The State of Co-Worker Relationships in Korea


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It’s Monday, and I show up to my hagwon’s teachers’ room at five-till-one. I look around and notice that two of the Korean teachers’ desks have been cleared out. Did they quit? I’m the only one in there at that point so I can’t ask anyone. I try to remember: Did either of them say anything to me about it last Friday? And then I remember that I did, in fact, talk to them, and we did the usual “Whatcha doin this weekend?” exchange, to which I WOULD expect “I’m quitting,” or something like that, but in fact, I’m fairly certain that ”Oh, nothing special” was the answer that I got.

Nothing special. That’s what the relationship feels like most of the time between the native English speakers and then Korean teachers. Don’t get me wrong: My co-workers are great. I get along with all of them. But there’s still a real level of separation between us. Before I get into it, I realize that some native English speakers really get along with their Korean co-workers and drink makgeolli on a mountain and have kimchi parties and play badu every Tuesday. I just haven’t met any of them.

So why is it so strange/awkward/indifferent between co-workers? I blame the situation on three factors:

1) The nature of hagwons

At 90% (maybe more) of hagwons, the native English speakers and the Korean teachers are fundamentally at different levels. We’re on different pay grades. We’re expected to do less work than the Korean teachers. We’re  given very little actual responsibility. The Korean teachers scramble between classes to make word lists and call parents, while we generally relax and grab our stuff for the next class.

You see the gap in the respect from the kids as well. They spend half my class trying to sneak-study for one of the Korean teachers’ tests, while they couldn’t care less what the foreigner at the front of the room is talking at (not talking to) them about.

The one-year contract is also part of the problem. It’s a unique situation when you can look at your job and your life and say “in one year, this will end and I’ll be doing something else.” You could dive in head first and really get to know everyone at work… or you could just figure that you’ll be gone n a year.

It goes the other way, too. My hagwon is an extreme case, but when I started my contract here in Busan six months ago, there were 7 Korean co-workers. Only two of those seven now remain, six months later. The hagwon is merely a stopgap or something temporary for most. Not a healthy environment to build friendship.

2) The mercenary attitude of the teachers

As English teachers in Korea, we’re mercenaries. We’re there, yes, to learn about another culture and, yes, to educate the children. But we’re also paid a lot, have a high standard of living, and have the opportunity to save money while still travel and live it up. Maybe we try to tell ourselves otherwise, but if it weren’t so lucrative, we wouldn’t be here.

On the other hand, the Korean teachers make about half of what we do, don’t get housing paid for, and – like I said before – are expected to do most of the work.

We’re also here because it’s something ’exciting’ and ‘different’ to do, as well as to save (somewhat) vast amounts of money, while our Korean co-workers are there… to make a living. Our co-workers listen to us talk about how we’re jetting out to Shanghai for a long weekend this week, and Vietnam a month or so later. Or about how we bought a new camera lens or a Ferarri (um… yeah). Of course there are exceptions and of course I’m exaggerating. But you know what I’m saying, right?

3) The language barrier

I have plenty of friends where English isn’t their first language. With MAYBE one exception, I’ve always been better friends with the ones that can speak better English. If I were making a graph, I’d put “level of friendship” on the y-axis and ”level of English” on the x-axis, and there would be a steadily increasing line with a slope of 1. I realize you can really hit it off with certain people, but it’s hard when you can’t fully express yourself.

An example is my relationship with my Korean co-worker Ann. I’ve always been very cordial with Ann. However, she’s not great at English, and I’m super-duper not great at Korean. Therefore, we exchange hello’s, speak about students (Jun is good! Judy is not good!) and say goodbye’s. Lots of smiles, though. I couldn’t help but view her as a quiet, nice but simple woman. But every time I see her with the students, a whole other side of her personality shows through. She jokes around with them (in Korean, of course), pulls out goofy facial expressions, and just communicates on a whole different level than what I see in the teachers’ room. The Ann teacher that I thought I knew wouldn’t have cracked those jokes and wouldn’t be the center of attention. It just shows how much I don’t know her, and how much I probably won’t get to know her.

These are all barriers that distance ourselves from our co-workers. At the end of the day, like any relationship, it takes work. Question is: how bad do you want it?

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