Saturday, September 7, 2013

Wangtas and Bullying in Korean Middle School

Before I came to Korea, I watched a lot of Kdramas (supposedly in an effort to learn the language). One in particular starts off with a kid who's being bullied, and he resorts to killing himself by jumping off a building with the rest of the school egging him on. This year there have been a couple of teen suicides in my city, some related to bullying and some to the stress of academic pressure.

I read up on it and braced myself for the "wangta in every class" problem. The 'wangta' is supposedly the class reject, chosen by the alpha to be rejected all year. That's something I'm pretty familiar with - they did the same thing at my primary school/middle school, and I was the wangta myself two years running before they moved on to another kid. So I was ready to see this kind of thing in Korea. I'd heard so much about it, after all.

And then I got to my Korean school, and... Somehow, my school seems to have gotten a handle on it. It could have something to do with police officials standing at the gates some mornings, holding "Bullying is bad" signs, or the students who greet us each morning wearing sashes with similar slogans (at least, I think that's what they say). Or it could have something to do with the warm atmosphere I've felt in most of the classes, from most of the teachers. My office is the third grade homeroom teacher's office, so I see all kinds of drama. Lately most of it has consisted in girls being forced to wash off their makeup, or wear longer skirts.

There was a fight in my math teacher friend's class this week, and I've had to break up a couple of fights in my one first grade class. But aside from standard messing around - chasing each other with bottles of water, kicking slippers around - the usual tomfoolery that is more a sign of initiation into the wolfpack - I haven't seen any bullying in the amounts that I was expecting it.

The only real case of bullying that I've witnessed is the sad way in which a bunch of girls in one class have ganged up on another girl due to a quarrel over a boy. The rejected girl lashed out by stealing the alpha female's phone (probably to sabotage her relationship attempts) and it's gone steadily downhill since then.

What surprised me, and amazed me, and made me absolutely love a couple of specific classes, is that the classes with the most likely 'wangta' targets - the D-classes with the kid with Down Syndrome, or the poor kid, or the gay kid, or the many kids with learning disabilities... Are warm, friendly, loving places. During one game this week, the boys in the D class let the Down Syndrome kid get away with making a couple of mistakes for a couple of rounds, before finally telling him he was out but that he'd done a very good job up to that point. And he beamed with pride, and he was included. During the speaking tests, the kids with learning difficulties were cut a break with easier questions, and their classmates were warm and supportive towards them. The girl with the massive birthmark across her face is one of the most popular girls in the school, and I haven't seen or heard of any kids making fun of others for being overweight. Furthermore, the kids who seem most likely to have been chosen as wangtas for all the usual reasons - poverty, appearance, learning disabilities... are generally 'protected' by the alphas rather than excluded by them. Somehow, someone has gotten through to these kids that compassion earns you more respect than bullying does. I applaud them, whoever they are.

Maybe the language barrier excludes me from the bitchy comments that must be flying around. But I like to think that at my wonderfully dong-chim-free school, bullying has been nipped in the bud for the most part, and it's a pretty awesome place.

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