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Unequal Treatment: Is it Such a Bad Thing?

January 4, 2009

Do You Want to Be Treated Differently or the Same?

A common complaint I hear among foreign teachers in Korea is that they aren’t treated like their Korean counterparts. Some equate this to a lack of respect. Others think that we’re just an afterthought. Still others say it is outright racism. Whatever reason is attributed, it is a source of much angst in the foreign teacher population of Korea.

The problem is partly in the way we think. Most foreign teachers want to be treated like a Korean when it benefits them, and treated like a foreigner either when it doesn’t, or requires something it wouldn’t require in their own culture. For example, how many times have you heard teachers complaining about not being treated like Koreans, then heard those same foreigners refusing to sit in their office when there aren’t any more classes to teach? Guess what? Korean teachers do that. If their classes finish at 3pm and quitting time is 5pm, they prep. If there’s no prep, they read or sleep at their desks until it is time to go home. Most Westerners find that being required to stay at work when there is no work to do is ridiculous; they see no logic to it.

If you want to be treated like a Korean, you need to act like a Korean. I’m going to provide you a list of things you need to do in order to act like a Korean in the workplace, listed in categories of ascending difficulty.


  • You need to consider yourself to be at the beck and call of your boss during regular working hours. This means that if there is no work to do, you hang around, in case your boss decides they need something from you. After all, you’re being paid to be there.
  • Following from the above, if your employer needs help with something outside your stated or primary duties, you do it. If the boss wants you to stay late to help move around the office furniture, you do so. If you have plans, you cancel them. Do you think it is in a hagwon secretary’s contract to clean the new foreign teacher’s apartment before he or she moves in? Hell, no! But the secretary does it without complaint.
  • Similar to the last point, you consider social activities related to work to be more important than your own social plans. If your boss walks up to you and says “We’re going to have a dinner meeting tonight,” and you had a date, you break the date, because work comes first.

You may be thinking “Those aren’t easy!” Well, everything is relative. Let’s look at the next category.


  • You need to understand Korean social cues so that you know when students are treating you disrespectfully, or just not quite respectfully enough, and what to do about it. You need to learn how to recognize when not just a student’s words are disrespectful, but his/her questions, level of familiarity, form of address, tone, or posture is disrespectful (that’s right! Posture can be disrespectful).
  • You need to know how to handle classroom discipline without asking for help, in such a way that your students respect your authority. You need to know how to appropriately exert that authority.
  • You need to learn Korean. This will let you know just how much information is being passed around so that you have information at the same time as the other teachers, without someone having to make an effort to inform you. This will also help you understand relationships between various Koreans which you will be unaware of if you don’t speak Korean.

For those of you who think “You need to learn Korean” should be in the HARD category, I submit that there is nothing in the hard category that can be learned in a textbook or by rote.


  • You need to understand Korean social cues and contextual communication so that you know when the boss (or a coworker) is saying something more than he or she is verbalizing.
  • You need to learn how to handle and resolve conflict like a Korean. You need to learn when to ask permission and when to beg forgiveness. You need to learn when to verbally agree, yet do the opposite of what you’ve agreed to do. You must develop a sense of which battles to pick.

All the things in EASY are attitudes and perspectives. All the things in MEDIUM and HARD are skills. Changing attitudes (if motivated to do so) are easier than developing new skills, in my opinion.

What’s the upshot of all this? Stop feeling hurt, rejected, or excluded because you’re being treated differently, then refuse to do what all the other (Korean) teachers do, whether what they are doing agrees with your internal logic or not. If you want to be treated the same, try to act the same. If you’re fine with being treated differently, then this essay isn’t directed toward you.

I’m not suggesting that anyone actually needs to do any of the things on the list in this essay. I’m simply suggesting that foreign teachers who feel hurt because they are treated differently need to understand that it is because they actually ARE different, not just in looks, but in attitudes and cultural knowledge and skills. Accepting this reality will go a long way toward helping you adjust to a more stress-free life in Korea. For example:

  • Your boss informs you yet again “We’re having a dinner meeting after work,” but work ends in an hour and you have plans. Having things dropped on you at the last minute bothers you, but a) its done to all the Koreans, b) your boss lets you go home when you’re done teaching, even though your contract requires another two hours of work, and c) you can skip it and while the boss won’t like it, it won’t ruin your standing in the social hierarchy. You remind yourself of a, b, and c, and then you aren’t so aggravated.
  • Your boss makes you stay at work when you aren’t teaching. You have nothing to do for two hours. But then you shake off the Western mentality of “if there’s nothing to do, why do I have to stay here?” and you start to think of yourself as being paid to be “on call” for those two hours (which you are). You also realize that you did agree to stay there for that time when you agreed to work from 9 to 5 or whatever your hours are, and the boss is not unreasonable in having an expectation that you’ll do what you said you’d do. Further, you come to understand that the boss is basically paying you to read, do a crossword puzzle, or watch a movie on your iPod.
  • Your boss asks you to help carry items to the new school they are opening down the street. This definitely isn’t in your contract. But then you remember the half dozen times he’s bought you dinner at either a dinner meeting or just you and he going out, and you realize that this would really help him out, and that all the other teachers are helping too, and it isn’t such a big deal.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    January 9, 2009 4:29 am

    Very interesting weblog. I read through most of your essays/entries and find that there are very valid points and interesting insights. The perspective is also interesting in its mostly neutral tone (not to be confused with objective). I have been married to a Korean woman for 11 years. We met in Korea when I lived and worked there and now reside in Canada. We have 2 children.

    I am a westerner and she is Korean. We have both had to understand each others culture and norms. I had to do this more intensively when we lived in Korea and she since we moved to Canada. You make a very valid point about westerners in Korea wanting items from both menus (Korean treatement and Foreigner treatement) according to when it works for them. This comes mostly from ignorance (of the other culture) a focus on indivual needs and sometimes immaturity (which leads to immature responses in the face of differences).

    I do not think one needs to behave like a Korean person in the workplace however. One simply needs to understand the customs and culture that dicates how work is regulated in Korea and then act in a way that flows with said norms and customs. For example, not many westerners understand the concept of ‘face’ and how it relates to the chain of authority in the workplace. This often leads to tensions with managment and co-workers because of simple ignorance on the part of the westerner. The simplest example that comes to mind is a staff meeting where a westerner, unhappy with something the employer is discussing (or for some other reason) voices his/her displeasure in the meeting and confronts his employer. This is a gigantic faux pas and a sure fire way to create unecessary tensions. Simply understanding face would have allowed the same foreigner (already seen as an outsider by some co-workers) to wait until the meeting was over, schedule a private meeting with his employer and discuss the matter one-on-one where no one can really lose face. This would not be behaving like a Korean in my view but rather understanding the way things work.

    Just my input here and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on a topic I find fascinating in many respects.

    As an aside, you do not need a PhD to be a consultant in cultural exchanges and consultant. What you need is knowledge of a culture or two and experience. I say this because I work as a consultant in the cultural field. I have been doing so since 1998.

    • tonyhellmann permalink*
      January 9, 2009 4:41 am

      Thanks for your compliments. Yeah, none of us can really be objective without strict scientific controls, so neutral is the best I can manage.

      When I said “If you want to be treated like a Korean, you need to act like a Korean. I’m going to provide you a list of things you need to do in order to act like a Korean in the workplace, listed in categories of ascending difficulty,” I didn’t actually mean that one should attempt to act like a Korean in the workplace. I was attempting to show why it is virtually impossible to do so, so that those who complain about not being treated like a Korean would see why they aren’t (and then maybe stop being angry about it).

      I don’t want the Ph.D. so that I can have alphabet soup after my name. I want it for the knowledge I’ll obtain while getting it. If I could get a Ph.D. in anything I’d get a dual one in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Korean Studies. That aint gonna happen, so I’ll have to settle for Korean Studies and do my research in HR/Organizational Psych issues as they relate to Koreans.

  2. Jeff permalink
    January 9, 2009 4:45 am

    If I may ask, where will you do this Korean Studies PhD?

    As someone who works in cross-cultural training it would be interesting to know.

    As for your response, I see what you mean about the impossibility of acting like a Korean at work. I guess I missed that in my initial response.

    Extremely interesting writings nonetheless sir.

  3. Jeff permalink
    January 9, 2009 4:47 am

    Oh and I am by no means a neutral observer of Korean culture! I am in fact a passionate one with a large bias towards it due to my very strong ties to my in-laws in Korea.

  4. tonyhellmann permalink*
    January 9, 2009 4:55 am

    I haven’t scouted schools yet. I really need to get fluent in Korean first, and that will take a year of full time study. A Ph.D. is a couple years down the road for me, at least.

  5. Jeff permalink
    January 9, 2009 5:39 am

    That makes complete sense.

    It took me about 3 years to be completely fluent in Korean. I did not however have the luxury of studying Korean full time for a year!

    I took courses while working on my M.A. and working full time with a wife and family. My wife was a big help of course.

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