Moving On, Part 4

by Carol on 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”