In 1988-89 when I was at a private language school in Seoul, we teachers looked enviously at the deals given university teachers—seven times as much paid vacation, a weekly teaching load half of what ours was and lower taxes on approximately the same salary. The academic director harped on how difficult her year of university teaching had been. She spoke of huge classes and students at the back of the room playing basketball during class. My first university term I also had a huge class—eighty students—with twenty guys in the back hiding under their desks whenever I looked their way, and there were a lot of F’s. However, by experience, training and personality I had little or no tolerance for students’ not paying attention. No need to buy a microphone so I could be heard over the students’ noise, which many of my Korean colleagues did.
Because I had a Ph.D. and had once been an assistant professor, I was hired with an E-1 visa and the rank of Visiting Professor. I “visited” for quite a few years before I got tenure and an associate professorship, but eventually that did happen. I didn’t have to go through all the current hassle of a police background check or take an HIV test.
During that first term I realized the administration probably didn’t do much administering. If my superiors made no attempt to control class size I could probably do it myself. So every time I had large class, we trooped over to my office for individual interviews. I selected the top half. After more dropped out, I ended up with around thirty-two, or eight small discussion group of four each, which was quite manageable. Around 2001 or so, the administration started putting limits on class size.
My students were sophomores, juniors and seniors, either English majors or majors in other subjects whose language skills were already pretty good. They had bright, eager young minds which could follow me anywhere. About half of them worked very hard. Unlike the notoriously reticent Japanese students, Koreans like to talk in class, although few will talk or even ask a question in front of the entire class because “speaking in public” is considered a display of arrogance. They’re curious about each other and each others’ opinions. Given the right reading material and the right discussion questions, they’ll chatter away, leaving the teacher free to roam from group to group making suggestions, maybe writing down grammar points to be discussed later. The actual teaching was only a problem once.
Until the university’s foreign language institute was formed about ten years after I arrived, the required freshman English course was taught by Koreans, after that by institute teachers, whose working conditions were somewhat better than those in private language schools but with larger classes. The one time I had to teach the freshman class it was not fun. There were forty students who did not want to be there, so mismatched that a near-native speaker who’d spent three years in a British middle school was sitting next to a baseball player who could barely write his name in the Roman alphabet—apparently some admissions finagling was allowed for athletes. At the start of the term I’d gotten together with the nine or ten institute teachers and worked out a system where we could test the students and have them drop and add so they’d end up in the appropriate sections. Soon a very embarrassed English department head appeared in my office to tell me the higher administration said I couldn’t do that. Okay, I apologized, and somehow we all struggled through.
As I was told in the job interview in 1989, one condition of my employment was that for a meager additional sum I would proofread the monthly English-language newspaper written by the students. This is still a standard requirement for some native speakers at universities. I soon discovered the language of the “articles” was so bad that “proofreading” actually meant entirely rewriting. There were about twenty-six per issue. The student editor of the Dongguk Post felt free to sent copy late and then call to pressure me into hurrying up. After the nth call, I hung up on him, and he contacted the Post’s faculty adviser, a colleague in my department, who came to talk to me. In the ensuing conversation I felt like a wild animal trapped in a corner with fur standing on end. Afterwards I realized I might have just talked myself out of a really good job, and I wrote a note apologizing for my temper. We got together, and I showed him the original work and how much editing had to be done on it. He understood immediately. So then I was free to call this kid into my office. I gave him a list of things to remember, starting with “I am a professor, and you are a student,” rather like the list of rules I gave my Chinese students, which began with “Please don’t spit in class” and ended with “Please don’t give me presents.”
My colleague became a good friend and ally, the co-author of our composition textbook and workbook. For years he was the one who talked to the higher administration when the Korean professors had received a raise in salary and I hadn’t. That also meant a raise for the other non-Korean, who joined the department five years after I did.
From the beginning almost all of the department was very supportive. One of the biggest fears of most long-term expats is of losing a parent when you’re overseas. I was sitting in my office when my brother called to say our mother had died. I sat there for a while looking out over the stadium, the park and the Seoul Tower. Then I went down to the department office to ask the graduate students who acted as secretary to cancel my classes. Within half an hour, a several faculty members appeared at my office door with an envelope, the traditional collection of sympathy money for someone who’s suffered a death in the family. The department head told me to take two weeks although the official compassionate leave was only one week—in those days professors could just leave for a while without having to make up classes. My boss at my part-time editing job was also very kind. He asked me about my mother and listened to me talk while twilight settled in over the park. This is the kindness which binds people together.
Of course there were culture clashes occasionally. That same semester I made a mistake on one of the students’ final grades. The grades had to be entered into a long roll sheet by hand, a very tedious process. When a student came to see me it was immediately clear I’d made a mistake. Now, in the US when I’d had to change a grade I’d gone down to the registrar’s office, filled out a change of grade slip and checked the box marked “clerical error.” There was no automatic assumption of bribery or coercion. But, as I knew from China, in Asia there are no simple mistakes. Errors don’t just occur. Someone has to be blamed. So I talked to one of the graduate assistants working in the office, she wrote an abject letter of apology to the administration, and I signed it without knowing exactly what it said. I suspected it said I’d been upset about my mother’s death. In later years, grades could be entered temporarily into the computer roll, and students had a week to check them and contact the instructor before the grades were finalized.
There were many, many days at Dongguk when I was amazed that someone actually paid me to do this wonderful job. Bright, educated, respectful, eager-to-please students. The freedom to do whatever I wanted and to do it my way. After my first semester I put together all the class materials myself so they would meet exactly the needs of the students as I understood them. There were essays and short stories or book excerpts with discussion questions about European-Americans, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Native Americans in order to show a bit of life from other perspectives. We also had readings meant to test or challenge gender stereotypes and Korean regional stereotypes. I quickly learned not to confront the kids myself. I just put them in discussion groups and let them confront each other. Discussions were lively but not hostile.
Gradually I got more of a picture of the culture. A friend who’s an anthropologist gave me a short reading called “Alligator River,” which was often used to test attitudes. [A woman is in love with a man who’s fatally ill. To save him she needs to get to the other side of the river for medicine. She can’t swim because the river is full of alligators. The boatman says he’ll only ferry her across if she’ll have sex with him first. In distress she turns to her mother for advice. The mother says she’ll have to make the decision herself because she is the one who’ll be living with the consequences.] After reading the passage, students were to rate the characters on a scale from good to bad. Many people faulted the boatman for trying to take advantage of the woman’s helplessness, but a lot of people argued quite vehemently that the mother was most at fault because she wasn’t giving her daughter sufficient guidance. None of the students seemed to understand the mother’s reasoning. Some groups refused the premise of the exercise altogether and said the woman would have to find some other way of getting across the river.
Considering where these people were coming from, the negative attitude toward the mother made some sense: they were all in their twenties, their parents had kept them on a short leash most of their lives, they might be dreading the day when they’d be independent. In those days I was still hearing from first sons that they were looking for wives who would look after their parents. But over the time I was at Dongguk attitudes changed, at least on the surface. First sons, whose duty it was to look after the parents, were having trouble finding wives. Children were sharing the responsibility of taking care of the parents. Fewer and fewer homes held family members of more than one generation. Parents were saving up for their retirement themselves. Recently I’ve heard of Korean’s setting up homes for senior citizens, something they used to criticize the West for doing. In time the women in my classes seemed to be gaining self-confidence. Some spoke of not wanting to get married despite the fact that this would leave them marginalized in Korean society. Society in general seemed more hospitable to foreigners. The old Confucian values were eroding and being replaced by what my students called “individualism” and I called selfishness. To me the concept of individualism included, for example, the notion that a woman should make her own decisions if she had to suffer the consequences.
We used versions of those textbooks until I wrote the second batch of books, which we used for the last then years I was there. The reading selections for the advanced book, Intercultural Conversation 1 and 2, were based on the interviews which appear on this website, only cut up and used as parts of dialogues, with explanations of key concepts, reading questions, discussion questions and crossword puzzles. The students loved having a look at what expats might be saying about them when they weren’t in the room. They loved being able compare characteristics of Korean and American society side by side in an academic, non-judgmental manner. Because they felt understood, they became even more open about their feelings. They wanted to become “international people.” Ethnic Koreans who’d been raised abroad said the book was a big help in understanding Korean culture. Intermediate Conversation 1 and 2 dealt with roughly the same issues though videos from films and television programs.
English Composition for Korean Students was based on the students’ own compositions plus directions and grammar sections. Finding the Right Word and Finding the Right Form came from my first, rejected MA thesis for the University of Pittsburgh, which various semantics exercises in vocabulary teaching.
My actual MA paper was a sociolinguistic language attitude study based on the observation that Koreans didn’t like it when non-natives spoke Korean too well and ethnic Koreans didn’t speak it well enough, meaning that language was a component in the boundary keeping some people in the group and other people out.
I remembered the first time my family came back from Europe. My three-year-old brother was hoisted onto the piano at my grandparents’ house in Upstate New York and someone said, “Ricky, say something to us in Luxembourgish.” He looked around the room at the people who did not speak his language and refused to say a word. He didn’t talk until he learned English again. In the same circumstances I was sure that horrified Korean relatives would criticize the parents severely. Also, there were times when my German had been pretty good, but no one had ever intimated it was a little too good. When I was in high school they might have said I was Scandinavian–according to the stereotype no Americans spoke foreign languages–or, after I became an adult, that I was a German who’d emigrated some years before.
In Korea there was a lot of anecdotal evidence to support my hypothesis. On the one hand, I’d heard of ethnic Asians being severely criticized by taxi drivers for their poor language skills, people not being offered English-teaching jobs because they weren’t white, people getting into fights. One guy was killed. On the other hand, a white friend of mine had said that when he’d ordered in Korean in a New York restaurant, the waitress had pointed at him and loudly warned the other customers, “Hey, this guy speaks Korean.”
I set up an experiment with help from a Korean assistant. First I found a cartoon of a busy railway station and asked various speakers of Korean—beginner to very advanced—to describe the scene for my tape recorder. A few of my colleagues at Dongguk listened to the tapes and rated the speakers’ language competence according to a scale. I took pictures of white guys and pictures of Koreans. I set up two dimensions, one with “status” words like intelligence and another with “group solidarity” words like loyalty. I made up sheets with the pictures and phony names. The subjects—my students—heard all but one tape twice, once with a Korean name and once with an English name, and rated the speakers.
Over vacation I took all of the answer sheets back to Pittsburgh, and they were run through the computer. I was greatly relieved when my hypothesis came out statistically significant. With both groups the “solidarity” scores were flat regardless of language ability, meaning none these guys were considered part of the group. The “status” dimension started low, rose to a point in the middle of the chart and then fell, with the speaker in the middle—the one my colleagues had ranked as “minimal professional proficiency”—getting the highest ranking. He spoke Korean well enough for a reasonable conversation but not well enough to be threatening. The scores for the guys with Asian names and faces ran exactly parallel to the ones for the white guys but several notches lower, such clear evidence of prejudice against ethnic Koreans that my thesis adviser looked at my graphs and muttered “those little shits.” Over ten years later, I decided to run the experiment again, thinking that people spoke as if their attitudes had changed with their increased opportunity to go abroad or to meet people who’d spent a lot of time overseas. The results were almost exactly the same.
My choice of a thesis topic did me some disservice in that it provided a rationalization for not working harder on my Korean, the only thing about those years that I regret. I first tried taking up the language with a hefty first-year Korean textbook I’d picked up in Pittsburgh. It had some strange peculiarities as a result of having been written by linguists, rather than language teachers. For example, instead of the Korean alphabet almost all of the text was in its own phonetic transcription. There’s usually some kind of fiction involved with teaching a foreign language, and in this case it was that if someone learned to speak first learning to read afterwards would come fairly easily. I found this not to be the case. There was also far too much grammar and vocabulary introduced at once. I worked on the textbook with tapes. I hired someone to drill me on the exercises. I took classes. It was always start and then stop when something more pressing came up, stop and start.
Now that the novel is finished—finally—and I’m about to start up my Tagalog learning again, I wonder whether there isn’t something about specific language systems in themselves which draws people to them. I was intrigued by Korean for a while, but in many ways Tagalog has a special sort of appealing quirkiness about it. I suspect it’s really linguistic, not just Filipino tolerance for foreigners’ butchering their language. But that’s for next time.