Archive for August, 2012

Four Chinese Cities, Part 1

by on Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Shengda College students, with Jerri in the center, making dumplings in the school cafeteria. making dumplings. In Zhengzhou eating dumplings on the shortest day of the year is said to keep your ears from freezing all winter

Jerri is a friend of mine now living on the island of Jejudo in South Korea with her friend Lucy. Their first six and a half years in Asia were spent in four cities in China. This interview took place recently over Skype. Jerri kindly provided the photos.

Jerri’s story

Map showing Shenyang, Zhengzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong

My background is in finance and economics. In the States I worked for a publishing house which put out a magazine for senior executives of banks and another for the boards of directors of trading companies. I lived in Arizona but made monthly business trips to New York City. When 9/11 hit, I lost hundreds of friends and colleagues from other companies. I went to one memorial service at Carnegie Hall for 111 employees from a company of 160 and then to another one for 89 people. For the next six months, I listened to survivor stories every time I made a phone call. We were helping small and medium-sized investment banks get back on their feet, assisting with client information lost from their main servers and that kind of thing. By the time I left the States, I was so stressed out I didn’t know if I would ever be able to claw my way back to daylight. I was so depressed, angry, sad, and I had such mixed emotions about the retaliation by the U.S. government. I’ve always been a pacifist, but I really wanted revenge, and I didn’t like myself because of it.

Of course, I was irrevocably changed in many ways. I’d had friends who were richer than God but worked like maniacs to get more. But in the end all that money and sitting on the 109th floor of the World Trade Center didn’t do one thing for them. So ten years ago I realized that the things I was saving for might never happen, that if I wanted to see the world, get active and make a difference, then now was the time for it. I chucked everything: house, belongings, car and career. I just knew it was right. At the time I thought I’d only be gone for one year.


My first job was with a language school in the far north, not far from North Korea. We taught students with different amounts of proficiency from every age group. I also did some tourism teaching in hotels and restaurants. I loved it there. That was when all the state-run factories were closed down. It was economically very depressed. Everything was fueled by coal, so the air was black, black, black. No one spoke any English. You couldn’t go anywhere or eat anything if you didn’t know how to say it in Chinese, so during the first six months I learned most of the Chinese I know. People were not good at inferring what you might be trying to say if you got the tone wrong.

Most of the other expats were young Canadians fresh out of college who were so welcoming. It was the first time in many years that I’d been immersed in that age group. Canadian culture is different from American culture in that it didn’t matter to them that I was in forty-seven. We just became part of the group.

The ethnic background of that area was part Han, but more Mongol, with tall, big-boned people.  They were super friendly, and the food was the best I had anywhere in China. China wasn’t developing very much at that point, not the way it has been in the last five or six years. People were really poor. They were used to having their housing provided and working at lifetime jobs in state-run factories, and suddenly they didn’t have that anymore. New industry had not yet come in to fill that void.

The first year and a half I made $500 a month in addition to the free apartment. Before I got there I thought there was no way I could live on that, but I discovered I couldn’t spend all my salary. I saved half of it. About two months into our stay, the SARS epidemic hit, and everything closed down. The school management said, “We’ll keep you on a stipend”—maybe $125 a month. “You’re free to leave if you want to. If you want to come back you can continue your contract.” There was a clause that you got extra money if you stayed. They let us remain in our apartments, but they said they didn’t know how long the school would be closed. It was about two weeks. All the foreigners lived in the same apartment building, so we pooled our money and had barbeques on the roof and laughed and talked and just had a good time.

In that area our free apartment probably wouldn’t have rented for $100 a month. It had been made from a big apartment cut four ways, only one of which had a kitchen. Ours was beautiful, two stories with a loft area, but no kitchen and running water only upstairs. It was fun, but not the way I would want to live the rest of my life. When we were working, we had several local hangouts, little Chinese restaurants where people were excited at having foreigners come in. They would let you point and guess how to say things. They got to know what we liked, so they would have it ready for us.

At this point I can’t imagine ever going back to the States to live. I think the lifestyle of an expat is much richer. Not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new or see something I’ve never seen before. After ten years in Asia, I’m still learning something new every day. It’s difficult to live in a country where, if you speak the language at all, the culture is still so different that you’re always stumbling into other people’s sensitive areas, and they’re stumbling into yours. But it’s a completely different kind of stress than you have at home.

When I told people I was moving on to Zhengzhou in Henan Province, Shenyang people would say, “Why do you want to go there? Those people are criminals. They will steal from you. They will cheat you.” That was the stereotype of Henan, which was very poor.


Vendor in a Zhengzhou market

Teaching in Zhengzhou in central China was one of my favorite experiences because I taught college students. I love that age group. What was then called Shengda College of Economics and Trade of Zhengzhou University wasn’t really part of the university, but a private college founded by a Taiwanese man whose family was originally from Zhengzhou. He owned several private schools in Taiwan. He had paid to be affiliated with the university in order to get students because otherwise no one would have enrolled. The students I taught didn’t make the grade to get into state universities like Zhengzhou, so their parents put them into this private school so their diplomas would say that they graduated from Zhengzhou University. [According to Wikipedia, when the school was founded in 1994 under the program to expand higher education in China, regulations required new colleges to find “mother schools” to supervise them. The other sources given below say students paid tuition five times higher that of the state universities.]

The students were amazing. They came from dirt poor families in the villages, all agricultural areas, and they were so grateful for this education. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere. They worked hard every minute. They had two sets of clothes, and at night they hand-washed the one they had worn that day, and the next day they wore the other set. Even in the bitter cold winter they took cold showers because hot showers were more expensive and none of them could afford it. The electricity was turned off in the dorms at 9:00 at night. Once I asked a student whether he’d had a good Spring Festival [the month-long Lunar New Year vacation]. He said it was okay, but they had just stayed in bed the whole time because it was cold and the only heat was the fire under the kang [the brick sleeping platform heated from below by burning straw or coal].

Trishaw on a Zhengzhou street

In the States students from a poor background might want to hide that. But these kids were proud, they loved their parents, and they wanted us to meet them. They wanted to show us what their life was like and what their homes were like. A lot of these places still had no running water. But the families were just so genuine and so warm in welcoming us into their homes, giving us gifts and hospitality we could never hope to repay.

When I first came to the campus in the fall of 2003, only a handful of student had mobile phones. Only one student had a computer. But the economy was improving rapidly. When I left a year and a half later, every student had a mobile phone, and over half had computers. When computers became available the parents wanted their college kids to have them. The students were all the brightest in the extended family, the only ones given the chance for a higher education. Sometimes whole villages had pitched in because for the rest of their lives the college graduates would be sending money home to those who had helped them. The pressure was tremendous though. The students knew people were making huge sacrifices for them and that they had to live up to their expectations.

From that school one of those students went to the States to get a master’s in economics and then a Ph.D. in agricultural economics. She’s teaching at UCLA now. Another one studied technology in Germany. He’s still there. Another one is in Australia. I know if you saw them today you would have no idea what background they came from.

One of my students was born in Xinjiang in the far west of China. Her grandparents were from Zhengzhou, but just by virtue of the fact that they were landowners during the Cultural Revolution they were sent off for reeducation and relocation, and all of their land was confiscated. Eventually the family made it back to Zhengzhou. I was interested in how many previously powerful families have managed to regain as much power as they’d had before. They were educated people, and perhaps the people who gained power during the Cultural Revolution didn’t have the education, knowledge and ability to hold onto it.

Shengda College is no longer affiliated with Zhongzhou University. I heard the Taiwanese founder was no longer willing to pay for the affiliation. [According to the articles cited below, in 2003 a law was enacted stating a diploma could not bear the name of a university the student had not actually attended.] Nobody told the students. Their parents had sacrificed for years so their diplomas would say “Zhengzhou University.” It meant the difference between a successful career and a mediocre career. When their diplomas were handed to them without it, they had no idea this was coming. 12,000 students rioted and destroyed this little campus in the middle of nowhere. Within an hour the army was there trying to shut down the protest. An hour after that the students had broken all of the windows in all of the buildings and destroyed what for that area was a state-of-the-art library. Within 24 hours the situation was under control. I could understand the students’ reaction, but it was a really sad thing.

The riot was in the spring, and we had left the preceding Christmas. We started hearing about what was going on from students and from faculty members who were still there, but within three or four hours all the Internet connections had been cut so students could no longer post online. The authorities cut off all communication and wouldn’t let anyone leave. One of my students was accused of being the ringleader, and her dossier was black-marked. [This is the document which follows a Chinese citizen her whole life] and her national ID. After that she worked for a while in a little business I had, but she was never able to get another job. Now she’s back on the farm with two children, the second of which had to be paid for because she wasn’t allowed to have two. So the riot was a big deal.

[The Wikipedia entry says, “Shengda Economics Trade and Management College of Zhengzhou is intended to be a part of an eventual Shengda University. As of 2012, enrollment has surpassed 15,000 students.” <,_Trade_and_Management_College_of_Zhengzhou>

Two other articles of interest:

Richard Spencer, “Why Students are Revolting, The Telegraph <http://blogs.>

“Thousands of Chinese students riot over bleak job prospects,” World Socialist Website <>]


No Gold-plated Chopsticks

by on Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Xiamen harbor seen from Gulangyu

In 1986 a New Zealander named Mark was living on the island of Gulangyu and running a small firm which assisted foreign companies trying to set up businesses in Xiamen’s Special Economic Zone. Much of what Mark said then is still applicable today, particularly when seen in the context of intercultural negotiations of all kinds.   

The idea of my company is to help middle-sized foreign companies do business here. Unfortunately, with the world’s economic downturn, there are not as many wanting to come here. Our business is very slow. The big corporations, which are still coming into the country, don’t need someone like me. They do fine because of their size and the fact that they’re doing fairly heavy capital investment.

The middle-sized companies, which definitely need my help, are in a pinch and aren’t expanding very much. They’re the ones pulling out of China. They don’t have a lot of money for research and development, and they need negotiations outside of their own country to bring results reasonably quickly. They can’t afford four years of negotiations, particularly in Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou, where it can cost the company $175,000 to $200,000 a year just for office space. The Chinese insist that foreign offices must be in a luxury hotel or one of the expensive new office buildings. Also, a lot of foreign companies think China is reverting to old policies and it’s going to be a long time before the Chinese buy again. So why pay out $200,000 a year just for the privilege of working?

My opinion is that right now China is not buying those things that it classes as luxury items—televisions, cassette recorders, gold-plated chopsticks—because they make a big dip into the foreign exchange reserves. If the money China spent on heavily-processed goods had been spent on processing lines for the same items, China would be able to make its own products rather than import them. However, China is still very much in the market for high-tech equipment. They’ve just stopped buying stuff they don’t need.

In my work I’m the go-between with questions to ask the Chinese that the foreigners are forgetting to ask and questions the Chinese don’t think of asking the foreigners. I’m the person in the middle to solve problems before they become problems.

One company was looking into setting up a manufacturing plant here and wanted to know about labor laws in the Xiamen Special Economic Zone. I found out the prescribed range of salary and wages for various types of workers from engineers down to lifters and shovers. It looks very cheap, but there are many other costs that aren’t included in the wage. Most Westerners only think of a wage and a bonus for good work. Well, here if your factory or plant isn’t near good public transport, you’ve got to supply transport for your workers to and from work. If there are no eating facilities nearby, then you’ve got to supply a canteen or bring food in. You may also have to provide accommodation. Then there’s medical insurance, five or seven months’ maternity leave and quite substantial severance pay, as well as other things. So you can end up paying two and a half times the workers’ cash wage. I think these provisions for workers are great, but it means that labor isn’t as cheap as foreign companies first believe it is, so I tell them in advance.

Lots of times foreign businesses have signed contracts with China and then found that there are many bits and pieces they didn’t consider. One of those was here in Xiamen. A contract was signed in Beijing for a technology and equipment transfer for a process using large amounts of liquid nitrogen, which in most industrialized parts of China, like Beijing, is very easy to get a hold of. When the foreign company signed this contract they didn’t think to ask about it. The Chinese company didn’t volunteer the information. The machinery got to Xiamen, they were putting it in, and they said, “Well, where’s the liquid nitrogen?”

“Sorry, where’s what?”

“The liquid nitrogen.”

“Hmm. Don’t have a lot of that round here.”

Now, had the equipment supplier known beforehand, a very simple modification would have been done in Europe before the machinery ever left the plant. As it was, modifications needed to be made to the machinery, but that wasn’t in the contract, so the Chinese wouldn’t let them do it. The equipment was useless, and the foreign company had to get in touch with the suppler of the machinery because if an unauthorized person made the changes, the machinery would no longer be covered under the warrantee or the insurance. The two companies finally sorted that one out. The foreign company brought out more people from Europe, so there was the double airfare for however many people had to come out with all the bits and pieces of equipment.

This sort of thing happens quite often in China. When Westerners are doing business with each other, normally that sort of information is given to you so you can work out what you really need and make a good deal. Here foreigners expect to be given the necessary information, but for various reasons Chinese don’t volunteer information. You’ll find this even when you go to a hotel to book a room. You say, “Have you got a double room?”


“Have you got a triple room?”

“Yes, we’ve got a triple room.”

“Can I have the triple room, please?”


They don’t volunteer the information as they would in a Western hotel–”Sorry, sir, we don’t have a double room, but we’ve got singles and triples. Would that suit?”

The same way, if you were buying the same sort of machinery in America, you’d say, “What kind of needs does this machinery have?—Ah, sorry, we don’t have nitrogen.”

Another company here was putting in a new process and wanted details from the Chinese partner about the process they already had. “Do you have a study of some sort on it?”

The Chinese said, “Sorry, we don’t have that sort of analysis.”

The foreign company had to go through and do it. Then a month later it just came out that the Chinese had in fact done a study of their own which had been available when the foreigners asked about it.

“So you do have a study then?”

“Well, of course we have one.”

Why things are done this way I don’t know. That’s the major problem people who work here run into. They’re not given the information that’s available.

Quite definitely distrust goes both ways. The Chinese have learned not to trust either foreigners or Overseas Chinese. When China first started doing business with foreign companies, they were very naive about doing business, especially with Overseas Chinese. I don’t think they realized that Hong Kong business people are business people first and Chinese second.

One example that springs to my mind is at the Guan Hai Yuan [Sea View Gardens] on Gulangyu, near the beach and down the hill from the English Middle School. It used to be the foreign enclave where the Amoy Club and all the consulates and all the villas for the foreigners were. Some of the villas have been renovated. Well, as far as I understand, the renovation for Guan Hai Yuan was paid for with local Xiamen money or Fujian money, but a Hong Kong company or companies were hired to make the arrangements. Half-way through the project they ran out of money. Now, outside many of the buildings—for one extreme example—are brown paving tiles. They’re Italian, brought all the way from Europe into Hong Kong and then brought into Xiamen to pave the ground outside these buildings. For that kind of job ordinary Chinese outdoor tiles would have done perfectly well. The Hong Kong people probably made money by importing the tiles from Italy through one part of the company and then selling them to the part of the company that was dealing with China.

Another example is the vacuum cleaner for the Guan Hai Yuan. There are carpets and bare floors throughout the place, so they need a vacuum cleaner and a polisher. They were sold a vacuum cleaner for $40,000 HK [$5,076 US]. This is a very big machine. They’ve got to have four people to lift it up the stairs. There’s another hotel in town which has a machine that’s both a polisher and vacuum cleaner you can do steps and chairs with. It cost maybe a quarter of what the one at the Guang Hai Yuan. That’s just another example of Hong Kong people selling China something that’s prohibitively expensive and pretty worthless for the job they bought it for.

The Guang Hai Yuan is now out of money. They don’t have the money for advertising. The place is just going completely downhill. All the rooms remain damp because there are no people in them using air-conditioners. It’s a great shame.

Another problem has to do with poor planning. Last year Chinese foreign reserves went down, resulting in a trade deficit of fifty billion US dollars, because there was very, very little central control of Chinese companies. Whenever controls are relaxed businesses go for a quick profit. The Chinese authorities opened the four Special Economic Zones to foreign business and then in September last year opened these fourteen coastal cities. And a lot of the money was going to them as well as Hainan Island [the location of a big financial scandal in the summer of 1985]. When the central authorities gave the coastal cities autonomy over how they spent their foreign exchange, they must have thought it would be spent wisely, that they would put it into projects rather than a lot of unnecessary consumer goods. The individuals and companies weren’t up to the responsibility.

For example, if you look out at the Huli Industrial District, you’ll see something like five hundred or a thousand small trucks brought into the Special Economic Zone to sell inland at a big profit, even though they had permission to import only to the SEZ, which for tax purposes is seen as “outside China.” Once the product goes across to Jimei there’s a big tax on it. The government saw this purchase as a waste of foreign exchange and said, “No, you can’t sell them inland. You sell them all in Xiamen.” There wasn’t a big enough market in Xiamen. Then the importers were told they had to sell them to a third country. Well, they’d paid more than the market price for them to start off with, so if they wanted to sell them again they had to lose a lot of money. The trucks have been sitting in the SEZ for a year now, and permission has just been granted to sell them in China, where they’ll be sold at the new car price.

The red tape has also increased again, and that can really spell trouble. For example, an American oil corporation has a joint venture with a Beijing company to produce four-wheel drive vehicles. The joint venture company plans to produce all the parts in China at some future date, but at the moment they’re importing the vehicles in knock-down form and assembling them here. That means they have to pay hard currency for the kits, and they have to sell the cars for foreign exchange in order to buy more kits. Reminbi (Chinese currency) is of absolutely no use to them. The joint venture almost went out of business because they could no longer use the foreign exchange currency they had access to without permission. Suddenly they weren’t in a position to pay for the vehicles they had already bought. After quite long discussion the bureau in Beijing said the company could pay their creditors and could continue selling a certain number of vehicles to local Chinese corporations.

Just because foreign exchange is earned by a particular work unit does not necessarily make it theirs. The Xiamen cannery, to give you another example, exports nearly all of its products, which are good enough products to be copied in Hong Kong—it’s interesting that in Hong Kong they’re copying something Chinese instead of the reverse. The cannery earns a lot of foreign exchange, but usually they’re only given around ten percent of it to use themselves. They want to buy a new production line and upgrade their stuff. They were told last year, “Yeah, sure, you’ll get the money—no problem.”

They didn’t get it, so they went to Beijing and said, “Listen, we earned that money. We should have the right to a much larger percentage of it than you’re allowing us.”

Eventually they were given the money because it would create more foreign exchange in the long run. They’ll buy a better production line, and then they’ll be able to sell more of their products overseas, and they’ll get the money back. That’s certainly true of lots of—almost all—units. If they are foreign exchange earners they are paid in Reminbi by the government-run export-import corporation. Many units are now trying to form joint ventures with foreign companies solely because a joint venture is allowed to do its own exporting, which may be only a way to get around the regulations.

Some of the problems with investing in China come from the fact that you can’t get guarantees from the Bank of China, particularly for heavy capital investment in things like hotels, which tie up capital for thirty years or so. During that period of time the money could be used three times over to import production lines or technology of some sort. There’s also a difference in banking practice, in that foreign banks will guarantee twenty times their capital, figuring that not all the concerns will go broke. The Bank of China guarantees fifteen times its capital. I think playing it safe is a pretty reasonable economic policy, given the state of banks in other parts of the world. Apparently China is going to cut down the heavy capital investment guarantees and try and spread the money over a lot more projects.

In general the economy seems to be pretty sound. The new system China is developing is not capitalist because workers have to be looked after by the enterprise. There are some “free workers” who have their own places to live, but most of the workers are still be housed by the work unit and will be in future. They call it “market socialism,” but there isn’t really a good name for it. I know that China has never been communist. Communism, like democracy, is an ideal that probably doesn’t actually exist. People are basically greedy and don’t allow such systems to happen.

I would say China is heading towards a more extreme version of the system New Zealand has. New Zealand started as a social experiment. It gave women the vote early, it has free higher education. I got paid to go to university. While you’re a child, you have free dental and medical care subsidized by the government. Your basic needs are provided for. If you’re out of work, there’s an unemployment benefit for as long as you need it. This is not an unemployment insurance that you have to pay into. If you’re a single parent, there’s a benefit so you can just live and look after your child.

I think China will develop a system very much a market economy, but with a lot of state support as well. It would be very sad to see China’s state-owned enterprises being taken over by free enterprises. If you’ve got a few state shops who are supplying goods with a minimum mark-up, just enough to pay salaries and overhead costs, it will keep the prices for the same product down in the free market areas. I think that’s really necessary. They could keep a certain number of state-run factories which put out goods of an acceptable quality while still allowing other companies to produce higher-priced goods. The goods from the state factories would prevent the higher-priced goods from becoming ludicrously high. That’s something New Zealand doesn’t have, but I think that’s what China’s headed toward.


A Lecturer in South Korea

by on Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Hanyang University

Leah lived in South Korea between 2007 and 2010 and taught at Hanyang University outside of Seoul. We met during that time. This interview took place over Skype in 2012 when she was in California and I was in the Philippines. Leah generously supplied all the photos.

Leah’s story

Outside Hanyang University

After earning my master’s in creative writing and teaching writing and literature for a couple of years at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I wanted to travel and I wanted more time to work on fiction writing. I also wanted to save more money than I could on an adjunct lecturer’s salary. A couple of people recommended South Korea to me, and it seemed like a great option.  After some time over there I landed a job at Hanyang University-Ansan, which I loved.

For one thing, I found the teaching satisfying. The students were respectful, they were engaged in what they learning, they were diligent, and they’d come from a very rigorous school system. In the university they had more freedom than they’d had in their super-intensive high schools, but they were already experts in the experience of being students. For example, when we were reading novels in an American literature class they’d look up every word they didn’t recognize and write out a long definition next to it, even if they had to do it twenty times per page or more.

After about a year’s time at Hanyang University I moved from the Department of English Education to the Department of English Language and Culture. I gained more autonomy, I assume because my colleagues knew I had experience teaching writing and literature at American universities and trusted me to create an appropriate curriculum. Having creative academic freedom was obviously a very positive part of the job.  There wasn’t much in the way of bureaucracy, red tape, or administrative assessment.

Student jacket

There were certain issues that were unique to South Korea, such as those that would arise with grading. I was in situations that I found rather unusual, although it turned out that they were pretty typical: students threatening suicide, offering bribes or begging and pleading. Sometimes it was done in a joking fashion, but it was always hard for me to gauge exactly what was happening. Not that there isn’t that type of thing in American universities, there can be, but there’s more of an intensity and an insistent quality about it in South Korea, and it’s also at a higher level. In the U.S., I’ve never had students argue with me over A-minuses the way they do in South Korea—or even A’s when a student really wants an A+. So this type of grading intensity was new to me.

The English majors I taught were undergraduates ranging from freshmen to seniors. My composition class was fairly large, around thirty people, whereas the conversation and literature classes had about twenty. They were terrific students, good at mastering things that were taught to them.  I taught composition very much like I would teach it in the U.S., except that we didn’t engage in as much critical thinking and debating, which is a big component of teaching composition at American universities. In Korea the focus was really on writing sentences, writing paragraphs, analyzing and creating full-bodied essays. Because of the level of student engagement, I found it a very enjoyable class to teach. I structured the class so they would have a couple of major assignments at midterms and at finals and then a number of minor assignments in class during the course of the semester.

I also taught American literature, which meant teaching both the works and the way American culture appears in these works. It was in this class that I really began to experience the cultural components involved in the teaching of literature. For example, we read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The story is about a Lennie, who has a severe mental disability, and his friend George. Lennie accidentally kills a woman and at the end of the book his friend George decides to shoot him rather than let the authorities get him. When you discuss the novel with American students there’s generally a good deal of discussion around the moral issue of George killing Lennie. But in Korea it was a non-issue. Nobody in class believed that a moral threshold had been crossed. They wondered why Lennie hadn’t been killed sooner, since he was a danger to society and since George had great sympathy for him and wanted to spare him further pain. I found it interesting to see how cultural perceptions impacted moral judgments.

Another book that brought up interesting reactions was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. This novel has a lot of dialect, and it wasn’t easy for the students, but they really worked with it. We also watched the movie, which helped. They liked the book although many said that they found the lesbian story and some of the violence shocking. They seemed to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of racism in the United States, at least on a theoretical level, and quite a good historical perspective on it. They often related to the material emotionally. Sometimes they made comparisons with things they’d been through, like experiences of being looked down upon, and generally talked about their feelings a bit more than American students tend to. They seemed to have an interesting and somewhat contradictory view of America as a place that encompassed much to admire and also much to fear. Television and movies have given them an image of America as a very violent place, a wild west. I was asked more than once if I had ever shot someone or been shot with a gun.

When you asked me why teaching in South Korea was such a positive experience, I couldn’t help thinking back on the past year and a half that I’ve been teaching again at an American university. Obviously at this time in the United States we are in an economic crisis. A lot of the discussion revolves around budget cuts and cuts to education—cutting teachers, cutting university funding, et cetera. Student loan debt has become a crisis. And I thought that in Korea, even though there may be debates over what education should look like, you really have the sense that the entire country is behind education: education is important, education is valuable, education is good for society and education pays off. Education and the funding of education have been so integral to the astounding growth of South Korea’s economy. In the early 1960s South Korea was an extremely poor country, with a GDP about on par with Somalia. In the short time since then South Korea has become the thirteenth largest economy in the world, in large part due to the emphasis on education.

That is something we don’t really have in America—that type of absolute commitment. So it was really positive not having to be an educational activist—not having to justify the place of education itself. Right now we actually have a debate in the United States along the lines of whether education is necessary. The other day I heard somebody in the media say, “Education is a privilege, not a right.” We have a serious cultural debate over the value of education. In teaching you’re not just an educator, you have to be an activist for the value of an education itself at the same time that teachers, through their low salaries, and lowly career positions are already undervalued! Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation.

I was fortunate to benefit from the South Korean economy the way I did. Moving there was an economic step up. I earned a good salary and benefits at the university. Also, everything over there is fairly cheap, so you don’t need to spend much in the way of necessities anyway. My job came with a university-sponsored apartment and several months of vacation. It was less work, and on some levels, more enjoyable work than the teaching work I had been doing in the U.S. In Korea more of my time was freed up for my own writing.

Buddhist temple on Seoraksan

Some people have asked me if it was a tough adjustment to move to a completely different country. I don’t know if I am the best person to ask because I’ve spent a lot of time in places outside the mainland U.S. Part of my youth was spent on an island in the pacific called Tutuila, which is a part of American Samoa. I have lived in several countries since then, and in addition to the natives of those countries I spent a lot of time around American expats.

What’s interesting to me now is how my experience of leaving the country to work in South Korea was very different from the experiences of my American parents’ generation.  With my parents’ generation the U.S. was very economically prosperous and people seemed to be leaving America for altruistic reasons like joining the Peace Corps or helping in poor countries. When I moved to South Korea around 2008 it seemed to be the opposite motivation—that a lot of people were leaving America to find greater economic opportunity and stability abroad. It’s sort of the opposite of the line we’ve been fed about immigration and the American Dream.


From that perspective I would be really interested in writing stories about American guest workers in South Korea. It would be something of the reverse of our tradition of immigrant literature set in America. I think the increasing number of American expats leaving the country is interesting to follow in the light of our own cultural and economic decline. I remember meeting South Koreans who’d gone to America “for a better life” and returned because they’d realized home was much better! So I think the whole paradigm has shifted. I would like to read books about that—books that really are reflecting current trends and not just the old paradigms. The fact that this issue hasn’t been reflected much in our contemporary American literature must say something about our culture as well as our publishing industry. We apparently love books about people who come to America, but we don’t read many about people who leave it.


In addition to working in South Korea, there was a lot to enjoy in the lifestyle. To begin with, not to romanticize it too much, but compared to city life in America the atmosphere seemed very harmonious. The worst thing that ever happened to me on the Seoul subway was getting an accidental elbow bump from someone who was concentrating really hard on his homework—who then apologized. That’s the level of inconvenience. If you lose your wallet you’ll get it back the next day. America tends to be tenser and much more violent. Living in a place that was peaceful and safe was fantastic.

It was interesting to explore the culture and landscape of Korea. I loved Busan, which is a beautiful city on the coast, and has something about it that is very magical. I really got to know the mountains of South Korea because of course hiking is a big pastime there. I’d say I really experienced Korea most through hiking, because you’d really get a chance to talk as you’re walking, hang out, enjoy nature and experience Koreans in community with their families. Hiking is a very communal activity in Korea and sometimes it was almost as if you were hiking in a line. You’d see plenty of people dressed in their hiking boots and full hiking gear and carrying poles and crampons, but you inevitably see women dressed to the nines wearing high heels as they ploughed up the mountain. That was impressive!

Buddhist images on rock

Another benefit of living in South Korea is that it’s also easy to travel to other countries in Asia. On my vacations I traveled to Malaysia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Japan, China, and other places I’d always wanted to visit.

As a person who’s been back in the states for a couple years now, I can say the hardest transition was coming from South Korea back to America. It’s of course true that when Americans go abroad they take their Americanism with them, exporting it to other countries—there’s a long history of that. And I’d say as a whole we certainly still do that, but my experience in Korea was also quite the opposite, and this was echoed by a lot of my expat friends. We absorbed aspects of the Korean culture to the point where we were truly culture-shocked when we came back—the lifestyle and economic situation in America appeared very tense and hostile in comparison.

Seorak Mountain

This seems particularly true now when America is so divided with political and economic polarities. It’s as if there’s this huge disagreement about what constitutes “American values.” Debate and conflict over these issues are constant. Some argue education is not a value. Health care is not a value. Inclusivity is not a value. The debate really gets at the spirit of our culture. It’s not just political. And it is impossible to escape.

Buddhist shrine under peak

In conclusion I’d say teaching and living in South Korea was a very positive experience. I’d recommend it to anyone with a sense of adventure except for this caveat—that it can be hard after such an experience to return to teaching and living in the U.S.


For another perspective on teaching in Korea–also positive–see and