Archive for February, 2014

Korea Forty Years Later

by on Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Stephen in front of the Foreign Language Institute after turning in his grades (Stephen Schuit)

Forty years before this Skype interview—almost to the day—in late November 1973, Stephen Schuit arrived at Kimpo Airport as a US Peace Corps volunteer. After three months of training he taught at what was then Keimyung Christian College and is now Keimyung University. When his  two years in the Peace Corps was over, he returned to Maine and became a human resource professional with a focus on management training. In the mid-90s he started teaching at the business school of the University of Southern Maine. His consulting practice took him to about thirty different countries, including Korea. In 2011 he returned to teach English at Yeungnam University near Daegu. Please note the URLs for his blog below, particularly the article on No Gun Ri. All photos are courtesy of Stephen Schuit. 

Stephen’s story

The young American history major at the DMZ (Stephen Schuit)

When I arrived in late November 1973, Kimpo was a military airport on the outskirts of Seoul. Everyone we saw was a soldier. At that time the student demonstrations against the military regime of Park Chung-hee were so frequent they weren’t even newsworthy. There were about fifty Peace Corps volunteers in my group, and we were quickly bused to Daegu. The three-month training period was Monday through Friday and a half day on Saturday. It consisted of three subjects: Korean culture, Korean language and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. The learning was intense and a lot of fun. My group was training to be university instructors of English. I chose to be located in Daegu because I was here and I was enjoying it for the most part. Others went all over the place, a lot of people to Seoul, one guy to Cheju-do.

I was assigned to a school called Keimyung Christian College, now Keimyung University. In those days what stood out for me was the dirt and the hygiene problems like the use of human excrement as fertilizer and the lack of potable water. Since all the water had to be boiled, you just had barley tea. You couldn’t purchase dairy products like milk or cheese [which are not part of the traditional Asian diet]. There were no private cars. There was ostensibly no middle class. There was public transportation—the trains were decent and the buses were good but crowded—and taxis. There was no subway system.

The Korean War had ended about 19 years previously, and you still had the after-effects of the Japanese occupation. For example, the hills and mountains were barren. There were no trees. My take on this was that the Japanese were building wooden homes and were heating their homes with wood. The Japanese were of course defeated in 1945, not much had grown back by 1950, and with the Korean War, pretty much everything was obliterated. In the winter the landscape was all brown.

Students in uniform (Stephen Schuit)

Both male and female students were still wearing Japanese-style uniforms—black with gold trim, gold buttons with a tunic neck. The other reminders of the occupation were the stories about having to speak Japanese, about having to go through the Japanese regimen in schools and about the tens of thousands of women being raped. My students were probably born in the mid-50s, so their stories were coming from their parents. I suspect that significant numbers of these students’ mothers and grandmothers were sexually harassed by the Japanese.

Those were the days of mimeograph machines and cold, very poorly lit classrooms. The blackboards were all made out of this rubberized material similar to the material the Koreans now put down on running and biking paths in public areas. In the States traditional blackboards were made out of slate. In Korea slate was not available so they had these smooth, rubberized black and green blackboards. Even using chalk was somewhat problematic. It often wasn’t available when needed, and it just didn’t work well on those boards. Today we use wet boards with markers.

I had some classes with fifty students. You had to be an actor, a showman. You were dancing. You were doing anything you could to keep the kids active, interested, engaged and having a good time. If you were dry,boring and stationary at your desk it wasn’t going to happen.

I designed a teaching technique using articles from Newsweek and Time Magazine. I looked for appropriate vocabulary words that I wanted to teach, found them in articles and copied the articles if I could. I put together a half-dozen sentences or so to give them an understanding of the article and the vocabulary I was trying to teach, came to class early and put them on the board. After doing drills using the sentences, we could discuss the article, and I could ask them questions about it and how it related to them.

Today here at Yeungnam University, the only thing I need to bring to class is a memory stick—and markers. Every room has a computer, a very large computer screen, and a wet board. So I use PowerPoint. We use the textbook and videos. The books are the same for everyone teaching a particular class. I’m teaching a business English class, and that textbook is standardized as well. So the curriculum is consistent. Within that the classroom you can do whatever you want, but the tests are standardized. I think it works great. It assures that there’s a minimal level of skill attainment. We teach the four skills. We recently integrated writing with the listening speaking and reading, and I think our students are largely insured that they’re going to get good basic education.

Starting with the spring semester on March 2, we’ll have new textbooks for every class, every level. A number of options were presented to us, and we were asked to evaluate them. When I show up toward the end of February, I’ll be told which textbooks we’ll be using. That’s okay with me. As long as the classroom belongs to me, I feel fine.

Right now my smallest class has 19 students, and the largest 23. I have students paired as learning partners. They have the same partner from the beginning of the semester until mid-terms, when they take their speaking tests together. I give them questions to start the conversation between them, and they talk. Then they also take individual exams inlistening, reading and writing. For the second half of the semester they have new partners. For group work, I often take the partners and put them together to form groups of four or five or six, depending on the activity.

Downtown Daegu in 1974 (Stephen Schuit)

Forty years after I first arrived in Korea, the major differences I see are the world-class train and subway systems. In Daegu,  Busan and Seoul these systems are probably as good as any in the world. You can also drink the water from the tap. I don’t, but you can. You see touching and perfunctory sexual behavior among male and female students—the hand-holding, the hugging, the embraces are very explicit and visible. You never saw that 40 years ago.

The other thing that is significantly different is the vibrant, large middle class. I think that’s the key part of Korea’s success. Basically, the Confucian model hasn’t changed, meaning the hierarchy nd what it means to be rich or poor. People’s language still reflects their positions, their roles and their age [in relation to the person they’re talking to, for example in “talking up” to some people and “talking down” to others]. What has changed is the growth of the middle class, the high percentage of Koreans who have graduated from college and become professionals. There’s now a tradition now of going to college, finding jobs in these large companies, called chaebǒls. People can afford to buy cars to drive the economy, and they can travel abroad freely.

In the Korea of 1973, in order to go abroad you had to get permission from the Park Chung-hee government, either the man himself or his staff. People didn’t even have money to travel. Now you don’t need anyone’s permission, and many Koreans travel and live overseas. Their global awareness has changed significantly. This middle class owns property, spends money, is credit-charged to world historic levels of indebtedness. By some measures the economy is the fifteenth largest in the world.

I left the Korea of 1975 not feeling good about the country. After two years I was bitter and exhausted. I wanted to get on with my life. I was tired of being so visible [as a foreigner]. I had started growing a beard. Kids were cat-calling me all the time, and there was no place I could walk without being approached or singled out or noticed. It was only very few people’s intention to hassle me, but I was at the whims of kids and people wanting to practice their English. There were maybe a dozen English teachers at the university level in Daegu. I knew them all. Now the expat community in Daegu is huge, probably 10,000 people. If you’re a foreigner and you’re walking down the street, people don’t even notice you anymore.

The Peace Corps told us, “This is an apolitical role, please respect that.” But as soon as you said you were with the Peace Corps, people knew that you’d been sanctioned by the Park Chung-hee administration and that you worked for the US government. So how could you possibly be apolitical? It would be like saying you worked for the US Army or the CIA or the General Services Administration but you weren’t political. You represented policy, you were an arm of the US government.

Well, sure. I wasn’t in my classrooms, for example, criticizing Park Chung-hee. Nor were any other professors who valued their lives. No one could legally criticize Park Chung-hee in public [and usually not in private]. So that’s political.

I don’t want to say that was the most significant factor. Communication was slow and different. Obviously, we didn’t have Skype or computers. If I wrote a letter to my family, I wouldn’t know they’d received it until I got a letter back. There was usually a four-to-eight-week turn-around. Peace Corps volunteers didn’t have phones. If you and I were both teaching in Daegu, one of us at Yeungnam and the other at Keimyung, and I saw you on Thursday, I’d say, “Hey, Carol, let’s meet again on Sunday.” We would establish a place and a time, but if we both showed up at that place and that time it was a minor miracle.

So two years of slow communication, two years of being on my own, two years of hassles and not being able to drink the water, two years of the daily frustrations of living in a third-world country with the Korean bureaucracy and ice-cold, poorly-lit classrooms—all of that was fairly taxing. I needed a break. I was looking forward to hopping in a car, driving somewhere and eating a hamburger or a pizza. And just getting on with my life.

The advice I wrote on my blog about ten days ago [“Beyond Surviving: How to Thrive as an Expat,” see the URL below] was a reaction to office conversation. What precipitated it was that a young colleague of mine, otherwise a decent enough chap, went into the office of the Korean director. The director told this young man that the assistant professorship he was expecting and hoping for was not going to be forthcoming. He said, “I’d like you to take the next semester and demonstrate that you do have a solid, good character and professionalism. Then you can come back and we’ll talk about an assistant professorship.”

A fifteen-minute argument ensued. This guy was infuriated at the—in his mind—broken promise and the allegations about his character. He picked up a chair and threw it at the director, hitting his desk and knocking his computer and other stuff off of it. He took his ceramic coffee cup and threw it, barely missing the director’s head and hitting the wall, where it shattered. Then he walked out. He told us that he “died on his sword,” meaning that he’d stood for truth, justice, and the American way—or whatever it meant to him. In other words, he wasn’t going to take any shit. He quit. I’m sure by that time he was fired anyway, but he was very proud of having taken a stand.

It caused me to be upset and very reflective for the next three or four days. And nauseous.I felt I had failed this young man—he’s about thirty-three—as a colleague. I felt I hadn’t coached him well if he could be that disrespectful in spite of being frustrated and perhaps having a promise broken to him. I also wondered how he could he be so disrespectful after living in Korea for four or five years. How could he not know what a violation this was to anything that was reasonable and normal? This was the worst extreme of a continuum of behaviors which suggested to me that some people didn’t respect this country or understand its customs. They might feel their own country is better. So I spent the next week thinking about it before putting my thoughts down in writing.

I’d say probably 70% of my colleagues are very professional, they take teaching as an awesome responsibility, and they are constantly working on their professional development. Then I would say about 10-15% of the people seem to be riding it out. They don’t see teaching as their primary reason for being here. It’s just a vehicle for sustaining themselves. Maybe another 10% go either way. I wouldn’t call anyone in our 53-person staff a “backpacker.” Even those who don’t seem truly professional seem to be here to give it a go.  

My love for Korea was based largely on the romantic notion of love in a rear-view mirror. I mean, the bitterness kept dissolving the longer I was away from Korea. As the years passed, and I met Koreans in the States or visited Korean restaurants, or took out my Korean language books to look them over again, my bitter memories faded, and I was left with only a very romanticized residue: how wonderful the country really was, how much I loved the food, how much I loved the people and how much I loved the language. I came back in 1988 for the summer Olympics. I returned on a number of business trips to train Korean managers in the late 90s, which is when I visited No Gun Ri. [See the URL below.] In addition to visiting my son, who was teaching in Seoul in 2011, I had about a half-dozen trips to Korea. I was staying in touch. Those visits helped nurture this very romantic recollection I had of the country.

Coming back and seeing the country as it became the new, modern Korea, I saw that the things I’d found frustrating were just memories of a Korea that had gone past. So this time when I came, I appreciated more of the “romantic aspects” of Korea. When I met people who shared the Korea of today, I could tell them about the Korea of the 1970s. When I came back for the Olympics, I saw a former student of mine who was now a businessman living on the thirtieth floor of a fancy apartment building in Seoul. The new Korea was indeed fascinating. The food was delicious. Our conversations about the way Daegu used to be, now that I was free of the hassles, was a romantic story, and a powerfully emotional one as well.

Stephen’s blog (Copy the URL and paste it in your navigation bar.)


From a Squatters’ Village to a Housing Project

by on Monday, February 3rd, 2014

Row houses in Bulacan

In December 2012, I posted an interview with Maria, who at that time was living as an “informal settler” on public land in Blue Ridge, in Quezon City, a good location close to her work and to facilities and shops. She’d been living there since 1979. She and her husband had to use community toilets, but they had their own running water and electricity. Their room was small, about the size of a middle-class bathroom. In 2005 their houses had been demolished to make room for road widening. For months they lived in tents, but then the barangay [local government officials] told them they could rebuild their shanties further up the hill. Before my previous interview with Maria, the squatters had been told they’d be relocated far outside the city, in Montalban Rizal. To read that interview, please check it out by copying this URL and pasting it in your navigation bar. The following is an update about a year later.

Maria’s story

Maria at the door of her new house

In Blue Ridge we had a community of 75 families. I’d been living there for 23 years. Others had lived there most of their lives. The old people might have been there for 50-60 years. Some said that at a long time ago maybe only 15 families lived there, but the children got married and built houses there also and settled down.

Then in 2012, the barangay officials came with the mayor and some media men who interviewed us. The officials told us that our place was dangerous because it was on the fault line and it was also on top of the sewer. They said they would be moving us all to Montalban Rizal, over 25 kilometers from Quezon City, but that it would be good for us because we wouldn’t be squatters anymore. The new places were rent to own or rent to buy. The first year was rent-free because we’d have to adjust to the new location. After that, 200 pesos [$4.76] a month for four years, then it would double, then after a year it would double again to 800 pesos. It would take 30 years to pay for the place. In Blue Ridge I didn’t pay rent because I owned the house, but the land it was on belonged to Metro Manila Water. I just paid for the electricity and the running water. Water was about 500 pesos a month [a day’s salary].

We told the officials we would agree to move if the whole community could still be together. We heard this was approved by the National Housing Authority, but we didn’t hear from then for a long time. In the middle of 2013, just before the election, the barangay officials came back, and they said the first 23 families on the list would be moving to Montalban Rizal the next day. We were kind of shocked since we hadn’t heard anything from them for three or four months. We said. “Sir, why didn’t you tell us that you would be moving us?” They didn’t explain. They just said it had been decided and the papers had been processed, and the National Housing Authority had told them to move some of the residents.

When we had a barangay meeting, there were 47 families who had finished the paperwork required by the National Housing Authority. Some people didn’t want to move because their work was nearby. Blue Ridge was a very good location. But maybe 18 families volunteered to be first. Then right before the move another five volunteered. I couldn’t move because the paperwork wasn’t done.

Anyway, the first batch moved before the election on May 14, 2013.  Then maybe two weeks after the election the second batch moved, the 47 families who didn’t volunteer. The officials said, “If you don’t move now you won’t get another chance. They’ll take your name off the list. This area is a danger zone, but don’t turn to us if anything happens. No one will help you.”

So there was the fault line, the sewer, and flooding with Typhoon Ondoy and then again with the habagat, the heavy rainfall where lots of Metro Manila got flooded. As it turned out, we were lucky we weren’t among those who moved to Monaltban Rizal before the habagat because their new houses had water up to the roof even with the very high ceilings, maybe like one and a half stories. Some of the people who were flooded out just grabbed empty houses in Montalban. “I will take this place then.”

The authorities moved the second batch, maybe another 23 families. All of them filled up one block of houses. It was good for them to be together, but this time it was in a different area. The moving broke up the community. The rest of us were just waiting to be moved. We were shocked when they said there was no more room in Montalban Rizal. We were moved to Bulacan, which is 39 kilometers from Quezon City. But there’s a very good road going to Bulacan. The road to Montalban is shorter, but the roads are not very good, you have to change jeepneys more often and you have to go by the Payatas, the dump.

At first we refused to go to Bulacan. One of our neighbors said, “No, sir. We won’t go because our relatives are in Montalban. We’re all family. The five families in our area are together.” From Bulacan it’s too far to go visit the people who were moved to Montalban. You have to take three jeepneys and a pedicab, so it’s 60 pesos [$1.39] one way.

The officials said, “Take a look at the place first. If you really don’t like it, wait for a vacancy in Montalban. But if there’s no vacancy and Bulacan is full too, then you’ll have to move even further away.”

The National Housing people took us out to see the houses. They showed us ours, and they also showed us a model house which had been fixed up with a loft. I think our house sits on 40 square meters. Then there’s two meters in the front and also two at the back. So for two people like us it’s quite big. It’s one large room—two rooms if you add a loft.

The place is nice, but we only have electricity at night when they turn on the generators. Sometimes we don’t have power for three days. It’s hot in the evening, and there are lots of mosquitoes. They’re putting in big posts for electricity, but we don’t have it yet. Actually, water is more of a problem. You can buy mineral water to drink, which is 25 pesos for five gallons. Otherwise, there’s no water. The National Housing Authority told us before we moved that there was no running water, but someone would deliver it. It’s not purified, just deep well water. In one day I have four containers. I can do the laundry at work, so we use the water here for showering and washing dishes. Then we run out and we have to make another trip. Sunday I paid 65 pesos.

Also, the delivery doesn’t accommodate all of us who live there. Yesterday somebody was saying, “Five days, no delivery of water in our area.” Sometimes the water is delivered by three trucks a day. In Block 1, there are 44 houses. There are 59 blocks. One truck holds enough for one block of houses.

When the water service was privatized, the price went from five pesos for a five-gallon container to ten pesos. I heard that the people delivering the water are making a big profit. Even if they have to pay 22,000 pesos [$500] for the water, they can charge 30,000 pesos for it, so they’re making 8,000 pesos a day. People argued about it, and we decided we’ll have to approach the National Housing Authority people because it’s very difficult for all the people living there. We were told it’s not a public utility. It’s private. So there was nothing they could do. Last Saturday reporters came from ABC5 Action News in response to complaints. They wanted to interview people, but security threw them out.

Before we moved, one of the barangay officials said that they would set up livelihood projects for us, like making some potholders or stringing beads or something like that. But later they didn’t mention it. There’s nothing to do, and I don’t know most of the people here.

On the days when I have jeepney service, we leave there at 3:30, and I’m at work at 5:10. The driver doesn’t stop to pick up passengers. If we commute, when it rains it’s too muddy and slippery to walk, so we have to take a tricycle [motorcycle with sidecar]. They charge 20 pesos for a very short distance. Then after the tricycle we take four jeepneys—to Tunko, to Philcoa, to UP campus and then to  Kalipunan. All together it’s 300 pesos just for transportation for the two of us.

If it’s not raining, it’s dusty because they’re making houses still. There’s lots of heavy equipment. I think the National Housing Authority is planning to build 4900 houses there by October or something like that. Tomorrow I think they’re moving in 500 families from Payatas City near the dump and near the river. In Payatas City garbage is a problem, and the waterways should be clear so there’s drainage when it rains.

In Bulacan there’s good access to the hospitals in Commonwealth, and a there’s a nearby clinic, whereas in Montalban Rizal there’s only an infirmary, and the nearest hospital is on East Avenue in Quezon City.  Maybe the transportation costs the same, but you have to walk from your house to the street. If you don’t have transportation no one will take you there—unless maybe a neighbor has a tricycle and you can talk him into taking you.

Some kids in Bulacan have already started school. There’s a tricycle service to take them to school for 300 pesos a month, which is not bad. The government or public school is free, but you have to buy your own school supplies and uniforms.

Food is more expensive in Bulacan than in Quezon City. Bananas like the ones I bought for one peso in Blue Ridge are 2.50. Fish might be cheaper if there’s a fish pond. But meat is more expensive, maybe another five pesos. I heard that in Montalban in the afternoon you cannot get fresh meat, the meat smells bad. But in Bulacan people raise hogs and chickens, so even if the meat was quite expensive, you can see it’s fresh. When we get electricity I’d like to have a little refrigerator so I can buy food in the city and take it home.

We’re happy in Bulacan although it’s an inconvenience because it’s far from my work. We’re hoping and praying that we will have running water and electricity soon and that Jessie will have work. We have our own toilet inside the house. We just got new door knobs. We’re fixing up the house, but only little by little because of the expense. When Jessie doesn’t have work he works on the house.

At Maria’s old place in Blue Ridge there’s now a warning posted saying no houses are allowed.