Archive for September, 2013

Moving On, Part 4

by on Monday, September 30th, 2013

The concrete city of Seoul, although some years later

This section deals with my year of teaching in an English language school in Seoul, Korea in 1988-89. It includes some comparison with my experience at Xiamen University in China, 1984-86.

I’d expected to undergo a lot of reverse culture shock in 1986 when I returned to the US from China, but the transition was fairly easy. I freaked out over the US discussions of mandatory drug testing, which reminded me of the police raid for homosexuality at the nearby Buddhist monastery. I was appalled by the waste—the woman in line in front of me spending $80 on doll clothes, more than enough to feed a Chinese family of four for a month. Then I missed the friction and the daily opportunity for discovery that a very foreign culture provides. I grew bored with my surroundings. However, this time, after spending two years in China next door to a dedicated French teacher, I returned with the enthusiasm I’d had for my first German class twenty years before, and I had a collection of stories I thought would make a good book. So I knew what I wanted to do, and I had a sense of what I needed to learn in order to do it better. The plan was to graduate in linguistics and TESOL at the University of Pittsburgh, then return to East Asia. I thought Japan, but Françoise had remarked casually that South Korea might be a good alternative.

China was good for my linguistics studies. For one thing, struggling with elementary spoken Chinese had broken through the European-language bias in my head, making it far easier to solve linguistics problems in a language like Tagalog, which as one of my professors said “does things you wouldn’t have believed were possible.” Right before the MA exams, there was a TESOL conference in Chicago, and the department provided the funds for eight graduate students to go. I brought a huge pile of books and notebooks I didn’t really expect to study but wanted to have near me in case of panic. While the others were listening to papers I interviewed for jobs with for-profit language schools—I don’t think the universities were interviewing abroad at that time. I particularly liked the American director of a language school in Korea. I’d never taught outside a university but thought this might be interesting, like teaching for Berlitz or Alliance Françese. A week later when the director called, I’d passed my linguistics exam—an enormous relief—although I still had to write a thesis. The job included a roundtrip ticket to Seoul, free housing and $1,890 a month, which proved to be more than enough to live modestly. I accepted. Because of the teaching assistantship, I left graduate school debt-free aside from a small amount I’d borrowed from my brother. I’m told this wouldn’t be possible now.

The job was typical for teaching in Korea. It proved to be something of a let-down, starting with the woman who picked me up at Kimpo Airport and bitched about the school all the way to my hotel. My furnished apartment was in a concrete slab apartment complex—one big room with balcony, kitchen, and a tiny toilet/shower stall. It was at least one step up from my beyond-shabby lodgings in graduate school, but it took some adjusting. I was teaching a split shift, namely early in the morning and late at night, so I had to leave before the hot water came on, and I arrived home after it was shut off. There was no hot water during the daytime. When I complained to the school director, I was told to try a public bathhouse. I wasn’t ready for that yet.

The school was run like a business, which meant that decisions like student placement and textbook selection were made with regard to the bottom line. Or as someone put it, “The students pretend to learn, and we pretend to teach them.” The textbooks provided only a page or two of drawings per class period, about fifteen or twenty minutes’ worth, so much of the teachers’ time was spent trying to find something else to do in class. I spent all day with beginners who couldn’t understand a sentence having more than five simple words in it. I felt brain-dead.

My previous experience had been nothing like this. In fact, I had just come from one of the best organized ESL programs in the US. Within about three months, the other two well-qualified teachers complained to the international TESOL organization, took their return airline tickets and left. A long-time Korea resident found a university job for me for the second semester, but I stayed because didn’t want a breach of contract on my record—I could only imagine what the linguistics department at Pitt would say to that. Instead I went down to the director’s office and threw a well-controlled temper tantrum. That worked. I got a better schedule and some advanced classes where I didn’t have to use an inane text. Years later I discovered that my 25-hour teaching load was light compared with the 36-hour weeks other schools were then requiring. And I will say that although the school went through three academic directors that year and no longer exists, unlike other private “institutes” it didn’t lie to us. The teachers were paid the salary we were promised. Teachers who taught overtime were paid extra. At one point there was some talk among the foreigners of our going on strike in support of the Korean staff, who were not as fortunate, but that proved unnecessary. Despite its financial problems, the school came up with their salaries. My sense was that, instead of feeling supported, the staff felt embarrassed at our lack of cultural sensitivity.

In many ways my experience in Korea can only be explained in light of my experience in China, while Europe had given me more tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. In Europe there were certainly many things I didn’t know, but I’d felt that whatever I wanted to know I could find out if I was willing to go to the trouble. I spoke the language, I knew the literature and something of the art and music, I had close friends I could ask. Asia taught me I’d have to live without answers. In China, despite the wealth of cultural information provided by Françoise and others, there were so many questions I never got around to asking. I was often confused about what was ancient Asia, what was Confucianism, and what was the Communist Party. Like exactly how much of our being kept apart was the closed society and how much was police state mentality. Some of this got to be clearer after I moved to Korea. In China only a few expats grew really close to the Chinese. In Korea, which anthropologists also called a closed society, I easily fell back into the habit of hanging out mostly with expats. It was a very uncertain time. South Korea was just coming out of the military dictatorship, with the first democratic election having taken place in December 1987. A lot of questions about the previous regime were suddenly under public scrutiny. It’s a very different place now, twenty-five years later, but given the choice again I don’t know that I’d have made the same decisions.

On the surface, Seoul was far less interesting than Xiamen. The clothes people wore—dresses for women and suits or windbreakers for men—were almost as consistent with each other in style and color as the Chinese uniforms of olive drab and dark blue, but by 1986 when I’d left China people were breaking out into pretty dresses. In Seoul there seemed to be an equal amount of pressure to conform, but I sensed that now it was imposed by society and not the state.

There were also all those concrete apartment blocks, miles and miles of them it seemed, which had started to spring up in the 1970s under Park Chung-hee’s “economic miracle on the Han River.” Modern culture had really taken root. To my Western eyes, it was more “normal,” meaning that my teaching schedule didn’t change without warning because it had become summer or some party secretary had called a meeting. I had no student intruders because my class was put in the wrong classroom. There were fewer bizarre and puzzling tales and more infuriating ones. Like for example, according to the letters to the editor of one of the English-language newspapers, after a foreign English teacher was attacked in her apartment by one of her students, the police refused to investigate because “everyone knows Westerners can’t tell one Korean from another.” A Korean rape victim was on trial for having bitten off the tongue of the rapist as he was attacking her. Why wasn’t he the one on trial? During the 1988 Olympics, an NBC zoomed in on a Korean boxer attacking a referee in the ring, thinking this was news, while the Korean cameramen pulled back because it was shameful. This was after Koreans had felt insulted by the insolent behavior of American athletes strolling onto the field during the opening ceremony carrying signs and clowning for the cameras. In Seoul the great Korean coming out party turned into anti-foreigner hostility. Friends of mine complained that a non-Asian couldn’t get a taxi anywhere in Seoul. This didn’t affect me because I hadn’t been in Seoul long enough to communicate with taxi drivers.

For me the first year was claustrophobic: get up early in my concrete apartment, take the subway to work, teach in a concrete building, take the subway back home. Everything seemed gray. Weekends I spent a few hours with the expat friends I’d made and maybe listened to a band at All That Jazz in Itaewǒn. I ate enough imitation Western food that I subsequently developed a years-long aversion to ketchup. I had too little time for things like laundry. I did at least discover that real coffee beans were available in a department store in Kangnam. The coffee shops served only instant.

In the late spring I raced home every evening to catch Ted Koppel’s coverage of the pro-democracy movement in China. My sense of foreboding increased, as did my rage at the ignorance of Western journalists who thought or pretended to think that appearing on Western television would protect their Chinese interviewees from retaliation. One night Koppel interviewed an author who was well known among Chinese expats for having insufficiently protected his sources. I raged at the television set. By the time the massacre outside Tianamen Square happened, I knew it was coming. I wept in front of the television set for days. In those bright faces on the set I saw my own students, who were so naïve, so brave, so willing to sacrifice themselves for “our China.” The morning after the massacre I overslept and missed an advanced class for Korean businessmen. When I explained at the next class what had happened, I could see they were miffed. Why would I cry my eyes out over the Chinese? For me the distinction between “us” and “them” which I’d made my first year in China was now gone. Years later when a Korean colleague asked for a donation for some cause, probably North Korean refugees, he marveled at the fact that a foreigner was willing to contribute when some Koreans weren’t. I couldn’t see it. What difference should ethnicity or nationality make?

In the same month as the Tiananmen massacre, I heard from Pitt that my thesis proposal had been rejected, maybe because it was considered too pedagogical and not scientific enough. The literary agent who’d taken on my China book returned it with a note saying she hadn’t found a publisher and was moving to California to market screenplays. The walls in my apartment started to cave in a little.

But that spring I’d also begun to discover the ancient Korea under the modern façade. I spent a week in Kyongju, seat of the old Shilla Dynasty. I took a Royal Asiatic tour to a shaman ritual in Incheon, watched the show and all the old ladies getting drunk on rice wine and said to myself, “This is it. This is the ‘China’ I’ve been missing.” I was introduced to the Buddhist center I would belong to for years and met the Buddhist temple painter who was a founding member. I continued with the interviews I’d started shortly after I’d arrived, which allowed me to see my world through others’ eyes as well.

The original career plan had been to teach one year in Korea and move on to Japan. But when it came time to apply for jobs, I took a booklet which listed all the universities in Seoul, picked out the top seventeen and paid a Korean speaker to call and get the names of English department heads so I could write to them by name. Within a week or two I came home to find a message on my answering machine inviting me to an interview at Dongguk University, the Buddhist school where I was to teach from 1989 through 2006.

At the interview I was asked whether I would accept the job if it were offered to me, which I knew was a way of insuring that a person of higher status would not lose face by my turning it down. I said I’d have to check on whether an assistantship would still be available at Pitt if I returned to write my thesis. My department head said, “Take the job.” I took it.

Dongguk gave me the work documents, and I went to Japan for my second visa run. The first I’d had to make that winter when I’d unintentionally left the country with only a single-entry visa in my passport. I’d been gone a week, during which time the teachers at the “institute” had broken out in mass rebellion, and a high-ranking university professor had been called in to negotiate. I’d missed the big fights, but while he was at our school, the professor talked with me and contacted his friend, the Korean counsel in Osaka. I got my work visa within four working days instead of four or five weeks. The second time my visa was also expedited so I could get back from the Osaka consulate before the university semester started. My new department head arranged for me to live in the International House on Daehang-no, or University Street, referred to by some as the Greenwich Village of Seoul. This was a great exaggeration, but for this old hippie the change of scene was more than welcome.

So now, instead of teaching 25 hours a week I taught 13 for about the same salary plus one hour a week of overtime. In my classes I could do whatever I pleased as long as it didn’t inconvenience the higher administration. I had free time. During my first year I took all of the out-of-town tours offered by the Royal Asiatic Society and saw the country. Instead of half a desk in the teacher’s room, I had a private office with a view. Instead of being treated by some students like a waitress hired to serve up English, I was bowed at and addressed as respectfully as if I were a Korean professor, which I’d learned to insist on. Instead of three weeks of paid vacation I had five months.

“You look radiant,” a friend said to me.

“I feel like I’ve been just let out of hell,” I said.

Gradually I discovered that English jobs in Korea spanned the distance between illegal jobs with schools which have no offices—so the teachers spend all their time in traffic going from the home of one student to another and live under threat of deportation if discovered—to a professorship in a university English department. Not a university language institute which could be micromanaged by someone who knows little about language teaching. By some trick of fate or karma, I’d now become one of the truly blessed. And I was truly grateful.


“Last Days in China, Parts 1 and 2,” an interview with an eye-witness to the Chinese pro-democracy movement. <> and <>

“Hagwon Truth” <> This group is compiling a list of schools to avoid.

“Hagwon Blacklist” <>

“Every Expat in Korea” <>

“Foreign Professors and University Teachers in Korea”

Moving On, Part 3

by on Friday, September 13th, 2013

Xiamen higher administration, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Experts, Foreign Teachers. My department head and I are on the second row on the right.

I was finishing up my first year of teaching English as a Second Language and studying linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh when a job offer came from a company whose task it was to supply foreign experts in developing countries—mostly for building bridges or drainage ditches with the occasional gunfire overhead. The year before, when I was unemployed, I’d applied for an opening teaching German at a university in Nigeria. Now, in the summer of 1984, the company was offering me a gig teaching English at a university in China. I saw it as an opportunity to find out whether I really wanted this new career before I’d invested any more time and effort in getting the proper credentials. Besides, it had been a difficult year, it was really hot in Pittsburgh and I was feeling stifled. The advice was unanimous from the department—go. I went.

My Chinese ID card

The arrangements were all last-minute: a couple of phone calls with a really bad connection, confusion about when I’d be boarding the CAAC flight to Shanghai, the wrong airplane ticket, delays in reissuing it, a ride with a good friend from Pittsburgh to the Chinese embassy in Washington to pick up my passport with the work visa in it. My friend Dee drove me to the airport. The ticket was business class, and I’d been told to bring as much stuff as I wanted, so my checked luggage was a box of advanced reading textbooks for my classes, a suitcase, an old footlocker and the manual portable typewriter my parents gave me when I graduated from high school. I was at the check-in counter in the airport when the footlocker was hoisted high into the air. From below it was clear that the hinges had broken and my clothes were about to fall out. I was horrified. Was this a sign that I wasn’t supposed to go? What did I know about the place? Nothing. I’d just finished reading a book on foreign imperialism in modern China. I’d gotten advice from people who’d been there. That was it.

I looked at Dee. She said, “You’ll get along in China better than anyone else I know.”

I knew she was right. I have a pioneer streak suited to, for example, living on the America frontier with a log cabin full of children to clothe and cook for and do farm chores for and keep close and safe.

Okay, then. The airport check-in guy gave me some tape, we taped the footlocker together, and I asked for the rest of the roll just in case my luggage had to be opened at customs and retaped.

I was soon to learn that the Chinese didn’t think of my position as that of a rugged individualist going it alone. As a Foreign Expert I was directly under the Expert’s Bureau in Beijing, but there was also a local Bureau of Foreign Affairs, a departmental party secretary, my own personal minder, and the teacher who gave me a three-day tour of Beijing while my students sat in the classroom in Xiamen waiting for me to arrive. This was in addition to the usual teaching supervisors, department heads and higher administration. Few decisions were mine to make. I would be living in these two large rooms with bath and balcony in the university’s Number Two Guesthouse. Also, because I was late in arriving, my reading classes had been given to someone else, and I got conversation classes for freshman and for first-year graduate students. The freshmen had a completely inappropriate textbook written for students living in English-speaking countries, who would know about Western life, while my students thought a computer was like a television set connected to a typewriter. They’d probably never used a telephone without an operator. The text, which was full of technological and cultural references Chinese teachers and students did not understand, and it was selected with the misguided idea of teaching students about advanced technology through English. It was about as effective as my high school attempts to learn Latin via the German I hadn’t learned yet. My graduate students had no textbook at all.

It was late summer 1984. During the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, having anything to do with foreigners was dangerous for the Chinese. You didn’t wear foreign-looking clothes or listen to foreign music or even stand next to foreigners on the bus. But now the pendulum had swung the other way, and having connections with foreigners was in fashion. My minder was a whiny, nosy woman with large teeth who treated me like a prize cow to be led around and shown off, while I thought of her as my assistant. We went to the library to find books I could steal lessons from. The stacks were closed. The sully, slow-moving library assistant would bring books to me one at a time—they all had generic titles like Intermediate English, which could mean anything. With my minder as translator, I bullied my way into the closed stacks of the library so I could inspect the books myself. It wasn’t until months later that I learned banging one’s fist on the counter, as I had in that library, was common behavior among Foreign Experts who were continually frustrated in their attempts to get something done. I took books home, retyped selections on mimeograph stencils, added discussion questions and took them to the printing factory to have copies made. Eventually one of the department typists took over about half of the typing.

My first immediate supervisors were old codgers and micro-managers who shamed the poorest students by making them read aloud and insisted on good handwriting. We did not get on. But within a couple of months there was a big shake-up in the university, and in typical Chinese categorical fashion positions were decided not on the basis of individual merit but on the basis of age. Old guys out, new guys in. My supervisors were replaced by a friendly, thoroughly agreeable department head who was pleased with everything I did. He became a good friend.

My students were at first terrified of this foreigner, or maybe of what could happen because of their association with this foreigner. I think someone reassured the freshmen, because there was a sudden thaw, and classes became fun, even with that awful freshman textbook.

Gradually I learned enough to determine what my role should be. The students were hungry for news from the West, particularly cultural stuff. Their knowledge was spotty. Some of them had pirated Michael Jackson tapes, but they’d never heard of the Beatles. They knew nothing about psychology, which was illegal. Why would you need psychology in a worker’s paradise? Their lives were stressful. Their families had sacrificed a lot for them to be there. Some of them were city kids who’d been sent out to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution—maybe a short distance, but 100 years away—and they’d had to adjust. Their parents might have annoyed the wrong person and been assigned lifelong jobs in different parts of the country, leaving the children in the care of an old grandmother. The parents might have been tortured. Only the rich and powerful had privacy. I used some psychology readings I thought students might find useful in their daily lives, thinking, okay, if the party secretary tells me I can’t teach this stuff, I’ll apologize and never do it again. But until then I’ll use my own judgment. I knew the class monitor also doubled as an informant, but I decided to ignore that.

For the first time, I began to look at myself and my reactions as typical of the Western expat. Why was I always angry when I opened the door? Because someone had been rapping on it continuously for the last five minutes, apparently without considering that I might need time to get to the door or that I had the right to ignore them. Why was I annoyed by a barrage of personal questions from a stranger? I wrote materials to introduce students to Western customs and Western conversational styles. My neighbor was a French teacher who spoke Mandarin fluently and was a great source of cultural information. I learned, and I began to take on a role of introducing students to the West. The students seemed to be really enjoying my classes and getting a lot out of them.

In Europe I’d had some friends who were expats, but as far as I knew there was no expat community where I’d lived and no particular need for one. I’d just adapted. In China the Foreign Experts and Foreign Teachers were put in the Number Two Guesthouse and foreign students on the top floors of a student dormitory. Originally a heavy metal gate separated foreign students from Chinese students, but that was removed one night and thrown into the sea.

So we were in a ghetto. The doors were locked at night. We could supposedly ring the bell to be let in, but that would lead to questions. It was easier to sneak through the back door into the kitchen. Contact with Chinese was limited and controlled. When students came to see me, they had to sign a book in the lobby, and the whole time they were there the guesthouse maids came in and out, monitoring. Any closer friendships would have to be with other foreigners. I made two exceptions—my department head and the only female PhD candidate, a woman who moved to the States toward the end of my stay. All the other Chinese I lost contact with when I left. At the time I was planning to write a book, and I thought it would be too dangerous for former students if, in another 20 years, someone with a grudge looked through their personal dossiers and said, “What were you doing spending so much time with that spy?”

Surveillance would have been worse if we’d been in Beijing or even in Shanghai instead of out-of-the-way little Xiamen. The foreigners knew our mail was opened and read. I got mail which was slit open. Others got envelopes opened and then glued back together with old-fashioned library paste. A German woman received a letter with a page from some stranger’s mail in Afrikaans, probably both read by the same Germanic languages spook in Beijing. When confronted with the evidence, Foreign Affairs just denied it. They didn’t care what we thought. They didn’t hold their positions because of their great love for foreigners. I wasn’t particularly concerned about the mail, but I was about possible repercussions to my other activity, interviewing and collecting stories from other expats living in China. Still, I was fairly certain no one would snitch on me. Almost everyone with an international background had too much dislike for the Foreign Affairs Department.

What I experienced vicariously greatly expanded my knowledge of China. I gathered stories from the other foreign faculty, the businessmen out in the Special Economic Zone, travelers, Hong Kong residents who’d been to the People’s Republic—anyone who would talk with me. We were telling each other our stories anyway. Anything having to do with student demonstrations, surveillance, lifestyle, friendships, traveling, teaching, international business, negotiating contracts or assorted bits of intercultural clashes. (A wide variety of posts is available in the website archives, all listed in the index.) In the process of talking to people I discovered a kind of joy in learning that was different from what I’d experienced as a lone scholar holed up in the library. I put together a manuscript and sent out some letters but eventually gave up trying to get the thing published, at least in that insufficiently edited form. But my interest in introducing Westerners to the expat experience in China continued—a bit similar to my introducing my students to the West.

Toward the end of my first year, I found myself in contract negotiations myself. During conversation with the Foreign Expert in the English Department of Foreign Languages—I was in College English, a service department—I found out that he was making more money than I was even though I had a Ph.D. So when my department head asked whether I would be interested in teaching for another year, the back-and-forth started with Mr. Gao, head of Foreign Affairs. I conveyed through one of his minions my request for a raise, as was appropriate for my credentials. I was told that Mr. Gao was considering it. When a contract appeared, there was no salary on it. I refused to sign. I also contacted the individual at the recruiting company. She spoke to someone in the Experts’ Bureau in Beijing. The bureau leaned on Xiamen Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs raised my salary and put it on the contract. I was leaving class one day when one of the staffers tracked me down, and we located one of those nasty dip pens I’d done so badly with in Luxembourg. Ballpoint pen would not do for a contract. I managed to sign it without getting a blob of ink on it.

I learned a bit more about the hierarchy when I inquired about books which had been donated by my predecessors in the English Department, well-meaning Americans leftists who had attempted to get the People’s Republic back on track. They brought books and gave lecturers to their Chinese colleagues, who listened politely. Maybe attending the American’s lectures meant they could skip some of their regular political meetings. The Americans then left behind a large cache of books which was not in the library. It had been locked away in a special room. Maybe a party secretary wanted to control access to this seditious material. Or maybe it was just book hoarding.  In a place where knowledge is power, you find strange things happening, like a construction project failing because the foreman wouldn’t let any of the workers see the plans. So I asked one of the secretaries if I could have the key to the room. Oh, no. Those books belonged to the English Department. I had to ask my boss in College English to speak to the head of the English Department, and then he would tell my boss yes or no, and my boss would tell me. We were all in the same office, but in this organizational structure, everything is up or down, not much lateral. Okay, my boss talked to the other boss who talked to a subordinate who got the key. He escorted me to the room and I looked it over to see whether I could use any of the books in my teaching materials. They were all very dry.

I was learning the importance of connections.  I had stumbled over the concept shortly after my arrival when a middle-aged couple in the English Department invited me to dinner. I accepted. They put out an enormous spread. I was impressed and grateful, they were gracious, but within the week the graduate assistant of the husband appeared with the doctoral dissertation of one of his graduate students, a study about dictionaries written to show how the Chinese were translating better than anyone else. The implication was clear: I had eaten the dinner, and as repayment I was expected to proofread this damned thing. It was not short. I looked it over. My neighbor and colleague in French looked it over. We decided the “research” was so greatly flawed that there was no point in correcting the many errors in grammar and word choice. I called the perpetrator in and talked to him. His adviser never asked me to proofread again, but I often got requests for corrections in the late evening when I was about to take a bath and the dean came over with a translation he was doing for extra money. My hostess from the dinner sent over requests for me to make tapes. Other expats warned against accepting any favors from Chinese because they always came with strings attached.

I was equally clueless until the end of my first year. Then the heating wire gave out on little electric hot plate I was using to heat up food. I took the stove back to the store where I bought it, and they refused to replace the wire. Why sell a cheap little wire when you can soak the rich foreigner for a new stove? After I took the stove back to my place on campus, I complained to a graduate student I’d gotten friendly with, and she said, “Oh, you know Stanley from last semester? He fixes stoves like that in the chemistry lab.” Then it clicked—connections. Where do you find someone who can proofread English or make tapes for you with a native-speaker accent? In a country where you have exploit middle school connections in order to buy railroad tickets, who you know is everything. I stopped being self-righteous and offered to make tapes.

In China you are almost never seen as an individual. On the phone, people ask not who you are but where (which work unit) you’re calling from. If you want housing on the campus of another university, you present not your faculty ID card, but a letter of introduction from your Foreign Affairs Department, which also looks after your visa and pays for your transportation back home by sending a Chinese escort who has the money for your air ticket. You are not on your own. You’re part of a very intricate network. What favors you do or don’t do are a matter less of your relationship to the other person than a matter of what groups you belong to and what the hierarchy is. Foreigners are a little outside the loop, but not exempt.

I was to see this traditional collectivism—not socialist collectivism, but agrarian collectivism, a network of blood ties and school ties and political ties and overlapping hierarchies—again in South Korea and the Philippines, although in different forms.

Link to my essay on teaching in China: