Korea Forty Years Later

Stephen in front of the Foreign Language Institute after turning in his grades (Stephen Schuit)

Forty years before this Skype interview—almost to the day—in late November 1973, Stephen Schuit arrived at Kimpo Airport as a US Peace Corps volunteer. After three months of training he taught at what was then Keimyung Christian College and is now Keimyung University. When his two years in the Peace Corps was over, he returned to Maine and became a human resource professional with a focus on management training. In the mid-90s he started teaching at the business school of the University of Southern Maine. His consulting practice took him to about thirty different countries, including Korea. In 2011 he returned to teach English at Yeungnam University near Daegu. Please check out his blog,  particularly the article on No Gun Ri (Link) All photos are courtesy of Stephen Schuit. 

Stephen’s story

The young American history major at the DMZ (Stephen Schuit)

When I arrived in late November 1973, Kimpo was a military airport on the outskirts of Seoul. Everyone we saw was a soldier. At that time the student demonstrations against the military regime of Park Chung-hee were so frequent they weren’t even newsworthy. There were about fifty Peace Corps volunteers in my group, and we were quickly bused to Daegu. The three-month training period was Monday through Friday and a half day on Saturday. It consisted of three subjects: Korean culture, Korean language and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. The learning was intense and a lot of fun. My group was training to be university instructors of English. I chose to be located in Daegu because I was here and I was enjoying it for the most part. Others went all over the place, a lot of people to Seoul, one guy to Cheju-do.

I was assigned to a school called Keimyung Christian College, now Keimyung University. In those days what stood out for me was the dirt and the hygiene problems like the use of human excrement as fertilizer and the lack of potable water. Since all the water had to be boiled, you just had barley tea. You couldn’t purchase dairy products like milk or cheese [which are not part of the traditional Asian diet]. There were no private cars. There was ostensibly no middle class. There was public transportation—the trains were decent and the buses were good but crowded—and taxis. There was no subway system.

The Korean War had ended about 19 years previously, and you still had the after-effects of the Japanese occupation. For example, the hills and mountains were barren. There were no trees. My take on this was that the Japanese were building wooden homes and were heating their homes with wood. The Japanese were of course defeated in 1945, not much had grown back by 1950, and with the Korean War, pretty much everything was obliterated. In the winter the landscape was all brown.

Both male and female students were still wearing Japanese-style uniforms—black with gold trim, gold buttons with a tunic neck. The other reminders of the occupation were the stories about having to speak Japanese, about having to go through the Japanese regimen in schools and about the tens of thousands of women being raped. My students were probably born in the mid-50s, so their stories were coming from their parents. I suspect that significant numbers of these students’ mothers and grandmothers were sexually harassed by the Japanese.

Those were the days of mimeograph machines and cold, very poorly lit classrooms. The blackboards were all made out of this rubberized material similar to the material the Koreans now put down on running and biking paths in public areas. In the States traditional blackboards were made out of slate. In Korea slate was not available so they had these smooth, rubberized black and green blackboards. Even using chalk was somewhat problematic. It often wasn’t available when needed, and it just didn’t work well on those boards. Today we use wet boards with markers.

Students in uniform (Stephen Schuit)

I had some classes with fifty students. You had to be an actor, a showman. You were dancing. You were doing anything you could to keep the kids active, interested, engaged and having a good time. If you were dry, boring and stationary at your desk it wasn’t going to happen.

I designed a teaching technique using articles from Newsweek and Time Magazine. I looked for appropriate vocabulary words that I wanted to teach, found them in articles and copied the articles if I could. I put together a half-dozen sentences or so to give them an understanding of the article and the vocabulary I was trying to teach, came to class early and put them on the board. After doing drills using the sentences, we could discuss the article, and I could ask them questions about it and how it related to them.

Today here at Yeungnam University, the only thing I need to bring to class is a memory stick—and markers. Every room has a computer, a very large computer screen, and a wet board. So I use PowerPoint. We use the textbook and videos. The books are the same for everyone teaching a particular class. I’m teaching a business English class, and that textbook is standardized as well. So the curriculum is consistent. Within that classroom you can do whatever you want, but the tests are standardized. I think it works great. It assures that there’s a minimal level of skill attainment. We teach the four skills. We recently integrated writing with listening, speaking, and reading, and I think our students are largely insured that they’re going to get good basic education.

Starting with the spring semester on March 2, we’ll have new textbooks for every class, every level. A number of options were presented to us, and we were asked to evaluate them. When I show up toward the end of February, I’ll be told which textbooks we’ll be using. That’s okay with me. As long as the classroom belongs to me, I feel fine.

Right now my smallest class has 19 students, and the largest 23. I have students paired as learning partners. They have the same partner from the beginning of the semester until mid-terms, when they take their speaking tests together. I give them questions to start the conversation between them, and they talk. Then they also take individual exams inlistening, reading and writing. For the second half of the semester they have new partners. For group work, I often take the partners and put them together to form groups of four or five or six, depending on the activity.

Downtown Daegu in 1974 (Stephen Schuit)

Forty years after I first arrived in Korea, the major differences I see are the world-class train and subway systems. In Daegu,  Busan and Seoul these systems are probably as good as any in the world. You can also drink the water from the tap. I don’t, but you can. You see touching and perfunctory sexual behavior among male and female students—the hand-holding, the hugging, the embraces are very explicit and visible. You never saw that 40 years ago.

The other thing that is significantly different is the vibrant, large middle class. I think that’s the key part of Korea’s success. Basically, the Confucian model hasn’t changed, meaning the hierarchy nd what it means to be rich or poor. People’s language still reflects their positions, their roles and their age [in relation to the person they’re talking to, for example in “talking up” to some people and “talking down” to others]. What has changed is the growth of the middle class, the high percentage of Koreans who have graduated from college and become professionals. There’s now a tradition now of going to college, finding jobs in these large companies, called chaebǒls. People can afford to buy cars to drive the economy, and they can travel abroad freely.

In the Korea of 1973, in order to go abroad you had to get permission from the Park Chung-hee government, either the man himself or his staff. People didn’t even have money to travel. Now you don’t need anyone’s permission, and many Koreans travel and live overseas. Their global awareness has changed significantly. This middle class owns property, spends money, is credit-charged to world historic levels of indebtedness. By some measures the economy is the fifteenth largest in the world.

I left the Korea of 1975 not feeling good about the country. After two years I was bitter and exhausted. I wanted to get on with my life. I was tired of being so visible [as a foreigner]. I had started growing a beard. Kids were cat-calling me all the time, and there was no place I could walk without being approached or singled out or noticed. It was only very few people’s intention to hassle me, but I was at the whims of kids and people wanting to practice their English. There were maybe a dozen English teachers at the university level in Daegu. I knew them all. Now the expat community in Daegu is huge, probably 10,000 people. If you’re a foreigner and you’re walking down the street, people don’t even notice you anymore.

The Peace Corps told us, “This is an apolitical role, please respect that.” But as soon as you said you were with the Peace Corps, people knew that you’d been sanctioned by the Park Chung-hee administration and that you worked for the US government. So how could you possibly be apolitical? It would be like saying you worked for the US Army or the CIA or the General Services Administration but you weren’t political. You represented policy, you were an arm of the US government.

Well, sure. I wasn’t in my classrooms, for example, criticizing Park Chung-hee. Nor were any other professors who valued their lives. No one could legally criticize Park Chung-hee in public [and usually not in private]. So that’s political.

I don’t want to say that was the most significant factor. Communication was slow and different. Obviously, we didn’t have Skype or computers. If I wrote a letter to my family, I wouldn’t know they’d received it until I got a letter back. There was usually a four-to-eight-week turn-around. Peace Corps volunteers didn’t have phones. If you and I were both teaching in Daegu, one of us at Yeungnam and the other at Keimyung, and I saw you on Thursday, I’d say, “Hey, Carol, let’s meet again on Sunday.” We would establish a place and a time, but if we both showed up at that place and that time it was a minor miracle.

So two years of slow communication, two years of being on my own, two years of hassles and not being able to drink the water, two years of the daily frustrations of living in a third-world country with the Korean bureaucracy and ice-cold, poorly-lit classrooms—all of that was fairly taxing. I needed a break. I was looking forward to hopping in a car, driving somewhere and eating a hamburger or a pizza. And just getting on with my life.

The advice I wrote on my blog about ten days ago [“Beyond Surviving: How to Thrive as an Expat,” see the URL below] was a reaction to office conversation. What precipitated it was that a young colleague of mine, otherwise a decent enough chap, went into the office of the Korean director. The director told this young man that the assistant professorship he was expecting and hoping for was not going to be forthcoming. He said, “I’d like you to take the next semester and demonstrate that you do have a solid, good character and professionalism. Then you can come back and we’ll talk about an assistant professorship.”

A fifteen-minute argument ensued. This guy was infuriated at the—in his mind—broken promise and the allegations about his character. He picked up a chair and threw it at the director, hitting his desk and knocking his computer and other stuff off of it. He took his ceramic coffee cup and threw it, barely missing the director’s head and hitting the wall, where it shattered. Then he walked out. He told us that he “died on his sword,” meaning that he’d stood for truth, justice, and the American way—or whatever it meant to him. In other words, he wasn’t going to take any shit. He quit. I’m sure by that time he was fired anyway, but he was very proud of having taken a stand.

It caused me to be upset and very reflective for the next three or four days. And nauseous.I felt I had failed this young man—he’s about thirty-three—as a colleague. I felt I hadn’t coached him well if he could be that disrespectful in spite of being frustrated and perhaps having a promise broken to him. I also wondered how he could he be so disrespectful after living in Korea for four or five years. How could he not know what a violation this was to anything that was reasonable and normal? This was the worst extreme of a continuum of behaviors which suggested to me that some people didn’t respect this country or understand its customs. They might feel their own country is better. So I spent the next week thinking about it before putting my thoughts down in writing.

I’d say probably 70% of my colleagues are very professional, they take teaching as an awesome responsibility, and they are constantly working on their professional development. Then I would say about 10-15% of the people seem to be riding it out. They don’t see teaching as their primary reason for being here. It’s just a vehicle for sustaining themselves. Maybe another 10% go either way. I wouldn’t call anyone in our 53-person staff a “backpacker.” Even those who don’t seem truly professional seem to be here to give it a go.  

My love for Korea was based largely on the romantic notion of love in a rear-view mirror. I mean, the bitterness kept dissolving the longer I was away from Korea. As the years passed, and I met Koreans in the States or visited Korean restaurants, or took out my Korean language books to look them over again, my bitter memories faded, and I was left with only a very romanticized residue: how wonderful the country really was, how much I loved the food, how much I loved the people and how much I loved the language. I came back in 1988 for the summer Olympics. I returned on a number of business trips to train Korean managers in the late 90s, which is when I visited No Gun Ri. [See the URL below.] In addition to visiting my son, who was teaching in Seoul in 2011, I had about a half-dozen trips to Korea. I was staying in touch. Those visits helped nurture this very romantic recollection I had of the country.

Coming back and seeing the country as it became the new, modern Korea, I saw that the things I’d found frustrating were just memories of a Korea that had gone past. So this time when I came, I appreciated more of the “romantic aspects” of Korea. When I met people who shared the Korea of today, I could tell them about the Korea of the 1970s. When I came back for the Olympics, I saw a former student of mine who was now a businessman living on the thirtieth floor of a fancy apartment building in Seoul. The new Korea was indeed fascinating. The food was delicious. Our conversations about the way Daegu used to be, now that I was free of the hassles, was a romantic story, and a powerfully emotional one as well.