Archive for October, 2013

Moving On, Part 6

by on Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Working in the in-between house

This section deals with my indecision about what to do after teaching in Asia for two decades, retirement in the Philippines and work on a novel manuscript.

One day in the spring of 2007 I was sat in the Hard Rock Café in Fukuoka, eating a large salad and waiting to collect my tourist visa from the Korean Consulate. I remembered when my friend Françoise and I were in Hong Kong and she discovered that someone had unzipped her bag and taken her wallet, which held all her money and identification. She kept exclaiming, “I have no identity!” She seemed to mean that without her documents she was nobody.

Twenty-one years later, at age sixty-five I had no job and no country of residence. When I’d left Pittsburgh I’d intended to roam the world with two suitcases and a typewriter, but instead I’d taught two years in China, settled down in Korea, acquired cats and apartment full of stuff, and learned to eat kimchi with great gusto. I’d even stayed on during the 1997 economic crisis when the Korean won temporarily lost half of its previous value—it sank from 688 per US dollar in 1988 to around 1700 per dollar, then slowly climbed up to 1000 per dollar. By 2007, I’d been teaching English at Dongguk University in Seoul for more than seventeen years, but my last contract would run out at the end of February, leaving me three weeks to get out of the country. The tourist visa would buy me three months to sort things out. So now what? Maybe stay in Korea and try to get a part-time university job with residence documents, which to my knowledge no foreigner had been allowed to do. Maybe tutor privately on a tourist visa, which was illegal and could result in fines and deportation—although the government seemed to have stopped offering a reward for turning in illegal English teachers. I also didn’t know what the lack of official status would mean in terms of having a phone or a bank account, and of course I was no longer covered by Korean National Health, although I did have private insurance.

On the one hand, retirement loomed like a purgatory filled with too much television and hanging around my former workplace waiting for someone to join me for lunch. On the other, much as I’d loved teaching, maybe thirty-seven years in front of a classroom was enough. I had the beginnings of a novel manuscript I’d been fiddling with for years, and I wanted to make something of it.

I could go “home.” I pictured the iconic British colonial returning to a land he didn’t know, without a household staff to look after him, possibly unable to boil an egg or operate a can opener. Well, not quite that, but I knew the years abroad had created such an abyss that the most superficial conversation—say with the stranger cutting my hair—had to include my explaining that I didn’t really live there. In 1956 I’d returned to the States as a high school girl who didn’t know who Elvis Presley was. Thirty years later I’d been a college professor who didn’t know who Madonna was. I thought of a Catholic nun who’d complained that she loved Korea but she was being sent back to the States, where she didn’t even know how to use the telephones in the airport. Much as I loved Pittsburgh and my friends there, when I went back I’d always gotten bored after the reverse culture shock wore off. I’d missed the cultural friction and the daily discovery.

That’s why I was open to Mary and Walter’s invitation to join them in Quezon City, where Mary was working on a master’s degree in educational technology at the University of the Philippines. She was full of hyperbole about everything: the tropical climate and natural beauty, the friendliness of the people, the low prices and the widespread use of English—all of which made life so much easier than in Korea. I’d gone down with them before, looked around, saw a place which reminded me vaguely of China and realized I could be happy there. On another trip we rented a large house in a middle-class gated community. The house was a bungalow behind a high wall: a paved yard with a bit of earth around it for plants, a huge living room, dining room, a small study, three bedrooms and two inside bathrooms. Out back was a bathroom for the domestic help, a “dirty kitchen” for laundry and grilling or cleaning fish, a maid’s room—a concrete cell with no windows and a ramshackle wooden bed which I ordered removed immediately. Above the garage was the driver’s room, which to show his higher status did have windows covered with wooden slats rather than glass. The real estate agent recommended a housekeeper named Fe, a smart, well-educated, patient, extremely practical woman who came in during the day.

For this move I did something I’d never considered doing before. I hired professional movers. On the appointed day they showed up in a large truck painted orange and black with the Korean company logo and five or six men dressed in yellow and black uniforms, also with the company logo, jumped out the back. The man in charge arrived in his own car with a white shirt, tie and clipboard. The workers packed everything, cutting boxes to fit appliances and furniture, ripping off lengths of duct tape almost in unison. The neighbors came out to watch. Within three or four hours they packed everything, including as I later discovered parts of the kitchen sink that didn’t belong to me. After a few days and many farewells, a friend drove me to the airport together with two cat carriers, a suitcase and a backpack. Within two weeks the Filipino partner of the moving company arrived—in jeans and flip-flops—with all 98 boxes. I stood at the back of the battered blue truck with the clipboard and tried to look efficient as I marked off each box and told the men which room to put it in. Because I hate chaos, I worked like a maniac, and three days later everything was more or less in its place.

One morning I went outside and found Fe sitting on a little plastic stool in the dirty kitchen doing washing clothes in a pail. I stormed into Mary’s study. “Why in the hell is she doing the laundry by hand?”

“That’s what she wanted. She said just buy her that plastic stool. So I did.”

“Why not take the washing down to the river and beat it on the rocks? Jees! There’s a perfectly good LG washing machine out there.”

“She didn’t know how to read the Korean.”

“I’ll show her.”

It took a little persuasion, but Fe learned to dump the laundry and the soap in the machine, turn it on, and come back to collect the clean clothes around half an hour later. I lost the rash I’d apparently gotten from detergent in inadequately rinsed denim shorts.

We settled into our roles. Fe cleaned and looked after Walter, a semi-invalid in his mid-eighties. Once a week when Fe and I did the grocery shopping together, she insisted it was her job to push the cart. There was a limit to how much work she would allow me to do in the kitchen. There still is. I’m sure this is not, as a Western friend suggested, a matter of looking out for job security. It’s older than that. Doing things the Filipino way sometimes seems almost Confucian in its assignment of tasks. I’m allowed to play the cooking expert if I want to but not to wash the dishes.

A month after we arrived in Quezon City I was on my way to Chiang Mai for the Abroad Writers’ Conference. I’d been on short trips to Thailand before—a week in Phuket, a couple of short stays in Pattaya, a bit of Bangkok coming and going. For me this was not about going to an exotic place, although I did use our little bit of free time to visit various temples. It was about traveling a relatively short distance to get some professional feedback on my first attempt at fiction. I’d have been mortified if I’d realized how bad my manuscript really was.  There were around fourteen participants, all very supportive. Two are still friends. We had two weeks with the novelist Chris Abani and the memoirist Rebecca Walker. We worked hard, rereading everyone’s manuscripts, which had been emailed to us, and doing homework assignments. After the conference Rebecca labored through my entire manuscript and provided feedback. I revised it, and she read it again. She taught me how to “take my writing to the next level” as she’d promised, and I really learned a lot. But the manuscript was still far too complicated, with three interconnected stories set in both China and Korea. To an Asian-based expat the two settings made some sense; to a normal Stateside reader, they didn’t.

A lot of my life now consisted of sitting at my computer desk. I’d look up through the window at the short calamansi tree with its spreading horizontal branches, the block pattern of the concrete wall behind it and think of Mondrian’s Cherry Tree series. Then I’d go for a swim in the subdivision pool, a lovely place surrounded by lush tropical foliage and flowering trees. With proper timing I’d have the pool all to myself.

The following summer I went to Abroad Writers’ in the South of France. Again I made some good friendships, and I discovered what it meant to be “just one among many,” which I never had as a scholar in a tight job market or a professor working very independently. The writers’ conferences which focus on the business can be very tense and competitive, but the workshops I’ve attended have all shown great respect for everyone’s work. That year we had Rebecca Walker again and the novelist Russell C. Jones. Russell tried to tell me that my three-for-the-price-of-one approach was not working.

I didn’t listen until the 2009 San Francisco Writers’ Conference, when I got advice from someone who either couldn’t keep the whole plot in his head or pretended not to. To pitch a novel to an agent, you need to be able to sum up the whole thing in twenty-five words or less. One sentence would be better. In a way I knew that because I’d already done it with my doctoral dissertation, which covered a character prototype in many works by a major-major German writer. But I couldn’t yet do it with fiction.

Okay, after the conference I picked one story and one protagonist and started over. I took a graduate-level creative writing class at the University of the Philippines. In the summer I went to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, where Chris Abani was teaching. He assured me that my writing was now light years ahead of where it had been two years before. I spent another year revising, took another class at UP and went back to Port Townsend again.

The current manuscript was born when Chris picked up my first chapter, waved it in the air, and said, “This is your novel. Write about this.” Okay, so it would not be about my protagonist’s adventures in Asia. It would be about my protagonist preparing herself for that quest by confronting her guilt and ridding herself of the burdens of her past. Got it, finally. Chris pointed us in the direction of Twenty Masterplots and How to Build Them and showed us how to find the premise in our work. He talked with me about the focus of each of the first four chapters. I went to Pittsburgh, saw friends and collected background information, which I now needed because the entire thing would be set in Pittsburgh, with Asia appearing only in my protagonist’s imagination. Back home in Quezon City I had a magical revelation when I realized of course I knew how to put together a transformation plot. My entire life had been a transformation. In 2011, I took the novel to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, where I got more help and more support. People said the manuscript looked very promising.

It’s not an autobiographical novel. The psychological profile is based in part on bits of information from Motherless Daughters, a study of women who’d lost their mothers at an early age. But with my constant revising I was adding more of myself—the studio pottery I’d done for a while, backed up with online research, the academic background, the political interests and particularly the emotions. Chris says, “Why do you write? Discover that and you’ll find something that will sustain you when nothing else will.” My protagonist asks herself the same question about her art work, and the reader gets some hints about what that is. She’s twenty-three and missing her parents. I’m seventy-one and missing my parents.

I’ve discovered that for me the combination which works best is a complicated character and a simple plot. I’ve read that basically all fiction has only one plot: someone arrives or someone leaves, maybe both. Mine leaves, joyfully and unburdened, which hopefully with decent karma I will do one day.

So the thing is now finished, at least for a time, and in the hands of an agent. I’ve gained a lot from long-suffering friends, some women I met at writers’ conferences, some in Korea, who started reading the manuscript long before it was readable. I’ve discovered the joy of creation far exceeds the joy of holding the published work in my hands, although for fiction it may be different than for scholarship and textbooks and websites. Writing fiction is the most challenging, all-absorbing thing I’ve ever done.

In the meantime, Walter died, a quiet, good man who is very much missed. A year later, in September 2009, Mary and I and the cats were flooded out of our home. Traumatized, we rented a large, overpriced living and office space which had once been occupied by a Korean non-governmental organization and was still occupied by lots of junk the NGO had left behind. In early November, Mary returned to the States to be with her children. I couldn’t see packing up all my stuff and moving back to either Korea or Pittsburgh. The real estate agent who’d found the bungalow in Xavierville 1 found my current townhouse in Xavierville 2, which lies on somewhat higher ground.

These days most of my friends in Manila are Filipinos. I don’t really do the expat scene. I’m gradually discovering more about the politics and the culture and posting my discoveries on this website. I try to help out when needed. I’ve made a little progress with the language via the two Tagalog classes taught at UP and a tedious but comprehensible textbook done with the audiolingual method, which I used when I taught my first German classes in 1966. I’m in the very early stages of doing a memoir, let’s say pre-first-draft.

And, yes, after retirement life does go on.

Related links:

Related links:


Moving On, Part 5

by on Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Myoungjin Building at Dongguk University, where I taught most of my classes

Previous posts on my university teaching at Dongguk University can be found at and

In 1988-89 when I was at a private language school in Seoul, we teachers looked enviously at the deals given university teachers—seven times as much paid vacation, a weekly teaching load half of what ours was and lower taxes on approximately the same salary. The the academic director harped on how difficult her year of university teaching had been. She spoke of huge classes and students at the back of the room playing basketball during class. My first university term I also had a huge class—eighty students—with twenty guys in the back hiding under their desks whenever I looked their way, and there were a lot of F’s. However, by experience, training and personality I had little or no tolerance for students’ not paying attention. No need to buy a microphone so I could be heard over the students’ noise, which many of my Korean colleagues did.

Because I had a Ph.D. and had once been an assistant professor, I was hired with an E-1 visa and the rank of Visiting Professor. I “visited” for quite a few years before I got tenure and an associate professorship, but eventually that did happen. I didn’t have to go through all the current hassle of a police background check or take an HIV test.

During that first term I realized the administration probably didn’t do much administering. If my superiors made no attempt to control class size I could probably do it myself. So every time I had large class, we trooped over to my office for individual interviews. I selected the top half. After more dropped out, I ended up with around thirty-two, or eight small discussion group of four each, which was quite manageable. Around 2001 or so, the administration started putting limits on class size.

My students were sophomores, juniors and seniors, either English majors or majors in other subjects whose language skills were already pretty good. They had bright, eager young minds which could follow me anywhere. About half of them worked very hard. Unlike the notoriously reticent Japanese students, Koreans like to talk in class, although few will talk or even ask a question in front of the entire class because “speaking in public” is considered a display of arrogance. They’re curious about each other and each others’ opinions. Given the right reading material and the right discussion questions, they’ll chatter away, leaving the teacher free to roam from group to group making suggestions, maybe writing down grammar points to be discussed later. The actual teaching was only a problem once.

Until the university’s foreign language institute was formed about ten years after I arrived, the required freshman English course was taught by Koreans, after that by institute teachers, whose working conditions were somewhat better than those in private language schools but with larger classes. The one time I had to teach the freshman class it was not fun. There were forty students who did not want to be there, so mismatched that a near-native speaker who’d spent three years in a British middle school was sitting next to a baseball player who could barely write his name in the Roman alphabet—apparently some admissions finagling was allowed for athletes. At the start of the term I’d gotten together with the nine or ten institute teachers and worked out a system where we could test the students and have them drop and add so they’d end up in the appropriate sections. Soon a very embarrassed English department head appeared in my office to tell me the higher administration said I couldn’t do that. Okay, I apologized, and somehow we all struggled through.

As I was told in the job interview in 1989, one condition of my employment was that for a meager additional sum I would proofread the monthly English-language newspaper written by the students. This is still a standard requirement for some native speakers at universities. I soon discovered the language of the “articles” was so bad that “proofreading” actually meant entirely rewriting. There were about twenty-six per issue. The student editor of the Dongguk Post felt free to sent copy late and then call to pressure me into hurrying up. After the nth call, I hung up on him, and he contacted the Post’s faculty adviser, a colleague in my department, who came to talk to me. In the ensuing conversation I felt like a wild animal trapped in a corner with fur standing on end. Afterwards I realized I might have just talked myself out of a really good job, and I wrote a note apologizing for my temper. We got together, and I showed him the original work and how much editing had to be done on it. He understood immediately.  So then I was free to call this kid into my office. I gave him a list of things to remember, starting with “I am a professor, and you are a student,” rather like the list of rules I gave my Chinese students, which began with “Please don’t spit in class” and ended with “Please don’t give me presents.”

My colleague became a good friend and ally, the co-author of our composition textbook and workbook. For years he was the one who talked to the higher administration when the Korean professors had received a raise in salary and I hadn’t. That also meant a raise for the other non-Korean, who joined the department five years after I did.

From the beginning almost all of the department was very supportive. One of the biggest fears of most long-term expats is of losing a parent when you’re overseas. I was sitting in my office when my brother called to say our mother had died. I sat there for a while looking out over the stadium, the park and the Seoul Tower. Then I went down to the department office to ask the graduate students who acted as secretary to cancel my classes. Within half an hour, a several faculty members appeared at my office door with an envelope, the traditional collection of sympathy money for someone who’s suffered a death in the family. The department head told me to take two weeks although the official compassionate leave was only one week—in those days professors could just leave for a while without having to make up classes. My boss at my part-time editing job was also very kind. He asked me about my mother and listened to me talk while twilight settled in over the park. This is the kindness which binds people together.

Of course there were culture clashes occasionally. That same semester I made a mistake on one of the students’ final grades. The grades had to be entered into a long roll sheet by hand, a very tedious process. When a student came to see me it was immediately clear I’d made a mistake. Now, in the US when I’d had to change a grade I’d gone down to the registrar’s office, filled out a change of grade slip and checked the box marked “clerical error.” There was no automatic assumption of bribery or coercion. But, as I knew from China, in Asia there are no simple mistakes. Errors don’t just occur. Someone has to be blamed. So I talked to one of the graduate assistants working in the office, she wrote an abject letter of apology to the administration, and I signed it without knowing exactly what it said. I suspected it said I’d been upset about my mother’s death. In later years, grades could be entered temporarily into the computer roll, and students had a week to check them and contact the instructor before the grades were finalized.

There were many, many days at Dongguk when I was amazed that someone actually paid me to do this wonderful job. Bright, educated, respectful, eager-to-please students. The freedom to do whatever I wanted and to do it my way. After my first semester I put together all the class materials myself so they would meet exactly the needs of the students as I understood them. There were essays and short stories or book excerpts with discussion questions about European-Americans, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Native Americans in order to show a bit of life from other perspectives. We also had readings meant to test or challenge gender stereotypes and Korean regional stereotypes. I quickly learned not to confront the kids myself. I just put them in discussion groups and let them confront each other. Discussions were lively but not hostile.

Gradually I got more of a picture of the culture. A friend who’s an anthropologist gave me a short reading called “Alligator River,” which was often used to test attitudes. [A woman is in love with a man who’s fatally ill. To save him she needs to get to the other side of the river for medicine. She can’t swim because the river is full of alligators. The boatman says he’ll only ferry her across if she’ll have sex with him first. In distress she turns to her mother for advice. The mother says she’ll have to make the decision herself because she is the one who’ll be living with the consequences.] After reading the passage, students were to rate the characters on a scale from good to bad. Many people faulted the boatman for trying to take advantage of the woman’s helplessness, but a lot of people argued quite vehemently that the mother was most at fault because she wasn’t giving her daughter sufficient guidance. None of the students seemed to understand the mother’s reasoning. Some groups refused the premise of the exercise altogether and said the woman would have to find some other way of getting across the river.

Considering where these people were coming from, the negative attitude toward the mother made some sense: they were all in their twenties, their parents had kept them on a short leash most of their lives, they might be dreading the day when they’d be independent. In those days I was still hearing from first sons that they were looking for wives who would look after their parents. But over the time I was at Dongguk attitudes changed, at least on the surface. First sons, whose duty it was to look after the parents, were having trouble finding wives. Children were sharing the responsibility of taking care of the parents. Fewer and fewer homes held family members of more than one generation. Parents were saving up for their retirement themselves. Recently I’ve heard of Korean’s setting up homes for senior citizens, something they used to criticize the West for doing. In time the women in my classes seemed to be gaining self-confidence. Some spoke of not wanting to get married despite the fact that this would leave them marginalized in Korean society. Society in general seemed more hospitable to foreigners. The old Confucian values were eroding and being replaced by what my students called “individualism” and I called selfishness. To me the concept of individualism included, for example, the notion that a woman should make her own decisions if she had to suffer the consequences.

We used versions of those textbooks until I wrote the second batch of books, which we used for the last then years I was there. The reading selections for the advanced book,  Intercultural Conversation 1 and 2, were based on the interviews which appear on this website, only cut up and used as parts of dialogues, with explanations of key concepts, reading questions, discussion questions and crossword puzzles. The students loved having a look at what expats might be saying about them when they weren’t in the room. They loved being able compare characteristics of Korean and American society side by side in an academic, non-judgmental manner. Because they felt understood, they became even more open about their feelings. They wanted to become “international people.” Ethnic Koreans who’d been raised abroad said the book was a big help in understanding Korean culture. Intermediate Conversation 1 and 2 dealt with roughly the same issues though videos from films and television programs.

English Composition for Korean Students was based on the students’ own compositions plus directions and grammar sections. Finding the Right Word and Finding the Right Form came from my first, rejected MA thesis for the University of Pittsburgh, which various semantics exercises in vocabulary teaching.

My actual MA paper was a sociolinguistic language attitude study based on the observation that Koreans didn’t like it when non-natives spoke Korean too well and ethnic Koreans didn’t speak it well enough, meaning that language was a component in the boundary keeping some people in the group and other people out.

I remembered the first time my family came back from Europe. My three-year-old brother was hoisted onto the piano at my grandparents’ house in Upstate New York and someone said, “Ricky, say something to us in Luxembourgish.” He looked around the room at the people who did not speak his language and refused to say a word. He didn’t talk until he learned English again. In the same circumstances I was sure that horrified Korean relatives would criticize the parents severely. Also, there were times when my German had been pretty good, but no one had ever intimated it was a little too good. When I was in high school they might have said I was Scandinavian–according to the stereotype no Americans spoke foreign languages–or, after I became an adult, that I was a German who’d emigrated some years before.

In Korea there was a lot of anecdotal evidence to support my hypothesis. On the one hand, I’d heard of ethnic Asians being severely criticized by taxi drivers for their poor language skills, people not being offered English-teaching jobs because they weren’t white, people getting into fights. One guy was killed. On the other hand, a white friend of mine had said that when he’d ordered in Korean in a New York restaurant, the waitress had pointed at him and loudly warned the other customers, “Hey, this guy speaks Korean.”

Translation: 1. competent–incompetent, 2. conscientious–not conscientious, 3. not reasonable–reasonable, 4. uncomfortable to be with–comfortable to be with, 5. unintelligent–intelligent, 6. good–bad, 7. selfish–unselfish, 8. gets along well with others–gets along badly with others, 9. loyal–disloyal, having leadership qualities–having no leadership qualities, 11. frivolous–serious, 12. hard-working–lazy, 13. untaleneted–talented, 14. unkind–kind, 15. inconsiderate–considerate, 16. open, casual–aloof, 17. creative–uncreative, 18. friendly–unfriendly, 19. respected–not respected, 20. cold-hearted–warm-hearted.

I set up an experiment with help from a Korean assistant. First I found a cartoon of a busy railway station and asked various speakers of Korean—beginner to very advanced—to describe the scene for my tape recorder. A few of my colleagues at Dongguk listened to the tapes and rated the speakers’ language competence according to a scale. I took pictures of white guys and pictures of Koreans. I set up two dimensions, one with “status” words like intelligence and another with “group solidarity” words like loyalty. I made up sheets with the pictures and phony names. The subjects—my students—heard all but one tape twice, once with a Korean name and once with an English name, and rated the speakers.

Over vacation I took all of the answer sheets back to Pittsburgh, and they were run through the computer. I was greatly relieved when my hypothesis came out statistically significant. With both groups the “solidarity” scores were flat regardless of language ability, meaning none these guys were considered part of the group. The “status” dimension started low, rose to a point in the middle of the chart and then fell, with the speaker in the middle—the one my colleagues had ranked as “minimal professional proficiency”—getting the highest ranking. He spoke Korean well enough for a reasonable conversation but not well enough to be threatening. The scores for the guys with Asian names and faces ran exactly parallel to the ones for the white guys but several notches lower, such clear evidence of prejudice against ethnic Koreans that my thesis adviser looked at my graphs and muttered “those little shits.” Over ten years later, I decided to run the experiment again, thinking that people spoke as if their attitudes had changed with their increased opportunity to go abroad or to meet people who’d spent a lot of time overseas. The results were almost exactly the same.

My choice of a thesis topic did me some disservice in that it provided a rationalization for not working harder on my Korean, the only thing about those years that I regret. I first tried taking up the language with a hefty first-year Korean textbook I’d picked up in Pittsburgh. It had some strange peculiarities as a result of having been written by linguists, rather than language teachers. For example, instead of the Korean alphabet almost all of the text was in its own phonetic transcription. There’s usually some kind of fiction involved with teaching a foreign language, and in this case it was that if someone learned to speak first learning to read afterwards would come fairly easily. I found this not to be the case. There was also far too much grammar and vocabulary introduced at once. I worked on the textbook with tapes. I hired someone to drill me on the exercises. I took classes. It was always start and then stop when something more pressing came up, stop and start.

Now that the novel is finished—finally—and I’m about to start up my Tagalog learning again, I wonder whether there isn’t something about specific language systems in themselves which draws people to them. I was intrigued by Korean for a while, but in many ways Tagalog has a special sort of appealing quirkiness about it. I suspect it’s really linguistic, not just Filipino tolerance for foreigners’ butchering their language. But that’s for next time.