Reacting to Dokdo in the Classroom

March 5, 2014

It’s not always inevitable that Dokdo will come up as a foreign English teacher in Korea. Unless you’re assigning your students newspaper articles to read and they happen to choose one regarding relations between Korea and Japan, or they happen to have particularly right-wing parents who want to use their children to promote Dokdo propaganda at every opportunity, it might actually steer clear of the classroom, even over the course of a year’s contract.

Kindergarteners will, hopefully, be ignorant of the issue. But elementary students and higher? Not so much.

The reason I mention this is it doesn’t take long for a newbie foreign English instructor to realize that Dokdo is taboo. Taking a position other than “Dokdo is the greatest place on Earth and it belongs 100% to Korea while the dirty Japanese have tried to take it away at every opportunity” can result in tensions in the classroom, trouble in the workplace, and all-out brawls on the street.

So, when my elementary school students, who are clearly too young to form their own opinions about such a complex issues, just parroted “Dokdo is ours” (they clearly heard from Dokdo English propaganda, because I never hear them use “ours” correctly in other sentences), did I simply say right back “YES! DOKDO IS KOREA’S! #1!”?

No, because while I still had to live and work in Korea, I couldn’t in good conscience lie to people or encourage that behavior. When elementary students said something like that, I would ignore it or tell them to be quiet.

However, I had this stance tested in Gangneung. For the first time in forever, I was teaching high school students capable of expressing themselves on a mature level, and even organizing debates for class. So, when Dokdo came up on a whim with two of my private students, they told me something about the previous teacher: he had gone on a tirade in class, saying Dokdo was Japanese territory and anyone who thought otherwise was stupid.

Let me tell you English teachers something about doing that in Korea: DON’T. It doesn’t matter if you believe you’re right or not. Assess the situation as best you can, but DON’T challenge any Korean’s assertions on Dokdo. Not only did it completely alienate this teacher from his students, but may have been one of the reasons I was called in as a replacement.

I have no doubt it was the first time my students were used to hearing such a person, in-your-face challenge of their beliefs. While I believe this is good for growth as an individual, I balk at being the one to administer such opposing opinions when I still have to deal with coworkers and students (not to mention angry netizens). Even Eat Your Kimchi, a wildly popular vlogging team, nearly got stopped before they even started when they criticized loud political announcements in front of their apartment. Although the video is still available, they removed it from their site to disassociate themselves even further from such fiery issues.

So, what did I do, to keep order in the classroom but still maintain my dignity as someone not swayed by Korean propaganda? In a calm, level voice, I told my students it was unfair of them to ask me about Dokdo, in much the same way it would be unfair of me to ask them about a complicated US domestic issue. As an American, I didn’t think Dokdo affected me. I further alluded to my two years living in Japan, and how in that time, talking to all those people, Dokdo and Takeshima had never once been mentioned. Not once.

Would I have said this if I didn’t have to continue living in Korea and having discussions with Koreans? Of course not. My language would have been much stronger, my opinion stated clearly. But if travel has taught me anything, it really is discretion is the better part of valor. Consider your audience and the repercussions of your actions:

Surely, it would be liberating and rebellious as an American to openly insult the King of Thailand on his soil, but doing so is stupid and dangerous, sometimes resulting in prison time.

There’s no point in walking into a church and debating evolution with close-minded individuals. While I applaud Bill Nye, I still think it was a rather pointless exercise in futility; if anything, the debate proved religious fundamentalists are more cunning and persuasive than we would have believed.

Why would you bring up facts to an elderly Fox News viewer (redundant, I know)? He’s spent years believing something is true and anyone who defies this truth is a communist or part of the left-wing media conspiracy.

There’s a time for standing up for your beliefs in the face of those who need to see dissent, and there’s a time when such actions would be completely fruitless. Discussing Dokdo in Korea is one of the latter.

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