“Hakwon Teachers”

In a recent post, I made a disparaging comment about being talked to like some hakwon teacher:

And it’s even worse when it’s nine at night and a couple of people come in wanting to sample the beer, just see what it’s like, and they’ve clearly just eaten dinner and tell you so, and you say, with the smarmiest look possible, “Well, I don’t sell draft beer without anju,” as if you’re talking to some hakwon teacher or something, and to top it all off, the anju on your menu is a ridiculously overpriced joke — even moreso than the regular overpricing of mediocre-to-bad food that anju often is, and even more unappretizing…

That’s wrong. Hakwon teachers aren’t, as a class, a lower order of life, nor do they deserve to be treated with disrespect. Some hakwon teachers are fine people, and some are losers.

If it helps at all, it’s just that the 21-year-olds who I never see except in a drunken state of some kind, and often talking loudly about the bodies of young women passing by (as if nobody in Korea speaks English, least of all young women)… those are the idiots who stick out in one’s memory so much more vividly. Or in my memory, anyway.

But hell, I have friends who teach in hakwons. Anyone who speaks to them as if they were second class citizens would piss me off to no small degree.

And what’s ironic is, I have one hakwon-teaching friend who’s likelier to be treated with respect than I am, on any given meetup: he dresses up (for work, it’s required) while I usually turn up in jeans and a T-shirt (because, living on campus, I can change out of my work clothes before just about any outing).

If you’re a Westerner in Korea, one little eye-opener is to dress the opposite of usual one day. If you’re usually dressed informally, dress up one day and go out: people will assume you’re a businessperson or a professor. If you’re usually dressed up, then dress down, and people will assume you’re a “lowly” hakwon teacher.

(For those of you playing along outside Korea, hakwons are basically what we know as “cram schools”, very loosely akin to those schools I’ve seen in movies — don’t know if they’re real, we didn’t have any I knew about in Saskatoon — where Chinese-American or Jewish-Canadian kids might have been sent to after school to learn Chinese or Hebrew. [I hear stories about such places — are they still around? Were they common at some point?] Except you can learn cartooning, science, math, Japanese, art, cooking, and all kinds of other stuff at them. But a huge proportion of the hakwon market is English study. And to teach in one, all you really need is a BA in any subject… any subject. And since getting to Korea is so relatively easy, this means a lot of young people coming to teach for a year or two and pay off their student loans; it means a certain number of young men who come to prolong their adolescence, as well… which group I’m quite happy to disparage, as I do anyone who is an adult but refuses to act like one.)

Well, I worked in a university language center for a while, so technically I’m not sure if I’ve ever worked in a “hakwon” the way most people mean — our work involved kids and adults, but only 4 hours of class a day — but I know that for all intents and purposes, I was a hakwon teacher then. And became a professor in a flash (as, with an MA, I was overqualified for the job, in Korean terms). I was the same person before that job change as I was after.

But I apparently am no longer the same person, having absorbed (and grown my own amount of) derision for the hakwon teachers of the world, unfairly. If I’m going to avoid using the word “ajeoshi” and “ajumma” the way Westerners so often do — strictly as a pejorative — then I’m definitely going to avoid using “hakwon teacher” that way too.

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