Bullying in Korean Schools

I can’t say I’ve ever truly been a victim of bullying, nor have I been a bully. However, with so many depths and methods of bullying, on closer inspection of my memories from school, I guess there may have been subtle shades of grey on either side.

I certainly never spent an afternoon trapped inside a locker, nor did I endure a impromptu face wash in the school toilets. Perhaps those things are only in the movies, but although I was essentially a quiet kid in a boisterous school, living in a rough neighborhood, I managed to coast between various cliques and peer groupsharktanks, taking little more than some light-hearted friendly-fire through my formative years.

Bullies were present and in retrospect, I can see what was light-hearted humor for some, was actually relentless torment for another. Instances in the past come back to me now, were I saw a classmate or younger student on the receiving end of offensive barbs, that clearly cut deep. I may not have said much to offend nor did I roll around in hysteric theatrics like others, however I wasn’t racing to defend either. So was I really so pure? I may not have pulled the trigger, but by standing and watching the prey silently through my binoculars, I can hardly claim innocence and may well have been guilty by association.

That’s the key thing with bullies. The power lies with the people. Typically one person is the bully and their nearest allies will succumb to the bully’s will, either by fear of becoming the target, or fear of looking ‘uncool’ to the bully, thus losing face. After that, the masses fall in line like sheep as the desire to be popular overrides logic and empathy for the plight of the victims. Nobody wants to have the cross-hair on their back, so they all stand on the side that keeps them safe, even if it corrupts their better nature.

Recently, these musings have come to the forefront of my mind as I watch child politics develop and degrade before my very eyes.

My main school, Bonghwa Elementary, has class sizes of 15-25 and so it has taken me quite some time to familiarize myself with all the names, faces and characters that are here. Only now am I truly beginning to understand the dynamics within each class at a deeper level. I already knew the smart kids, the quiet kids, the slow learners and the class clowns but as time rolls on, the friendships, bonds and rivalries have surfaced and even with an extremely limited understanding of their language, I have a solid grasp of how different students interact with each of their classmates.

Sadly, the inescapable truth of two students in particular has risen to the surface.

Yu Jin, a 6th grade girl who arrived in March when her family relocated back to Korea from Vietnam, has struggled to settle in with her new classmates. When I say struggle, I really mean failed spectacularly.

Yu Jin is often left alone at her table as others will move away from her at any opportunity.

Once a month, I will rearrange the seating plan in the class. This has become a horrible experience for Yu Jin as the 23 others in class will wait with baited breath, on tenterhooks to see which three of them will have the tragic misfortune of being seated on a table with Yu Jin. On discovering their fate, jeering and hollering of zoo-like proportions will roar around the classroom. It is almost entirely down to a minority group within the twelve males in the class, but has spread like wildfire to most of the others, with even the quietest girls falling in line. Like sheep, they are too timid to counteract, too scared to become the victim.

Some boys will pull their table back from Yu Jin, others will try to move to another table or even sit on the floor in protest. Once I force them to quit being babies, they will reluctantly sit at the table but ignore her like she is a non-person, a non-entity. Even in group activities, they will continue to exclude her. If she touches a book, they will act like the book is contaminated and move away from it in disgust. Any time I treat the class to a barely-deserved movie, they will shuffle their chairs to the front near the screen, while Yu Jin remains alone and isolated at her table.

My research has uncovered that in Korea, the phenomenon of exclusion to this degree is known as 왕따 (pronounced ‘wangtta’).

This describes both the victim and the practice and for the unfortunate souls on the receiving end, it seems it is very much a dark and lonely one-way street, with only hope to accompany them to whatever affected future may lie at the end.

Without a native co-teacher at hand, it can be wearisome to repeat warnings with my limited Korean. A group of hyper 13-year-old kids will only listen for so long to the foreign teacher shout and roar the same phrases in broken Korean before they switch off. I’ve no desire to be the angry, scary teacher as it serves only to stress me out and more often than not it gets little response from the bewildered students. I simply don’t possess the necessary lingo to deliver more than a sharp warning or call-to-reason –  barely a scratch on the surface of the profound and evocative speech required to reset the mindsets of the immature and ignorant.

Yesterday was the final day of term and save for a few who turn up for the extra-curricular program in the winter break, 6th grade is no longer my worry as they will move on to middle school in the new year. Sadly, it’s too late for me to help Yu Jin.

School can be a dark and lonely time for some students

In the grade below, a similar case is developing.

Little Mi Jeong has made several personal requests at the end of the class for extra notes on the lesson – obviously at the behest of her parents.
Many of the older generation in Korea are true to the stereotype of the pushy, education-obsessed Asian parent and are the main driving force that sees many Korean teenagers forced into a horrible cycle of round-the-clock study, beginning at the breakfast table before school, continuing after the school day ends at a private academy and often rolling on until they close the book at their bedside. Some students are even spending their precious hours of “rest” with headphones seeping lectures
into their subconscious minds. Is it any wonder that Korea has the highest rate of teenage suicides in the world?

Mi Jeong has low-to-average English skills in a class that is my universally strongest across all four of my schools. She can listen & repeat and her reading his probably better than she would credit herself with. Unfortunately, confidence is low and so her performance suffers.

The spelling tests I conduct every two weeks are about as significant as this blog post is to Lonely Planet’s new guidebook. They are no more than a perfunctory review where moderate success will earn each student a stamp in their books – a clap on the back on their way to a victorious candy.

Last month, Mi Jeong dug deep and studied hard. It was evident as she improved from a previous score of 5% to 70%. But as the queue of students waiting for their stamps dispersed, I looked around to see Mi Jeong with her head in her hands wearing a thousand-yard stare led by eyes wrought with worries and stress that no 12-year-old should know.

Trying to solve the puzzle of cruel child politics

No amount of praise from me could turn the frown around and on last week’s test she did little more than doodle as the others around her frantically wrote answers down. She had been defeated. Her hardest efforts yielded a result only 14 times as good as the last bringing her to a solid score of 70%. But it was not good enough…for someone at home. It was not near enough, so why bother trying at all?

What’s worse now is that I see how students are moving away from Mi Jeong. Just like Yu Jin, the boys are developing an unjustified animosity towards her and complaining if they get sat next to her. There are just five boys in a class of 19, but the girls are slowly numbing to the sly torture in play. The freezing out is beginning.

There is a mute in 5th grade – Minji. She is literally mute – doesn’t speak at all, English or Korean. It is possible to harass a feint whisper from her if I enlist the help of one of her confidantes and put my ear down to her mouth. Incredibly though, even ‘Minji the Mute’ has more friends than little Mi Jeong.

What is of particular note, is that the 6th grade victim Yu Jin has a sister in 5th grade – Su Jin. You would think on seeing her older sister’s suffering that Su Jin may have some compassion and empathy for Mi Jeong. Surely if there’s anybody who would stretch an olive branch to Mi Jeong, it would be the younger sister of the school’s number one bullying victim. Right?


I’ve attempted to sit Mi Jeong next to Su Jin or pair them in activities together many times to no avail. Su Jin will even run to pair with Minji instead. She would rather the company of someone who can’t speak than the social humiliation of being associated with the wangtta.

Hyeon Hyun (red jumper) is a boisterous student who has little understanding for the repercussions of his antics.

Chief teaser in 5th grade is Hyeong Hyun – a tiny, impish little boy with a surprisingly big voice and short temper. He is smart and I like him but he needs reeling in once in a while. His joyous and flagrant use of English curse words was something I stamped out recently, by putting the fear of B’Jeezus into him.
Skating on thin ice now, I catch him teasing Mi Jeong and eyeball him as he performs meek bows and offers mere words, “yes teacher, sorry teacher”,  simply going through the motions as his male friends snigger.
I do wonder is he even aware that his even littler brother in 3rd grade is quickly becoming isolated from his peers.

Hyeong Jin is the younger brother of Hyeong Hyun. I have noticed him becoming isolated already in 3rd grade.

Little Hyeong Jin fought hard to keep the tears back last Thursday when scolded by classmates for dropping a point in a team game.I give the 3rd grade a little more free reign with the seating arrangement and it hasn’t escaped my attention that he has taken to sitting alone on a table away from the others, clearly not feeling welcome. Already in 3rd grade, the wangtta curse is striking. A horrible case of karma coming back round as his older brother Hyeong Hyun leads the rising charge on Mi Jeong.

After Christmas, 5th grade will become 6th, 12-year-olds will turn 13 and the need to be popular and cool will rise in their priorities. The smart kids will pull ahead of the class, the slow learners will struggle to tread water much longer as the learning content jumps another level. The class clowns will develop deeper voices and the queen bees will shoot up a few inches as their pencil cases become loaded with mirrors and lip gloss. Little Mi Jeong will feel more pressure at home to make the grade and the growing animosity in school will complete the rock and hard place situation she finds herself suddenly trapped within. I hope to help her and little Hyeong Jin before it’s too late.

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