Handshake Utopia

I don’t even know why I cared so much. Yet, I did care. It bugged me then and it still bugs me. It is an already established fact I don’t care what you do in your classes but perhaps I am a fraud and a liar.  If I had to describe my feelings in that moment I might say it was a mix of frustration, embarrassment, confusion, anger, pity, and superiority. It was quite the cocktail of feelings to have when talking to a stranger I’d just met in a breakout session in a conference workshop. He was a nice guy as well! What could he have possibly said to draw out my ire, judgment and the above feelings? He told me and my friend about how his teaching of greetings and his related policies in his college English class. That’s all he did.

He told us that he doesn’t allow his students to bow. No bowing. “This is English class. We don’t’ bow here,” he continued.  He stated his case about preparing his students for life and they need to know how it is done in Merica. “They need to learn how to shake hands, firm, you know? They need to make eye contact when doing it. They need to learn to shake hands properly.” I got the sense it was a major focus of his course and there was plenty of time spent on mastering the fine art of the American handshake.


What is proper anyway?


I didn’t have the nerve to ask why his students needed such things. I didn’t ask if maybe students joined class to improve their English language skills. I certainly didn’t ask if they needed to use English in Korea or needed English for their major courses.  Or if they needed a certain TOEIC or TOEFL score to get a job. I didn’t ask if this extended greeting practice was the best possible use of students’ time in light of all the other things pulling on their time. I had so many thoughts and questions but this was one of the very rare cases where I was speechless. An army of cats had captured n my tongue.

Somehow, without asking,since I was mostly frozen, I did find out how he viewed his class. He said he likes to tell students his class is America. A little mini-America. Outside the room is Korea and they can do whatever they like there. But, inside his classroom he’s in charge and he wants to create his version of an American cultural zone. “This is something students are missing in their daily lives” he reasoned.  He might have invoked the magic of immersion. He might have talked about the deep and inseparable links between language and culture.

In the oasis of freedom fries he created, students are not allowed to use the greeting that comes most naturally to them. You know, the one they are trained for from an early age.  I don’t think I have such a problem with experiencing, discussing, and even practicing various aspects of culture. What I find problematic and find myself having a problem with is the insistence on NOT doing something. The banning of Korean cultural practices from an American in Korea is something I just can’t be comfortable with or get my head around. At best, it strikes me too much as either/or.

I return to my original question of why I cared so much about this. Maybe part of what bothered me so was the fear of similar things in the past and had my own blinders about them. Even worse, maybe I still do. As I analyzed my discomfort, I was stuck thinking this was some sort of a reflection of me and this is why it made me feel so damned uneasy. I didn’t enjoy this feeling. I remembered the intensive handshake training I’d found myself engaged in so long ago. Was I an imperialist then? Am I  now? Who the hell was I to judge this near stranger anyway? Was I prepared and pure enough to cast the first stones? It was all very unsettling. I tried to see things from his perspective and tried not too be overly judgmental and failed. I successfully pushed it to the back of my mind. Then I watched some more presentations, ate a burrito, had a few beers and went to sleep.


Notes: This is mostly a true story.  I took a few creative freedoms. Also, I might have had tacos that night.

Photo: From here. Is a news article from ABC and is quite interesting in light of the above.

Update: I might have considered previous classrooms a little America and fancied myself as Governor of them.




  1. Pieces of 8

    It’s a toughie! The biggest grey area I’ve sailed into yet was nicknames in Spanish-speaking classrooms. In a number of Spanish speaking countries it’s totally fine (by which I mean totally socially acceptable and without the huge issues present in an English-speaking culture, not “I think it’s fine”) to call your mates, ‘negro / negrita’ or ‘gordo’ (fattie) or ‘flaco/a’ (skinny) as well as a host of other highly descriptive nicknames.
    There was a big debate between the English speaking and Spanish speaking staff about whether we should stop these nicknames in the classrooms. In the end, it was decided that each teacher set their own standards on it.
    I took a, ‘not in my classroom’ approach. But was I imposing an alien viewpoint? Obviously, I didn’t think so, but many of my colleagues thought it was causing an issue for the kids where there wasn’t one. We were all pretty fired up and judgmental.

  2. Chewie (Gangwon Dispatches)

    The question I have is, “How much bowing is going on that he felt it necessary to impose this rule?”

    @Pieces of 8: Interesting comment! Thanks for the cultural tip. It brought back my time as a student teacher in an urban American high school. The school was 97% black; I was the only white person in the room. My supervising teacher, a black man in his 50s, had a strict “No ribbing/no cursing/no playing the dozens” rule that I carried over. When he led the class, he could enforce the rule without any trouble, but with me, I often wasn’t sure what constituted “ribbing” and what wasn’t. It was alien or foreign to me. Still, it was his room and I was his student teacher, so the rules carried over. I’ve often wondered if I’d have kept the rule if I were a full-fledged teacher.

    For my part, I find the bowing okay. In some classes, the students do the full salute at the end of class. The class leader calls the students to attention, they stand up, say thanks, and take a deep bow. I like that. It’s something that isn’t done in American classrooms (IIRC) and it makes me feel appreciated for having done a lesson. And as much as I see why your colleague bans bowing, I think that as an EPIK teacher, it’s not my place to enforce such a rule. I’m a foreigner in a Korean classroom that’s full of Korean students. The classrooms aren’t “mine” in the sense of having personal decorations or a name on the door, either. On the other hand, if a coteacher were to say, “We should our class be all-Western in culture–no bowing,” I’d go along with it because she’s in a better position to dictate the culture of the classroom and can better explain it to the students.

    Good post.

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