Sex and Gender in the Korean ESL Industry: Students on Top?

김사랑-kim-sa-rang-누가-그녀와-잤을끼-who-slept-with-her-sexy-korean-teacher-purple(Who Slept With Her?, 2006. Source: MBTeller)

Ready for a quick quiz? Name three of your high school teachers. Now. No, don’t think, just say the first names which come into your head.

Finished? Okay, assuming you had one, I’m going to wager at least one of them was a particularly attractive member of the opposite sex. And what’s more, that your memories of him or her are much more vivid than those of the others too. Or am I just projecting?

Being in my thirties myself, then most of my teachers are nothing but a complete blur, and only for a select few can I still remember both faces and names. But my memories of one particular female teacher? Sigh. I’ll wisely restrain myself here, but I could wax lyrical about both her and what I learned in her classes, and the contrast between the quality and quantity of those memories and those of the male teachers I remembered — also excellent teachers, and of majors I later took up at university too — is simply too great to pass off as being due to other, asexual factors. But jokes about blood being diverted from the brain aside, what impact did that have on my learning?

wet-dream-2-ebaabdeca095eab8b02-sexy-korean-teacher(Wet Dreams 2, 2005. Source: Naver)

According to this study in Thursday’s Korea Times, in fact it may well have hindered it. As author Thomas Dee demonstrates, based on test scores and self-reported perceptions by teachers and 25,000 eighth-grade students, simply having a teacher of the opposite sex harms a student’s academic progress, attractive or otherwise. In brief:

…having a female teacher instead of a male teacher raised the achievement of girls and lowered that of boys in science, social studies and English. Looked at the other way, when a man led the class, boys did better and girls did worse.

The study found switching up teachers actually could narrow achievement gaps between boys and girls, but one gender would gain at the expense of the other. Dee also contends that gender influences attitudes. For example, with a female teacher, boys were more likely to be seen as disruptive. Girls were less likely to be considered inattentive or disorderly.

In a class taught by a man, girls were more likely to say the subject was not useful for their future. They were less likely to look forward to the class or to ask questions. Dee said he isolated a teacher’s gender as an influence by accounting for several other factors that could affect student performance…

For the record, as there was no variable for a teacher’s attractiveness in the study then the jury remains out on the role of particularly attractive teachers, and Dee is also careful to point out that he is not advocating single-sex schooling, largely just passing on the correlations he noticed without really speculating as to the reasons. To buttress his point that “in a class taught by a man, girls were more likely to say that the subject was not useful for their future” though, I recommend reading this recent study from The Economist, which found the decidedly non-PC result that both men and women were prepared to take considerable cuts in pay at a first job provided that their boss was a man (although of course it wasn’t presented like that to test subjects!). But for some of the (naturally) many criticisms of Dee’s study then please read the article itself, and unfortunately those will have to do too, a suspicious absence of the article at the Korea Times website leading to me finding out that the article is in fact three years old, and so that link (to USA Today) above is the only one I could find that isn’t now dead. My misguided faith in the KT’s reliability as a timely and current news source aside, the subject does still have a certain timeless quality about it, and got me thinking about how the same dynamics operate for adult learners, my just so happening to be writing about marrying a former student of mine at about the same time as I first read that too. Surely they would be even stronger, given that students are more sexually experienced, and can and *cough* do sometimes consummate their relationships with their teachers?

Discussing the same subject here in 2007, Gord Sellar writes:

My first year in Korea, my roommate, a guy who spoke Korean pretty well, advised me that I needed to find a female teacher. Not a sleeping dictionary, mind you — his point was that the teacher didn’t need to be a girlfriend. All that was necessary was that I find an attractive female teacher, because having an attractive instructor of the opposite sex brings out approval-seeking behavior, and in the context of language study, if increased mastery of the language triggers praise from the teacher (as it should), then an autocatalytic cycle will be launched: you’ll study hard because your teacher will praise you, and that will make you study even harder.

lee-hyori-유고걸-you-go-girl-이효리-sexy-schoolteacherAnd having an attractive female Korean teacher myself for over a year, then I can personally vouch for the effects of this, even though I was engaged at the beginning of that period and married towards the end, and didn’t for a moment seriously entertain that there was any chance of us getting together even if we’d both been single. My mind did tend to wander, however, when her back was turned, and which I was inordinately pleased that year to discover sometimes happened with me and my own female (adult) students, one of them naively both passing on her and her classmates’ Cyworld addresses one day and assuming that my Korean was much worse than it was (source, right: akstn88님의블로그).

Fond memories of reading descriptions of my (then) firm, apparently delicious-looking buttocks aside though, you don’t need your wife to be an ex-recruiter to be aware of the blatant racial, sexual and ageist-discrimination that occurs within the ESL industry here, and young college graduates are definitely not only chosen for their relative naivety and willingness to accept bad conditions. Nor — with the proviso that I acknowledge that I’m indirectly justifying discrimination here, but will continue for the sake of argument — can university deans and institute owners be entirely blamed for what the majority of students (or their parents) seem to want, and I’ve personally been on the wrong end of that many times, most notoriously at a place at which students and management blatantly favored the short, shuffling Asterix-like figure among us four foreign teachers, simply on the basis that he drank with his students almost every night. That he: looked closer to fifty than his actual age of thirty-five; often came to class in the same clothes he’d slept in; was regularly to be found passed out on a dirty couch in the hallway next to the staffroom, where he’d be mistaken by students as a homeless guy who’d wandered in for the warmth; and that his lesson prep consisted of grabbing whatever random piece of paper with ten questions about some subject was closest to hand, hastily scribbled years ago in five minutes…all this could not dim his alcohol-fueled stardom. To put it mildly, it was just a tad demotivating to us other teachers to have our teaching ability, qualifications, experience, and hard work constantly thrown in our faces, and so no foreign teachers (but for Asterix) ever ended up renewing their contracts there.

But let’s return to my great buttocks, or more specifically the motivations of the Korean women that I’d wager make up at least 70% of adult language students, or at least of those with the ability and/or inclination to join native speaker’s classes. Speaking about Japanese women specifically, but with observations that could just as readily be applied here, Keiron Bailey notes in Marketing the eikaiwa wonderland: ideology, akogare, and gender alterity in English conversation school advertising in Japan (Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2006, volume 24, pages 105-130) that:

…there has been a rapid growth in the private English conversation school (eikaiwa) industry in Japan since the 1970s. Inside these eikaiwa, the participants are predominantly women and, in terms of skill and enthusiasm, these women are better students than their male counterparts. Younger women are pursuing English-language learning for three major reasons. The first reason is to enhance their career prospects, either by working for one of the increasing number of foreign-owned companies in Japan, or by moving to an English-speaking country. This trend has been augmented by economic geographies of internationalization that involve a reconfiguration of the Japanese labor market and that have created a demand for more workers with English-language-skills and, simultaneously, by the continuing recalcitrance of domestic social, cultural, and economic institutions to change in ways that reflect the desires of these younger women. The second purpose is to engage in travel, either for vacation purposes or for ryugaku. The third motivation is to actualize what Kelsky calls ”eroticized discourses of new selfhood” by realizing romantic and/or sexual desires with Western males. (pp.105-6, my emphasis)

Before going on, as you can probably see where this is headed, I should point that I am not for a moment suggesting that any more than a very, very small minority of Korean women learning English are there merely for the sake of hooking up with their foreign male teachers. I have to admit though, that I am certainly guilty of suggesting things like that in my first few years in Korea, although in my defense (and I’m sure many male readers can relate) it was very easy and natural to do so given my, well, immediate and much greater dating successes among women here than back in New Zealand. But there is definitely something to the stereotype, my wife and Korean female friends — most of whom were former students of mine — confirming that many Korean women (and indeed some of them too) do indeed ask about the attractiveness and dating availability of the male teachers, and to point out that those aren’t usually their primary concerns about a male teacher doesn’t mean they’re completely irrelevant.

japanese-ecc-advertisement-romance-with-gajin-foreigner-males-spring-2002How might this be exploited by the ESL industry? Well in Japan, to return to Bailey’s journal article:

In this paper I examine the visual promotions of a range of eikaiwa. Through a semiological analysis I argue that these schools seek to create a social space, or a destination, that is designed to appeal to this younger generation of Japanese women with professional, relationship, marriage, or studying abroad aspirations. I argue that the eikaiwa market the activity of English conversation as an eroticized, consumptive practice. Through a complex and heterodoxical engagement with a set of gendered ideological formations, the eikaiwa seek to invoke desire, or yearning (akogare), on the part of these female consumers. They do so by embedding this activity into a logonomic system in which the visual pairing of Japanese women with white males invokes a set of social and professional properties that are radically differentiated from a hegemonic array of gender-stratifying ideologies. This metonymy relies on the properties of the white male signifier being defined in relation to a historical gendered Occidentalist imaginary as an ”agent of women’s professional, romantic and sexual liberation”. However, simultaneously, the symbolic power of the coupling of white male signifiers with Japanese women relies on compliance with a pervasive and highly heteronormative ideology of complementary incompetence.

This logonomic system is supported by an array of nonvisual aspects including the gendered meaning ascribed to English-language use in modern Japan, in which its user is positioned as cosmopolitan, mobile, and desirable. At the same time, the female agency depicted by the eikaiwa articulates with a growing consciousness of female consumer agency, manifested in domestic Japanese product and services advertising and in other social and cultural formations. This trend valorizes and celebrates female erotic subjectivity and positions the white male as an object of consumption for sophisticated, cosmopolitan female consumers. The eikaiwa promotions seek to recruit female clients by actualizing and deepening their akogare through the medium of English-language instruction and use and an associated symbology. (p. 106, my emphases)

Don’t be put off by the postmodernist jargon: I don’t like it either, but while a little heavy in places, the article is still readable (albeit for article in academic journals that is!), and overall a fascinating look at this particular aspect of the Japanese ESL industry. Unfortunately whatever link I downloaded if for free from months ago has since disappeared though, so please just email me if you’d like a copy.

japanese-gaba-advertisement-romance-with-gajin-foreigner-males-spring-2002But why do I quote that article, apart from it being interesting in its own right? Well, I do admit this post has considerably evolved in the telling, and so after making the jump from a study about the effects of a teacher’s gender on children (my only originally intended topic) to what effects both that and their attractiveness might have on adults, then looking at that article was a logical next step. But now having presented the gist of it, what to make of it?

Upon reflection then, for me it has served to highlight the stark differences between the two countries, for despite the same sexual dynamics also operating in the ESL industry here as I’ve demonstrated, with all the mania about maintaining pure “bloodlines,” and hence still grudging public tolerance rather than acceptance (let alone condoning) of foreign male – Korean female sexual relationships and marriages, then you simply won’t find any Korean advertisements like the above, anywhere. Ever. Like I explain and give examples of in a post on a related topic here, there’d likely to be a public outcry. My own personal lesson from writing this post then? A cynical reaffirmation of this pervasive xenophobic streak, and a telling visual sign of it. Or not, as the case happens to be!

But this is probably not news to readers familiar with Korea; perhaps more so to Japan-based readers, who thought they could make the same claims about interracial relationships there? Regardless, apologies if you were expecting more of an examination of the practical role the sex of a teacher plays in the internal dynamics of the ESL classroom here. But never fear, for that earlier post of Gord’s I linked to provides an excellent examination of that, and so one which I wisely decided not to try and improve on!

16 thoughts on “Sex and Gender in the Korean ESL Industry: Students on Top?

  1. There is, actually, a manga by a fairly popular girl’s mangaka about a young woman and her eikaiwa koushi. I doubt it’s the only one featuring that setup, but it was a particularly interesting example because I’m pretty sure the author was enrolled in an eikaiwa while she wrote it. The rather positive exoticizing of white males by Japanese and Korean women in seriously fascinating, though, and as a white woman I find it heartening in a pretty bizarre way. You see it in manga a lot. Hmm… do East Asian men exoticize Western women in the same way? They can’t be viewed as “agents of liberation” in the same way, to be sure.


  2. Interesting article James

    First time poster here and you could thank the recent poll on the korean blogs for bringing me here.

    After reading what you wrote, I couldn’t help but think about one of the different reasons these korean females are attending the ESL classes. Before I go on, I want to say that I’m just expressing my opinion and not trying to attack you in any means even though I will talk about american males teaching in korea.

    By now, you could probably guess that I’m talking about the reason of joining the classes to meet foreign teachers. When I last visited korea and noticed a still huge percentage of women who wanted to meet and marry foreign men, it bothered me that they are blinded by the fantastical ideals and assumptions of foreign men. That their views on women and living are far superior and more beneficial to them. Whereas, the men they see or their parents have conformed to the idea that the female should cook, do the laundry, etc. But what they don’t realize is that there’s men that think this way everywhere in this world. These ideals aren’t whats taught in schools, it’s something that has been probably unintentionally taught through families.

    Hopefully as time passes by, they will learn to think of people as individuals and not races. Because by being selective of who they date and meet, they are also indirectly discriminating other people in the same ways they don’t want to be discriminated.

    You might think that I’m just bitter because I don’t have females all around me wanting to marry me. But it’s mostly because I see girls looking elsewhere for something fantastical when there’s plenty of good men around them.

    Thanks for reading


    1. Thanks for the compliments everyone.

      Sarah, naturally the ways in which Korean men exoticize Western women is just as interesting, but I’m going to approach that with some caution here, as I don’t have many female Western friends these days that I’ve discussed it with (although I’ll definitely bring it up at my next coffee with one!), and while I’ve been still been teaching Korean adults on and off ever since, 2004 was actually the last time I had a Western female as a colleague (at that job with Asterix and my female fans to be precise).

      With the proviso that I may be completely wrong and am happy to have my misconceptions and mistakes pointed out to me then, as far as I know the sexual dynamics for Western women and Korean men are really very different. There is the same exotic appeal of course, but I think that most Korean men find Western women to be an enigma, or to be more precise a…a…Damn. What’s the word for something seductive and alluring, but with hidden pitfalls, dangers and/or bad points? Because on the one hand, I’d imagine that most Korean men view Western women as, well, an easy lay compared to Korean women, primarily because of media images of the voracious sexual appetites of the former and the virginal virtue and standoffishness of the latter, although both are BS really (but for more on the effects on Korean sexuality of the latter, see here). So that would naturally tempt most Korean men, and indeed expat forums are full of complaints of their expectations of sex at the end of a date, but on the other hand many Korean men would probably also fear them, most Western women not putting up with the sexist attitudes and behavior that all too many Korean women are. Granted, I think I saw that last in the Lonely Planet years ago, so it’s hardly a new or profound point, but I still think there’s a grain of truth to it.

      I could go on about the childish behavior of many Korean adults, particularly in women and often cute (to a point), but not quite so endearing in grown men, and also the relative lack of dating experience and this confidence amongst 20-somethings, again not as big a problem for women as it is for guys, women the world over tending to go for more confident guys. The net result of which is that in can be quite a mission for a Western women to date here, Korean men tempted but scared of them and their Western counterparts unavailable because they do not having quite so many problems with Korean women as explained. But by looking at the dating game from a Western woman’s perspective, I’m definitely drifting away from your question and in danger or rambling about things I have little experience of really, so I’d better stop there!

      Mark, actually I’d agree with almost everything you wrote, but I think that your fears are a little exaggerated: Korean women aren’t stupid, and so while being a Westerner may well make a teacher be more appealing to them originally, if his personality leaves something to be desired then 99 out of 100 of them will move on. It’s not like Korean women are desperate for an American passport these days (or at least, not via that method)

      I do think though, that it’s a little naive to suppose that we’ll ever not notice people’s races. Of course Korean men and women make assumptions about their Western teachers that are often completely incorrect – and vice versa – but even in a perfect world, people will always flock to the exotic.


  3. I promise a good, long, reasoned reply to this post soon, but Oh! Why did you have to begin that way? I’m a bit younger than you, but not by that much and yet I was easily able to remember a good number of my high school teachers (it probably helps that I went to a small school . . still, I have to say, maybe I missed out on an important part of high school . . .but . . .EW!

    Admittedly, the first three teachers I remembered were all men (possibly colored by the fact that I took a lot of science and math) but none of them have for me even the hint of romance. Even my favorite teacher I remember as being . . .well, a dumpy middle aged dude. Another is fondly remembered for openly declaring himself part of the communist party and sometimes wearing skirts to school. But several others that came to mind I remembered principally because I HATED them with a passion most people reserve for tax collectors. While sexual attraction *can* play a role in memory formation, so too can any intense emotion. I very much liked (non-sexually) several of my teachers, but my memories of teachers for whom I had intense dislike are just as (if not more) vivid.


  4. Ack, just thought of something . . . is there any breakdown of E-2 holders by gender? Are hagwon’s taking sex into account in hiring practices?


    1. Er…sorry? :) I confess, I have the rather naive goal of being paid to write stuff like I do on this blog by the end of year, which will require much less waffle and more eye-catching first lines, so to be honest I wanted something that would persuade readers to read more rather than one that was correct per se. But sure, I could probably have made the same points in a rather more sophisticated fashion.

      I’m pretty sure I was strongly projecting in that part of the post really; in a first draft, I was also going to mention that I may well be saying what I did because of my going to six different high schools in three different countries in three years(!), and so probably a lot fewer teachers still stand out to me than for most people. Moreover, the female teacher I had in mind was particularly attractive, in her early-thirties at most, taught my major, I had in my final year, and tended to treat us 17 year-old students as adults too, so all in all quite a find.

      I hear you though, about the role of intense emotion in memory formation; it just happened to be sexual in my case. But still…“EW”? ㅋㅋㅋ Too strong a riposte surely, for I’m certain you’d agree that sexual fantasies about attractive teachers are a normal part of adolescence, and no more or less benign and/or…er…icky than you or I having the same about attractive colleagues and other acquaintances today!


  5. LOL! I think I may just have been sadly deprived . . . the teachers in my (fairly small, rural) high school were a pretty fair sight from anything to get the adolescent brain humming.
    Thanks for the stats, will reply with something more substantive than my gut reaction to the horrific idea of my teachers as romantic objects (shudder! >.<)


  6. The Japanese Gaba advert is kind of striking, the ad’s concept..but guess it should have attracted a lot of students..wish I have the time to check the meaning of the japanese words on the ad! Thanks for sourcing for the interestg ads!


  7. I’d wager good money that at least one of those three was a particularly attractive member of the opposite sex, and what’s more, that your memories of him or her are much more vivid than those of the others too. Or am I just projecting?

    You are projecting, but it seems to be a common enough situation that it still has a lot of validity. I myself had no teacher or professor whatsoever who I found attractive in this way. My boss in the first office job I had, at age sixteen, was pretty cute, though, and she liked coming over and giving me back massages as I answered the phone.

    Keiron Bailey wrote:
    The third motivation is to actualize what Kelsky calls ”eroticized discourses of new selfhood” by realizing romantic and/or sexual desires with Western males.

    And Keiron Bailey might be projecting a bit as well. I am sure that such people exist (I know some myself) but I have heard many complaints from Japanese women who wanted to know what the hell is up with the teachers who come to their school and assume that all the female students there are trying to hook up with their male teachers. One particularly adamant friend, “Mo,” would rip Keiron a new one that statement. (Another friend Mi complains that there are similar assumptions about Japanese tourists coming here to Hawaii and she and her friends — Japanese students studying locally — a lot of unwanted attention when they hang out in coffee houses to read.


    1. Sorry I didn’t reply earlier Kushibo. With regards to your second point, I can definitely understand the complaints of your female friends, but in fairness the Caucasian male/East Asian Female “thing” does work both ways, and while I’m not going to speculate at to the real extent and/or reasons for that, I’m not going to BS anyone and say that’s there’s absolutely nothing to it either. Unfortunately then, you are always going to get some Caucasian men with the assumptions about their female students that you mention, but on the other hand I don’t personally think that Keiron Bailey is projecting.


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