A few reflections on the problem of the expat English teacher in South Korea


I have been reading some things in Ethnic studies on linguistics that use the term Imperialism to apply to cultural shifts that occur in globalization. Generally it seems that the term refers to the limiting of outside groups from global hegemonic core of capital in the Angl0-American world and thus keep those cultural sphere dominant in capital.   This, however, is not so much about primitive accumulation as Marxist use of the term imperialism implies.  Indeed, it’s one of the many times when Ethnic Studies seems to have co-adopted a term from socialist discourse, but to not actually define it in the same way.  In Marxist discourse, this would be understood differently, but we would recognize the problem as one of cultural hegemony and the divided and uneven nature of development.  This I think limits what many of the ethnic studies thinkers could learn from us, and our quibbles with their semantics can keep us from honestly engaging with them and thus learning some real key points.

I am going to give an example of this with what I think is an excellent, if in places slightly problematic, post from a follow expatriate teacher here in Korea who happens to live in the same city I do. I do not know him although I have close friends who do, but I do want to show why the limits of the misunderstanding of the two different definitions of imperialism could keep us from understanding the valid points of the other side:

I believe that the perspective of English teachers in Korea as under-qualified is a fair and valid statement—not about us as individuals (I have met many a foreign English teacher here who is overqualified), but about the way that English education by foreigners is implemented systematically in KoreaFurthermore I do not believe blame solely lies in hagwons or hiring practices, but rather lies in a structure of privilege of which English is just one branch and of which we, as U.S. citizens and English speakers, all certainly benefit from.

First we must admit to ourselves that overall our credentials and training pales in comparison to any Korean-certified teacher (this could even be said when comparing credentialed teachers in America to credentialed teachers in Korea, but that is another discussion). We must admit that our opinions and judgments of the Korea education system are equally unfounded and generally based on a set of limited personal experiences. We must admit that we have no chips on the table, that ultimately it is not our future children who will live, learn, and grow in the Korean education system.

I must deconstruct this to show what I think is vital in the above paragraph:  the first paragraph is fundamentally true, but does not answer what the structure and privileges of which English is just one branch actually emerge from.  Is it merely Anglo-American dominance? Is it a structural relationship of capital that allows chaebols to use English as a way to limit it’s applicant pool and control it’s labor supply’s elasticity? Is it that English is used as a default language in international capital in ways significantly beyond the Anglo-American dominance and prior explicit imperialism (in the Marxist sense of the term) that led to the Angl0 dominance under the development stages of capitalism?  Is it merely racist attitudes among Anglo-Americans? Well, the later is not implied by the we given that the speaker is Anglo only by language, but is an Gyopo. He is being very fair in his inclusivity and calling out what is true in most of his audience.    I have studied the Korean education system in detail, and seen it’s limitations and successes. It’s a mixed bag, but a very successful mixed bag in its own terms delivers test scores at an extremely high cost to all involved (in time for the students, in money for parents and for the Korean tax payer). It also produces some of the best test scores in the OECD, but in a way that does use route learning methods and until the past five years, very old forms of direct physical discipline.  However, the liberalization of the Korean educational apparatus has also been on the Korean teacher’s own initiative and under the pull of Korean parents.  The foreign commentary is entirely irrelevant to this process, so any critique I may have on the Korean system I have gotten from elements within the Korean education system itself. Like most things in capital, it is developmentally divided and uneven.

” We must admit that we have no chips on the table, that ultimately it is not our future children who will live, learn, and grow in the Korean education system.”

Yet in this discourse about neo-imperialism, this seems both obvious and yet  I don’t think it is actually entirely true. Anything that happens in one capitalist country will part of the method of enforcement on other capitalist countries as the US is studying the Korean education system, and I think it is telling that the focus is on the Korean education system as it more effective at population control than the Finnish one, which is the other major contender for the OECD which has a markedly less invasive system with none of the private supplementation of the Korean system. I completely agree that this the author is right about the motives of most of the expat teachers in Korea, although a few of them do have children in the Korean education system, but it is not true that outsiders have “no chips on the table.”  It is the eighth largest economy in the world, and one that has been developing for a long time.  Capital development is no respecter of ethnicities or nation states, and yet this sort of discourse assumes that these are somehow natural categories.

That said, it’s easy to go too far in critiquing someone from using standard categories that would also be assumed by most of the expat teachers who are in the audience. In battles for cultural hegemony, this kind of talk is necessary just so people understand what you are saying.   The people whose live here in ROK should be the ones who determine their own educational system as all cultural “nations” should, even if one should be far more cynical about the national states that “represent” these ethnic communities.   In fact, the Korean education system itself could be seen as a compromise between a native Confucian tradition and a system imposed by the Angl0-American world and the capital it represented: it comes largely out of the context of the cold war. The use of private universities and high debt-load Korean families take on for them can hardly be said to be something that emerged from Korea itself:  the people of Korea value education and will pay for it, but the levels of debt are not something I see many of them wanting.  The number of Chrisitan for-profit universities in Korea should indicate the origins of a lot of this system.

Most of the people who the author is aiming at know nothing of this: it just doesn’t exist in their world.  I could be a privileged shit and just piss on his point because of a technical disagreement, but it would miss the point: he is much more right than wrong, but not trying to get there through historical materialist analysis.  That’s fine: I can pick up on the problems I may find in the framing, but push his point:  many of the reasons why Korea is the way it is has not been the results of native will, but in fact have been imposed upon it for reasons of both economic development and the cold war.


When I first came to Korea, I was shocked by the sheer amount of importance was put on English.   It took me about six months to figure out what the author here was getting at:

In today’s world English functions as a filter. Some of us have access to English fluency as birthright, while others are left struggling in the margins. One need not even look beyond the borders of our country to see how English is a marker for inclusion and exclusion, the haves and have-nots. English means economic opportunity, access to some of the top Universities in the world, political power, not getting stared at while walking down the street, the difference between being labeled as friend or enemy of the state. Simply put, English is access.

English functions in similar ways in Korea as well. Many of my students study English for even more hours than their Korean.  It is rigorously tested on school entrance exams regardless of its relevancy to the field of study. A lack or mastery of English can make a break a student’s academic goals, and it appears this trend will only continue as the Korean University entrance exam expands to include a listening portion.

There are very real economic benefits to speaking English, but we as foreign English teachers experience these benefits in very specific and unique ways. Like it or not, qualified or not, we get jobs, tutoring opportunities, a plane ticket to and from Korea, and shorter work hours with more vacation time than any Korean teacher I’ve heard of. We have the hearts of the Korean people and institutions of power opened to us through homestays and free or discounted language programs. And we have the ability to leave it all when it is no longer meeting our needs and return to a life back home. Our lifestyle is a far cry from the way other immigrants have come to Korea and how Koreans have come to America. Here, more often than not, our pay scales don’t reflect our qualifications or talent, but our privilege. And that money is coming out of Korean pockets to pay for Korean futures.

This is completely correct: last semester I was teaching culinary students English so they could pass an exam to make Korean food.  I didn’t understand: the students were not studying to work internationally.  It was a hoop they had to jump through.  In a Korean context, this is pretty important: the old cultural accumulations of prior capital have been localized.  It is used as a way to control the labor supply and by the government to limit access.  The neo-liberalization of the Korean economy allows much of the prior imperial discourse to be localized and applied as a hammer by Koreans on Koreans.  Most of the American, Canadian, and South African teachers who come to Korea do not realize this. They realize they are getting paid well, although comparable to a teacher in their own countries, but enough to have significant savings. They are also often exploited, but this is must be seen in a relative context.  There are places in which Korean work policies are outright imperialistic themselves in regards to South Asian and Korean Chinese labor, but expat teachers are almost textbook labor aristocracy even compared to much of the entry level within Korea’s native work force.   This is why I am always suspicious of local nationalism as being justified as anti-imperialism:  local nationalism itself can actually take on most of the traits of imperialism in class warfare, just with a local face.  Chaebol society is less brutal than the International corporations in some ways, but only marginally so.

This is not without contradictions though:  just like imperialist attitudes can be used by locals to support certain power structures. Sometimes ‘anti-imperialism” or “anti-racism” from outside the local context can make things worse by enforcing the negative stereotypes and silencing locals. This can actually SLOW the “liberalization’ process significantly by turning people towards more reactionary forms of nationalism in the face of the paternalizing narrative from a lot of outside activists.   Everyone wants to be a human rights lawyer, but this can often provoke reaction.  So the author’s warnings should be taken seriously: locals pay for local programs. They don’t know the privileged outsiders telling them what to do, and even when the outsiders are mostly right (and in this specific case, the outsiders aren’t even often right) it is highly counter-productive to insult locals working in their own way towards similar goals.


Perhaps most importantly, this “why” is the elephant in the room when it comes to discussing Korea’s educational policy shift from foreign English teachers to Korean English teachers. The Korean government’s goals are not to create ethnic purity on the peninsula or to ignore the economic and political impacts of globalization on the Korean people. It is a move to create a relevant teaching force, one that understands the pressures and intricacies of learning English in a Korean context. It is a move to provide a permanent, trained staff that can serve the needs of a population subject to an unjust global language system. It is a move towards self-determination by the Korean people. We as foreign English teachers should support these shifts, learn from them, and take these lessons back home with us. We should listen to understand the context we have been thrown into, not jump to defend our sense of self-worth whenever the system we are working in is criticized. The Korean people deserve this much.

While I do fine some of this a little naive, I have to say, the sentiment that the author is expressing is in the right direction. The educational policy here is shifting for practical reasons: research has shown over and over again that Korean model of importing large amounts of under-qualified native speaking teachers doesn’t work.  There are other less idealistic reasons: the number of students are declining and the educational system isn’t as flush with money. Getting foreign teachers of equal qualification to local Korean ones could be helpful, but it is prohibitively expensive at the best of time because of competing with the most developed economies in the OECD for labor.  The power of Anglo-American capital is waning as frankly the holders of capital are increasingly moving their locus of production to China, India, and other BRICS countries.  It’s not a “racist” conspiracy or even xenophobia moving the policy shifts (although it may be manifested as the later in rhetoric sometimes). It is a simple response to the “material conditions”–the political and economic realities of East Asia right now.  Do I trust the Korean government to fix it?  No.  No more than I trust the American government to fix it’s educational decline or the French government to fix its own.  I do think the Korean people deserve better though, and they will fight for it.  Any outsider who wants to help with that is going to have to meet locals on their  terms with their needs and their history in mind.  It’s only the proper comradely thing to do. It’s what you would demand from “outsiders” helping you.


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