this wednesday, I began to teach my second semester of adult classes. I love teaching adults- they are in class because they want to be- not because their parents are making them. so, they are often quite invested- usually requesting more language help, weekends, dinners, coffee breaks. the students that I taught in my adult classes last semester have become my friends, my sisters. the other great thing about teaching adults is the fact that we can talk about adult topics. my class last semester (and this semester) were all women. we discussed politics of marriage, pregnancy, women’s rights- the women I have become friends with were open minded, and witty. needless to say, I was very excited to meet my new students.
as they called off the students names and assigned them to teachers, I watched as the students who would be paired with me writhed around in their seats in discomfort. I watched their hopeful eyes shift and sink when they saw my brown face. I could only imagine their inner dialogues went something like this: “wait? my teacher is Indian, wait, black, oh no! they don’t speak english in Africa! are we sure she’s American?”
nothing can prepare your heart for that sight.
they looked so disappointed.
when the students who were paired with my white co-teachers were called, they looked so relieved, some even sighed happy sighs. I felt like I’d been picked last for kickball teams. or maybe like a cruel parent who gave one twin child a really badass birthday gift like a pony, and gave the other kid…a book.
there are some things that no on-line blogs, or lonely planet books can prepare brown and black folks for while travelling or teaching. especially in east asia. the feeling that white is right that I experience in the usa is only heightened by being in korea, without any cohorts that look like me. at least in the us, I have diverse friends, people who share my values. here in korea, in my town, I am the only English teacher who is brown. most people in my town assume I’m from india- and when I say I’m “american” they look so confused- and inquire more. ok. you are from American (you say) but your parents- where are they from? I have gotten in the habit of answering yes. “are you from india?” why yes, I am. “eygpt” why yes. “africa (the country, not the continent, apparently)” yes, yes I am. “philippines” sure. this only confuses the children (and adults) more. I doubt that my white-american co-teachers ever have to explain themselves any further than “I’m American.”
and while yes, we are all foreigners in korea, our experiences are completely different. it can feel really isolating. I can’t tell my white co-teachers. they don’t really get racism. they didn’t get it in America, and they certainly don’t get the ways that white racism, and neo-colonialism plays itself out in the media, and educational systems of korea. and I can’t tell my Korean friends, they don’t get it either. most have never left korea, so the concepts of racism, colonialism, and even the idea of asian solidarity often feel like far away, very western terms.
most of the Koreans that I work with and the Korean children that I teach, who are only in fifth grade, have no concept of world globalization, struggles of third world people, or connections between non-white people across the globe. the children, and most of the adults i interact with are incredibly nationalist (not unlike many Americans). that may have everything to do with the fact that I teach in a rural town, where most of the children’s parents are farmers, and have never met another foreigner, and most have only seen an American on tv. and certainly, I am not the “American“ they expected to see.
now, generally, I have had beautiful experiences living and teaching in korea, and traveling abroad in general. i have had more kind gestures from strangers abroad and in korea than i’d ever experienced in the us. people here are generous, honest, and once you are family, you are tight, you hear? my big sisters would do anything for me. they are ride or die. (i’d be remiss not to acknowledge that this may have everything to do with my social capital of being able to speak english, and if i were an african or indian migrant worker, i may be treated differently) and generally, i always have a great time traveling, because generally, I look like most people from most countries I have visited, whether that’s the Puerto rico or the Philippines, generally, I don’t stick out the way I do here. but if you are going to stick out as a foreigner, being white makes your travel experience much easier:
introducing the white (or perceived as white) privilege while travelling checklist:
I can generally be assumed to have money (for better or worse).
I can go almost anywhere in the world and expect to be treated with dignity and respect.
I can expect that, if I am not treated with dignity, I can file a complaint, and my complaint will be taken seriously.
I can expect that my beauty will the standard for almost any country I am visiting (even if i look nothing like (all or most) of the people in the country i am visiting).
I can expect to that, if I am white and American, Canadian, or western European, my national identity will never be questioned.
as an English teacher in a foreign country, I can be assumed to have a tight grasp on the English language. I can be assumed to be fluent and more proficient in English than my non-white counterparts.
I can go shopping in any store and not be assumed a thief.
I can expect that my passport authenticity will never be questioned.
I can expect that if I visit a country, I will not be stopped on the street to show my passport or visa.
I can expect not to be seen as a threat.
I will usually not be assumed to be a rapper.
While applying to be a teacher (certainly in Korea), i can be sure that i will not be refused a job based on my race.
what has your experience been like while traveling?