Wednesday, March 04, 2009

My first taste of sexism

Last night Mr. Lee, our new Korean boss pulled one of the boys into the office and said, "Do the boys like chicken? Tell the boys to come down at 8pm." Mr. Lee has just replaced the old SNET boss and so far, we think he is great. He likes the foreign teachers which is a big step up from the previous man in his position. He is always happy and takes time to smile at us as he passes us in the hallway, another step up from the old boss who refused any interactions with his foreign staff. Mr. Lee is innovative and progressive. He cares about the school and about the teachers' happiness and well being. But like most men in Korea, he is sexist.

I need to back up a bit to help explain this story. Some of the teachers at the school teach Tuesday-Saturday (every other Saturday) while others teach the normal Monday-Friday schedule. Saturday programs are different than the rest of the week because rather than an entire school coming like in the week, students are signed up individually by their parents for a fun English learning day. February is generally a slow month as it is when Korean children are going back to school. And in fact, typically they don't have Saturday programs in February. But SNET decided to try it out this year to see how it went. But, as expected the number of children signed up for the Saturday programs were low, really low. So low, that they only needed half of the scheduled staff for that Saturday. This was a problem because the other half of the teachers would still need to make up the time for not working that Saturday. So Mr. Lee decided that they would hold a football (soccer) match that Saturday and the boys could play in it and that would count as their work day. Sounds fabulous right? Fabulous for the boys who like to play soccer, which is most of them, but what about the girls you may ask. Let the girls work while the boys play soccer and we will call it even. hmmmm.... As you can imagine, this idea did not fly well with everyone in the group. It was entirely unfair and sexist. After a diplomatic email, the soccer match was canceled. I am not sure how the whole thing got sorted out in the end, but they listened to the complaint and responded appropriatly.

However, once again, last night, sexism entered the room. Mr. Lee ordered several boxes of fried chicken, several bags of spicy chicken feet (yuck!), beer, soju (the national liquor) and invited only the boys to partake. After an hour or so, he asked, if they should invite the girls. We felt honored to be a mere after thought, but we consented and decided to partake in the festivities anyway. Despite the fact that we had been invited, the atmosphere was not entirely welcoming. We segregated into a boy section and a girl section. The boys had already been drinking for an hour and were hyped up on soju, yelling, singing and playing rock, paper sissor matches. We sat at our end of the table quietly watching. The feeling was awkward and uncomfortable. It wasn't as if they were rude to us, but I felt little, and unimportant. We weren't unwelcome, because obviously we had been asked to come down, but we didn't feel welcome either. It was one of the first times I have ever really felt discriminated against because of my sex and I didn't like it. It gave me one of those icky feelings that is difficult to brush off, even with much scrubbing.

I don't hold it against Mr. Lee. He is a very kind, and considerate man. I don't think it has ever crossed his mind that his actions of outwardly and obviously favoring and treating the boys over girls is in anyway wrong. Because in Korea, his actions are completely normal. Men are the most important, while woman are an afterthought.

I see it in my classes everyday. The boys and girls separate into gender groups automatically, which is normal at their age. But what is not normal, is that the girls are as silent as church mice. They are meek little creatures attempting to blend into the surroundings so as not to be noticed because that is what they are taught to do. The boys are loud, obnoxious and take over the class. I try extra hard to intentionally give more attention to the girls in the classroom when they speak up or answer a question correctly. At the end of the week, we have an award called "the best effort student" and maybe this is sexist of me, but I generally choose a girl unless there was a boy who really stood out. It is my small attempt to bring attention to their hard work, and make them feel valued by someone, even if it isn't their society.

At least in the US, even before the feminist movement, women were generally treated well. What I mean by that is the gentlemanly behavior has always been valued. Opening the doors for a female or moving a seat for her to sit in at the dinner table were manners that were customary for the male population. Here in Korea, men go first through the door, and if they don't shove you out of they way, they are being gracious. A woman must never raise her voice to a man in anger and if she did hitting her in the face for that behavior would probably be acceptable. My male friend who worked at another school in a rural area before coming to SNET told me that once when he was out with his co-workers, his boss asked him, my friend, if he wanted a drink. He said, "sure" so the Korean teacher called one of the women in the group to come from across the room and poor him a drink even though the pitcher was on the table close to him. But the woman did as she was told, as she had probably done her entire life.

An obvious signal of the unimportance of the female population is to look at the gender ratio here in South Korea. Studies from 2007 have estimated that sex-selective abortions have increased the ratio of males to females from the natural average of 105-106 males per 100 females to 113 males per 100 females in both South Korea and China. And it is estimated that by 2010 that number will be closer to 128 men at peak marriageable age to every 100 women at peak marriageable age. South Korea is facing a shortage of marriageable women and not all men will be able to marry Korean brides. Most Korean families want two children, one of each gender. Two boys are okay, but two girls is less desirable. Sex-selected abortions have supposedly been made illegal but it still happens.

By the end of the evening, I had patchwork of emotions regarding what had happened. On one end, I realize that I am in a different culture, and just because I am from a western society I should not expected to be treated the same as I would in my culture. This isn't my culture, and it isn't my place to try and change it. However at the same time, I am a strong, intelligent, independent woman, who deserves to be valued and respected as a human being. I am not lesser than a man, I do not wish to be treated as such. Woman are wonderful and beautiful humans who not only bring life into this world, literally, but enrich it with their many talents. Women should be cherished, and it is hard for me to sit back and watch the degradation of my gender. But what can I do? It isn't really my battle. Gender equality is being fought for in Korea, and although it is a slow and uphill battle, it is moving in the right direction. But I probably wont be here to see it.


Belle (from Life of a...) said...

That's very interesting to read about, especially since I was in a conference yesterday in Charleston where one speaker showed a lot of data on how things are SO much different from how they used to be in the US. More girls are going to college, girls are overall more high achieving than boys, etc. I guess the world is not as "flat" as we like to believe.

Anonymous said...

This is Leslie again. I can identify a lot with what you are saying. Where we were in Africa women and children were, in some ways, second class citizens. This even manifested itself in some horrific ways, like female circumcision. Despite that, I think you were right on when you said this: "I realize that I am in a different culture, and just because I am from a western society I should not expected to be treated the same as I would in my culture." I think that the cultural nuances run very deeply and a lot of cultural norms and mores are difficult for an outsider to interpret. Everything we see is through the lens of our own culture.(Not that I in any ways support female circumcision. I just recognize that its practice is entrenched in certain cultures and trying to encourage it to change must be done delicately and with much sensitivity... and much more understanding than can be obtained in a short term trip.)

Anonymous said...

Leslie again. I also wanted to say that was an interesting post, very though provoking! I've learned a lot about Korea that I had no idea about. I told a bunch of my friends about Japan being the biggest country. Funny! (Of course, I say that in no judgmental way since I didn't know the capitol of NY.)

Veggie Mom said...

Sexism is still everywhere. I'm hoping that when my two girls get out in the workplace, though, that things are more equal than what I've experienced. I think there is probably still a way for you to stay true to your principles without offending your Korean hosts. Stay strong!

BPOTW said...

I think what you're doing right now is a great diplomatic way to go about slowly changing the culture. Because the culture isn't going to change overnight. It's amazing that they don't even expect men to be chivalrous. I'm sure there will be many more issues you face. Hopefully you'll find a diplomatic way to remind OR TEACH them that females are equals.

LadyFi said...

Great post - so interesting!

In a culture like Korea, it is an uphill struggle - so I think it probably is very good to be diplomatic about it all. Just having foreign women teachers is probably doing a lot of good in changing perspectives!

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