I planned at the start of this blog to have occasional guest writers, and today I'm pleased to bring you a dispatch from the first one, a young English teacher currently in South Korea. Enjoy! --Churm
My name is Daniel Yoo, and I’m a conversational English teacher at a small language Hagwon in Gwangju, South Korea. A Hagwon is a specialized institution that prepares students to meet particular goals, especially related to specific civil service examinations, in a variety of subject areas. I’m delighted to be writing here and wanted to take this opportunity to explain how I got to Korea and what my life is like.
In the summer after I graduated college in the States, I belonged to a reading group that met in a university building. In the halls I always bumped into a woman who introduced herself as Barbara. As we began to talk, I discovered she was a Dean Emerita there, and eventually she became my mentor and friend. I opened up to her.
Despite—or perhaps due to—being the first college graduate in my family, I had begun to question my identity. I’ve always been described as “that kind of Asian-looking guy.” I’ll use the phrase Pan-Asianism (a derivative of Pan-Indianism) to describe the process by which a number of Asian Americans are losing their specific cultural identities and developing a general Asian culture, and I was/am interested in the subtleties contained within language and how they can help us understand emotions and cultures.
My college friends were curious about the mind, about words and art, and especially about human rights. But senior year rolled around and moneyed stability became a higher priority. Law school anyone? I wanted to learn more about my heritage, to study Korean and speak it to relatives, to teach and travel. Barbara suggested I apply for a Fulbright. She wouldn’t take modesty for an answer. In less than a week, I was at work on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) for South Korea.
For six months I wrote, tinkered with, and punched-up my essays. Then there were interviews, and finally I submitted the tedious online application. The first of two letters I received from the Director of U.S. Student Programs said my application had been forwarded to the supervising agency abroad for final review.
So I waited, continuing my work as a personal tutor for a privately owned “Academic Coaching” company in Orange County. My boss, a Korean Jew and mother of two young daughters, was a passionate woman, who, like many privileged women her age, wanted to prepare her children, from infancy, to emerge as the leaders of tomorrow. Most of my students were elementary and middle school boys—the cool and smart ones I used to resent and secretly envy when I was their age. I took a second job shelving and selling books at a corporate bookstore to pay off school loans. Many of my co-workers and bosses seemed to be thinking the same thing: “This is a detour from my road to a three-book deal or a doctorate in English Lit.”
Three months later, the second Fulbright letter came. It said I had not been selected for an award, and it occurred to me that I had to reapply the next year, or walk away. I did neither. I researched teaching jobs in the ROK and got in touch with Nathan, a Korean American who had been teaching in Gwangju for two years. We chatted several times over the phone, and he painted a quaint picture of the life of an English teacher in Korea, talking at length about the quality of food, the culture, and the women. I sent over my vita and other necessary documents. He called a week later to tell me that I got the job and that the boss would call the next night to close the deal.
Like most foreigners who travel to Korea to teach English, I signed a one-year contract. According to my cohort, most Westerners complete a year then return home, but all of my Western counterparts in Gwangju have renewed their contracts. Contract renewal depends on how much the students and the management like you. It’s too early for me to say with any certainty whether I will stay here, move to another city (or country) to find a teaching job, or head back to the States. Salaries vary from place to place but my monthly paycheck comes to about 2,000,000 won per month (a little under $2000) for 120 teaching hours—nice, considering all I have to pay for is food, fare, and minor monthly bills, such as internet, phone, electricity and water. BCM paid 1,200,000 won for my round-trip airfare (half upon arrival and the remaining half paid upon completion of my contract). After paying my Korean bills, I wire money back to the States to pay for school loans and to help my mom with car payments. What’s left goes for dining or drinks, when my students or fellow teachers want to hang, and cultural events.
So, for the past four months I’ve been teaching conversational English and TOEFL classes in one of the 41 BCM Language Centers in major cities throughout Korea. Located in the middle of a busy Hagwon district, BCM’s Gwangju headquarters is home to five “foreigners” (i.e., Westerners), who teach conversational English classes, and two native Koreans responsible for introductory English classes. Together, we seven, along with a couple of secretaries, are in charge of more than 200 students: doctors, nurses, college professors, other professionals, and stay-at-home mothers (ajimas). It’s not unusual for students to attend several Hagwons after normal school hours, returning home around midnight.
Teaching English to Koreans requires us to adjust our vocabulary, slow the speed of our speech, and try not to speak at our students. We are asked to talk about our respective nations and, to a larger extent, teach conversational skills in a variety of contexts. Listening to Koreans’ English—or to see it written—is wonderful. It’s often clumsy but pure, soft yet sharp. It’s what a coworker at BCM, speaking specifically of lower-level students, calls “cute English.”
Cuteness, I think, is part of the aesthetic culture here, especially for women. Sometimes, their physical cuteness borders on the hyperbolic, with the wide prevalence of plastic surgery and the homogeneity of clothing and hairstyles and all. Many Korean women enjoy fitting the description of nice and innocent. Westerners seem to fetishize the cuteness and sometimes talk about women as if they’re shopping for clothing. For their part, Koreans seem to lionize all things Western in general (Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren are popular because they both employ the U.S. flag, and Koreans go nuts for all things Disney) and Western white men in particular. (They are always “handsome,” within reason.) There aren’t many taboos about dating foreigners, but there are when it comes to marriage. It’s sort of a “you can browse and try on but can’t buy” sort of a system.
For the past two months, I've taught four morning classes and two to three night classes, each 50 minutes. The split schedule affords me time in the afternoon to eat lunch, prepare lesson plans, read, nap, jog, and take Korean language classes. I live in a rent-free studio apartment in a wealthy neighborhood called Dong-Myung Dong. It’s small and simple, a box with windows, with a bathroom, bed, desk and kitchen equipped with a small fridge and stove. Blue wallpaper with white daffodils spans the walls.
Living in Gwangju has led me to new discoveries. My physiognomy is not noticeably different from a native Korean’s, so the assumption is often that I’m one of them, though I was born American. As a result, I’m able to blend in and observe. My free-talking students translated my Korean name ì˜ í˜¸ (young hoh) into “shadow tiger.”
I was sitting in a Burger King the other night, reading a pile of poems my classes composed, and waiting for my mushroom steak burger glazed with Korean barbecue sauce, fries, and Coke. When the order was called, I approached the counter and overheard a clutter of high school girls whispering from their seats in broken English, “Oh, foreigner, eet-da. Kkkkk!” (Oh look, foreigners! Giggle). It took a second to realize they weren’t talking about me but about two Anglos next to me, wearing gray beanies and practiced hard scowls, flexing their muscles beneath black leather bomber jackets.
One of the guys, counting perhaps on the language barrier to permit him to speak freely, said, “That one right there’s the best one I’ve seen yet.” He nodded at a sylph-like customer at the counter.
“Yeah, I like that one. That’s nice. Too bad you got a wife, yo,” the other replied.
“Yeah. But I’d really like to bang her dry,” the first said.
They continued in this vein, and I returned to my seat, where I dined well, Konglish poetry dancing by my side.
And that’s how I got to ëŒ€í•œë¯¼êµ (“Daehan Min-guk = Great Han People's Nation”). I live among Koreans, and sometimes I do my best imitation of the Jeolla dialect (country bumpkin speech of Southwest Korea) wondering if maybe, just maybe, I can feel like I belong.
Daniel Yoo has his own bloghere  . Write him at email@example.com.