Christmas teacher that looks like an old lady to you because I have naturally curly hair. I am the teacher that would rather make you laugh than make you stay perfectly seated in your chair. I am the teacher that will hold your hand when you are crying and who would gladly skip down the hall with you any day. I am the teacher who sees how unfair it is that you are so stressed out at 7 years old and who will try to balance the work we need to do with as much play as I can muster out of our time together. I am a teacher who loves my students and no matter the perception of the onlookers, the reality is that I do take care of my students.