Leah lived in South Korea between 2007 and 2010 and taught at Hanyang University outside of Seoul. We met during that time. This interview took place over Skype in 2012 when she was in California and I was in the Philippines. Leah generously supplied all the photos.
After earning my master’s in creative writing and teaching writing and literature for a couple of years at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I wanted to travel and I wanted more time to work on fiction writing. I also wanted to save more money than I could on an adjunct lecturer’s salary. A couple of people recommended South Korea to me, and it seemed like a great option. After some time over there I landed a job at Hanyang University-Ansan, which I loved.
For one thing, I found the teaching satisfying. The students were respectful, they were engaged in what they learning, they were diligent, and they’d come from a very rigorous school system. In the university they had more freedom than they’d had in their super-intensive high schools, but they were already experts in the experience of being students. For example, when we were reading novels in an American literature class they’d look up every word they didn’t recognize and write out a long definition next to it, even if they had to do it twenty times per page or more.
After about a year’s time at Hanyang University I moved from the Department of English Education to the Department of English Language and Culture. I gained more autonomy, I assume because my colleagues knew I had experience teaching writing and literature at American universities and trusted me to create an appropriate curriculum. Having creative academic freedom was obviously a very positive part of the job. There wasn’t much in the way of bureaucracy, red tape, or administrative assessment.
There were certain issues that were unique to South Korea, such as those that would arise with grading. I was in situations that I found rather unusual, although it turned out that they were pretty typical: students threatening suicide, offering bribes or begging and pleading. Sometimes it was done in a joking fashion, but it was always hard for me to gauge exactly what was happening. Not that there isn’t that type of thing in American universities, there can be, but there’s more of an intensity and an insistent quality about it in South Korea, and it’s also at a higher level. In the U.S., I’ve never had students argue with me over A-minuses the way they do in South Korea—or even A’s when a student really wants an A+. So this type of grading intensity was new to me.
The English majors I taught were undergraduates ranging from freshmen to seniors. My composition class was fairly large, around thirty people, whereas the conversation and literature classes had about twenty. They were terrific students, good at mastering things that were taught to them. I taught composition very much like I would teach it in the U.S., except that we didn’t engage in as much critical thinking and debating, which is a big component of teaching composition at American universities. In Korea the focus was really on writing sentences, writing paragraphs, analyzing and creating full-bodied essays. Because of the level of student engagement, I found it a very enjoyable class to teach. I structured the class so they would have a couple of major assignments at midterms and at finals and then a number of minor assignments in class during the course of the semester.
I also taught American literature, which meant teaching both the works and the way American culture appears in these works. It was in this class that I really began to experience the cultural components involved in the teaching of literature. For example, we read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The story is about a Lennie, who has a severe mental disability, and his friend George. Lennie accidentally kills a woman and at the end of the book his friend George decides to shoot him rather than let the authorities get him. When you discuss the novel with American students there’s generally a good deal of discussion around the moral issue of George killing Lennie. But in Korea it was a non-issue. Nobody in class believed that a moral threshold had been crossed. They wondered why Lennie hadn’t been killed sooner, since he was a danger to society and since George had great sympathy for him and wanted to spare him further pain. I found it interesting to see how cultural perceptions impacted moral judgments.
Another book that brought up interesting reactions was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. This novel has a lot of dialect, and it wasn’t easy for the students, but they really worked with it. We also watched the movie, which helped. They liked the book although many said that they found the lesbian story and some of the violence shocking. They seemed to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of racism in the United States, at least on a theoretical level, and quite a good historical perspective on it. They often related to the material emotionally. Sometimes they made comparisons with things they’d been through, like experiences of being looked down upon, and generally talked about their feelings a bit more than American students tend to. They seemed to have an interesting and somewhat contradictory view of America as a place that encompassed much to admire and also much to fear. Television and movies have given them an image of America as a very violent place, a wild west. I was asked more than once if I had ever shot someone or been shot with a gun.
When you asked me why teaching in South Korea was such a positive experience, I couldn’t help thinking back on the past year and a half that I’ve been teaching again at an American university. Obviously at this time in the United States we are in an economic crisis. A lot of the discussion revolves around budget cuts and cuts to education—cutting teachers, cutting university funding, et cetera. Student loan debt has become a crisis. And I thought that in Korea, even though there may be debates over what education should look like, you really have the sense that the entire country is behind education: education is important, education is valuable, education is good for society and education pays off. Education and the funding of education have been so integral to the astounding growth of South Korea’s economy. In the early 1960s South Korea was an extremely poor country, with a GDP about on par with Somalia. In the short time since then South Korea has become the thirteenth largest economy in the world, in large part due to the emphasis on education.
That is something we don’t really have in America—that type of absolute commitment. So it was really positive not having to be an educational activist—not having to justify the place of education itself. Right now we actually have a debate in the United States along the lines of whether education is necessary. The other day I heard somebody in the media say, “Education is a privilege, not a right.” We have a serious cultural debate over the value of education. In teaching you’re not just an educator, you have to be an activist for the value of an education itself at the same time that teachers, through their low salaries, and lowly career positions are already undervalued! Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation.
I was fortunate to benefit from the South Korean economy the way I did. Moving there was an economic step up. I earned a good salary and benefits at the university. Also, everything over there is fairly cheap, so you don’t need to spend much in the way of necessities anyway. My job came with a university-sponsored apartment and several months of vacation. It was less work, and on some levels, more enjoyable work than the teaching work I had been doing in the U.S. In Korea more of my time was freed up for my own writing.
Some people have asked me if it was a tough adjustment to move to a completely different country. I don’t know if I am the best person to ask because I’ve spent a lot of time in places outside the mainland U.S. Part of my youth was spent on an island in the pacific called Tutuila, which is a part of American Samoa. I have lived in several countries since then, and in addition to the natives of those countries I spent a lot of time around American expats.
What’s interesting to me now is how my experience of leaving the country to work in South Korea was very different from the experiences of my American parents’ generation. With my parents’ generation the U.S. was very economically prosperous and people seemed to be leaving America for altruistic reasons like joining the Peace Corps or helping in poor countries. When I moved to South Korea around 2008 it seemed to be the opposite motivation—that a lot of people were leaving America to find greater economic opportunity and stability abroad. It’s sort of the opposite of the line we’ve been fed about immigration and the American Dream.
From that perspective I would be really interested in writing stories about American guest workers in South Korea. It would be something of the reverse of our tradition of immigrant literature set in America. I think the increasing number of American expats leaving the country is interesting to follow in the light of our own cultural and economic decline. I remember meeting South Koreans who’d gone to America “for a better life” and returned because they’d realized home was much better! So I think the whole paradigm has shifted. I would like to read books about that—books that really are reflecting current trends and not just the old paradigms. The fact that this issue hasn’t been reflected much in our contemporary American literature must say something about our culture as well as our publishing industry. We apparently love books about people who come to America, but we don’t read many about people who leave it.
In addition to working in South Korea, there was a lot to enjoy in the lifestyle. To begin with, not to romanticize it too much, but compared to city life in America the atmosphere seemed very harmonious. The worst thing that ever happened to me on the Seoul subway was getting an accidental elbow bump from someone who was concentrating really hard on his homework—who then apologized. That’s the level of inconvenience. If you lose your wallet you’ll get it back the next day. America tends to be tenser and much more violent. Living in a place that was peaceful and safe was fantastic.
It was interesting to explore the culture and landscape of Korea. I loved Busan, which is a beautiful city on the coast, and has something about it that is very magical. I really got to know the mountains of South Korea because of course hiking is a big pastime there. I’d say I really experienced Korea most through hiking, because you’d really get a chance to talk as you’re walking, hang out, enjoy nature and experience Koreans in community with their families. Hiking is a very communal activity in Korea and sometimes it was almost as if you were hiking in a line. You’d see plenty of people dressed in their hiking boots and full hiking gear and carrying poles and crampons, but you inevitably see women dressed to the nines wearing high heels as they ploughed up the mountain. That was impressive!
Another benefit of living in South Korea is that it’s also easy to travel to other countries in Asia. On my vacations I traveled to Malaysia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Japan, China, and other places I’d always wanted to visit.
As a person who’s been back in the states for a couple years now, I can say the hardest transition was coming from South Korea back to America. It’s of course true that when Americans go abroad they take their Americanism with them, exporting it to other countries—there’s a long history of that. And I’d say as a whole we certainly still do that, but my experience in Korea was also quite the opposite, and this was echoed by a lot of my expat friends. We absorbed aspects of the Korean culture to the point where we were truly culture-shocked when we came back—the lifestyle and economic situation in America appeared very tense and hostile in comparison.
This seems particularly true now when America is so divided with political and economic polarities. It’s as if there’s this huge disagreement about what constitutes “American values.” Debate and conflict over these issues are constant. Some argue education is not a value. Health care is not a value. Inclusivity is not a value. The debate really gets at the spirit of our culture. It’s not just political. And it is impossible to escape.
In conclusion I’d say teaching and living in South Korea was a very positive experience. I’d recommend it to anyone with a sense of adventure except for this aveat—that it can be hard after such an experience to return to teaching and living in the U.S.