Cultural shock for sensitive foreignerI’ve been teaching English in Korea for almost five years now, and I’m still very surprised on a regular basis concerning just about everything in this culture. There is an overwhelming abundance of cultural differences that usually lead to misunderstandings. This is just one of those situations.
I’ve had many experiences teaching English in diverse environments. Recently, I was teaching Korean teachers at various locations around Seoul, for one of the largest educational institutions in Korea.
My job was primarily to improve their English communication and pronunciation skills, while encouraging free conversation. An additional responsibility was to review educational material used by these teachers to teach their elementary school students. I answered questions they had on pronunciation, how to compose questions about a particular scene, “What do you call this in English?”, “Is there a synonym?”, “How would you describe this scene in the story?”, etc.
I asked a number of my students where they thought these teaching materials were produced. Many assumed they were written by native English speakers and published in America.
I thought to myself, There’s no way that these books have been written by Americans, even if they were physically bound in the U.S. Many of the storylines and words employed to describe characters would not generally be used in educational materials written by native English speakers, with phrases like “he’s too fat,” “I don’t like him,” “he’s ugly,” “he’s not handsome,” “she’s too short,” “she’s prettier,” “he’s more handsome.”
As I looked at the pictures and expressions used by the characters, I couldn’t believe these things are being taught to young people. Especially as part of an educational program for students not only learning English as a second language, but a different culture as well.
I’m thinking, These teachers and kids actually believe that native English speakers don’t mind being called “ugly and fat.” As I attempted to explain some of the more suitable terms used in American culture, one of my student’s commented, “Foreigners are so sensitive.”
I’m not sure if they realized the inappropriateness of the materials they were using to teach their young and impressionable students. But I strongly suggested they should replace the people with fruits, vegetables or maybe animals, as I don’t think oranges would be quite as sensitive. Though fruitarians may disagree.
by Beena Rotstein
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