I met a Canadian teacher a couple of weeks ago. He’s only been on the country for three months. It was showing because I had to teach him a couple of things regarding Korean table manners, which really made me wonder about his handlers. They really should’ve taught him better or he could’ve been more observant.
My friends and I were talking with him when the subject of the HIV test came up. In South Korea, in order to be issued a visa to teach English, a foreigner must have a criminal background check as well as an AIDS test. Now, I don’t mind the criminal background check. In fact, I believe it should be par for the course for any instructor in any country to have a criminal background check. The HIV test however is a tad insidious.
The requirement was put into law a few years ago at a time when Korea had a rash of high profile criminal cases involving Korean teachers taking advantage of their students and either getting light sentences or being reshuffled back into the system. It was also a time when suspicion against foreign men specifically was being encouraged by a hate group who pushed stories to online outlets and TV networks which were more than happy to propagate them. The media would show stories villainizing male English teachers. Curiously, they tend to ignore female English teachers.
Lawmakers responded by making the HIV test a requirement, ignoring the fact that there were no credible stories about foreign English instructors spreading HIV, and that the law does not address the actual problem of leniency towards actual Korean criminals. Failing the HIV test would prevent foreigners from working in the country. It’s a xenophobic law which suggests that foreigners harbor HIV and doesn’t consider the possibility of foreigners catching HIV from a Korean partner. UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon, who happens to be Korean himself, urged the government to end the tests, calling it a violation of human rights. But the government ignored him, and the tests remain as a requirement for foreign English teachers to this day.
What’s funny is that it being a requirement for English teachers, that in itself reflects on its origins: the suspicion against male English teachers. It is not required for any other work visas, even for entertainment visas, which in many countries have been the avenue to which prostitutes enter. Korean men have also been frequenting South East Asian countries and have relations with prostitutes themselves. There are establishments in these countries that are geared solely towards Korean clientele, and yet no one is checking Korean men for HIV after coming back from their business trips.
Given this background for the law and the test, it was a mixture of amusement and sadness when the English teacher I met said that he too had to take the test, but instead of being annoyed or outraged at the requirement as well as the presumption that foreigners bring HIV to the country, he was rather nonchalant about the whole thing. He said that his handlers explained to him that it was a requirement for health insurance purposes.
Now, I don’t know how much time he spent considering this explanation. But there are so many holes in that excuse that it doesn’t take much to disprove. Are they testing for HIV so they could pay for the instructor’s expenses? If they fail and they are not allowed into the country (only about 20+ countries do this), doesn’t that show discrimination? And if they are testing for insurance purposes, how about testing other medical conditions, something without a stigma, perhaps diabetes or asthma?
Attitudes towards foreign men have slightly improved in recent months. Travel shows dominate network television, and foreign men speaking in Korean now appear in Korean talk television. This new trend has people forgetting that just a couple years ago, the fear of the foreigner scourge has been put into law, and that it continues to be a requirement to this day. And while things are currently better, it will only take one or two high-profile stories before the media sparks another moral panic. The Korean National Police Agency just recently announced a cracking down on crimes committed by foreigners by “forming voluntary crime-prevention groups” in response to an increase in foreigner-committed crimes by 5000 a year. In my opinion, this is small when considering the increase of the foreign population in the country. But I read that action as empowering local hate groups and vigilantism, and I suspect that like before, it is a misguided response to an altogether different problem.
Now, someone please explain to that naïve teacher why the HIV test is a bad thing.