Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mothering or mithering?

I feel it can be a very fine line, whilst a person may intend to be mothering (caring/maternal) they can actually be received as rather mithering.

So far I've been rather fortunate with my co-teachers. I feel I generally have a pretty accepting and patient nature. However, I have a new 5th grade co-teacher, and I'm trying to believe this one means well. But, I feel this could be an ongoing saga with various twists and turns.

My new co-teacher Mrs. Oh (not her real name) is older than me, she is in her 50's (ajumma). "In Korean society, this automatically places me in the position of lower status and importance. A person of lower status is expected to respect and obey, and the person of higher status is supposed to look after and protect. It's part of the Confucian social system, and sometimes it's a bit like taking the parent-child relationship and applying it to the whole of society". Teaching English in Korea.

I'm already finding Mrs. Oh's manner quite, well I'm feeling rather mithered. Unfortunately, this serves to magnify trivial things so they also seem more irritating, such as some of the personal questions the lack of personal space, and the petting. I am tending to hope that we don't cross paths on our way to/from school. On one occasion when did walk and chat, Mrs. Oh asked me about my plans for Chuseok. I told her about all of the things I planned to do with my friends (male and female, she asked me to clarify). 
Mrs. Oh said "Oh, I think you like to live a joyful life".
I smiled and said "I try."
Now this might seem innocuous, but I'm wary that Mrs. Oh processes information differently, Korean's focus on diligence, and her generally judgemental manner concerns me. Something I might say innocently, could be processed very differently in her mind. Sometimes, I actually feel it might be better to reduce our interactions to maintain a pleasant professional working relationship. I do tend to analyse the dynamics of our relationship, including how I might be contributing to it's present state. I believe I'm generally pretty patient and open-minded, and I try to be considerate of our differences. Some days it's easier than others...

I realised our working relationship was going to be slightly fraught, when she was telling me about how Korean students suffer from 'loneliness'. She said "It's a big problem in Korea", (Mental health in Korea). I often don't quite agree with everything she says, usually I just listen while smiling and nodding appropriately. But, I actually found myself wanting to say something like, 'Oh, what you mean is depression'. Simply to observe her reaction to my statement. This is not a good sign. I'm struggling with her blinkered and seemingly judgemental nature. 

Another day, we were sat in the teacher's room, and a younger teacher entered wearing a t-shirt and short denim skirt. Mrs Oh turned to me with a cupped hand over her mouth and said in not so much as a whisper "Look, I don't understand what she's wearing". I looked, and shrugged. I wanted to reason and say that maybe she's doing art and crafts today or something similar, but I refrained from sustaining this uncomfortable conversation. The other teacher was still in the room, and most likely heard Mrs. Oh Although, I'm guessing that was the point.

I'm not sure Mrs. Oh approves of my school attire either. In Korea, you can be viewed as 'racy and unprofessional' if you wear clothing that exposes your shoulders. You also need to be pretty careful with scooped necklines. My school seems to be a little more relaxed than others. I have seen teachers wearing very short skirts, dresses, and denim skirts. I have also seen them wearing vest tops (not thin straps) and sleeveless dresses. They tend to keep a cardigan to hand, but they don't always wear it. And who can blame them when our school limits air-con and fan usage. Having witnessed their attire, I also adopted a slightly more relaxed approach. Over the Summer, I tended to wear sleeveless dresses (not strappy ones). I feel the Korean teachers are generally a little more forgiving towards me because they can visibly see me suffering. One teacher said in a surprised and concerned manner "Oh, sweat come out". Sadly true and not pretty, just humidity sweaty...  A few weeks ago, I wore a cardigan with my dress, but it was too soon and I soon found myself over-heating. Mrs. Oh saw me and said "Oh, you are wearing a cardigan today". I explained that I was too hot and proceeded to remove my cardigan. Later in class, she moved the fan so it blew air directly on me. At the time, I thought she was being nice. In hindsight, I suspect she hoped I'd cool down and put my cardigan back on. Why do I suspect this? Other incidents followed... 

On another day, I wore a sleeveless dress again. This time whilst I was teaching in front of the class, she walked behind me and proceeded to tuck my bra straps under the material. I was rather mortified, and I felt pretty undermined being re-dressed in front of my students. I did not say this, I actually found myself muttering "oh sorry, and thank you". Yes, I apologised (how inherently British?), mostly to avoid further fussing. 

The most recent cardigan related incident, Mrs. Oh saw me walking to school and she approached me. She said "you look very pretty today". I was wearing a cardigan, because it had finally cooled down, and I wasn't a sweaty mess. Later as I approached our first class, I noticed Mrs. Oh wasn't waiting for me outside. She usually lets me enter the classroom first, I find this strange considering that I'm of lower importance and status than her. Anyway, she was already in the classroom. As I entered a little boy bolted up out of his seat, and said "teacher you look very pretty today". I immediately looked at Mrs. Oh who was positively beaming, she gestured back towards the boy and then said something in Korean (probably thanked him). I thanked the student as well, then swiftly proceeded with class. I have to say, I actually found this latter incident quite funny. I was amused she would resort to such subterfuge just to encourage me to wear a cardigan. And even more amused  that she seems to believe I wouldn't cotton on.  

Other Mrs. Oh quotable gems:

"You know the more I look at you, the more I think that you are pretty". 
I politely refuted this statement. Seriously, if you have to think about it, stop looking.

"Your skin is white". 
I proceeded to tell her I'm disappointed my summer tan is fading. She kind of looked at me quizzically and disapprovingly. I opted to start talking about my recent trips abroad to change the subject. In Korea, and other Asian cultures it's more desirable to have light skin. Ajumma's often go to extreme measures to keep the sun rays at bay.

Tip: If you want to get a  sun kissed glow, do not buy Korean sun lotion. You will find that it tends to contain skin whiteners, something I experienced first hand. 

I would like to add that I don't believe mithering middle-aged women are a phenomena found solely in Korea. Unfortunately, I have plenty of previous experience of working with them in my home country. I hope I never become one! I'm not like that now, and thankfully nor is my mum, all of which bodes pretty well for my future.

Silver lining ~ my current 5th and 6th grade students are much nicer, compared to last years 6th grade. Swings and roundabouts. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


My second year has begun, I've been in Korea for one year and two weeks now. Daily life is well daily life really, things are not nearly as challenging and intriguing as there were this time last year. I'm missing England, but for all those quaint rose tinted reasons, such as green rolling hills, lakes and streams, daffodils, bluebells, cobbled streets, Victorian houses, little cottages with thatched roofs,, etc.

I've recently experienced an emotional high from two fantastic weeks travelling around SE Asia (I will back-blog about this later, I plan to do some catch up posts and use blogging to fill my time during the bleak winter.) to a crashing low when I had to say goodbye to several of my close friends, there were hugs and tears. It's also been a tough couple of weeks back in Korea, particularly with regards to numerous incidents involving various adjumma's and adjoshi's. I have been pushed, barged out of the way, stared at, body checked, leered at, publicly shunned, and shouted at by a rather unpleasant elderly intoxicated man. There's nothing like being kicked when you're down. I'm not saying that these things didn't happen on occasion. I mean I'd heard other people talk about them, they'd just very rarely happened to me before. I am aware I'm probably feeling more sensitive and less tolerant than usual. I had a particularly unsettling experience with an elderly Korean gentleman before the Summer holidays. I thought he was being friendly and nice, and he was but it transpired this was because he thought I was a prostitute. This incident creeped me out quite a bit, and it's made me more wary of Korean's being friendly towards me. Plus I'm tired, I've grown weary of some things as we do overtime, and I'm missing home. Generally, I find it quite difficult to write about some of the negative things I've experienced in Korea. There is a very strong sense of national pride here, they really want you to love Korea as much as they do. I feel they can be rather defensive and take some comments quite personally. I have met some lovely people. I have some adorable students (note 'some') and I've been very fortunate to have some fantastic experiences over the last year, but isn't Korea perfect, no where is.

When Sirena left, she told me to try not to compare this year and last year. Sound advice, but I'm as you've read I'm comparing already. I find myself slipping into the odd thought about what I was doing this time last year, and how I felt. I've also begun thinking about the future. So, I'm presently flitting between the past and how I probably won't be here this time next year...