In February of 2009, I left my wonderful family, friends and beautiful island home of St. Thomas to pursue a professional career in teaching English as a second language in Ulsan, South Korea, after being recruited by the company Teach Away Inc. of Canada.
I was excited and honored to travel abroad to meet new people, learn about their culture and to share my culture as well.After a long 19 hours of connecting flights I safely arrived in Seoul, South Korea. The airport was vast, modern and very impressive.However, I immediately saw stares, fingers pointing and heard giggles and hysterical laughter that, based on our Western Culture, would be perceived as disrespectful, from Koreans towards foreigners like me who were just arriving.I started to feel a bit awkward at that moment but I was focused and determined to make a good impression, to meet new people, to learn about a new culture and of course to share my culture.
During my teacher orientation it was explained to me that South Korea is known as the “Hermit Kingdom,” or rather a “homogeneous” country, and, as such, many Koreans are shy and conservative people who have not had much interaction with foreigners. If they point, stare or laugh, I was told, it is only because of their curiosity in seeing different people and this is accepted as normal behaviour in their country.This instance became my first red flag.
I was subsequently bussed down, approximately 3-4 hours south, to my assigned school in a suburban town on the outskirts of the metropolitan city of Ulsan, which I later found out was a major industrial city where Samsung, Kia, LG and other well known Korean products are made. Ulsan has one of the 18 top science high schools in the entire country known as Ulsan Science High School, where I worked for the local government’s EPIK (English Programme in Korea), a program administered at the Ulsan Metropolitan Office of Education and recognized by the National Institute for International Education in South Korea.
As I got settled in to this suburban town, I initially enjoyed hospitality, as I was able to meet my new students, fellow staff members/co-teachers, and my principal’s management team. I was immediately informed by my principal that I should be mindful of my actions, such as who I associate with, where I go, how I dress and speak, and who I bring to my school-sponsored apartment. I took these warnings very seriously.
Within two months time my principal and I became very good professional friends. However, I was secretly informed by a few honest and respectful students that a few of my local co-teachers had come up with a plan to discredit me through acts of discrimination and racial slurs that fed into the country’s “Pure Blood” theory. I began to be more aggressively disrespected by my high school students and later learned I was being secretly monitored.Students would avoid coming to my class.Some students would speak only in Korean and began to refuse to learn from me.Some of my co-teachers started not to attend my mandatory regular classes as a sign of disrespect.
Attempts to discredit and defame me did not end at the school. The level of disrespect, racism and sexual orientation discrimination I experienced reached its peak when, after a few weeks, two local Korean friends showed me a video of me dancing to my local calypso music in the privacy of “my apartment” caught in a conspicuous manner through an adjacent window. I couldn’t believe my eyes! A few weeks later, I was shown more conspicuous video footage of myself. There was spy video footage of me at a public bathhouse and another at the school in my office – complete and total invasion of my privacy!It wasn’t until later that I encountered a Los Angeles Times article dated January 31, 2010, titled “Korea Activists Target Foreign English Teachers,” about the widespread spying and video recording of foreign workers, specifically English teachers in South Korea, by a group known as “The Anti-English Spectrum Group.”
I tried to immediately address these matters by trying to file a police report but no one wanted to assist me in that suburban town.Not even the kind-hearted local professional individuals who quietly showed me these compromising videos of myself wanted to assist me for fear of retaliation from their community.
Upon my arrival at home, I could get no support from Virgin Islands officials to address the discriminatory actions I faced in South Korea. My pleas for help from the U.S. State Department and my local V.I. Government officials were basically ignored and brushed aside. Through all this, I found out that the U.S. Virgin Islands has no central office/entity that can request to have any international laws, agreements or tribunal decisions be fully enforced for wrongs committed against its local citizens.Our world is a global society now, but where is the U.S. Virgin Islands’ international participation or representation as it relates to addressing foreign affairs for our residents of our territory?
I invite all to learn more and consider my experience as a young professional foreign worker among others so our local community our local government can begin to take more proactive and effective approaches to handling such international labor-related and other foreign matters, allowing us to further aspire to have a more global mindset and promote progress for our native population respectfully.To learn more facts about my foreign experiences and much more follow my blogs at www.listenupvi.weebly.com.
Thank you for your attention.