Korean School Culture: Grabby Hands



Korean School Culture: a series of posts where I prattle on about the charming and spectacular differences between Western (read: Canadian) and Korean school culture. As consummate connoisseurs of pedagogy, you will no doubt be rapt in fascination on this subject, and will come clamouring back for more with each subsequent post. The first subject of discussion: touching. It will not be as creepy as that makes it sound.

There are multiple things to talk about here. Let’s start with the kids themselves: Korean students are a lot more touchy-feely than Western kids. In Canada, the curve for holding hands, hugging, and intertwining like the snakes on a Caduceus, peaks around Kindergarten. There, kids grasp one another’s sweaty little paws and frolic pleasantly off together in pairs, around the playground, to the potty, with the assumption that this is utterly normal. By grade 2 or 3, they mostly drop the behaviour (especially the boys), regarding it with the vague horror of immaturity, which claims every activity they did up to the year before progressively as they grow up. By about grade 6, Western society has somehow already managed to instil a hefty helping of gay panic, and anything beyond a one-armed hug or bumping fists is considered a giant proclamation of the gay.


A Korean co-teacher told me that the hand-holding and touchiness was utterly uncommon in the early grades, and that, if anything, it’s more of a mature way to display friendship amongst the kids. Indeed, they grow progressively more grabby as the years go on. While my fourth-graders hug and will play with one another’s hair, the sixth graders will hug frequently and nearly cradle one another during times of embarrassment. By middle and high school, it is apparently some doing just to get them out of one another’s laps.


Why? Korean society still has a lot of progress to make on its views on homosexuality, but at the same time, the overall lack of understanding means that same-gender affection is okay. No one gets teased about platonic affection because they just don’t even know to read it as gay. Whereas same-age Canadian peers have already been well-informed by their siblings, older friends, and all-expansive media saturation that everything gay must send you running headlong in the other direction, kids here, if they have such an impulse, don’t consider actually touching one another to be under that umbrella. From what I’ve read, this is also quite common in very strict, traditional Muslim countries, where male affection particularly is read as an incredibly heterosexual thing to do.


At the same time, damn are these kids violent. They hit, they kick, they punch, they slap. A friend of mine had a male student punch a girl in the throat, another friend saw one teen girl belt a boy across the face, followed by the two going right back to regular conversation, no different from what had happened (if slightly redder in the face). Today, I saw one kid attempting to pull another down the stairs by his hair.


And nobody cares. To a certain degree I find this freeing, as Canadian schools are utterly unforgiving, and any minor tap warrants suspension, incredibly long talks, and a lot of stern glowering. At the same time, I instantly worry about bullying, about escalation of the hitting, and about, well, one of the kids getting hurt. I have to quell my impulses to stop the many, many instances of the kids knocking each other around, and the times that I can’t and I demand that they do not hit one another, they are relentless. I want them to stop, I tell them that I find it unacceptable (or, rather, I grunt and mime this until they understand), and make it clear it should not happen again, and then of course it does. Korean kids love a particular slap game: you play rock-paper-scissors (ki-bi-bo), and the winner can then slap the loser on the forearm with two fingers. I attempted to stop one girl from giving in to her earned loss multiple times, and EVERY TIME I walked away for an instant, she was rolling up her sleeve and baring her arm, awaiting her licks.


And as someone who operated in Canadian schools, the rules on teachers and students seem positively Bohemian. In teacher’s training, we were basically warned to never lay a finger on a student, as so much as a head pat could lead to an onslaught of litigious parents and child molestation charges. You began to develop the sense that Child Services were constantly lurking around the corner with handcuffs and scissors to chop up our credentials should we ever deign to bestow a hug upon a child. As a male teacher, it was ten times worse, as some would generally assume you to be a pedophile for getting into the profession in the first place, and believe that you were just lying in wait for your opportune moment to cop a feel.


Western pearl-clutching emerges from the cases of actual molestation, of douchebag monster teachers that use their position of power to initiate relationships with their students, but it has mutated into pretty constant terror and worry. It ruins it for the rest of teachers, particularly men, because we have to constantly wonder whether we will be eyed with suspicion for accepting a hug from a student on their graduation, or attempting to comfort a screaming tear-pile of a Kindergartener.


While I came to slough off much of that fear after the thirtieth five-year-old peeled at me from across the room into a surprise attack hug, I was still weary and vigilant. It is thus that Korea seems utterly freeing: the teachers can scruff the kids’ hair, can pat them on the shoulder, can give a hug if they need it. The parents see the teaching profession as honourable, and do not regard those within it to be predators lying in wait. What a fascinating culture. Of course, as a foreign teacher I am still outside of this: we are still assumed to be vicious sexual offenders, generally drunk and hopped up on every drug known to man, raping our way across the world (ours is one of the only Korean visas that still requires HIV and narcotics tests).


But still. To imagine a teaching culture where my motivations in teaching kids are not doubted. Why, I think in that sort of a place, I could probably even learn to ignore the kids constantly slapping one another about the face.


[Post utterly pictureless because I’m reticent to post pictures of students on the internet, and also I don’t not have any good pictures of kids slapping each other.]


5 thoughts on “Korean School Culture: Grabby Hands

  1. Your grandfather used to say that what more students needed was a good slap but maybe that is why he was not a teacher; you know, that uncontollable urge to mettle out a few fatal beatings (this is actually a Rowan Atkison routine which, in spite of the subject, is very funny).

    Anyway, I see you bought your camera and a Canon at that – good choice. Which model did you decide on?


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