Thursday, December 01, 2005

"The Sickness"

This has been a very interesting week at the hagwan: one teacher is moving back to Canada, his replacement started today and another teacher... got fired. The drama began 6 weeks ago when Michael came here to replace a teacher that had been here for 2 years. The rumors started flying almost immediately, fueled by our director's curiosity and indirect questioning of Michael's sexual preference. How the "situation" was handled gave me insight into another significant cultural difference between Korea and the States. Before this happened I was already aware that mainstream Korea is generally quite homophobic-- in fact some Koreans will tell you that there's no such thing as a "gay Korean"-- but I certainly didn't know how a hagwan would react when they unknowingly hired a gay man. It started out with our director asking the foreign teachers if Michael was gay. No one confirmed her suspicions, so after class one day she finally approached Michael and bluntly asked him if he was gay. He responded that yes, he was and from there she went on to tell him he needed to cut his hair, get rid of his highlights and start "dressing like the other guys at work". From that point on he was having almost daily "warning meetings" with our director about various problems and complaints.
On Tuesday night after work he had another meeting with the owner and director and they told him he was fired but assured him it had nothing to do with "his sickness". They said he was getting too many complaints from the parents and it would be more cost-effective to fire him and take a loss on his flight and recruiter costs than lose the money from drop-outs. The school was worried that the parents would think they hired inadequate teachers after the same class got another new teacher after 6 weeks. To get around this problem, they had a doctor friend of the owner's write up a document saying that Michael has throat cancer and has to move back to Canada! Our director is supposed to announce the tragic news at next Friday's staff meeting. (We were thinking of making up an obituary in a few months and leave it sitting around the office to see the reaction it would cause.) Michael objected to outright lying to everyone (especially the co-workers he was friends with) but they told him, "this is how we do things in Korea" and that settled that. They told him if he goes quietly and doesn't make a scene he won't have to pay back his recruiting fee or plane ticket and they will recommend him for another teaching position as long as he never shows his face in the neighborhood again. I'm curious how many laws were broken in that process... It's amazing the cultural differences you experience when working in another country as opposed to merely traveling. Some differences, such as this one, can be quite difficult to endure...

Michael had a private meeting with the owner a few days ago after the school heard he was staying in Korea to find a new teaching job. The owner told Michael that the only reason he was fired was because he was gay and the parent complaints were all fabricated as a cover-up. He told him this because he didn't want Michael to think that he was a horrible teacher. In a twisted sort of way I think it made Michael feel better.
Then, our director had a meeting with the female teachers to discuss Michael's termination. She wanted us to know that Michael was not fired because of his ....(she couldn't even say it) and it was only because he got "very serious" complaints. She said if any of us have a problem with this she can "make it fair" and fire us as well. I can't believe the LIES and threats going on here.