Teaching Liberal Arts in Korea, Part 2

Christian and students

Most expats teaching in Korea teach language, not literature, are not involved in administrative decision-making and are not expected to do research. Christian’s situation is quite different, much more like that of tenure-track faculty in the United States before the bottom fell out of the job market thirty-five years ago. We spoke via Skype when he was in Seoul and I was in Manila.

Part 1 of the interview dealt with teaching literature and the job market in Korean higher education. Part 2 deals with social issues in the classroom, specifically those that appear in his classroom in 2015 and mine at Dongguk University from 1989 to 2006.

Christian’s story

H. Christian Blood

My students seem to know all the names. At their hagwŏns [cram schools or for-profit “institutes”] they read summaries of Marx and other political philosophies. So they know the words, and they have the passing familiarity needed to pass a test, but they’ve never read the original works.

That was also true of the student activists in the late 80s until the mid-90s, when student activism went out of fashion. The students would believe in Marxism like a religion, as opposed to something that they had studied. It was all tied up with the campaign for Korean reunification.

None of my students would identify as Marxist. I think many of them are wealthy and very privileged, but it’s also a sign of the times. Marxism to them signals North Korea, which is often invoked as a reason not to do things. I put them in groups for writing class, which is pretty standard, and a student said to me, “You know collectivism failed in North Korea.”

They’ve still got ancient Asian collectivism in South Korea. It’s the roots of Confucianism.

I think my students were all born in the 90s. They were little when the currency crisis happened. They see themselves as wanting to start the next Google or Naver [a Korean search engine]. Or as undiscovered K-Pop stars.

When did you first come to Korea? How did it change over the time you were here?

In 1988, I taught in a hagwŏn for a year, and then I went to Dongguk and taught there until December of 2006. During that time I noticed a change in attitudes. When I first got to Dongguk it was not unusual for a male student, a first son, to tell me that the quality he was looking for first in a wife was that she would look after his parents. By the time I left nobody was saying that anymore. But expressed opinions and the behavior could have been different, and often were.

I wrote all my own textbooks. Generally I found that my students were quite receptive, but I had to be careful. I put together some reading and conversation stuff when I first started teaching there, stories and articles on different ethnicities, women’s rights and human rights. Issues like racism and sexism and homophobia. All of the settings were in the United States, but Korea might appear in the discussion questions. For example, I used some scenes from Philadelphia to get the students to talk about homosexuality. After I’d been at Dongguk for more than five years and had finished the composition textbooks, I started writing the second batch of conversation textbooks, which were based on a few basic principles of social science and interviews on living and working in Korea. I had a two-semester book for the majors and a two-semester book for the non-majors. I used them for ten years, revising during the vacations. If I’d started out from the beginning trying to do the same thing but not knowing much about Korean culture, I would have gotten myself into trouble. But I’d learned how to let the material do the persuading, step back and not argue with anyone. The material was not always flattering to Korea, but it rang true. So in the first week we could be talking about racism, prejudice, all that kind of stuff without people getting upset.

I think our situations are very similar except my students now have the internet and so they already know all that stuff. They’re aware of what’s going on. I was very surprised a few weeks ago when they brought up Caitlyn Jenner in class. They were already familiar with transgender issues and comfortable with discussing them. Now, this is a self-selecting group that’s going to take an upper-division course in Greek and Roman novels, not a reliable sample of Korean students, but in this discussion I had nothing to say. They said it. The other thing is my students are very interested in watching police violence in the United States. They are all fully following “Black Lives Matter.”

Well, that’s the old anti-Americanism in a new guise. In the old days some of my students were convinced that American whites were the most racist folks in the world, although that was not the way they were talking during the Los Angeles riots. Korean news coverage was very one-sided, so I brought in an article about how the attack on Korean stores in LA was really set off not by the Rodney King verdict, but by the verdict of Doo Soon-ja, the Korean shopkeeper who got off with only community service after shooting an unarmed teenager she mistakenly thought was going to steal a container of orange juice. They hadn’t heard of this case because the Korean media didn’t mention it. I always seemed to be trying to counter bias about one thing or another.

 The attacks on black citizens by the police probably remind your students of the military dictatorships in Korea.

Yes. The students all understood it from the dictatorships. I’ve been very impressed with how closely and critically they’ve been following police violence in the United States. I think that my students are able to quickly see problems in the US more easily than Americans can.

In some ways the Korean military dictatorships were similar to the anticommunism of my childhood. McCarthyism provided a good excuse for attacks on citizens, for rooting out anti-racism activists, for example. In South Korea it was the threat from the North. At the same time I’m watching the news and seeing many more parallels than I want to see in what’s going on in the United States and a police state.

Absolutely. It’s sad and scary. Was martial law still in place when you got here? When did that stop?

Probably after Chun Doo-hwan was defeated in the summer of 1987 and he had to make concessions to the citizens. There was no curfew when I arrived in September of 1988. Korea had to be “developed” and “democratic” in order to have the Olympic Games. So they had their first democratic election in December 1987 and elected Roh Tae-woo, Chun Doo-hwan’s buddy. Right after the Olympics the hearings started about government corruption and the massacre in Kwangju.

My students are very conversant in what’s happening in the United States, but none of them really know about martial law in Korea. The parents aren’t talking. None of my students likes President Park Geun-hye, and they’re all critical of her father. But then my classes attract students who want to talk about these things. What I see is that students perceive the military dictatorships to be further in the past than they really were.

They haven’t heard of the massacre in Kwangju?

They’ve heard about it, but it’s as if they think it happened in 1880, not 1980. This is just my impression. This generation is very invested in a globalized, first-world Korea. The post-Olympics Korea is the only one they know. I think they see the assassination of Park Chung-hee as much more decisive than it really was. They have a kind of an ambivalent view of Park. He was bad, a lot of people died, but he built a great country.

I read that a lot of Park Chung-hee’s popularity came after the fact, that there was considerable denial about the Park years. By contrast, the German generation I knew best, those people born shortly before or during World War II, were filled with anger and resentment about the previous generation. I often heard someone say, “I’m not German, I’m European.” More than a few interrogated their parents about what they were doing during the Hitler years.

Park Chun-hee was assassinated at the end of October 1979. Chun Doo-hwan seized power on December 12 of the same year. There was labor and student unrest of all kinds all over the country, and Chun declared martial law, then sent in the Special Forces, and later full military force, to put down peaceful demonstrations in Kwangju. With the knowledge of the US military. So, yes, there was a “Seoul Spring” after the assassination, but it was pretty short. Park Chun-hee was also very pro-Japanese. The “miracle on the Han River” was made with loans from the US and Japan.

I’ve been surprised at students’ attitudes about Japan. No way around it, I’m just always surprised. They’re very cosmopolitan, they want to talk about race and the problems of the militarization of the American police, but when Japan comes up, they think about Japan in a way I don’t fully grasp. Underwood has lots of problems if we try to present a balanced view of Japan. How did your students talk about it?

Well, the student radicals were often hostile both toward Japan and toward the US. The word “nom,” or bastard, was used only for the Japanese and the Americans—Ilbon-nom and Miguk-nom. The other students and the business people seemed to have mixed feelings. Their talk about Japan might be negative, but they might also be attracted to it. I know of a businessman who was sent to Japan for a year, and he had to pretend that putting up with the Japanese was a hardship, but he actually became a closet Japanophile. And I think that was true of a lot of people, an admiration-hate relationship with the Japanese, like you see with the popularity of the Miss Kitty stuff or with students who want to go to Japan and study Japanese but don’t talk about it very much.

My students also seem to overestimate Korea’s importance—but in a way I expect most people think of their own country (this is a hard for me to think through, since I grew up in Washington, DC, which is the center of a world system in an objective way). K-wave has made it very easy.

There’s a feeling that because everyone knows “Gangnam Style” people will be flooding into Korea to pursue a university education.

In some ways that thinking is the same as it used to be, very self-centered. You would hear tons of criticism of the United States. If you countered with one critical comment about Korea you had a big argument on your hands.

So in some ways it sounds like underneath not much has changed.

That I believe. You only have to scratch the surface lightly to get a very nationalist response. I regularly get in trouble for insulting Korea. I say, “Don’t worry. I criticize the United States ten times as much!” I definitely don’t adhere to propriety in the way my students expect.

Yeah, but that doesn’t mollify them. You still insulted Korea.

And I don’t even mean to! That’s the thing. But I don’t think the most decisive issue facing Korea right now is Dok-do, the Liancourt Rocks off the coast which are controlled by Korea but contested by Japan.

Last semester I taught an upper-division seminar on American feminism from the 70s, 80s and 90s. I did this because of student interest. A lot of the women in my classes would probably be taking women’s studies if they were at schools in the US, but we don’t have those. I focused on the 70s and 80s because I wanted to give them more depth and some of the long history of political activism. Also I wanted them to think about class more because my students are not—they’re happy to talk about gender relations, but they are hesitant to talk about class.

For obvious reasons.

So I didn’t want the discussion to be “plastic surgery, good or bad,” or “the objectification of women in K-pop, good or bad.” I wanted real discussion. So I spent a semester with eight women reading Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, mainly African-American women writers. We had a great time. I’ve never had so much fun in class. The students took over, and they ended up almost running it. Then we went to Korean materials, and we talked about the dictatorships, we talked about Korean women, and we talked about the role gender has played in building modern Korea. Without ever talking about plastic surgery.

The women decided to start a club that would work on women’s reproductive health, safety and sexual education because there isn’t a women’s center at Yonsei. They tried to charter it as a club to get sponsorship, and they basically told it was too hot to handle. So they went guerilla and did it on their own. It’s wonderful. I argued that their programs should be a little more conservative, maybe not start out focusing on sexual pleasure, but the woman who was in charge said, “Then you shouldn’t have had us do a critique of respectability politics.” I said “Touché.”

At the Yonsei campus they’ve done workshops for women on contraception, consent, rights of rape victims, masturbation and reproductive health. It is so exciting because my students don’t know about contraception. There’s no sex education in Korea, at least not for the segment of the population I meet. There’s none.

So the women who took my feminism class are doing this. There were condom demonstrations, and now there’s information on campus. If a woman needs an abortion, a morning-after pill, if she’s been raped or wants an IUD, she can find out where to look.

Abortion is both technically legal yet hard to get. I’ve been told that if a woman asks her doctor for birth control, the doctor can refuse, especially if she’s not married. I think it’s the influence of the Protestant churches here. What my students have told me is that if you’re not comfortable Googling in English and you’re doing a search in Korean in Naver, it’s hard to find unbiased information about the IUD. What comes up first is these hysterical pieces about how a woman used an IUD and now she’s infertile for life. My students are taking English resources and translating them. That makes me very happy. I had very little to do with it. I just arranged some institutional support and gave them some pointers for dealing with the administration. It’s great to see what they’ve been doing.

Actually for me teaching the chapters on women’s issues was the most rewarding—partly because I could speak as a former women’s rights activist. They read the chapter, and they saw their professor leading a contingent of women down Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. We watched a movie called “How We Got the Vote.” When we started out most of the students didn’t realize that women’s rights were something that American women had to fight for. A lot of their opinions changed very quickly when they came to understand sexism not as a Korean issue but as a global issue.

Yeah. The point I try to make to my students is that the current situation in Korea is not inevitable. The country is this way for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not my role to try to change things in Korea, and it’s not my place. But as an instructor I can show them how things have changed in other countries. The class on women’s studies was the most rewarding class I’ve ever done. The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid, I think are beautiful, but they don’t have the same progressive relevance.