One of the privileges and burdens of being a teacher, I think, is that you stand at the frontlines against the fight of racism, misappropriation of culture and ideas, and parroted stupidity.
A good teacher, I think, encourages students to air their opinions in the classroom (in this case, usually parroted opinions from their parents), and gently applies logic and ethics to the crazy crap that sometimes surfaces. Honesty, humor, and empathy I think are the tools teachers need to use.
This post is about the humor of it all.
*Let me preface this by saying: I think every human is a little racist as heart. That is not an excuse for hurtful words or behavior, but an acknowledgement that we are all fallen, broken people and we all need one another’s help unpacking our baggage.*
*Let me also preface this by saying: This isn’t to make generalizations about Korean children (that would be a little racist in and of itself). They’re great, hardworking, enthusiastic kids, and I love them to pieces.*
So, without further ado, a conversation I had today in my classroom:
“Where is the Taj Mahal, students?”
“Teacher! Indian people….they uh, they uh…hands….dirty.” And my student proceeded to mimic wiping their hindquarters with their hands.
“Um, no, Indian people wash their hands,” I assured.
“No, Teacher. Indian culture,” another blurted.
Ah, another one of these moments, I realized. And we only had eight minutes before the bell rang. “I have Indian friends who wash their hands. They are very clean,” I said firmly.
“Some Indian people are dirty, just like some Korean people are dirty. Some Indian people are clean, just like some Korean people are clean.”
Half the class stared, completely lost. The other half seemed to accept what I had to say.
“Now, let’s look at the continents.” We turned the page in the textbook. “What’s the biggest continent in the world?”
“Asia!” they happily chorused.
“Oh, Korea is so small!” a girl on the front row exclaimed sadly.
The girls murmured amongst themselves, hastily comparing sizes.
“It’s okay,” I said. “a country doesn’t have to be big to be powerful.” I thought for a moment about the British Empire (on which the sun never set), then decided that was far beyond their level of English.
“Strong?” They looked up at me, puzzled.
“Yes, very strong. I think Korea is strong.” I flexed my arm muscles.
“Ah, yes.” A girl on the back row grinned. “America is strong, too.” She flashed two thumbs up at me.
I laughed and nodded at the compliment. “The United States is strong, too.”
“Strong….whole world,” she tried to say.
“Yes, the United States is a strong country,” I compromised.
“But you like Korea?” another student prompted.
“Of course I do,” I immediately said.
“But…China bad.” Two thumbs down from another student.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t think China is bad. I like China.”
“But you like Korea more,” the girl on the back row said.
I picked my words carefully. “I like most people in the world: American, Chinese, and Korean.” They clapped, happy with my answer.
“Teacher, what do you think of North Korea?”
“Well,” I hedged, trying to think of the simplest answer in all of this conversation about stereotypes, bias, and culture differences. “I think North Korean people are good.”
They stared at me, waiting for more.
“Korean government, not so good.”
They clapped, grins spreading across their faces.
“Kim Jung Un very bad man!” a quiet student exclaimed.
“Um, yes. Kim Jung Un is bad. Government is bad.”
And they grinned at one another, pleased that I had given the correct answer.
“All around the world there are many good people but many bad governments,” I tried to explain, but they weren’t really having it.
“And Japan?” another student asked. “What do you think about Japan?”
This was trickier. Many Koreans have a distinctly negative view of Japan because of a long, dark history. Japan invaded Korea multiple times (the most notable in 1592 during the Imjin Wars and in again in 1905) and during WWII had very brutal policies. Still, many young Koreans are fascinated by Tokyo today and want to visit.
“Well, I like Japanese people,” I began.
“Oh, Teacher.” Several gave me skeptical looks.
“Japan very….” One girl’s English failed her, and she pounded her fists against an imaginary opponent.
“Yes, sometimes governments do very bad things.” I nodded.
The class enthusiastically nodded. “Like Japan!”
“Well, every country does good things and bad things. Japan did bad things against Korea,” I admitted, “But America did some bad things, too. We bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We were fighting, but a lot of women and children died from the bombs. Many Japanese people are still sad about that. Many American people are sad about it, too. It was a very bad time in the world–”
“Yes, Japanese government bad.”
“Dokdo, Teacher! Dokdo!”
*Side note: Only Korean people care about Dokdo, a tiny string of rocky islands between Korea and Japan. It’s a matter of national pride that Korea claims it as their own. No one else cares, not even the Japanese. Korean students this year are being fed a lot of propaganda about how important it is and how the rest of the world cares about the claim.*
“But sometimes countries do good things! And many, many times people do good things. Like the Olympics!” I tried to put a positive spin on things as we wrapped up the lesson. “Japanese people in Olympics:good!” I gave a thumb’s up. “American people in Olympics: good! Chinese people in Olympics: good! Korean people in Olympics: good!”
“Oh, yes, Teacher!” they agreed.
“But North Korea?” another girl insisted.
“Well…not North Korea. Not many North Koreans will be at the Olympics,” I said.
“Yes, yes,” the agreed.
“Kim Jung Un….pig!” The same girl in the back blurted, quite proud of her English skills.
I laughed, also impressed with how well they’d expressed themselves. “Yes, he looks kinda funny.”
The bell rang, and our conversation was over.
And that was pretty much that. Sometimes these conversations are so surreal I can’t help but laugh and shake my head.