Five years ago, Steve and I had an interview about his early days in the Peace Corps, starting in 1973, and his then current gig at Yeungnam University near Daegu, where he taught from 2012-2017. We called it “Korea Forty Years Later(Link)
In this recent interview he talks about this past year he and his wife Marsha spent teaching in Hungary, which he sees as a possibility for other teachers after they leave Korea.
How was it teaching English in Hungary? When did you go and what was your experience?
My wife and I arrived in Budapest August 21, 2018. We were in a cohort of 42-43 people, all Americans except for a Scot or two and maybe a few Canadians. We had a 5-day orientation program and then were sent out to elementary, middle school or high school assignments throughout Hungary. It was really great, actually, to be part of that group. Marsha and I were probably the oldest participants, in our 60s, while the average age could have been 25. I enjoyed “that couple” with more travel and teaching experience.
What was the idea behind the program?
CETP, or the Central European Teachers Program, is a non-profit, which partners with the Ministry of Education. The organization makes it fairly easy to get your work visa and school assignment and to have your salary deposited in your bank account. Most of us were getting paid by November.
It was an amazing year. For both Marsha and me it was like living two different lives. One was as an expat living in Budapest and being mesmerized by the history and beauty of the city with the Danube running through it. Rarely have I been in a place that is so photogenic. The other life we led was as teachers, starting class in the morning at 8:00 or 8:30 and getting out at 2:00 or 2:30 to become that expat walking the streets of Budapest.
Was the housing provided by the organization or the school?
The school provides some kind of accommodation. Marsha’s school provided us with a flat in the middle of Pest, and my school gave me a stipend of about $400 a month instead of housing.
Salaries were not what we were making in Korea years earlier. Most Hungarian salaries are very modest, and the salaries of the foreign teachers in the program were in line with that, in the $15K or $16K range. But then, everything there was much less expensive, so we were able to live comfortably. The flat was in a convenient and pleasant neighborhood. We were two blocks from a major, tree-lined street which takes you from the Danube to City Park and a famous spot called Heroes Square. So it was amazingly convenient and a very fortunate place to have an apartment.
Marsha taught in a high school that focused on tourism and culinary arts. My high school did what the Hungarians call “infomatics,” information technology.
So why don’t you talk about what you were teaching, your lessons and the cultural stuff that you brought up in your classes.
Sure. Let me just set the context. I was teaching in my high school’s English department with about 14 native Hungarian teachers, all of whom were fluent in English, all of whom were easy to work with. I’d show up in a shared office space, and my colleagues were both very interesting and interested in the US and in my background. We were able to work coming and going as a team.
At the end of August, we had a faculty meeting that I found very helpful and comfortable. The head teacher was giving out assignments for the semester, she said, “Hey, Steve, would you do this, would you do this?”
We were up on the third floor where one wall was covered with pictures of dogs of different breeds. She said, “Why don’t you take these down and do something interesting about your background?”
I had brought with me really large photographs of US landmarks, like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, and the Liberty Bell. I put them up on the wall along with a large map of the United States and I directed arrows at the various locations. At the top I put questions: Where have you been? Where would you like to go? What are your dreams?” The wall became a background conversation piece for the students who were walking by.
The head teacher also asked me to set up a set of lessons about Halloween which could be used in all the classes, something the kids would like. On the Internet I found a history of the holiday with a video with witches and goblins. I added some writing assignments and an update on how the holiday is practiced and celebrated in the US today.
These days, we have two sons in their early thirties. We live on an island off the coast of Maine, a safe, community-oriented place. At the end of October the weather is still decent enough so you don’t have to freeze to death. So my kids, and now my grandchildren, still put on costumes and go door-to-door with their bags and say “trick or treat,” and people open their doors. There are all sorts of community activities, kids dress up in costumes, and there are a couple of stunts.
In Hungary people had a vague idea—it’s something about pumpkins and witches—which I tried to expand on. So basically, I developed three or four English lessons. I put together an activity guide, and I included five or six links to the Internet. I prepared a writing assignment and a reading with true-false questions and I gave the teachers a ten-page packet and they could then choose the level and the activities that they wanted to use with their students. So I gave them a package with lots of different options for talking about and teaching the holiday.
So, those were some of the early things that they asked me to do to establish myself and share a little bit of our culture. Every day teachers came up to me and asked for help with one of their lessons: “Steve, how do you pronounce this word?”
We had fantastic political discussions about the US, religion, World War II, Hungarian and American history. It was a very rich, one-year experience for me.
What effect did the orientation of the school have on your English classes? And were there computers in all of the classrooms?
I was incredulous at the lack of technology in the school and in classrooms. There was some equipment for the kids who were studying to be programmers, coders, software developers and hardware technicians, but it was old and out-dated. I returned to using chalk on blackboards. I would say 20% of my classrooms had Internet, a projector and a screen, so we would use the Internet in our classes. For the most part, my classes were not as sophisticated technically as they were in Korea, where every classroom had a computer, Internet access, a screen and projector.
This was all based on a lack of funds. The last Russians pulled out of Hungary in 1990, so it’s really less than two decades since the departure of the communist state and the communist structure and bureaucracy. The country was left in a poor economic state that it is still recovering from.
Right. So what were you doing in your classes then—other than using chalk?
Well, we were using books, and we were always keeping things moving, English only. Hungarian is considered one of the world’s most difficult languages. I was there for less than a year and I was not about to learn conversational Hungarian in that period of time.
English-only is better for the students anyway. In situations where your students have different languages, you don’t have a choice. You may have to plan better, but it works out fine.
Also, my students were not beginners. They’d been learning English since elementary and middle school. My activities were always conversations in small groups or in pairs. We might read something and then talk about it. There were dozens of different activities that would keep the students engaged, talking, answering questions, always interactive. The classes were 45 minutes long, so we really only had time for three or four different activities.
I’d often start with, “What’s on your mind today, what’s happening? How are you?” They’d tell me, and then break up into pairs or small groups, and I’d give them a speaking assignment. I always ended with, “What did you learn today? Tell me something that you learned today.” I was always working for a particular purpose, like a topic or a particular structure that I was trying to get reinforced.
How were the students in terms of shyness vs. eagerness to talk? Of course, in Korea, students are often reluctant to speak “in public” namely in front of the class, because they don’t want to be seen as ‘arrogant”. So we put the kids in small groups more often than we might otherwise. What were Hungarian students like?
Well, of course these are sweeping generalizations, but I would agree that most Koreans avoid speaking-up in some situations. Hungarians tend to be more engaging.
Keep in mind that these are high school students. So, they were more outgoing and, they were also more recalcitrant. They were much more questioning of authority, rambunctious, challenging the teacher; whereas, I found that most Korean students afforded their designated professor a modicum of respect.
In Hungary, when a person who looks like me first enters the classroom, the students likely said to themselves, “Oh, my God, last year we had this 23-year-old, and this guy looks like my grandfather—older than my grandfather. My luck is horrible.”So there’s a transition period where the kids are challenging me: what do you know about teaching English…until they get to know me and to trust my experience and expertise.
The two cultures are very different, Confucian deference vs. the attitudes of people who had been rioting and fighting for freedom for a long time. There are similarities between Hungary and South Korea, like having lost a large amount of territory after a war and being under foreign occupation for a long time. Korea and Hungary are about the same size.
In Korea, I felt more of a “can-do” attitude. In Hungary, being on the losing side of history has created a culture of sadness, moroseness and pessimism. I know Korean kids with college degrees are having a hard time finding jobs, but it’s partly because the economy and the education system have created so much wealth and been so successful. In Hungary, college graduates want to leave the country because it’s not a place they want to live in anymore. It’s not seen as having a great future—although it might. This ubiquitous pessimism understandably permeates into classrooms. When you ask, “Where do you want to be in five years?”There is not the sense of optimism and hope and excitement for the future that I found in the Korean classrooms.
Yeah, but in Korea you also have the historic concept of Han, the mixture of sadness and resentment and bitterness and melancholy that came from centuries of having someone’s foot on the back of your neck.
But on the flip side, how many hours did I spend working with Korean students who were trying to get into an American university or a Korean graduate school, or were applying for jobs at Samsung? They wanted help with their cover letter or an interview. Many of them were very attractive and very smart and wanted to be a Korean Airlines flight attendant, or whatever. The sense of can-do was certainly not universal, but it was nearly ever-present. In Hungary, it seemed a lot less present. There was a melancholy that was at the surface and very real for my students.
It sounds a little like the former East Germany.
What about the expat scene? Did you get into that?
Yes, Budapest is a vibrant, hotbed of a tourist destination. So, in the afternoon, when we were walking the streets or riding the subway, we could hear every language being spoken. I was struck by the number of large Chinese groups that were coming, and even the number of Korean tourists were surprisingly large. I would see the Koreans going to the same restaurants. Sometimes, I had a chance to practice my Korean.
Particularly in the summer, fall and spring, tourists take these tour boats from Germany and Austria, these are long, very modern, very luxurious boats that stop at lots of ports along the Danube. So there are hundreds of those boats and thousands of tourists getting off and getting on buses. They are all over the city.
Well, that sounds good.
Also, the CETP program gave Marsha and me a kind of built-in expat network that we would socialize with. There were the people from our year and then those who were there from the year before and the year before that. I think a slight majority of people in the program stay at least an additional year. We could travel together to different places. There was another couple, elementary school teachers, who we spent more time with, having meals in restaurants and traveling. The four of us became good friends, and Tucker and Lauren are coming to visit this summer before going back to Budapest for their second year,
So, you and I were both aged-out of our jobs at Korean universities. Retirement leaves a person with decisions to make.
When I turned 65 I was told that it was nice having me, but that had to be it. I want to convey to your readers that there is life after 65, that there is life after Korea. I chose to go to Hungary partly so I could continue teaching English. Hungary presented itself as an opportunity where age was not an issue. Spirit was.
In spite of traveling widely, Marsha and I had never been to Hungary. We explored the country itself and traveled to other nearby countries we hadn’t been able to visit before, like Lithuania, Croatia, and Poland. It was a win-win situation. We were not going to sit around and be angry or disappointed at having to leave Korea. We looked forward to the next great adventure. That’s what I want to convey today to people who are looking at spending time in a place and enjoying it.
In Korea, retirement begins earlier in many places, than it does at universities.
Yes, I sawthat while I was a professor there at Yeungnam University. That’s in Gyeongsan, which folks might know as a little middle-class community right next to Daegu.
We were witnessing transitions in Korean society where people working in corporations like Samsung were being retired in their 50s. It seemed like each industry had different retirement ages and it was becoming harder and harder for Koreans to deal with being aged-out. For example, when I was jogging along the river, I’d see people in their fifties and sixties stretching and using the exercise equipment and walking. This was clearly a lifestyle because they weren’t working. When I mentioned this to other Koreans, they didn’t see this as a problem–spending life just hanging out. But others were untethered, as if they’d lost their bearings in a hurricane.
Of course the context is that in Korea many things have changed so fast. It went from having little or no middle class in the 1970s, to having what seems like almost a universal middle class today. Korean society was always about close-knit extended families, with the oldest son taking care of the parents after they retired. But as people moved into apartments over the last 30 or 40 years, increasingly those parents, the father and mother, are now kind of excluded because they were living separately. People drifted apart. It’s causing a lot of unhappiness and confusion. If I’m not mistaken, the suicide rate among older Koreans is among the highest in the world.
Korean society seems very ambivalent about age. On the one hand there’s all this deference and respect, on the other, public school teachers have to retire at 55, and they end up at home as unpaid babysitters.
Hungary was your first post-65 teaching job?
I’d like to leave you with the idea of how invigorating it is for a person of any age to be able to use ours skills as a ticket to travel to places around the world. To be able to teach in different countries and cultures, live among the people there, I find that to be an amazing gift and an amazing privilege.
Steve’s blog–Steve shares a rare look at the amazing social, cultural, political and economic changes that have been taking place on the Korean Peninsula from the early 1970s to the current day. (Link)
On Budapest–Explore one of Europe’s most fascinating cities, Budapest, in a most photogenic and unabashed sense. Steve describes a year of living extemporaneously in Hungary. (Link)
CETP–Complete information on the ESL teaching program Steve discussed during the interview. (Link)
OK, you missed it. I am not insulted in the least. But, you do have a second, or even a third chance to watch this podcast emanating from Ulsan, South Korea. Jack, host of “Hagwon Start-up,” welcomes guests speaking on all things Korean. My topic was “Returning to South Korea,” which happily, I’ve done many times, and will do so again this coming October. Actually, this Podcast interview turned out about as good as possible. Enjoy! (Link)