This interview was originally posted in November, 2010. I’m posting it again in her memory. Silvia died of a heart attack on March 27, 2014. We know she was happy and posting on Facebook the night before. She was well-loved on both sides of the Pacific. The photos of her surroundings are Silvia’s own. I have added a few of her.
Moving to Korea to teach English can be difficult. In fact, Silvia’s experience with less-than-honest recruiters and insolvent private language schools is fairly typical. What is much less typical is her decision not to give up and go home. To me her experience illustrates how much personality determines a person’s ability to get along abroad. Here are her words from a 2008 interview.
In July of 2001, my son Jim called from San Francisco and said, “I’m going back to Korea to teach. You want to come with me? You’ll love it.”
I had become a passionate Asiaophile by reading on the floor of my grandfather’s attic with the sun pouring in onto the unpainted wood. He had a collection of National Geographics which went all the way back to the 1880s. I was entranced by the stories of people going down the Yangzste River in steamboats and Victorian ladies visiting royal courts in Thailand. I saw Europe as an extension of my own culture but Asia as alien and fascinating. It was so different, and there was so much to learn.
On my sixteenth birthday, my father took me to a Korean-Chinese restaurant and taught me how to use chopsticks because “you never know where you’re going to end up.” So decades later when I asked what he thought about my going to Korea, he said, “Well, you won’t starve.”
I contacted recruiters to put my name in for various jobs, and they promised that they would find me a place in Seoul where I could teach high school students. I waited and waited.
The last five years in Maine had been really hard. My husband died, I had no income and was struggling to keep afloat in a business that was going down like the Titanic. I was just miserable. I couldn’t find work, and I was taking one temporary job after another. In early September my father died. Then 9/11 happened, leaving us all traumatized. On October 4 my furnace was declared dead. This was Maine, where it’s impossible to live without heat. Three days after the furnace died, I got a call from a recruiter in Korea asking if I could come within two weeks. So I gave up the course I was taking in computer repair and gave away my animals—a llama, a herd dog, and I don’t know how many cats. My brother lent me enough money for a round-trip plane ticket, which I had to have to get into the country. At the consulate I got a visa stamp on my passport. I got to Korea before the deadline.
The recruiter who met me at the airport told me he was taking me to Seoul, but instead he took me to Ilsan, about two or three kilometers from northeastern Seoul. I didn’t even know where I was. I had a nice studio apartment on the seventh floor with a view of the hills of North Korea in the distance. In 2001 the mountain nearest me had propaganda signs posted on it. At night when the billboards lit up, the light was so bright that the whole mountain glowed like it had a little halo around it. It was kind of pretty. There was a river with a road beside it—maybe the Imjin River, but I’m not sure—and an extremely high barbed-wire fence with coils of barbed wire on the top.
The next day I discovered the school wasn’t a high school, but a pre-primary daycare center. Some of the children were not entirely toilet trained. I had a little boy in my class who was supposed to be four years old, but he was very, very tiny. I was told he was born premature. If he said “shil,” apparently meaning hwajangshil [toilet], you had to pick him up and run like hell.
In the meantime, my son Jim was still in San Francisco trying to sell off the possessions he and his wife had accumulated. It took him three months to get to Korea, so he didn’t get here until after my school went bankrupt. Both of us spent the winter running around looking for work, so our paths only crossed maybe five times in three months, but I remember we saw The Lord of the Rings together.
The daycare center was an attempt to help poor, working mothers, who would drop their kids off on their way to work. Because of their working hours, we were open from 9:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night, sometimes later. It was a hard job, ten hours a day, sometimes six days a week. For the first two months I was paid two million won a month, which was about $1,500 at the time. The third month, the place was going bankrupt. They gave me a choice: a ticket to go back to America or whatever they could pay me, which would probably be half my salary.
I did have a ticket back, but I still didn’t have any heat in Maine. That was the deciding factor. I had survived the ice storm of 1998 huddled down in that house. I knew how hard it was to heat a house with wood, and I didn’t have enough wood to get through the winter. It would have been totally impossible. So I said I’d take the half pay and the apartment they rented for me, and I’d hunt for a job.
I left there in January 20, 2002, and I found a job where I taught for three months before I was out of work again and had to re-register in a different district with different regulations. I had to write back to my college to get more transcripts and all that stuff. My boss was a great guy, but his wife was the bookkeeper, and she figured out very quickly that they couldn’t afford a native speaker. In fact, she said they were making more money with the math tutoring part of the school, so they should get rid of the English language part of it.
So there I was. No job again. I stayed in an apartment that belonged to my son’s employer, who was nervous about leaving the place empty because it was on the edge of the red light district. After that I moved to a yŏgwan, an inn, with a pleasant enough space. I was there during the 2002 World Cup, and I was right on the main street where all the parading was going on in the middle of the night. Every time Korea won a game, there would be a parade. I had made friends in the neighborhood by this time, so for the last Korean game one of them pasted a Korean flag on my cheek, and I had on my red bandanna and red tee-shirt. I was out there at two o’clock in the morning, marching along and singing, “We are the champions.” Very exciting. A lot of fun. Also, by this time I’d been in Korea almost nine months. I felt really at home.
I find people here very easy to live with. I think it’s because they’re basically small town people who know they have to get along with people, even if they don’t like them. I approached the Koreans around me in the same way I would the people in my hometown. Now I know Mainers in general are similar to Koreans because we have a lot of the same values: a work ethic, a desire for our children to have a better life, often a social life that revolves around the church. I grew up on a farm, and most Koreans have some connection with farms—growing up on one or visiting their grandparents’ farm when they were children.
People are friendly. I’ll be walking down the street, and they’ll nod and say hello to me. Sometimes we’ll stop and have a little conversation that is half words and half charades. The other day when it was threatening to rain, I was coming down the mountain. A lady who was walking up said hello to me in Korean and rubbed her knee, indicating her arthritis, and pointed at the sky. I said hello and agreed that it was going to rain. We communicated mostly through hand signals, but it was a very satisfying conversation.
To give you an idea of how the farmers from both countries can interact, in 1979 some Korean farmers came to Vassalburo, Maine because land was cheap then. They rented some land and everybody in town noticed that the Koreans grew the most wonderful cabbages. But at the end of the year the contractor reneged on his promise to buy them. We had gotten screwed six years previously by big city a contractor who had promised us good money for daikon, the large white Japanese radish. The Koreans’ cabbages rotted in the fields, but some of the people stayed, settled in, kept on working and got jobs locally while they continued to farm. We admired them, so that when Mr. Kim got around to building a house, the people in the neighborhood helped him and showed him about insulating for Maine winters. It was really interesting to see how the villagers watched the newcomers before welcoming them. They liked what they saw, so they helped out when they had a chance, which is classic Maine behavior.
Shortly after I came here, I began meeting people who looked familiar. I met a woman who looked so much like someone I knew in Maine. Mainers often don’t admit it, but we’ve got a lot of Native American blood, and of course there’s a strong racial connection between Koreans and Native Americans.
For example, my friend William Turner, who’s half Native American, was lost in North Korea during the Korean War. When he found an abandoned farm house, he ditched his uniform for some farmer’s clothes and carried his gun on his back in a wooden A-frame pack. He crept south, going into abandoned farmhouses and unearthing the kimchi that was hidden there and eating it. From a distance he could pass for Korean. The hardest part was making it through to the American lines. Eventually he got to a place where he could see some sentries, and he called to them in a low voice. They were going to shoot him, but he told them that the Yankees had won the World Series that year or some other dumb-fool baseball fact that identified him as an American.
In Korea I met a man who could have been William Turner’s son—same spiky hair sticking out, same sort of aquiline nose, high cheek bones and a good sense of humor. Not quite as quiet as William was. I kept meeting people who looked like Mainers I knew in their appearance and mannerisms. And there were language similarities between Korean and Algonquin, even between the l-and-r sound of Korean and the same sound in Mainer French. The first winter I was here I imagined myself living in the French-speaking quarter of Lewiston, and I felt comfortable. I said to myself that I was only a day’s flight from home, so it was pointless to get homesick. I was so interested in learning about the culture that I just never thought about it.
The differences I saw just seemed to highlight the similarities. The mountains don’t look exactly the same because they haven’t been scrubbed down by a glacier, but the trees and the forested nature of the country is very similar, with conifers and deciduous trees—pines and oaks and maples. The smell of the dead leaves on the ground in the fall is very much the same.
I was amused the first time I saw a roll of toilet paper on the dining room table of a house, completely bare and unadorned, without even a doily covering it. Toilet paper is used as napkins. My grandmother was always making lacy, fluffy things to cover the toilet paper in the bathroom.
My family has a strong oral tradition, and we remember the Civil War—literally. It was passed down to us. My Grandmother Neal’s father was at Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was shot. My maternal great-grandfathers and one of my paternal great-grandfathers were in the Union Army. So I have a sense of what Koreans experienced in their civil war, which is what they call it. If the Confederates had stopped fighting under a cease fire, but not a peace treaty, the South and the North would be two very different places. South Korea was like the South in the United States, mainly agricultural, and the North in both places was mainly industrial. The difference was that in Korea the industrial base was destroyed during the war, whereas in the U.S. the South never made it far enough north to bust up the factories in places like the Boston suburbs. If that had happened, it would have been a different kind of war. Also, the Canadians didn’t come down like the Chinese did in Korea, and the Spanish didn’t come to America the way the Americans did to Korea.
I’ve been here for close to eight years, and I’m comfortable. I have enough money to get by and a tiny apartment with a little squat of a bathroom and a large shower room where I keep my washing machine and my refrigerator. I have a little galley kitchen and a normal, maybe ten by twelve bedroom. The first time I flew back to Korea after trip to Maine, I felt really good as we started flying over the peninsula. The last time, I felt the same thrill you feel in your heart when you come back to your home country. Maybe it’s because the last five years there were so hard, but Maine just doesn’t do that for me anymore.