Racism, Robots and Marketing: TEFL in Korea

I always joke that my employer, Avalon English, is like the Fawlty Towers of educational institutions.  All matters related to product quality, education and worker efficiency eventually come down to marketing and the school’s image.  The company will fall all over itself to maintain or improve an image of quality and prestige, often sacrificing both in the process.

E-Writing is a fine example.  Some parents pay extra money for the privilege of having their children submit weekly essays via the Internet.  I am required to hand out semi-related worksheets to all students who aren’t enrolled in the program, part of a guerrilla marketing campaign to get Mom and Dad to ask “What’s this E-Writing all about?”  This is no doubt touted as a great technological whizz-bang fix-all for their child’s poor ability to organize thoughts with a pencil.  After all, it uses computers!

What parents actually pay for is the privilege for their children to type into a box and click “submit.”  There are few formatting options and the only thing that seems to matter is word count, which is automatically tracked.  There’s  not even a basic spell-check function.

After submitting, the essays are read by an anonymous, likely underpaid, individual in the Philippines.  Though I’m the writing teacher, I cannot access the essays.  You figure it out.

With that in mind, you shouldn’t be too shocked by the latest technological “advancement” coming to ESL classrooms in Korea.  Thirty ESL “robots” are now employed as teachers in Daegu.  Obligatory:  The Simpsons did it!


"No, Juho. 'Linguo IS dead.'"

The “robot” — technically, it’s a remote-controlled automotive computer shaped like a person — reflects another cultural idiosyncrasy tied to marketing:  The preference for white European features.  Like the essays I’ll never grade, it’s controlled by a teacher in the Philippines, but it displays a white female on a monitor intended to be its face.


It's only a matter of time until students throw food at Engkey.

No pun intended, here’s the money quote from Sagong Seong-Dae, a senior scientist the Korean Institute for Science and Technology:  “Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea.”

The fact of the matter is that there are ESL teachers around the world who are much more qualified than I am.  However, skin color trumps all.  Are Koreans racist against non-white people?  I’m not sure.  It’s more likely that hagwons just want to promote an image of American-ness, which they perceive as white, blonde-haired and square-chinned.

The JoongAng Daily‘s take seems to confirm my impressions:

The biggest source of the current problem with foreign teachers lies in English-teaching institutes that hire teachers without careful review. Many profit-driven institutes have been employing as many Caucasian English teachers as possible without conducting thorough checks because the marketing benefits from such practice outweigh the long-term side effects.

Claims of racist hiring practices are common among foreigners and it’s usually attributed to widespread racism among Korean people.  It doesn’t help this perception when we all have to provide photographs with our resumes.  Whether or not the racism is conscious or systemic, it’s real.  Check out this excerpted letter Khadijah Anderson received from a recruiter:

Thanks for your email. I’m a former black teacher so whenever we get black applicants I like to cut right to the chase. At the moment we only have one position in Ulsan that is open to hiring black teachers. You’ve been here a while so you know the discrimination that exists in Korea.  Once in a while we get Seoul positions for black candidates but it is a rarity.

I do think there’s a reasonable expectation of conscious individual racism here because this is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries on the planet, but this doesn’t reflect my — admittedly white — personal experience.  In my Avalon branch we peaked at eight foreign teachers.  Of those eight, four were non-white and included individuals of Japanese, Pakistani, Argentinian and black ethnic backgrounds.  Whether any of us are actually qualified to teach English is another matter.

It looks like the Korean government might be trying to lead a change toward meritocracy, though.  Per Brian Deutsch, EPIK, a program for hiring public school teachers, seeks to hire Indian foreign teachers.

Daniel Daugherty

Update: Fixed the Linguo photograph, which wasn’t loading.  I also changed the wording around Khadijah Anderson’s letter, which made it sound like she was accusing all Koreans of being racist.  To clarify, the letter was a surprise because she has had a positive personal experience as a black female in Korea.

Update 2: Corrected spelling of Ms. Anderson’s first name



Filed under Culture, Employment Details

5 responses to “Racism, Robots and Marketing: TEFL in Korea

  1. Don

    This is also true in the middle-east.

    Dark people, known as hawsawi’s, because of their tribal heritage, are usually kept to a minimum amount of responsibility, prestige, and position.

    American whites, followed by British, German, etc, are promoted or advanced long before they would consider any Asian or S. African.

    As a matter of fact, the whiter an Arabs skin is, the more sexy and desirable they are deemed. This is abundantly clear in the pharmacies where they have entire aisles dedicated to the sales of skin whitening products.

    This tidbit is added for the final laugh track of my comment… when you die here you are supposed to go to heaven and receive many virgins as a gift for being a good man during your mortal life. The virgins are fair skinned and you can actually see their veins under their skin. An attribute that is considered as sexy as anything possible in the Arab world. And the best part of it all is that the Arab word for these woman in heaven is,”Who-ers.”

    So be good, die and go to heaven and get your whores!

  2. Daniel,

    I appreciate the mention of my blog post. It’d be awesome if you could correct the spelling of my name as it is Khadijah, not Kadijah. Thanks!

  3. When it comes to marketing of language programs, this is an excellent example of how not to go about it. Ultimately, marketing isn’t about gimmicks, tricking people or shoving things down their throat they they neither want, nor need. Effective long term marketing of language programs has more to do with cultivating excellent relationships (regardless of skin colour). What your school is doing is all smoke and mirrors.

    • Daniel Daugherty

      Dr. Eaton, if your academic background is in PR & Communication, you’d be endlessly fascinated by Korean marketing. I wish I’d been able to do a Master’s thesis on it.

  4. Dawni M

    Hi, Im interviewing for Avalon English schools right now and hope to be in Korea by Feb – March. If you dont mind, Would you say you could honestly recommend them ? Would you mind to tell me 3 negative things about AE ? And 3 positive things ? I would just like to get the best impression of this corp and who better than someone who works for them.

    Im sorry if this isnt the appropriate place to add this comment, but its the only area I could find. Please feel free to move it elsewhere if thats necessary. :o) Thanx

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