Archive for November, 2012

What Went Right and What Didn’t, Part 2

by on Friday, November 23rd, 2012

Rick (in the red jacket) at the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto during the Setsubun “Bean Throwing” Festival held every Feb 3rd

In Part 1 of this interview Rick talked about his ten-year relationship with a Korean woman who became a scholar of Japanese literature. Here he talks about his work in Korea and Japan.

Rick’s story

I was born in the year of the horse and in the zodiac pattern, the white horse or the fire horse. Every twelve years the horse returns, but every sixty years the horse is a real and true horse. I lived that behavior, galloping from the US to Japan and to Korea for fifteen years. I arrived in Nagoya, Japan in March, 1992 and left from Beijing in August 2008. When I first came to Japan I was 25, and had a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate. I couldn’t find a job in the U.S. The competition was crazy. When I applied for 3/5ths of a job teaching middle school history in my hometown, I was one of 250 applicants, including a PhD. A couple of my college buddies left to teach English in Asia in 1991 and that put the idea of moving to Asia in my head.

I started in Nagoya. I was sent out to several Japanese businesses to teach English class. I had culture shock in spades. Everything was different. Culturally and socially, I found it impossible to find my own personal space and identity there. My attitude became, “If you don’t want to play with me, I won’t play with you.” I was bored stiff.

My friends settled in Seoul. When I visited them, I was simply amazed by how spirited the people were. Opposite of the Japanese, I saw women walking arm in arm down the street, people laughing, people crying. If someone was upset, joyful or despondent, I could see it. I hung out with my friends and other teachers and life seemed more interesting in Seoul. Also, I like food that can kick me in the mouth, not subtle flavors or high style. I just fell in love with Korean food.

Later, I’d use this comparison of the two cultures. If I someone on the subway hanging lifeless from a train strap that maybe just worked twelve hours, I’d poke the Japanese guy, and he wouldn’t respond. He looked and acted dead. But if I poked a Korean guy under the same circumstances he’d smack my hand and yell at me “Hey, what’s wrong with you? Why’d you poke me?”

In 1993, after working in Nagoya for about ten months, I moved to Korea. The language school where I worked, the hagwŏn, wasn’t very good. They did pay my salary and I was grateful for that. But I was full of energy, and willing to stand my ground on principle, for fun or in spite. I loved arguments and standing my ground. I was lucky to have a wise “gyopo” roommate who taught me so much that I wasn’t ready to understand yet.  I’m older now and know the answer to the question, “Do you want to be right or to be happy?”  An example: I was promised health insurance. Two months later, a manager came in and put some papers in front of me—written entirely in Korean—and said, “Here’s your insurance policy.”

“Is there a translation?”


“Is there any policy in Korea that provides an English translation?”


I figured he was lying to me. I got mad, didn’t show it and I beat up on this poor guy using Korean cultural norms against him. I smiled and said, “Well, I’m glad I can trust you because we both know that a man who can’t be trusted is no better than a dog. But I can trust you.”

I spent too much energy fighting for what I thought was my right.  I’d stand in front of buses that wouldn’t pick me up and yell at the drivers. Other times I’d be stunned by the kindness of strangers. During my first stay in Korea, I was walking to work when a man approached me and said, “Good morning!” He was a professor of German and pretty fluent in English.  We talked. He was a survivor of the Korean War and followed the cultural norms of Koreans. He all but dragged me into a convenience store and bought me two tiny half pints of milk so I could stay strong and healthy. [A few of my students wrote about what a treat a little carton of milk was when they were young.] We shared five or ten minutes, and it made me feel loved and cared for. That kindness regularly happens in Korea.  I saw him about five years later and we had another short conversation and I thanked him for his generosity

Two months later a discussion with my supervisor turned into a staring contest.

Lee said, “There have been some complaints about your teaching.”


“What do you have to say for yourself?”

“What do you want me to say?”

He started staring at me and I stared back. He blinked first and said, “We don’t have anything more to discuss.”  I’d fired myself after only four months in Seoul.

After I was fired, I went back to Nagoya, reconnected with the expat community, and started teaching at another language school. When that fell apart, I went back to the United States, but still couldn’t find a teaching position. I began to realize that my Korean workplace stank but that I’d really liked Korea. I went back. I was hired by Jay Lee, a gentleman who spent a lot of time in the United States. He really helped me out a couple of years later.

To have a conversation in Korean or Japanese languages, you need to know the relative status of the participants. Finding out age, family and status is part of all interpersonal transaction. For a newly arrived foreigner, these negotiations are impossible. In Japan, most people wouldn’t try to talk with me. In Korea, many tried and we smiled a lot.  Day after day I got into great conversations with some great Korean people. I learned a few basic things like how to read the 22 letters of the Korean alphabet so I knew where to jump on and off buses. All of this made integration into Korea a much better experience.

Then a friend connected me with Catholic University of Korea, which is about halfway between Seoul and Incheon. That was a major step up: four months’ vacation, a solid salary and decent faculty housing. After my first semester, the administration brought in a lot of foreign language teachers, and we had an awful lot of fun. But soon I turned thirty. I thought that I needed to get back to the United States and get a career started “back home”. Instead, I fell in love with a Korean woman who wanted to study Japanese literature. I went back to the States and we missed each other terribly.

We decided to live together in Osaka- she would study Japanese and I would teach English.  She did exceptionally well.  We married six months later at her alma mater, Catholic University. That’s when Jay Lee made it possible for my wife to get her a visa to the US by hiring me to teach in his new school. Hillary and I made a mistake by getting married in Korea. We filed the marriage papers at the embassy and then applied for the visa, when we should have applied for a visa to get married in the United States. The State Department and Immigration don’t coordinate processes and were not allowed to tell us how to work with the other side in order to get things done easily and efficiently. So, I’d quit my job in Japan, come to Korea and gotten married, and found out directly after the wedding that, because we were married, I had to go to the United States and apply for her visa there. That could take six months. Eventually, I discovered an alternative. If I was a working resident of Korea, she would get the visa we needed. I really didn’t understand why U.S. immigration wanted to make me work in Korea to get that visa.

I started looking for jobs but had no success. I finally went to Jay Lee, who had set up a new language school, and was totally forthright. “Jay, I need your help. We need to get this visa. It may take two months or six months, but after it comes, right after the end of that class cycle, I want to go back home with my wife.”

“Sure. That sounds good. No biggie.”

Financially, it didn’t make sense because he would lose money hiring me and getting me a visa. He’d met Hillary about six years earlier when she was studying in one of the schools he was running. He just wanted to do the right thing for us.  I have nothing but respect for him.

When we finally got to the US, she got a master’s in Japanese literature and I got a master’s in education. She wanted to do research in Japan to complete her thesis and I found a job near that university.  We moved to Hirakata, half way between Osaka and Kyoto. By then, I’d finally taken Japanese 101 and 102.  I had been in Japan long enough so that I could listen to bilingual Japanese and occasionally make an appropriate remark in English. They would stare and say, “Rick, how much do you know?  How much do you understand?” I would reply, “Mmm, enough…” and show a wry smile. I was finally comfortable in Japan. I loved the job. Again, four months of vacation and exceptional housing. My base salary was about $35~40,000. The apartment provided by the university was worth another $15~20,000.  I worked there for three years and two years later, I went back for a final year.

Christmas 2006 at Rockefeller Center In NYC with some Kansai Gaidai students (courtesy Rick)

Kansai Gaidai specializes in foreign languages, and it is rare to get to work with such gung-ho students. My job was preparing eighteen and nineteen-year-olds to study abroad for a year or two. The school had truly exceptional study abroad arrangements. It became my mission to work these kids as hard as all of us could tolerate. The two-years-abroad students do five semesters in Japan, four semesters in America and earned two bachelor’s degrees. The students knew how important our classes were and the options that could open up for them. They bought into my teaching style and worked incredibly hard. At the beginning of the course I’d tell them that by the end of the year, they’d be writing twelve-to-fifteen-page research papers in English with a bibliography and footnotes. They’d stare at me like I was totally insane but, at the end of the year, they’d written the research paper and done so much more.

I got comfortable in Japan in much the same way I got comfortable in Korea. I became much mellower after I’d gotten into my thirties, married and settled down. I started studying the language so that I could understand where I was going and what I was doing, but I still functioned mainly as an outsider. Hillary’s language abilities were well past proficient for the really sticky parts of communicating and living in the US, Japan or Korea. So, if I was with her, everything worked out easily.

I’ve been back in the States for almost five years and I miss being in East Asia. My last experience in Japan was incredibly positive. I absolutely love the city of Kyoto and once or twice a week I went there to stroll the Philosopher’s Path or visit Yasaka shrine or any of dozens of historic places. I still love Korea and miss my Grandmother and my Mother-in-law.

In Hakkoke, Japan, Winter 2005-6 (courtesy Rick)

They made me feel like family.

At Kansai Gaidai, we had forty foreign teachers and I got along with some of them really well. The last time, when I was only there for a year, I shared an office with a man whose father died in January, 2007. My father died in June of the same year. Hillary and I filed for divorce that year as well. All of that didn’t make us friends, but it added more depth to our friendship.

I spent more than a decade working in Korea and Japan. It remains a significant part of my life. If you include the time I was hung out with academics in America with a focus on East Asia, it adds up to sixteen years centered around Asia, coming, going and returning again and again. I arrived in Korea and saw the first civilian President elected a week later. I arrived during the Bubble Years and left an economically deflated Japan.  So much changed—even me.

My current wife, Sara, is a historian. Sara’s interested in going to Japan or Korea, and I would absolutely love to be her tour guide. When I lived in Nagoya, I went to Kyoto for the first time with a friend who’s an architect. Rich would grab my shoulder every twenty minutes and say, “No, no, no, no. You’re not seeing it the right way.” Having him explain the art and design of what he saw really opened my eyes. I value that insider knowledge, and I’d like to explain what I see through my eyes while she is a first-time viewer-participant.  I took my high school students on a tour of Japan in 2007 and it was such a treat to have them describe what they were seeing and experiencing as newcomers in a strange land.

With a buddy at Fenway Park (courtesy Rick)

Sara and I are foodies. I’d love to go with her to Sanchon (a restaurant in Seoul) to eat and see the floor show. Both are spectacular! It’s equally important to enjoy a cheap, tasty meal at a five-table restaurant with a linoleum floor. My last time in Korea was in 2008. I’d been away for about five years.  I was amazed by the change, particularly the development of Chunggyechon, a river running through downtown. Twenty years ago, it was covered over with steel and asphalt, a non-descript street with many small shops and too much noise and pollution. I was amazed by urban renewal plans that are seen as economically viable and culturally valuable.  Only ten years earlier I’d seen the economy collapse and my mother-in-law go bankrupt.  At Namdaemun, store signage is often in three or four languages. A quarter of a four lane traffic circle was ripped up grass was put in.  Now they have changing of the guard ceremonies in traditional costume at the gate. Seoul is a world-class city and I am glad that it is becoming more beautiful and accessible.

I found returning to the U.S. pretty easy. I enjoy both who I am and who I was. In my thirties, I was equally comfortable in three nations. Today, I’ve put away the backpack and am a happy homeowner in Massachusetts.

What Went Right and What Didn’t, Part 1

by on Friday, November 9th, 2012

In most cases, culture and class is a major factor in the breakup of international relationships (see American wife, Korean husband <> and <>).

In the case of this ten-year marriage, cultural differences were either minimal or promptly overcome. This impressed me so much that in 1997 I asked Hillary (the name she chose as an English student) for an interview to include in the dating chapter of the textbook I was writing for Korean students. Oddly, when we discussed the chapter, my students invariably told me she didn’t look Korean—maybe Japanese—I think because of her long, curly hair and her grin. Or maybe it wasn’t her looks but her words.

Hillary’s story

Some Western men think Asian women are obedient—until they find out differently—but I guess, in general, Asian women are still more obedient than Western women.  Rick isn’t like that, anyway.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t expect obedience from me.  He can do everything around the house—he cooks, and he does dishes…everything.  I think I’m pretty lucky.

Actually, I’ve never thought in terms of Western and Korean. I haven’t had any difficulties because he’s a foreigner.  I’ve never felt under any pressure to understand him.  He’s just like me—I don’t see any difference.  Some Asian women date Westerners because they think they’re sexy, they’re different, they take care of women and they have good manners.  That’s nonsense.  It depends on the individual.  I think Rick is Rick.  But I don’t think I’m a typical Korean. I’m more open, and Westerners can see that about me.   If I want to do something—like date this guy—I do it.  I try to be honest, especially with myself.

But one place where I do see a difference is that Koreans never talk about an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend with the present one, and Westerners do. We think it can hurt people’s feelings.  I felt jealous yesterday when he talked about the past, but what we are trying to do is express our feelings and talk to each other frankly and honestly. So I told him how I felt. I don’t want to hide my feelings from him. He always says, ‘Please don’t hide anything. Just tell me what you feel.’ I think that’s really cool.

I’ve been out with Korean men, but it always ends the same way.  They think I’m too independent or too imaginative.  They’re afraid they won’t be able to control me.  They were always pretending.  I hate it.  They say things like, ‘You’re like a flower, I should protect you from the rain.’  No. I don’t want to throw my dreams away.  I want someone who can support me in the things I want to do.  If I want to go to India, I’ll want him to say, ‘Go to India. You can do it.’ I want a friend near me. I want someone who doesn’t have to create a special mood before he can kiss me. I hate that. Be creative, and be honest. I don’t know exactly what Rick thinks, but I don’t think he finds me very different from American women. Rick and I are very much alike.

I don’t know about the future. He wants to go back to the States and try something different from teaching English.  I want to go to graduate school.  Maybe we’ll meet again, maybe not.  Right now we’re just living in the moment.

The interview with Rick took place in the summer of 2012 over Skype. He was in New England, and I was in the Philippines.

Rick’s story

Initially, I only dated Western women when I came to Asia. I hadn’t developed the language skills to really communicate in a relationship. I wanted a deep friendship, a sense of intimacy, the ability to talk about what was going on inside my head and inside my heart. I saw man after man who had either learned the language or who was comfortable in a relationship based on physical attraction. It was easier talking with a native speaker.

When I started teaching at Catholic University, I was dating an American woman. I became really good friends with a young lady who had graduated from that school and was the English language program coordinator. We had developed a friendship. When I broke up with the American woman, I had already decided to leave Korea, but I thought, “Hey, why not go on a date with a friend?” Soon we fell very deeply in love. We got really serious in a couple of months. It was an awful lot of fun. She was a very intelligent, strong woman and a genius with languages. I enjoyed being friends—and more than friends—with someone who can challenge me at all levels. Basically, I enjoy having somebody call me on my shit, and she did that.

At the end of the semester we took off together and headed for Thailand, Malaysia and Australia. However, we fought the entire trip. I admit that most of the time she was right. By this time I was convinced that she was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, but the fighting was driving me nuts because sometimes she wasn’t right. We decided to go through Southeast Asia and stay in Australia for a while to see what happened. By the time we got down to Singapore, I had pretty much had it. We separated and made a vague plan to meet in the United States. After that we missed each other terribly. Fortunately, email had just appeared so you could go online instead of sending daily, old-fashioned aerograms back and forth. We decided then to meet in Osaka. Hillary had read Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Kitchen and decided she wanted to be able to read the Japanese original. So while I spent six months teaching at a language school, she spent six months learning Japanese at a language school. In that time she progressed from not being able to read the Japanese phonetic alphabet to getting a solid foundation in Japanese and being able to talk all day with native speakers. We had different days off, so we never had any time together, and I didn’t notice what I later called the Achilles heel of our relationship, namely her workaholism. She’s since gotten a Ph.D. in Japanese literature, and she’s now teaching at a major university. I really wish her well, but we are not in contact with each other.

My coming to terms with Asia I will absolutely credit to Hillary. When I saw myself as an outsider she provided me with exceptional translation and cultural explanations. She helped me through the transition so I felt like part of her family.

Her maternal step-grandmother was a fishmonger who would pick up thirty pounds of fish and twenty pounds of ice, put them in a basket in Incheon and sell the fish door-to-door in Seoul. She was a short, powerful, cocky, enthusiastic woman. By the time I’d gotten into the family, Grandma loved to talk with me. Her rhetorical style was to make suggestions, telling me how to be happy. Hillary just said told me to say “yes, Grandma, yes, Grandma.” We got along great. In fact, she was sure that I could speak Korean and that I understood her.

Hillary came from a very non-traditional Korean family. Her father went bankrupt twice during her early childhood and left the family. There was a divorce, which was a rarity in Korea at the end of the 70s and start of the 80s and cause for a lot of shame. She was raised by her maternal grandparents. Her mother went into the food service industry, worked like a dog and had some success. When she was in high school Hillary moved back to her mother’s home, and lived there until we first went to Osaka together. Before we left, I was introduced to my potential mother-in-law. She was born in 1944 or 1945 and came from the northern part of Korea, which meant that when she was six to eight years old she was caught in the middle of the civil war and eventually ended up on the southern side. Due to malnutrition at that time of her life, she had really poor vision.

It was an August afternoon when we first went to see her. The elevator had broken down, so we walked up seven stories. I was covered in sweat, and I had longish hair and a beard. In Korea beards are unusual except in the case of a retiree who grows a beard to show he has left the working world. When my mother-in-law opened the apartment door and she saw the beard and totally freaked out. She thought her twenty-four-year-old daughter was ready to marry a crazy foreigner in his 60s who might have twenty-seven children from different wives on six different continents.

I bowed deeply and said “Anyŏng haseyo.” She was frozen with a look of terror and a smile painfully plastered on her face. Finally, she turned around and ran off into the kitchen. I thought, “Hmm. Not a good start.” Hillary and I sat down in the living room. From the kitchen we heard first the sounds of what turned out to be a very tasty dinner. But Hillary heard her kid sister ask, “Mom, what’s wrong with you? Of course he’s different. He’s a foreigner.”

I didn’t understand what was said, but Hillary tapped me on the knee and said, “Just a moment. I’ll be right back.” She headed off to the kitchen, where her mother was chopping meat or vegetables with a very large cleaver. Hillary walked in and said, “Mom, what’s up?” Her mother turned with the cleaver held tightly in her fist, stared Hillary right in the eyes and said, “Do you love him?” As soon as Hillary said yes and she spun back around to continue chopping the food. Hillary came out and didn’t tell me what had transpired. We waited for dinner, Hillary with baited breath, and I remained oblivious. I tried to be culturally appropriate and ate everything I could of that delicious meal. The table was cleared, and just before the large pears came out for dessert, my mother-in-law brought out the family photo album. I thought to myself, “I’m in! She likes me. Awesome.”

We looked at the pictures while Hillary translated and provided lots of background information. After dessert, I turned to Hillary and said, “Does your mom have allergies?”

“No, why?”

“Well, her eyes are a little watery and she is sniffing a lot.”

“No, you dope. She’s happy. She’s crying with joy.’


My mother-in-law and I became fast friends with Hillary doing the translation. We really enjoyed each other’s company.

On her father’s side of the family, there were one brother and five sisters. The aunts had taken some English classes in language schools, and they were all excited about meeting me. But their husbands were kind of sitting in the back. It looked to me like they were thinking, “Ah, man. That kid always was weird, and now she’s planning to marry a foreigner? I hope nobody saw him come into the apartment.”

The event was just not going well. When Grandma showed up thirty minutes late, it reminded me of Italian mafia movies. Grandma opened the door, the entire family was overjoyed to see her and there was a line of people standing against each wall of the hallway, waiting to greet her. She was kissing people and hugging people. She came in and sat down on one side of Hillary, while I was on the other. Hillary translated. At that time I had a large handlebar mustache but no beard. After about fifteen minutes. Grandma grabbed a hold of my face and started talking and yanking my head up and down. The entire family burst into hysterical laughter. When she let me go, I said, “What did she say?”

“He shaved, but he missed this part? How could he miss this part?”

I burst out laughing. Everybody was laughing, including the weiguk who was the butt of the joke. That melted all the tension, and from that point we began feeling like we were a big, happy family. If Grandma liked me and I got her sense of humor, I couldn’t be that bad. So, in both cases, it was the matriarch who brought me in and made me feel like a part of the family. I’m eternally grateful to both of them for their kindness and generosity.

After we married, I ran into some absurd luck. A former girlfriend lived in a weiguk ghetto full of foreign language teachers over by Ehwa University. After Hillary and I got married, I needed a job in Korea so I could get a U.S. visa for her. [This part comes up again in Part 2.] The same former employer gave me a job which included an apartment as part of the contract. When Hillary and I were going to look at it, we got off the subway at Ehwa University Station, started walking down the street to the real estate agent’s office, and I thought, “Hmm.” We turned right, and I knew I had been on that street before. We forked left. “Uh-oh, I’ve been in this building before.” As we climbed up to the rooftop apartment, I started giggling, thinking the gods must be crazy. Here I was with my bride, but returning to an ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Hillary got really pissed off. I said, “No, I was hoping we would go anywhere else in the world, but we ended up here, and I didn’t want you to hear this from a mutual friend who knows Amy.  I’m sorry, this really sucks, and I feel terrible.”

Her first year in the United States was very difficult. She was suffering from acute culture shock. We’d moved out to Colorado and worked at a ski resort. I love to ski, and she picked it up very quickly. I wistfully look back and say that was the best year of our marriage for me but the worst year of our marriage for her. The next year we moved back to New England, where she started on a master’s in Japanese literature. To finish that off, she wanted to go back to Japan to work with a professor who’d mentored her professor in Massachusetts. Knowing that, I decided to knock out a master’s in education so that when we returned to Japan in 2002 I would be able to get a job teaching at a university.

I got really lucky and was offered a job a school on the state line between Osaka and Kyoto, only a 45-minute commute from where she wanted to study. We were shocked at how well it worked out. This was the first job in Japan that I absolutely loved. She was happy with her work too and we were saving a ton of money and sending it back home. It was a really good situation.

But in the three years we were there, we began to talk about the possibility of divorce. Then she was accepted into a Ph.D. program, so we shut down Japan and moved back to the States. Our relationship got worse. About three years later, in 2007, it was time for her to do her field work. I got back my old job at that university in Osaka, but she insisted on going to Tokyo. She wanted her own space. Two months before we left, my father died of a heart attack. We continued to fight. Finally, I asked and she agreed to a divorce. In 2008 I came home, and I’ve been here since.