I wasn’t the sexualized Western female, the fat American, the junior coworker.
is not the first white teacher to address Koreans and their mean stereotypes, but white people do love two things: playing cultural anthropologists and being foreign
, and her memoir is exemplary at both. What’s better than dressing up as your favorite women of color than actually pretending to be a minority in a safe place and getting paid for it?
Shaw’s memoir begins, in typical fashion, with the recognition that Korean men, no matter how nice they attempt to be, are just awful. Sorry, Korean guys, but this white feminist has got your number.
KEVIN, my Korean co-teacher, had an idea for our open class. “Let’s make a motivational video,” he suggested. “I’ll ask, ‘Would you like some more?’ you’ll say, ‘Yes, please,’ and after we repeat this a couple times, you’ll stuff your shirt with balloons. When you stand up to clear your tray, you’ll look really fat!”
“Really, Kevin? I have to be the fat foreigner?”
“It would be so funny,” he assured me, “and it would make the students more interested in the lesson.”
I sighed. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of humiliating myself in front of all my students and the classroom evaluators by acting as the stereotypical fat Westerner, but I wasn’t opposed to the idea either. It certainly wasn’t politically correct, and I would never think to create a “humorous” video like this in the United States. But I wasn’t in the United States; I was in Korea, and after several months living as an expat and teaching English in Seoul, I knew that the image of “fat people” made Koreans of all ages burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter.
Fucking Koreans, right?! I mean, Shaw knew how much they love to laugh at fat people, but there she was actually observing Koreans laughing at fat people. How did this happen? Not privilege, certainly. Except, she was going to have to be that fat person and that wasn’t comfortable. Instead of telling her co-teacher, “Kevin, I’m not dressing up in balloons to be a person everyone will laugh at because I think it’s demeaning and weird,” Sarah put on the fat-suit made of balloons anyway. After all, these teachers, these students, these people, her neighbors, all Koreans, are just part of her experiment in playing with others’ cultures.
This story is the introduction to Shaw’s essay about being foreign in Korea Apparently, two things must be included in every white narrative about life in Korea: in spite of great jobs, safe social lives, impressive health care, and a large community of foreigners in a country where an English speaker with absolutely no knowledge of the native language can get around with relatively few difficulties, authors must illustrate how humiliating it is to be a white minority and how ignorant Koreans can be.
Notice how, even though Shaw participated in the stupid project rather than creating a better one of her own, she conveniently gives herself a Get-Out-of-a-Moral-Dilemma-Free pass because “I wasn’t in the US, I was in Korea” and she just wanted to make the kids laugh, even if it was at fat people. Sounds like a wonderful teaching moment, right? Not for this teacher. Hell no. She was just a powerless foreign woman who Kevin Teacher was masterfully dominating, though he clearly had no clue about it.
We should keep track of the tourist teacher clichés in this post. We have three here. One, Koreans are mindless bigots. Two, Korean sense of humor is just crude slapstick like laughing at fat people and farts and no one in the world has ever seen other people laugh at this shit. Three, Korean men are naive sexists. With only the introduction to her foreigner memoir out of the way, Sarah Shaw is really taking it to Korean culture.
Republic of Korea 0 : 3 Sarah Shaw
After studying in Seoul as an exchange student in 2009, I returned to teach English at a public school in 2011. I was placed at a low-income elementary school located in northeast Seoul, where half of the students’ families were receiving welfare checks from the government, and I was paired with Kevin, a 40-year-old devout Christian, married with two children. Kevin was raised in the mountainous countryside and spent his youth studying diligently in order to gain acceptance at a prestigious university in Seoul. Because of his humble background, good sense of humor, and years of experience working with children, Kevin could easily connect with our 12-year-old students. We’d teach together Monday through Friday for 22 hours a week, and we’d often role play. In one instance I asked, “What are you doing?” and Kevin immediately squatted down, contorted his face, and responded, “I’m pooping!” indulging in a classic form of Korean slapstick humor. The boys burst into fits of giggles, while most of the girls wrinkled their noses in disgust. I laughed, and thought, This man is having more fun than the kids.
This is going nowhere good is it. Shaw is scoring high cliché points, though, and completely shutting the actual Korea and its culture out. In one paragraph, she professionally emasculates Kevin. Sure, Shaw admits that he makes her feel comfortable, but it’s clear he’d be offended and embarrassed by her ridiculous representation of him as obeisant to Christianity and Acceptance. In one sentence, she wonders at his years of dedication as a student to achieve such humble placement as a teacher in a working class school (another cliché) and, in the next, she infantilizes him by performing being gobsmacked that he could “easily connect with our 12-year-old students.” I could go on, but you get the point, I hope.
Korean men never fare well when white feminists write about them unless they’ve married one or are happily dating one. Then Korean men are great. Typically, though, Korean men are often not only patronized in these discussions but talked about as if they were little boys. Shaw’s essay is not only a harsh generalization, so far relying on stereotypical descriptions, but it has not one citation to back up claims like “I was placed at a low-income elementary school in northeast Seoul, where half of the students’ families were receiving welfare checks from the government… .” White people are really only ever doing good if they’re hanging around with poorer people of color. Moreover, if you had never lived in Seoul, you might think Shaw was stuck out in the dangerous ghettoes in the hinterlands of Seoul, out “northeast”. However, the truth is that she was teaching in an area where thousands of foreign teachers live.
What Shaw needs is an editor with a fucking stick standing behind her to punish her for each generalization, hyperbole, and bullshit claim she makes. Is this a memoir meant to explain what life is like in Seoul as a foreign teacher or is it an attempt to settle a score? I think the latter because Shaw has scored often in only several paragraphs.
Republic of Korea 0 : 6 Sarah Shaw
From the first day in the classroom, Kevin made me feel comfortable. We would have contests where the students would write the days of the week in English and I would have to write them in Korean. He would give extra attention to the low-level students to encourage them to enjoy studying English, and I would laugh when he would enthusiastically respond to things that I found quite normal, such as glimpsing a screen full of women in bikinis when he googled the word “hot” for our lesson about temperature.
Because of our extroverted natures, Kevin and I were able to chat freely, but as an older man in an ageist society, he could also be quite stubborn and controlling. On Thanksgiving, we argued for 15 minutes in front of the class after he thought my explanation of American Thanksgiving was wrong. Another time, in Korean, he jokingly told the class I had failed my required drug test. “Kevin, that didn’t happen!” I retorted, “They’ll tell their parents!” He was shocked that I’d understood.
You’d think with that first sentence, Shaw was going to give Kevin a little credit. Right? Nope. She’s merely setting Kevin up again. Though he really loves his students, he’s just a little boy who gets shy seeing women in bikinis. Though extroverted—whatever that means because Shaw never explains a fucking thing—Kevin took advantage of her open nature and told the kids she was a drug addict. Here we have clichés #7 and #8: all Koreans think foreigners are drug addicts and Koreans don’t think foreigners can understand them. We have no reason not to believe Kevin Teacher said this to some of the students, though it’s strange for an elementary teacher to talk this way to the kids. What’s missing is any sort of attempt to place the accusation in context. All we get is a description of the claim itself. Shaw simply cannot or is willfully refusing to describe anything with detail. And somebody needs to teach her that this makes an author appear to be disingenuous at best, a liar at worst.
Republic of Korea 0 : 8 Sarah Shaw
As I hope I’m making clear, Shaw is not interested in offering a complex narrative for her memoir. She’s posing as a thoughtful writer to tell on Kevin who would be horrified if he knew she wrote this. After all, her photo is on the site, her full name on the memoir, she’s already commenting on it from her Facebook account. And so, everyone will know who Kevin Teacher is whether or not “Kevin” is his actual name. Shaw notes:
When we embarked on a staff hiking trip, [Kevin] had me pose next to a sign that said “Danger! High Voltage! Do not climb!” It was all in good humor and he wasn’t intending to offend me, but I felt embarrassed to be used as the punchline of his “stupid foreigner” jokes.
The paragraph above offers a skeleton for a Shaw Score Settled Against Koreans. She provides no context whatsoever; the transition into this short paragraph follows her description of times in the classroom; the memoir is putatively about being a foreign teacher in Korea, but Shaw is merely dishing dirt on Kevin Teacher. Here, Kevin makes jokes about a stupid foreigner. And Shaw scores another point, sticking in quotation marks around “stupid foreigner” insinuating Kevin thought she was one—and this comes at an interesting transition in Shaw’s memoir where she will begin to address sex. Shaw implies nobody knows sex and sexual oppression as she does, and this Korean Christian Sexist, Kevin, will not escape criticism. He’s just a naive puritan who fucked with the wrong tourist.
One day, I was reading the book Honolulu, by Alan Brennert, a fictional account of a Korean picture bride’s life in Hawaii in the early 1900s. Kevin noticed the image of the Korean woman on the front cover, wearing an off-the-shoulder top and bowing her head in sorrow. “Why is she wearing such an obscene shirt?” he asked.
I was surprised; I thought the woman looked both beautiful and classy. “I don’t think it’s obscene. Lots of women wear shirts like that in Western countries.”
Shaw knows classy when she sees it and Kevin is too uptight. It’s at this point, when I first read this after Praise showed it to me, that I decided Shaw is pretty much making shit up. She’s not entirely fabricating situations, but she is clearly creating dialogue. To be honest, Kevin might not even exist. If we are to believe Shaw, Kevin is a big tween in teacher’s britches who is devoted to God, leers at her because she is extroverted, and doesn’t understand how classy oppressed-looking, Korean women are on book covers. It’s all rather ludicrous, but she scores points. I’m not going to post more about this section, but it ends with Kevin saying “Divorce? Oh, no.”
Republic of Korea 0 : Sarah Shaw 11
I want to address something that has me annoyed above all else. Shaw would have us believe that not only does she know about and understand Korean language, history, and culture, but that she’s a feminist extrovert who’s comfortable and cool in what can be trying circumstances. Shaw is the all-seeing, all-knowing white expert who, I’m sure she sees nothing wrong with this, is merely contrasting Korean (Kevin is a stand-in for Koreans) conservative views and perceptions of Western women with her objective representation of the reality. SHE is that representation. It’s Sarah v. Kevin. Thus, she is not even remotely objective. But not just that: Shaw is confessing her own conservative views and her perceptions of Korea and Koreans, but without submitting them to any scrutiny at all. It’s the worst kind of writing. If she were my student, I’d refuse to grade her work. Revise and resubmit. What she has done should be unacceptable and for a professional organization to provide her with a soapbox to dish dirt, make accusations, and be what those of us who’ve lived here for a while all consider racist.
At this point, we’re not even halfway through Shaw’s memoir and she has not actually talked about herself at all. I’m going to skip to where she does. Guess who fares well in Shaw’s memoir about being a foreigner? Of course she does.
Like Jess, when I first arrived in Korea in 2009, I spent my exchange semester unaware of the stereotypes that applied to Western females. I too would wear North American-style, sleeveless, low-cut tank tops. Even though I didn’t show the same amount of cleavage as Jess, I didn’t give any thought to the slut factor.
In fact, I wasn’t paying attention to how Korean society perceived me at all, since I had started dating an exchange student from the Netherlands. Although his ethnicity is Korean, he was adopted at birth, so we both were experiencing Korean culture and language for the first time. We were in love, and we certainly weren’t stressing over cultural taboos.
We both lived in the dormitory at our university, which was separated by gender, a stark contrast to my college dorm back in the States, where boys and girls were allowed to room together on specified floors, and a bottomless basket of government-funded NYC condoms were available in the lobby.
Shaw is so enlightened. Once again, Korea is ridiculously stereotyped as an oppressive puritanical society where the US is a fucking paradise. Literally, a fucking paradise, as coed uni dorms offer bottomless baskets of condoms to the students.
Republic of Korea 0 : Sarah Shaw 12
I have to be honest. I have no desire to slut-shame Sarah Shaw. I don’t even want the perception. So, I’m not going to address how she writes about her very short time in Korean university as an exchange student. It’s clear Shaw is proud of her “overt sexuality” whatever that means. As I’ve noted, her memoir is not very detailed. To avoid confusion, I’m simply going to let you check it out for yourselves.
Unfortunately, Shaw doesn’t take too long before bringing Kevin back into the narrative. She has to because he’s a character her narrative depends on. I can’t skip this part. What Shaw does is, in my opinion, unforgiveable. She consistently illustrates herself as open and curious in her discussions with Kevin. I wonder why, then, she consistently punishes him, in this narrative, for being frank and curious with her?
Kevin continued bringing up topics related to sex during our lunch break, and I always chose to respond, curious as to what he would say and, in a way, encouraging him to confront his own stereotypes. He’d talk about how he wanted to watch porn, but couldn’t because he lived with his mother-in-law, or he’d mention how he once stared at two girls in Australia for two minutes who were wearing bikinis and lying on their stomachs, hoping they would turn over.
He mentioned how he used to work at an English education center with several native English teachers, and he would frequently talk about an African-American male colleague who would indulge him in detailed accounts of his sexual escapades with Korean women. When his colleague embarked on “the midnight run,” a term for English teachers who suddenly leave Korea without notifying their employers, they found a library of porn on his office computer.
Shaw continues to dish on Kevin and other men with a story about rainbow parties. I’m not interested in discussing it. What’s the point?
Republic of Korea 0 : Sarah Shaw 13
And again, Shaw quickly scores points making herself Kevin’s teacher:
Although Kevin’s stereotypical comments often frustrated me, with the absence of Western male teachers at our school, I realized that I was probably one of the only people he could talk to about sex. Without realizing it himself, he was living in a sexually oppressive society, mainly because of his status in the church. He once mentioned that he wanted to accompany his colleague to the red-light district in Sydney during a month-long educational fieldwork excursion, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to control himself and remain faithful to his wife. “Religion is essential to preventing us from those things that we desire,” he said. While Kevin proved to be a loyal husband, I began feeling sorry for him. If he had a healthy sexual connection with his wife, he probably would have been discussing these issues with her rather than me.
I think this might be the most offensive paragraph in the narrative. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll find another one. Shaw is not only enlightened, healthily extroverted, educated about the world, but she’s also a sex counselor for Kevin who’s now fully transformed into a one-dimensional masturbating prude who hides in Church from sex and lusts after his foreign co-teacher and sneaks peeks at porn from time to time. In addition, because of Korea, he lacks the ability to properly discuss any of this. This is like a hat-trick of points and high clichés.
Republic of Korea 0 : Sarah Shaw 16
I hope I’m being rather transparent about how full of clichés and empty of meaningful focus and detail Shaw’s memoir about being a foreigner is because I’m finding it hard to re-read this crap and so am going to skip to the end. If you feel like reading it, Shaw continues to discuss sex and sexuality and nosy neighbors and love motels—because Koreans, though prudes, also like to sneak away to have sex. So, that’s good, according to Shaw, but also not good because, unlike Westerners, Koreans are not overt about it, whatever that means.
Republic of Korea 0 : Sarah Shaw 17
I think Shaw is an outright bigot. A high-minded fool. I think she’s a colonialist pig and a patronizing shit. She believes being empowered is being a flirty know-it-all who pretends to be frank without ever being genuine and claims this is empowerment. Did Kevin know he was merely an object of curious observation? I know, now I’m stereotyping. Here’s the deal, I have a lot of writing from Shaw that illustrates my generalization about her. I don’t have the stomach to continue analyzing the final 40% of her work. On the other hand, having read the entire memoir twice, I still know nothing about Kevin. Shaw’s writing about Korea is typical, not because it’s honest, which it is not, but because it serves to merely justify the author’s preconceived notions about Korea, Koreans, their lives and language.
Am I wrong? I’m here.
I have to be honest; there’s a point in time, about 9 months after I got to Korea, where I would’ve written a similar narrative. It took a conscious effort to learn more and engage people close to me to escape from that.
These posts are re-enforcing. I came to Korea from Egypt, where I’d lived for 6 months, and what was my first real step from “home.” I relied on terrible information, like ESL Cafe and random blogs (hadn’t even found the Tumblr yet) for information. And what you read are stereotypes, all from white perspectives. And then you go and try to plug them into your life. It’s constructivism in sociology.
And, honestly, your blog (along with a couple others in Korea) were ones I discovered that challenged me to get out of that bubble. Instead of ESL Cafe and Blog Spots (the WORST) I read books and Tumblrs who I had actually met in real life, and took a significantly more objective approach to their lives. It wasn’t “tee-hee this is my experience in Korea”. It’s here’s what happens in Korea. This shaped my interactions with co-workers, made them significantly more insightful, encouraged me to listen, and made me more well-rounded.