The Answer, Madam, is Not More English Lessons…

I thought it would be nice if I waited till after Mother’s Day to post this.

While some parents are great, open, progressive, aware, and cool, here’s what it’s (edit: usually) generally like to try to talk to an expatriate Korean parent1 whose kid is showing signs of serious emotional or mental disturbance2:


THE PARENT: “… what do you mean, problems? Do you think… do you think maybe he’s addicted to video games?”

YOU: “Uh… look at your son. He’s rocking back and forth, and his eyes are glowing red, and the electricity is flashing on and off to the beat of his chanting…”

THE PARENT: “I know, but… look at his report card, it’s so good! Maybe he just needs more English lessons.”

YOU: “Okay, but… did you just see his head spin 360° without stopping? Do you think it’s common for kids to be chanting in Latin backwards and puking green pea soup while levitating?”

THE PARENT: “Latin….? Well… my friend said lots of English words come from Latin. Will this help his English, do you think?”

YOU: “…”

Of course, sometimes it’s just the kid scratching little bloody holes into his rash-covered little arms because his “atopy” is pretty much going completely untreated and has been for months on end… Because why try address the symptoms or, you know, do anything when you can just shout, “Stop scratching your arms and do your homework!


1. Parents-in-denial regarding serious mental health problems isn’t uniquely Korean, but Korea’s taboos regarding mental heath care, and Korea’s still-growing system for providing it, make it much more culturally acceptable (or even necessary, one might argue) among South Korean parents to be deeply in denial than in Canada or the USA. Things are much worse for Korean kids living abroad, who have zero access to any kind of treatment or support system. 

2. We’re not experts. You don’t need to be, to notice when a kid has severe issues. The parents of kids with anxiety issues–say, those exhibiting selective mutism–seem to be slightly more aware that there’s a problem (I suppose because the problem is hard to ignore), even if they don’t know what to do and often pursue the worst possible solution–like more English lessons, or speech therapy, which fail to address the underlying anxiety. But in general at least they seem to tend to be trying to find a way of dealing with it, and honest with themselves about the existence of a problem. One mom we know is really great, and struggling, and our hearts go out to her for all the efforts she is making. She gets that stuff like this–issues kids have–can be talked about without judgment or shame or ridicule. 

On the other hand, it’s the parents of kids who are, say, obsessed with death (especially fantasies about everyone around them dying), or who look at everyone they meet with a threatening, hateful look, who are most in denial. I mean, yes, there’ a subjective element, but it’s also shades of We Need to Talk About Kevin, at times. The parents of these kids rarely can see past the report card to the fact that it’s not normal to talk about death all the time, or for a kid to cheer when he hears that more than two hundred teenagers died in the Sewol Ferry Disaster… or to salivate at the news that global warming could indirectly kill millions of people… or to give such a terrifyingly baleful glare on first meeting that one of us says, “That boy is not having lessons in our house.” (By the way, I truly wish I was making even one of these examples up.)

Oh, and yes, the rare scary kids are usually boys, I’m sorry to say. The really messed-up girls tend toward anxiety disorders that looks like extreme shyness, or extreme social awkwardness. They’re sort of wallflowers turned up to 11, whilst the problem boys we’ve met several boys, inspire speculation about shining future in crime, mass murder, or genocide. Actually, the only girl who has succeeded in scaring us, only managed to do so because she was tiny, cute, and had way too much energy for us to handle. (Adults, of course, are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.)

2 thoughts on “The Answer, Madam, is Not More English Lessons…

  1. Whelp. To be honest Gord sometimes I think you overstate your case, or at least you have spent too much time dealing with the upper and managerial classes of Korean society. My students get to play outside, go camping, and fishing, etc. – but they’ve been either the rural or urban poor and are slowly being shunted aside and left behind by society (well, at least some segments of society would like to leave them behind).

    But then there are those other times, like today, when I learn that one of my most advanced students (a 4th grader, so an ~11 year old) is being pushed to study TOEIC by her mom so as to improve her English, and I can’t even comprehend that. This student speaks English as well as my co-teachers (who all speak quite well). It just boggles my mind.

    1. EDIT: Ah, and rereading the post, I see something interesting: that word usually in the first line. I probably should have put generally, as it’s not a usual occurrence at all. (Like I say, a sizeable minority but of a pretty small sample size.)

      Original Comment: Ha, well, bear in mind, the dialog does exaggerate, for comedic effect. The footnote sadly isn’t exaggerated at all, though of course it also doesn’t represent all the kids we deal with.

      Some of the kids we tutor are great, balanced, and sane, and many other kids are awkward, but in a way that lots of kids anywhere are. (Maybe I just don’t talk about those kids enough?)

      The truly scary or troubled kids… well, they’re obviously a minority, if a surprisingly large one. Maybe not surprisingly large, even: we’re freelance teachers, so we are from the get-go likelier to encounter parents with a heavier investment in supplementary education, and a greater propensity for pushing their kids to study, right? Plus the class issue you mention (and the higher education pressure common in that class), plus the inherent pressures of moving (and living) overseas as a child, and as a family, and as a member of a fairly insular and conservative, conformity-pushing minority (as first-generation Korean expat communities often seem to be), and, well… the education arms race seems to spin out of control, in part because it’s the one thing moms can control and which dads tend not to dare question, either. Plus the moms who resist it (we know a few here) seem to end up being judged or even being somewhat shunned and gossiped about.

      That’s not to say all the moms we deal with are like that. Some are great, open and receptive and understand that concern is not the same as castigation or judgment. I think the cultural taboo on mental illness is probably part of it: I’ve seen a lot of Koreans who had some kind of obvious mental issue or problem–an apparent handicap, clear signs of mental illness, or what seemed like a severe learning disability–whose condition was ignored or glossed over by other Koreans. And craziness in expats seems to get noticed less, too, or written off as culture difference.

      (To be fair, I’ve very occasionally failed to see signs of one or another subtle form of “crazy” in a Korean person that was brutally apparent to Koreans around me. It cuts both ways, I suppose.)

      The playing outside stuff is easier to understand: Saigon’s tropical, it’s hot, and there aren’t a lot of safe places to play in our neighborhood, besides the paved courtyard in our apartment complex. I think rural kids are lucky in that respect everywhere. (But I have no idea where I’d go fishing or camping, if I had kids here.) But I would try find a place, it’s worth noting… and I wouldn’t look upon such outings as a waste of time, either. A scarcity of places to play, and hyperschooling, are exacerbated, though, by culture: Korean kids seem rarely go to one another’s houses to play or hang out, and there’s a big anxiety (rather like the D&D-Satanism panic) over computer/video game addiction, too… plus of course the reality that lots and lots of Koreans seem to default to the idea of staying home all day unless there’s lessons or school on. (I was surprised at how happy all our students were when school started, but everyone–even the happy, balanced kids–seemed to experience it as a relief from the boredom of being trapped at home all day long.)

      For what it’s worth, and with all the caveats above, I’ve met plenty of middle schoolers here who speak better English than most Koreans (no qualifier–better than most Koreans of any age or profession in Korea) being pushed (hard!) to study TOEIC. In fact, that’s one of the top requests we get from moms for male students. Nobody seems to expect us to teach girls TOEIC, but we often get asked to teach TOEIC to boys, and the moms are clearly disappointed–and sometimes even baffled–when we not only tell them we don’t, but explain the various reasons why it’s a bad idea. When we point out that it’s a business English test appropriate to adults, and that kids are better served (and will improve more quickly and more effectively) by reading books they enjoy, the moms often say, “But all the previous [ie. Korean] English tutors said reading fun books is a waste of time!”

      Which is to say, morons in the TEFL industry also have exacerbated all this… preying upon parents whose anxieties about their kids’ education manage to short-circuit their common sense. So many parents have taken our word for it, as if we’re “educational experts” that I shudder to think of what kind of misinformation is out there in terms of kids’ education. Which is to say… there’s the very understandable anxiety of not wanting to screw up your kids, that, combined with insecurity in one’s own knowledge or parenting skills, can lead unhappy places. I imagine the same thing caused millions of North American parents to follow Dr. Spock to the letter decades ago, even when they felt horrible about doing so.

      (At least I can say that, to most moms’ credit, we’ve only had one mother decide after discussion that no, TOEIC was the only way to go… but the idea of having a middle schooler study TOEIC is, in the circle I’m talking about, far from unusual.)

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