As many of you know, I was an instructor in South Korea for two years. What many do not know is that the second contract I signed brought me an ugly surprise. I would have to pretend to be a missionary.
In 2004, I set a few goals that have since come to fruition. One of them was to teach in South Korea, because of the monetary benefits (Japan, at the time, had a much weaker Yen through 2008, usually around ¥120 to $1USD then, whereas it has strengthened 50% to ¥79 per $1 now, which would have altered my plan). From December 2000, it was apparent that the US economy would dive for many years to come and I wanted to have more solvency.
The first time I came to Korea in 2007-8, it was apparent to me that Protestants there wielded significant political and financial power. As a rule, the stronghold of these powerful figures is the southern Seoul area, where megachurches are dominant, particularly Presbyterian churches (strange to me, as Presbyterian churches in the US have dwindling memberships generally). I often had people approach me, just as a Caucasian westerner and thank me for “your people bringing the gospel to us.” For someone who is not particularly religious, this was weird, but to have this colonist being worshiped is deeply upsetting. Furthermore, it was clear to me as an outsider that Buddhists were and are quite disenfranchised in many ways. This culminated when a city gate of vast significant to Koreans was burned down, although the charges of arson were played down from what was probably a cultural attack rather than the act of one man’s vengeance. There are regular calls within the church community to destroy all traces of Buddhism in the country, particularly this was strong in the 80s and 90s.
Thus when I took my second contract in early 2009, I was initially told that the school’s preschool and kindergarten portions were Christian. No problem. I had done this kind of work in the country’s second wealthiest area before, and in North America, a Christian school means that you sing some kids’ hymnals or tell some parable and that is the end of it. I arrived and was told “No, this is in a church, your boss is the minister’s wife. We are not legally able to hire teachers as a non-profit religious organization. You have to be tied to the external school and if we are discovered, you must say you are volunteer missionary here. You will be expected in church and in the afternoons, will deliver an English version of the sermon.”
When you have traveled 6,000 miles for a job and realize that about $5000 has been invested to bring you there, it is a very tight spot when there are incompatibilities. It was very unpleasant, but I went through this procedure for about six months until I had enough leverage to break with the church, but also had enough experience to have a story to tell.
Hypocrisy in religious organizations is almost universal because we are fallible human beings and megalomaniacs are attracted to positions of authority. At this church, the pastor had absolute control. He came and scrutinized our sermons and I was made to use a microphone even if there were just five attendees within 20 feet of me. While most Christians in North America will at least feel shame when contradicting the conditions of their religion, this is not generally the case there. The pastor had the alcoholic’s red, bulbous nose, and once I got to know some of the top church leaders, it was clear that they saw prostitutes or had a second woman on hand. I found the women to be quite faithful generally, but they did not really know the full extent of what was going on, or otherwise liked being able to not work and socialize during the day. At the same time, they were quite domineering and looked at Christianity as a compatible part of Confucianism and a way to impose hierarchical social order.
From an outsider’s perspective, the Protestant Christians in Korea experienced church as another dimension to the militarized society. People are used to the men spending 21 months compulsory service for the military. Those who cannot participate because of religions such as the Jehovah’s Witness faith spend the equal amount of time in a prison sentence, but interestingly if one takes a corporate job with one of the big conglomerates, this is equivalent service and these lucky few get out of it. After military experiences and all things considered, one works six days a week, and then is expected to be at church all day Sunday.
In Asia there is a philosophy or term called “Confucian capitalism.” Protestantism, Confucianism, and capitalism have merged to become a blind authority-accepting system. However, South Korea has the lowest level of employee engagement in the world, at one-third the percentage of the average of 22 economies/countries. In my observation and estimation, it appears that this is because people instinctively know that their heritage has been violated and there is a war against their native wisdom.
It did not take long to realize that as an ESL instructor my role was not really to teach English, but to be locally contracted indoctrination. This is not unique to ESL, teachers are generally instruments of the State to reinforce and police values of the culture or particular power figures (which is not always a bad thing). English music and distribution of film and television has a similar purpose. Combined, they spread the worst values of the West (or lack of), rather than the ingenuity and sense of community responsibility that exist. For instance, there is so much high-fructose corn syrup in cereal in Korea that my tongue would go numb, and the milk was approved by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), raising issues with sovereignty, in my opinion.
Obviously I was not happy to deliver sermons, as this is not my trade, and my resentment made me give some very strong digs at the people around who were probably lied to and told that I was a devout Christian. A style of Protestant Christian prayer there is to stand in a circle with others, and pray random babble as a flow of consciousness out loud. I said upon encountering this, “I’m sorry, but most churches in the United States would consider this Satanic. At first I expected you to bring out snakes and see if your faith prevented them from biting you.” Obviously, this kind of prayer is some kind of fusion with local, Buddhist chanting.
Imposing foreign dogma once again.
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