Riding the white horse: On being foreign in South Korea

Posted by on Apr 20, 2013 | No Comments


KEVIN, my Korean co-teacher, had an idea for our open class. “Let’s make a motivational video,” he suggested. “I’ll ask, ‘Would you like some more?’ you’ll say, ‘Yes, please,’ and after we repeat this a couple times, you’ll stuff your shirt with balloons. When you stand up to clear your tray, you’ll look really fat!”

“Really, Kevin? I have to be the fat foreigner?”

“It would be so funny,” he assured me, “and it would make the students more interested in the lesson.”

I sighed. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of humiliating myself in front of all my students and the classroom evaluators by acting as the stereotypical fat Westerner, but I wasn’t opposed to the idea either. It certainly wasn’t politically correct, and I would never think to create a “humorous” video like this in the United States. But I wasn’t in the United States; I was in Korea, and after several months living as an expat and teaching English in Seoul, I knew that the image of “fat people” made Koreans of all ages burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter.

I borrowed a button-down shirt from the overweight Canadian after-school teacher, and another teacher agreed to film us at lunch. When the camera’s red light flashed, Kevin pointed to a slab of fried pork and asked, “Would you like some more?” with a wide grin on his face.

“Yes, please!” I responded excitedly. After a couple minutes, I placed five or six balloons into the over-sized shirt I was wearing, adjusting it to make sure they would stay in place.

Kevin was laughing so hard, I swear I saw a tear roll down his cheek.


After studying in Seoul as an exchange student in 2009, I returned to teach English at a public school in 2011. I was placed at a low-income elementary school located in northeast Seoul, where half of the students’ families were receiving welfare checks from the government, and I was paired with Kevin, a 40-year-old devout Christian, married with two children. Kevin was raised in the mountainous countryside and spent his youth studying diligently in order to gain acceptance at a prestigious university in Seoul. Because of his humble background, good sense of humor, and years of experience working with children, Kevin could easily connect with our 12-year-old students. We’d teach together Monday through Friday for 22 hours a week, and we’d often role play. In one instance I asked, “What are you doing?” and Kevin immediately squatted down, contorted his face, and responded, “I’m pooping!” indulging in a classic form of Korean slapstick humor. The boys burst into fits of giggles, while most of the girls wrinkled their noses in disgust. I laughed, and thought, This man is having more fun than the kids.

From the first day in the classroom, Kevin made me feel comfortable. We would have contests where the students would write the days of the week in English and I would have to write them in Korean. He would give extra attention to the low-level students to encourage them to enjoy studying English, and I would laugh when he would enthusiastically respond to things that I found quite normal, such as glimpsing a screen full of women in bikinis when he googled the word “hot” for our lesson about temperature.

Continue reading on Matador Network…


*NOTE: In September, I was chosen as a Fall ’12 Glimpse Correspondent, and this is the second of two long-form narratives published on Matador Network.


-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.

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