The Korean Workplace 

This is a continuation of previous post A Koreanless Korean in Korea. Please read before proceeding.

As mentioned in a previous series, I got a quick education about how different things would be for me as soon as I arrived in Korea in 2010 for my teaching assignment. I had been trying to mentally prepare for as much of the “culture shock” as I could, but no amount of preparation could have readied me for the crazy rollercoaster that I experienced in the Korean workplace.

After every facet of my physical appearance had been torn to shreds by my “supervisor,” (before my first day of work even began), I was terrified to even start my real job at the school. I just “knew” all the kids and teachers would hate me. I tried to be cool but I was more nervous for this new job than I have ever been about anything in my life.

My head teacher, Ms. Chon, was so great at first. She was really nervous to meet me, apologizing over and over for her “poor” English. She baked “treats” (by Korean standards) for us to share together. She made sure each afternoon we had tea time to chat and get to know one another. She took me to dinners after work. She was worried that I would feel stressed or overworked, so she basically wouldn’t let me do anything except act as the mouthpiece during class time (“Class, repeat after Ms. Whitney!”). She took me shopping for necessities. I counted her a real mentor. Then she turned completely, irreversibly crazy.

I honestly don’t know where the flip switched, but one day we were having tea, and the next, she was reaming me about how all of us foreign teachers come in and do nothing and get paid way too much, while the Korean teachers slave away and make beans. “Just tell me what I can do!,” I begged for the millionth time, “I am happy to do any work you want to assign me.” She began sabotaging me in front of the other teachers and especially in front of the school principal. I couldn’t do much about it because most of them didn’t speak great English and our communication was very limited. One day, the other Korean co-teacher told me, “Ms. Chon is little crazy!” I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe this other teacher could be my ally in trying to handle the nutcase head teacher everyday.

It wasn’t long before that co-teacher turned, too. We were in the middle of teaching summer camp together and I got sick. Deathly ill. I am not a wuss who gets a boo-boo and needs a week off work. But in this case, I think I ate some ill-kept eggs (Koreans aren’t great about refrigeration, food safety, etc.) in an 오므라이스 omurice and my life was immediately over. I couldn’t move. The extent of my getting out of bed was running to the bathroom 40 times (not an exaggeration) a day before falling back into bed in utter exhaustion. I called my boss and my co-teacher and told them there was no way I could even get up to get dressed, let alone ride the bus/walk the 30 min. to school. I couldn’t be away from a restroom that long. I sent in my completed lesson plans and everything was set to finish out the week. I had not used any allotted time off/sick days so I thought there would be no problem.

The Koreans freaked. How dare this lazy little foreigner fake an illness to get out of work! The sick days are “available” but everyone knows they are not actually supposed to be used! Their wrath stunned me. I got called into another meeting (very reminiscent of my first) where three crazy ladies yelled at me in English about lying to them, then whispered in Korean (I could understand), saying horrible things about me. These were my “mentors.” My “liaisons.”

When I was finally able to return to school, the teacher took me to the front of the class and told my students that I had lied about being sick, but just really didn’t like them and decided to stay in bed for a rest. There was nothing I could do but keep denying their falsehoods. They bullied me for another month before I quit. I was able to get a permanent relocation to another school for the remainder of my contract and I never once entertained the idea of renewing to stay longer than my contracted 12 months. (By the way, the “fake” illness lasted for 3 months and I lost probably 25-30 pounds. I took a total of 3 days off work during that time.)

To be honest, I’ve never recovered from that nightmare. I don’t trust Koreans. It is an unfair, blanket statement, but it is true. I got to see the slimy inner workings of their society. I was a victim of their absurd workplace “norms.” I saw over and over how a “friend” can say one thing to your face and immediately turn around and throw you under the bus. I witnessed the unspoken Korean “brotherhood,” where an “outsider” (such as myself, not “true Korean”) is to be obliterated and the Koreans stick together in their lies and deception, no matter what.

On the other hand, I love Korea. I really, really do. It is a place I love to visit. It’s a place I (remarkably) have such fond memories of. It’s a place where I have family and friends and loved ones. But I don’t think it is a place that I will ever truly understand. The people, the culture, the norms – I just don’t “get” them and don’t feel like I am any closer to that understanding than I was six years ago.

So, as with most other things, I just live in the grey “in-between.” It’s not comfortable, but it’s a place I have become acquainted with. Betwixt and between is a place that I, and so many other adoptees, call “home.”

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5 thoughts on “The Korean Workplace 

  1. Hey you two! SO sorry I haven’t been able to get the “5 fears” blog post to you yet — between preparing for the trip and wrapping up the fundraising campaign it’s been a challenge to have enough uninterrupted space to finish it. If I send it over this weekend, think maybe we could post it on Monday before the campaign ends?

    Love the new blog post, thank you for sharing what must have been a challenging experience. I think it’s important to openly discuss some of the difficulties that adoptees face both in our adoptive country and Korea so that we can move slowly toward more universal understanding and acceptance for people from *any* background 🙂

    Wanted to leave you with a quote — it always inspires me to be authentic and open, and gives me a little comfort in knowing that through striving to be our best, most vulnerable selves, we encourage others to do the same 🙂 Hope you have a great weekend, talk to you soon!



    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you *not* to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianna Williamson


  2. Justin, thanks for this! So encouraging! We debated sharing this post because it seems so negative – we hope it is no one’s first read on their visit to our site! But we have worked so hard to fight the “rose-colored” glasses. The truth is an adoptee’s story is not that easy. It is so multi-faceted with so much pain and difficulty along with all the joy and reward. We feel a responsibility to share ALL of it with our readership.


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