Barhopping with Gen-Xpatriates (Korea)
English teaching can be an accidental path taken by recent university graduates, who often have more student loans than job options. For the new expatriate, pubs are a great place to meet and share ideas about a foreign land. However, if you look underneath the surface, there are many social politics and conflicting cultural dynamics hidden within the walls of taverns.
I woke still dreaming a teaching conversation:
“What is this?” “It is an apple”.
“Is this a monkey?” “No, it’s not a monkey. It’s an elephant”.
Or more precisely:
“What is this?” “Moo-lie-o (I don’t know)”.
“Is this a monkey?” “Monkey, no. Elephant”.
I woke confused. One eye was open, while the other eye focused on my dream. You know its time to take a vacation when you start dreaming about work at night. Eventually, my dream scurried away and hid from consciousness, like a small fury animal. When my ears finally thawed awake I realized that I was actually hearing something, but it wasn’t the voice of the Korean children in my dream.
It was a voice on my apartment intercom. About four times a week, usually in the early morning, a man’s voice enters my apartment to make announcements in a language that I can’t understand. It used to surprise me at first, I would instinctively reach for the telephone when the intercom came on, but I have gotten used to it. Once while climbing a mountain I heard the same intercom speech. I was so shocked that I had to search for the speaker before I could gather my wits. Sure enough, I found one intercom speaker attached to a tree and another tucked between two boulders.
Another time in a “videobang”, the popular Korean private video room, my movie was interrupted by an intercom voice, precluded by a synthetic version of “Jingle Bells” in the middle of June. These programmed speeches were so common that I began to recognize patterns and to practice my Korean listening skills to them. The one that woke me up this morning was the weekly recycle speech. Every Saturday at 8:00 a.m. the same speech would wake me, despite how late I spent the previous night inching my way toward an inevitable hangover.
Hap hazardously slapping on a T-shirt and a pair of pants; I gathered together my recycled garbage hoping that this week they would finally let me throw it out. The apartment’s recycling program changed sporadically and I was always trying to predict ahead. I finally learned how to sort the plastic, tin, paper, and glass containers in the acceptable fashion. However, they still wouldn’t accept my garbage. For two weeks it had built up to the point in which I had to start storing garbage on my veranda. Each week I had been turned away. Finally, I dragged out two bilingual dictionaries to find out the reason why. I was informed that they required a special garbage bag for trash disposal. After several days of searching I found a supply at a grocery store downtown. Yet, I was turned away again since the special bags were only accepted if they came from my regional district. Finally, after a third week I was able to deposit all my backlogged garbage in the appropriate reciprocal – but only during the limited 8:00-10:00 a.m. time slot on Saturday morning.
These minor crisis are well familiar to most expatriates. Everyone has a story or two of like-minded confusion. When I first arrived in Korea I was in a mental quagmire. Korean salespersons would storm my door every morning with requests to buy items that I couldn’t identify. Once a newspaper salesman, surprised to see a foreigner, asked if I spoke English. When the non-requested English language newspapers started arriving on my doorstep every morning, it took two months before I learned how to cancel my subscription. Another time a door-to-door salesman boldly walked into my apartment and sprayed it for bugs. When the bill arrived I realized it wasn’t an apartment service.
In both transactions no contract had been signed and no verbal agreements had been made. Yet, for some unscrupulous businesspersons the lack of common language is taken as an excuse for consent. Later, I learned how to respond to these salespersons – I no longer opened my door to them - but for the novice expatriate these situations are quite perplexing at first. In part, it is these little confusions that often cause expatriates to seek one another out.
These difficulties often send a foreign worker on path to the nearest expatriate community to resolve conflicts, seek remedies, or to just sit and complain for a while. Inevitably, rookie expatriates will gravitate to older ones for answers to questions like: what banks should I open an account with, how do I find the Itaewon district in Seoul, and where can I buy cheese, dark beer, and western spices? The introduction of newcomers to the expatriate community might be initiated at work or with some random meeting, but the birth of expatriate relationships usually begins in a bar. In my case, my initiation into the community of foreign workers in Asia began in the following way:
I had been employed at a Korean private school called a “hogwan”. For various reasons I elected to work in Kumi City, which is a small urban area by Korean standards with its population of over 300,000. It is located near the beautiful Kumoh Mountain that hosts several Buddhist temples and natural scenery such as a cave and waterfall. My favorite local landmark is the Monument to the Faithful Cow. A small headstone marking the spot where a cow defended its owner from a tiger attack. There are no tigers in the region today, only several major industrial complexes operated by the four Asian tigers (Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore). I lived in a more remote area located forty minutes out of town. I worked far from the heart of the city, so other expatriates could not be found. In fact, I was the only westerner living in the district where I worked. This was good because it forced me to enmesh myself with Korean culture quicker. However, not being fluent in Korean I began to crave contact using my mother tongue.
It was almost four weeks before I met my first foreigner. One day while teaching I was surprised to see nine students suddenly storm out of my class simultaneously. One of the 12-year-old girls peeked out the window as she shouted something. The entire class emptied in seconds. Abandoned I went to learn what caused the commotion. In the teacher lounge proudly sat an African-American from Louisiana. For some of the students this was their first encounter with a black man. To my embarrassment, they rubbed their hands along his curly black hair and gasped about how big he was. The man, looking tired and resigned to this fate in Korea, introduced himself to me. I was thankful to meet my first foreigner in almost a full month. We promptly discussed where to meet expatriates in the inner city. Naturally, the meeting spot was at an English named bar near McDonalds. I determined that I would find its location the next available weekend (after returning from Japan).
The two expatriate bars in Kumi are called “Extra” and the “Hardcore”. The main bar, the Extra, is the notorious Mecca for wayward Kumi expatriates. Creatures of habit, the expatriate community meets at the same bar every Friday night starting at 10:00 p.m. If one visits the bar on any other day it will be empty of foreigners. Somehow on Friday only, 10:00 p.m. becomes the bewitching hour in which expatriates filter in from the various pockets of the city where they hide during the workweek. At its center of attention, the Extra has one slightly warped western-style pool table. Expatriates congregate around this pool table and a few nearby drinking booths, and Koreans mostly sit in their own groups on the peripheral. There is some mixing between expatriates and Koreans, however Korean women have much better odds at interacting with westerners.
Many male expatriates will totally shun Korean men. One native speaker once told me, “I teach them everyday. Why would I want to spend my time off with them?” later adding as an afterthought, “At least with Korean women there is a chance that I might get laid or find a girlfriend”. A popular assumption among foreign men is that conservative Korean women will seek out expatriates for secret sexual interludes, because this premarital activity would be taboo if it included Korean men. As it is rationalized, Asian culture is so sexually conservative that curious women look to foreign men for discreet experimentation with foreplay. In reality, Korean women are more likely to converse with foreign men because we are culturally exotic to them and, more importantly; they want to practice their English.
In relation, female native speakers also find themselves objects of unrelenting attention from western men. Based on personal observation, two-thirds of western workers are comprised of men. These odds often send the surplus of single men on competitive quest for the limited female expatriate companionship available. Some women may appreciate the attention, but the majority is put off by it. A woman’s time at the Extra usually includes darting away from the advances of several men. At times this is to the degree in which women start avoiding the bar.
The romances developed overseas are often superficial or short-term. Expatriate couples are confronted with unsynchronized contracts in which one partner’s expires while the other must reside in Korea for many additional months. This dynamic usually forces a couple apart since it would be difficult for one party to sign a new contract for a limited few months, so that a mutual departure date could be appropriately timed. In result, expatriate lovers often break apart when a contractual deadline intervenes. Likewise, relationships between mixed nationalities often prove fleeting. The member from a host country is commonly left behind when the expatriate leaves at the end of the contract. Many do persevere which can lead to awkward long distance relationships. Intimacy is thwarted despite limited e-mails and an occasional phone calls from afar.
Families from both parties might also discourage serious involvement between the mixed races/nationalities. Furthermore, the cross-national couples that persist and get married to a local can find themselves harassed back home by the immigration department and tax officials, making it harder to return home. Expatriates that get married to locals can also hit barriers relating to visa laws, residency policies, or cultural differences in raising children.
There are a few Korean men who make it into the exclusive clique of expatriates but, for the most part, native speakers tend to be self-segregating. I have brought several Korean friends to this bar and, to my astonishment, nobody would join me at the table until the Korean male had left. In contrast, Korean men have gone to great lengths to invite me to a dinner or a drinking party with their friends. At least once or twice a month I found myself sitting cross-legged on a floor, picking at a communal Bulgogi dinner with chopsticks, thoroughly engaged in conversation with a group of Korean friends. The hospitality of Koreans is quite noble to behold. It is unfortunate that native speakers are not quick to return the favor.
The typical night at the Extra is filled with heavy drinking. Often these evenings progress until 4:00 a.m., when we are finally shuttled outside. The Hardcore is the bar where expatriates go to after 3:00 a.m. if they can get the motivation to walk to a different place down the street. The Hardcore has a western atmosphere. Graffiti is spray-painted on its walls and expatriates are allowed to bring in their own CDs to play. On occasion, foreigners can get free Internet access when the owner remembers to pay his bills on time. The owner, nicknamed Lemon, is a favorite of expatriates. He often joins us for drinks and conversation.
In terms of territory: expatriates dominate over the Extra on Friday nights, and Koreans patronize the Hardcore until foreigners filter in late at night. Lemon sometimes warns us to stay away from specific tables or a certain woman because they are “tired” of westerners that evening. Although most expatriates prefer the ambiance of the Hardcore, they seldom go there. The price of drinks is the reason for this. Mixed drinks are more expensive and watered down at the Hardcore, and bartenders often claim to be out of draft beer so that we must pay for overpriced bottles. For these reasons, the Hardcore remains a second choice of excursion for the barhopping foreigners.
I have pleaded with expatriates to spontaneously try a third bar or even to meet at a coffee shop instead; however, these pleas have always been to no avail. At best, you can drag an expatriate away from the bar for a quick dinner, a Saturday night movie, or a rare road trip. But, by default, the Extra remains the prime meeting point. On one level this is good because newcomers always know where to go to meet people. On the other hand, the standard Friday night drinking binge gets horribly boring and claustrophobic in routine. For the isolated expatriates that prefer sobriety, it can be frustrating to have social outlets limited to the bar room. I usually went through monthly periods of boycotting Extra so that I could write or travel alone exploring Korea.
When traveling many expatriates also fall into routine. Although historical highlights are toured, expatriates often seek out the areas most highly populated by westerners. The most infamous of which is the Itaewon district of Seoul. This district is highly influenced by the nearby U.S. military base. Shopkeepers commonly speak English, ATM cash machines operate with a choice of English menu, and dozens of bars and restaurants are westerner friendly. It is a natural environment to grow tourists in. One can spend the entire evening feeling like they never left home. This is an irony: westerners want to explore the outer rims of the global village, but once on these margins they are preoccupied with replicating the lives that they left behind.
In the westernized Itaewon district foreigners can speak totally in English and interact almost exclusively with other expatriates. The exotic highlight where the east and west meet is called “Hooker Hill”. This up climbing street showcases a fleet of prostitutes and flirting female hostesses. Troops of U.S. military men, hands full of hard currency, grind their way down this street looking for carnal pleasure or a place to party. The bars generally have a hostess perched in the doorway so that they can beckon to passerbys to buy them a drink. Once inside they are pressured into buying the hostess an overpriced drink. The conversation will often lead to a bold invitation for sex, complete with a verbally articulated sex menu and a list of prices. If the business proposal is successfully negotiated the couple will either meet later at a designated hotel or act out their requested foreplay discreetly in the barroom.
It is Hooker Hill where the different varieties of expatriates truly converge. It is a confluence of military men, English teachers, businessmen, and tourists. Equally they imbibe themselves among the various whorehouses, bars, and dance halls. Even women gather in this district due to its prized dancing clubs. In the morning foreigners can work off their hangovers with a western style breakfast or dine at the nearby McDonalds.
Itaewon is the symbolic “salad bowl” of the expatriates of Korea. One can peel away each layer of tourist groups to reveal a tasty mosaic of vegetables, each with its own flavor. Most evident is the military, with its buzzed haircuts and its severely inebriated youths on the prowl. Secondly, one can find short-term tourists off for a quick thrill and experience to take back home. Also, there are many businesspersons off sealing a new deal, or relaxing with colleagues after a hard day of training Koreans to use a new software program or a new engineering technique. There is also a strong international community here given the numerous embassies (and a beautiful Mosque) that cohabitant in the same region. For example, it is common to notice German engineers, Polish businessmen, Russian call girls, Indian restaurateurs, Arabic shopkeepers, and embassy officials of all walks of life. However, the fastest growing group is that which I belong to: English teachers.
In Asia there are thousands of English teachers. The highest concentration of native English speakers travel to Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. These three countries pay some of the highest salaries; thus they attract more native speakers. Based on observation in Korea, the crux of these native speakers are from - in order- Canada (Canucks), New Zealand (Kiwis), the United States (Yankees), Australia (Aussies), and England (Limeys). The motive of teaching overseas is a configuration of desire for money, love of travel, and the need to escape one’s situation back home.
The common denominator of most English teachers is student loans. Graduation led to unemployment and poverty for many of us expatriates. Having unmarketable degrees in the social sciences or humanities, individuals quickly find themselves plagued by banks, credit card companies, and student loan agencies. Native speakers often swap collection agency stories like soldiers comparing battle scars. Recent graduates are pushed overseas by unemployment, dead-end temp jobs, and the consequential collection agencies. Other English teachers are fleeing hardships such as a recent divorce, a death of a family member, a broken relationship, a criminal record, a bout with alcoholism, child custody payments, alimony, or some other social issue. Once I even met an expatriate who confided in me that she was involved in a witness protection program.
As an indicator of economic stability, one could include the number of those migrating overseas to teach. If an economy is thriving people tend to stay home and find work – saving foreign travel for vacations. If this indicator is put into place then Canada appears to have an economy worse than any other native English speaking country. As an American English teacher I was a novelty in Korea. Since the U.S. economy has been thriving, those Americans overseas are primarily connected to the military. Canucks and Kiwis often joke that they represent such a large population of English teachers that they are forming their own colony. Indeed, Canadians and New Zealanders have hit the point of critical mass in which they can break off from other English speakers to form their own exclusive outings.
Many of these English teachers are exiled from affluent countries by debt and student loans. Others have been downsized from corporate jobs, trapped by temporary employment agencies, or locked into dead-end minimum wage jobs. Almost none of the younger generations can visualize having a permanent job at one company for a lifetime like some of our parent’s possessed. In earlier times such economic refugees might have sought out low-rent apartments in less desirable urban centers at home. However, gentrification and rapidly increasing population growth has rendered this option as unaffordable, too. Thus, many disillusioned individuals are temporarily fleeing overseas as English teachers.
The mass migration of English teachers points to an interesting dynamic in the global village: affluent and wealthy countries are now importing there unemployable, overeducated, surplus population back into less developed nations as laborers. Although wealthy nations advocate English as the one global language, they seldom have job programs to support this objective. The poorer countries must foot the bill out of their own pockets. The United States government does have the Peace Corp (and a sprinkling of exchange programs), but this is a volunteer organization in which participants only earn a small living stipend. The United States has never articulated a public policy to formally employ these young graduates to teach English overseas because it is unwilling to fund the new world order that it promotes. However, this investment would fulfill an important role for affluent nations: it would solidify English as the dominant language of the global village.
English is the key to progress for developing countries. Nations indebt themselves for these language skills, just as they once did with bank loans from the IMF to purchase industrial equipment and new technology such as computers. Developing countries continue to import western goods for its growth, but this time the commodities also include English teachers.
While the environment discussed above push citizens overseas, foreign nations are reaching out their hands to pull us toward them. There are clear paths for potential English teachers to take to find overseas jobs. Most expatriate teachers find employment through a friend, a recruiting agency, or the Internet. The virtual paradise for English teachers is Dave Sperling’s ESL Cafe. This web page alone has found more teachers employment than any government. Teachers can form chat groups, post resumes, review job offers, and look up information for the classroom. In weaker moments, you can also amuse yourself reading the childish flame wars of adult careerists arguing about pedagogy, proper English, and certificate programs; or you can humor yourself reviewing all the warnings of teachers who have been cheated on their contracts.
The catch to working overseas as an English teacher is that you never know if your school will honor your contract. Recruited teachers often find that once they have arrived, the package that is given is quite different than that which had been offered. Promised salaries can fluctuate or suffer unscrupulous deductions, housing can end up being in a run-down hotel room without a kitchen or private plumbing, and hospitalized expatriates might find that their employers never paid the promised medical insurance. Disreputable schools sometimes charge its teachers for unexpected expenses or deduct taxes from paychecks, only to use this money to line their own pockets.
Receiving the severance bonus promised in a contract is like giving the Holy Grail to foreign teachers, who need this income when they return home. However, it is quite common for schools to renege on this payment. Korea, in particular, has a horrible reputation for this. Teachers often find themselves being short-changed on completion of a contract or getting fired weeks beforehand so the employer does not have to honor this contractual commitment. Although Korea is a rapidly developing nation, in terms of teaching contracts it still has one foot in the third world style corruption.
In protection native speakers have formed blacklists of dishonorable schools and networks to inform newcomers about the experiences of past teachers at their particular academy. If the situation proves too dismal and untrustworthy, some expatriates do what is called “the midnight run”. This is when a disgruntled teacher flees to the airport during the middle of the night, usually after a recent paycheck, so that they can leave the country before their school can find out. Teachers often resort to this measure because they feel that they have no legal rights in the host country and that governments back home will not intervene on their behalf. Signing a contract for overseas employment is very risky, nevertheless many English teachers throughout the world are willing take this chance.
To give an idea of the jurisdiction of English in the global village, the first time that I posted an advertisement on ESL café I received over fifty job offers in only one week. Invitations came from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, Taiwan, and Vietnam. It was overwhelming. After months of rejection letters in the United States I found myself needed and wanted overseas. Having the travel bug already, I leapt at the opportunity. With over fifty job offers I had to filter through them first, often rejecting offers with less than one minute of reviewing them. I looked for benefits such as good salary, paid housing, reimbursed transportation costs, severance packages, and medical insurance – all of which my U.S. employers never provided. Demand is high and one can usually find the contract that one is looking for.
East Europe and Southeast Asia have really attractive programs but they can seldom pay more than $500 per month. China has also made a tremendous effort to open up for English teachers, but the level of trust isn’t high enough for many westerners to risk human rights violations. The hot spots these days are Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates. The U.A.E. position is highly cultivated due to its large salary, but many expatriates can’t adjust to the restrictive Muslim lifestyle and break their contracts early.
Japan has been the most desired location for decades, but it is now highly competitive. Japanese schools can be more selective due to the saturation of English teachers, and they don’t need to provide benefits such as housing anymore. Still, younger gen-xpatriates flock to the JET program to at least get their foot in the Japanese door. For the time being it is easy to find employment in Korea and Taiwan. Many backpackers come to these countries armed with transcripts of grades and a certified copy of their recent degrees. They often pick up teaching positions in Korea this way to subsidize future travel. There is also a substantial fringe of unprofessional “cowboy” English teachers that have traveled for years, from one country’s frontier to another, exploring the global village and getting paid as they go. They don’t always make the best teachers, often quitting or getting fired in their first month, but demand is so high that they too can find jobs.
After much research I finally accepted a position in Korea. I found a new academy in which I was the first English teacher ever hired. I liked the idea of helping a new school develop so I selected this project. However, this final choice of country came down to a Thanksgiving dinner with my friend’s Korean mother and aunt. My friend, Raymond, who I have known for 19 years, was born to a Korean mother who had migrated to the U.S. for marriage and education. Although they had lived in the U.S. for decades, his mother and aunt had not lost respect for Korean culture.
The Thanksgiving weekend feast included the barbecued meat dish called Bulgogi. Afterward, his aunt produced an overripe persimmon, which had acquired a jelly-like texture with age. They were surprised that I liked it, not having a Korean background. Westerners often allow persimmons to rot on the ground before harvest because they don’t realize its edible or they are uncomfortable with its texture or taste.
After this weekend of feasting I privately decided that I would go to Korea when the time was right. It wasn’t until July of 1999 when I, influenced by an orange-colored persimmon, finally arrived at an airport in Korea after teaching in Eastern Europe. This was my first step to teaching children and adults in Asia.
So far this chapter has focused on expatriates in Korea. I shy away from analyzing Koreans for two reasons: One is that I don’t think a person can speak for an ethnic group before they have learned to communicate in the native language. Since I do not fluently speak Korean, I hesitate to postulate from my second-hand perspective. The second reason is that I feel that one can’t understand a culture until they can learn its sense of humor. You are not emerged in culture until you can laugh at its jokes. Nevertheless, a brief exploration of Korean lifestyle can enhance knowledge about barhopping expatriates. The following section attempts to outline Korean life as it relates to foreigners.
Many Asian countries have historical periods in which westerners were banned from entering their country. Korea had at one time been referred to as the Hermit Kingdom because of its isolation from foreigners. Near my apartment is an anti-western monument that warns against invasion by western countries. It is a large stone boulder that was put into place long ago, but now is located ironically across the street from an industrial complex that exports to the west. Perhaps it remains an adequate symbol today.
Many Koreans are still cautious about foreign presence, in particular with the massive build up of the U.S. military. The United States military is being increasingly perceived as occupational force. This is not helped by recent or past military actions: during the Korea Civil War hundreds of civilians were innocently slaughtered at Nogun Ri by American soldiers, popular belief holds that CIA was behind the assassination of at least one Korean president, Korean laborers were exposed to agent orange during the construction of a U.S. military base, and a U.S. soldier recently murdered a Korean woman in Itaewon who would not have sex with him – the later act was not allowed into a Korean court due to a pre-existing treaty agreement. Moreover, the fact that U.S. has over 40,000 troops stationed in Korea is seen as an obstruction to peace with North Korea. In accumulation of these past misdeeds the U.S. military doesn’t always contribute to local support of foreign involvement.
At the same time Korea distrusts U.S. presence. The U.S. presence through the years has altered Korean culture. For example, Korea used to be almost exclusively Buddhist, but now Christianity is becoming the dominant majority. Korean youth used to learn Confucius ideals, but now they have a fascination with western movies, dress, music, and food. Today Koreans are very open to foreigners that come here to tour or to work. Their hospitality is quite stunning at times. Nevertheless, there is an undertow of distrust, caution, and fear of losing their traditional culture. The role of English can best illustrate this love/hate relationship.
Across Asia there are increasing amounts of private schools specializing in English. In Korea these are called “hogwans” (“Bushibans” in Taiwan and “Jukus” in Japan). True to Confucius tradition, Asians place a high priority on education and hard work. In Korea adults generally work eleven-hour days Monday through Friday, a half day on Saturday, and they have one day off on Sunday. In their limited spare time many Korean workers also take English lessons. These classes take a worker away from family life for several hours each week. Despite placing a major importance on family life, this additional sacrifice of time and money is highly encouraged. As my friend Eric (not his real Korean name) explained to me, “We all know that we must learn English to get promotions and to compete in world trade”. Koreans feel that learning English is crucial for the country’s economic survival. Not having marketable natural resources, and being dependent on imported rice to feed its population, Koreans feel that a highly educated populace is the best investment for the future. For this reason Koreans have one of the highest literacy rates in the world, often demonstrating higher math scores than most western nations.
Children, too, are pressured into learning English. The growing pattern is for children to attend private schools after they have finished with state schools for the day. Children, like parents, often experience eleven-hour shifts in terms of schooling. The culmination of an individual’s education is put to test with a final high school test. This exam determines what university a student is illegible to attend, and it will, in effect, solidify a persons future life opportunities. A poor score will dishonor one’s family and prevent one from obtaining highly coveted employment. Pressure is great and suicides often occur in relation to the high school exam. Airports close for a short period before the exam and Buddhist mothers flock to temples to bow one thousand times for good luck. There are even folkloric beliefs created in response to this test. One popular myth is that the day before the test is always the coldest day of the year.
Education and hard work are thoroughly ingrained in the Korean psyche. Unfortunately, this pressure is leading to western trends that might not be to Korean’s best interest. For example, since both parents often work, Koreans are starting to replicate a pattern known in the U.S. as “latchkey children”. Children sometimes wear a key around their neck to enter their homes (to watch cartoons or to cook instant noodles) while parents are at work. I have seen this quite literally many times. In my western perspective, I sometimes wonder if they will start developing more negative attributes seen in the west like a preference for instant junk food or an increase in juvenile delinquency.
Koreans are diligent workers and they study hard. The tension between them and expatriates is often related to this. Western English teachers are often viewed as spoilt or lazy. Expatriate teachers earn a much higher salary than their Asian counterparts, and they usually receive free housing while native teachers must often live at home with their parents. To make matters worse, foreign English teachers spend a lot of time complaining when they actually work much less than their counterparts. Perhaps this is a partial explanation for a Korean employer’s flippancy over honoring a contract.
Despite tensions and some anti-western sentiments that remain, Koreans strongly advocate that English be learned from a speaker from an English country. Koreans often speak what is termed “Hanglish”, which combines Korean and English (almost sounding like pigeon English at times). It lacks verb tenses, pronouns, and plurals, and often mispronounces many English words. Hanglish results from having Korean students listen to Korean teachers speak English. They reproduce the same linguistic mistakes. Koreans also acquire Hanglish since they are goal-oriented toward learning from multiple-choice oriented, textbook English to pass the final high school exam, which omits important English skills such as speaking and listening. Hence, native speakers are in high demand to remedy the situation.
I am only comfortable speaking about Korea as it relates to teaching. When it comes to greater issues I realize that there are many things about Korea that most foreigners will never understand. In order to get in touch with the Korean “Kibun” (spirit, mood) I went on a quest to learn Korean humor. I asked native teachers and adult students to explain even one Korean joke. My objective was to learn about their sense-of-humor and how to make them laugh. To my disappointment nobody could translate a single joke. Everybody was helpful in trying but they always gave up explaining. After having twelve individuals quit in frustration, I finally sought out Eric, the most fluent Korean that I have ever met. He explained that most Korean jokes are built on a foundation of inside jokes and often involve tactics such as hand gestures. I begged him to describe even a single example for me. He began telling me a joke that I heard many students use in class. It involved the universal rock-paper-scissors hand game in combination with an oration (like a knock-knock joke) that sounded like, “Moo-Shi-Pa, Moo-Shi-Pa …” before it went into the punch line. Eric frustratingly tried to explain the humor. Finally, he too gave up saying, “There are some things that can’t be translated”. Indeed, there are many things that an expatriate can never know about the host country.
I often considered billiard games to be the symbolic difference between east and west. Expatriates who frequented the Extra favored pocket pool. A game in which balls are given linear numbers, lined up in a predictable pattern, and forced into holes to eliminate them. There are many complex rules that native speakers from different countries continue to argue about.
In contrast, Koreans prefer to play a game using only four balls. There are two red balls and two white. The aim is to use one white ball to hit both the red ones, while not making contact with the other white ball. The rules are simple and few. However, the game is amazingly difficult. Players have to calculate physics, the use of space, and how all the elements relate to each other. Nothing is eliminated and everything always stays on the table. Players are not in competition with each other. Instead people determine their own level and play against their own skill. In fact, the winner usually pays the cost of the game, opposite of westerners who like to punish the loser. In the dozens of times that I played Korean-style pool I never learned to be efficient or to visualize my shots in advance. In small details such as billiards one can interpret great differences in cultures.
While writing these essays I stumbled on many other subtle details, which can signify cultural differences. After a period of fasting and self-imposed isolation, I took a break from writing to go on a walk. By this time I was bored of Kumi City and had seen almost everything that I cared to. On this walk I went into a nearby mountain where I found a small dirt path. I followed this path as it threaded through the hills. At the end of this path was a rural road on the other side of the mountain. I thought I saw everything already, but here was an entirely new farming community, moments away from my apartment, that I had never seen before. I spent the rest of the day exploring this Shangri-La. It was like a peaceful world that always existed just beyond my view, as if I was a fly slowly dying in a windowsill without realizing that my escape was only a few inches away.
My clarity of the moment was interrupted when I heard a dog howl and whine. To my horror I realized that the canine shrieks had nothing to do with my invading foreign territory. This dog was howling because it was being converted into food. Korean men believe that dog meat builds stamina, a fact not so shocking if the dogs were not beat and tortured before slaughter. The idea is that beating a dog causes a surge of adrenaline, which somehow makes the meat more palatable. I was stunned at first and instinctively started to judge Korean cultures as barbaric. However, by the end of my walk I reconsidered the situation. Who was I to judge? I come from a country that routinely slaughters thousands of dogs everyday because nobody wants to take care of them, dog breeders can’t sale them, or owners are unwilling to spay them. Koreans kill dogs for food; Americans do it for money. What ethic places westerners on a higher pedestal? At least Koreans derive nutrition from this killing. Who am I, as a westerner, to cast stones?
On another excursion I went to Nogun-Ri. This is the location where U.S. soldiers massacred hundreds of Korean citizens including women and children. Although I could not find the bridge where innocent victims had been killed, I tried to imagine myself in their situation. I dug my fingers into the earth, the soil being much more valuable now as a garden, and I raised a handful to my nose. I could not smell death. I could not see bones mixed with the dirt, silt, and clay. The horror had left. If I could have talked to senior citizens in the area, they might have responded more differently. But, I could not feel anything from this soil in my hand. It was not my generation’s horror. True, my father served during the Korean Civil War but he was stationed in Philippines at the time.
I rubbed the soil between my hands and could feel no guilt or responsibility. Yet, in Asia there is a lot of blood on American hands. Our troops have killed people in Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, China, Cambodia, Laos; and our government has supported countless conflicts and ruthless dictators throughout the region. I tried to feel compassion as the dirt trickled between my fingers into wind. I wondered if I am to be held accountable for the sins of past generations. Does the fact that I came to Asia to teach English help to balance this horror out? Is this action enough? In truth, I do not know. I am only trying to work and pay off my student loans.
Having less than ten days left on my contract, I took a taxi home from Extra. It was my last visit to the expatriate bar before I went to the United States. Things change gradually without notice. Almost all the expatriates I had known when I started my job had left. Some had been fired (one had punched a Korean teacher over a contractual dispute), and others did the midnight run, but most completed their contracts. There was an entirely new crop of expatriates at the Extra, a new generation of faces that I did not recognize. The old generation vanished. A new wave of foreigners washed ashore like a Phoenix rising from ashes. Shiva’s hand gives as the other takes away.
The close bonds between expatriates prove to be illusive once one party has left the scene. Close friends stopped contact once one had departed. Nobody knew what so-and-so was doing back in his or her homeland. They might have been one or two e-mails circulated but contact almost always ceased in less than one month. English teachers moved on to different countries or to new contracts and began new chapters in their lives, and few bother to keep in touch. During that taxi ride I was reminded of the package tour or a cruise boat, in which newfound friends shake hands and make promises before stepping back into reality and forgetting them. The intimacy evaporates once the vacation is over. For a moment at Extra I flirted with unconsummated group travel plans, un-actualized romances, and the sheer beauty of the characters that I had brushed against in the past year. There were so many possibilities. Yet, I still stepped back into reality as usual at 4:00 a.m. – after our standard after hour excursion to the Hardcore – and I breathed in deep the cool summer night air. My vacation was almost over. It was time to return home.
In the cab I was feeling melancholy. The female driver must have sensed this and offered me a piece of U.S. imitated gum. We tried to converse without the capacity to share a common language. Naturally, the taxi driver knew enough English to get started. Basically, we both talked in our separate mother tongues and understood each other from that which is communicated on a level below language. English comes in many flavors: King’s English, American English, Cash English, Pigeon English, Ebonics, Aussie, British, and so forth. There is also the effective, but grammatically inaccurate, English spoken between two parties from non-English countries (a Japanese man doing business with an Indonesian woman); and the fractured English of two individuals from different ethnic backgrounds trying to piece a conversation together at a chance meeting (a Canadian conversing with an Egyptian). Please don’t inform my future employers, but this fragmented speech, pathetically flawed but heartfelt, is my favorite form of English.
The cab driver interrupted my inner thoughts to ask me to sing for her. I have a horrible singing voice but Koreans never seem to mind. She requested a western song. I could only remember partial versions of two popular Noribang (singing rooms) classics from the west: Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and the Beatles “Let it Be”. When I finished she sung some requested Koreans songs for me. She even provided a wonderful rendition of a Nam Jin song – he is an old traditional singer that most Korean children laugh about, but I seem to like for some reason.
She was humming this song as our taxi whizzed past the anti-western monument.
I could view it darkening from the rear view mirror as she drove me home.