Illusion About Protection
By Jason Lim
``Korean girls are the easiest girls in the world," one of my American teachers told me as he left for Seoul after a stint with the foreign language institute that I worked for as recruiting manager about 12 years ago. He had been with us for about two years as one of the best-regarded teachers by students and staff. Therefore, what he told me was not just crude but absolutely shocking. I felt betrayed and violated.
Why would I feel a sense of violation because an otherwise likeable fellow would share with me his opinion about Korean girls in the context of a party where drinks flowed freely? I mean, such things happen all the time in the ``let's-be-boys" culture where sexual conquests are exaggerated and women's virtues disparaged with wild juvenile abandon. It wasn't something that I hadn't heard already about girls who went to a rival high school, joined a preppy sorority, or hung around with jocks. But why was I so upset that he said this of Korean girls?
Granted, I had every right to feel shock at his crudeness; experience disappointment at his insensitivity; or outrage at his ignorance. But why did I feel betrayed and violated? Even worse, almost immediately afterwards, I started looking and judging all my male native-English teachers ― many of whom I had personally interviewed and hired because I thought they were the best people for the job ― as possible sexual predators from whom I had to protect the purity of all Korean women. Because of what one guy told me in a drunken jest, I was examining all such relationships with a jaundiced eye.
In short, I had become a bigot because of what this guy told me. No, that's not entirely true. I was already a bigot, only subconsciously. And he had just brought it out of me.
I was a bigot because there was an ingrained prejudice deep in the darkness of my mind that, somehow, Korean women were the exclusive property of Korean men. I was the self-appointed knight in shining armor protecting those who needed no protection against those who weren't even threats, except in the irrational and selfish recesses of my mind. And if you didn't need my protection, fie on thee. I am going to marginalize you as sub-Korean and insult you as a Yankee lover. So the betrayal I felt was toward the Korean women who would debase themselves with foreign men, and the violation I felt was an attack on my bigoted sense of what ought to be.
Luckily, I was able to recognize my bigotry in short order, mostly thanks to my inner circle of friends whose insight and wisdom allowed me to break away from my own cage of destructive narrow-mindedness. I am telling this story because I want to make the point that bigotry is something to be recognized, exposed, dismissed and guarded against. Bigotry is certainly not something to base a national policy on. This is especially true in Korea because there still seems to be a lot of these self-appointed knights making rules based on fear and ignorance.
As a case in point, in December 2007, the Korean government began requiring E-2 visa applicants to submit a certified criminal record and health check, as a reaction against the high-profile arrest of convicted pedophile, Christopher Neil, in Thailand. Neil had also taught children in Korea, although he'd had no criminal record.
Not only were these requirements onerous, but also inherently unfair, since teachers on F-1 (professor), F-2 (spouse of Korean national) and F-4 (ethnic Korean) were exempt from the requirement. This rule clearly discriminates based on ethnic origin and professional status. It assumes that a Korean-American English teacher is less of a threat to a Korean child than a white-American English teacher. Just because his or her parents happened to be Korean? It's unjustifiable.
Furthermore, are you less of a threat to Korean society if you are a professor at a college than a teacher at a ``hagwon'' (private educational institution)? Who came up with this risk-assessment scheme? The same people who ran Wall Street into the ground? Even more disturbingly, this visa policy was obviously based on a sense of ``foreigners vs. us," which reveals an ingrained sense of bigotry against anything non-Korean.
This is why I welcome the ``Equal Checks for All" campaign that the Association for Teachers of English in Korea (ATEK) is running on its Web site. As Tony Hellmann, communications director of ATEK, is quoted saying, ``They (checks) reflect a mindset that foreign teachers are potentially dangerous because they are foreign."
Exactly. People can be dangerous ― like the recently-captured Korean serial killer who raped and murdered seven women (that we know of) ― regardless of their race or national origin. They are not dangerous because they are different. Such reasoning is fundamentally wrong. And if it forms the basis of a national policy, it's truly dangerous.
Therefore, before Korean policy makers seek to protect the ``(Korean) society's public order" and ``people's health" against the ``threat" of foreign workers, they should ask themselves who's protecting whom from what. Maybe the time of knights in shining armor is gone with good reason. An honest answer might be brutal in the short run, but it will help Korea mature as a truly global society.
Jason Lim was the 2007 to 2008 fellow at Harvard Korea Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com