The Curious Case of the 학원 teacher (2012)

I rarely comment on my personal life here or on Korea, as it is my philosophy that 외국인 [(Wae-guk-in), etymologically related and similarly plagued to the Chinese  老外 (laowei), meaning foreigner or outsider. Although Wae-guk-in can be taken to mean any not ethnic Korean] over-explaining Korea and Korean culture can be for deeply suspect reasons (Note: yes, the link under Wae-guk-in both explains this and is an example of why I am hesitant).   Yet dealing in Korean culture can teach on how what someone like Spivek would call the “strategic essentialism” in a post-colonial context backfires.

This brings me to the case of the lowly 학원 (hagwon) teacher and their Korean counterparts.  The Hagwon is an institution often called in English in other parts of English-speaking Asia, the “cram school.”  The Korean variant, though, could be considered an advanced stage of the late capitalist “cram school.”  These schools often attract young, college educated (generally white) Americans, British, and Canadians to come teach for a few years with travel, rent, and decent money.  Yet, they have a reputation for being, sometimes ruthlessly so, of these privileged students which they attract.

This leads to many a blog post and youtube video:

Furthermore this has led to the Korean Hagwon blacklist, as well as condemnations of Korean culture and its perceived ethnic chauvinism.   There are entire blogs devoted almost entirely to the demonization of Hagwon teachers in Korea and their exploitation. My current fiancee is a Hagwon teacher and has had contract issues, she has found herself battling her own reactions to this exploitation.    Yet, I have been struck at how unsystemic a lot of these liberal (and yes, sometimes, accurate) depictions of ethnic nationalism are.

I hear things said like “We are treated like Mexicans here.” (Except, we don’t important Mexicans as knowledge workers to improve the our competitive nature in the global market.)

“This country has a ultra-modern economy with a pre-modern mentality” (Except, the exclusivity of Korean notions of race is actually a modern concept. The term used for Korean ethnic nationalism is 민족, a term of Imperial Japanese origin, which itself was based off of ideas from Germany. The Ethnic chauvinism is not pre-modern, it is entirely modern).

“I am made to feel like a minority here” (Except, you are a minority here, and a relatively privileged one on the that hierarchical totem pole. In fact, many a Foreign Hagwon teacher is actually exploited less than their ethnic Korean counter-part in terms of both hours worked and bits underpaid.)

But this does not make the 학원 teacher any less exploited, but if we look at this with an eye not for the red herring of culture, but as a dialectical and cultural critique of the way both post-colonial capitalism and problematic responses it has engendered.  If one can think dialectically, one can see that Korean nationalism, while rooted in some prior forms of life–both Confucian and Tribal–is a response to particular Imperial conditions, and I mean imperial in the same way that Lenin did not in the looser sense it is used in liberal circles.  I mean Imperialism in the primitive accumulation of capital.  Furthermore, as anyone who looks into diaspora and occupied areas knows, national revolutions are often a means of developing a unified enough front to oppose imperial aggression.

Yet, the exploited 학원 teacher is symptom of larger and larger circles of exploitation that have little, or nothing to do, with traditional Korean culture or Korean nationalism. Indeed, the need for cram schools in the first place is a residual of direct settler colonization of Asian and Englishes place in the global market is based, in no small part, on a mixture of British Imperialism and American political hegemony. Indeed, think of English’s cultural capital, being, in no small way, a sign of the dollar’s actual capital as a reserve currency.

What many a  학원 teacher is reacting is a form of capitalism that has regressed to something that does not have a clear liberal revolutionary core.  It is a capitalism without the velvet gloves that these educated and privileged young adults have been exposed to in the United States, Canada, and Europe. They are also reacting to a indignity of having to deal with something there own privilege has been structural sustained one.   Instead of seeing the contradictions in this position, however, it is easy to run to the old stand-by of culture.

From the Korean 학원 owners, generally a family-owned business in the petite bourgeoisie, they too are in no less a precarious position. In a flooded global market in which they need foreigners who cannot navigate an opaque and who are taking positions in country that as little as 30 years ago received food aid from Ethiopia, they cannot understand the ungratefulness of the wae-guk-in teacher. After all, weren’t these educated young people strategically in need of the job? Why else would they leave their home country?   Perhaps some nefarious purpose?

Furthermore, is not the very fact that Hagwon exists sign that we Koreans want to change? To end our status as the hermit kingdom?  Don’t see you all the English around here?  You’re government used us as pawn in the old war anyway.  

Again, like the 학원 teacher, the 학원 owner is turning to culture to explain a problem that is about global class politics.  The mutual resentment is totally understandable.  But it structurally functions to avoid any real look at class politics here in Korea and the way both the 학원 teacher and the 학원 owner, the “westerner” and the minyok, are both in a situation that is the result of structural contradictions in a capitalist totality.  The logic of that totality is uneven and the differentiated, but this mitigates (if not outright determines) all elements within the structure. The cultural politics and the myth of the pure blood and the exploited minority, in reality, serve the interests of an elite few of whom both parties are a victim.

Ethnic imperialism and strategic essentialism here are means of avoiding the larger problem.  As even class politics is identity politics, it is an identity politics which can be objectively sublated into non-existence as there is no way of falsely constituting  it as hyper-biological.   Only by asking these questions can this relationship change, as long as it is approached purely culturally, as if the foreigner was innately one thing and the Korean innately another, this can’t be approached.  It is of not small consequence that the myth of a racial Korean identity was largely the product of the Axis powers, and it is no small consequences (as Myer’s pointed out in his book the Cleanest Race on North Korea) that this mythology has been used as a means of both control and pseudo-solidarity by military dictators in both North and South Korea in modern times.  It is not small coincidence that it is used by foreign corporations and domestic chaebols  as a means of control. 

If one does not thing dialectical, one can merely invert the values one has been controlled by, but because the lack of dealing with the negation of negation: these values merely legitimate the old forms they were supposed to critique.  They accept the original definitions unreservedly, just invert there supposed value. Korean nationalism is both a response against and a product of Imperialism (Japanese and Euro-American).  The 학원 teacher is a product of and response to the placement of Korea in globalization (making the capitalist totality truly a totality) and resistance to it.

This is why thinking dialectics out is so important, otherwise one can substitute mythic identities as to avoid the pain of larger sublations.


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