June Book Club Meeting: “Korean Teachers” by Seo Su-Jin, Thursday June 30, 7pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The semester is finally winding down, I’m finding free time to research and write, and I’m happy to announce that I will have new posts for you very soon (thank you for your patience!). But in the meantime, great minds continue to think and…er, read alike, which brings me to this month’s book: Korean Teachers by Seo Su-Jin (Harriet Press, Aladin, Amazon), first published in Korean in 2020 and then in English in March this year. In short, it’s a quick, very readable, and very contemporary book about four Korean teachers in a Seoul university, which anyone who’s ever worked a Korean hagwon, school, or university will instantly be able to relate to, as well as students of Korean too. But as the synopsis from the publisher Harriet Press explains, really it’s about much more than that:

Winner of the Hankyoreh Literature Award, Seo Su-jin’s debut novel follows four Korean language lecturers at Seoul’s prestigious H University over the course of an academic year. Readers will spend one season with each of the four protagonists—Seon-yi in the spring, Mi-ju in the summer, Ga-eun in the autumn, and Han-hee in the winter—getting a close glimpse into the challenges and joys of sharing a new language and culture with students from abroad.

As readers delve into the story of each woman and the unique paths they have chosen to become a Korean lecturer, they watch Seon-yi, Mi-ju, Ga-eun, and Han-hee deal with a myriad of social and ethical challenges that accompany their job and their personal lives. From asserting themselves as modern-day career women braving sexism from both students and coworkers, to the shocking revelation that students, too, are treated unfairly as some are deemed to be more ‘desirable’ than others by H University. Some of the teachers had to bow to these pressures, but what fate would befall those who fought against the grain? Each of these women must ultimately find her place as a conduit between her students and an increasingly multicultural Korean society.

Praised as a novel that questions why highly educated women are still facing the formidable hurdle of ‘becoming somebody’ in Korean society, Korean Teachers is gratifyingly piquant as it skillfully peeks into the lives of contemporary women and how they challenge the societal norm where gender discrimination is ever so prevalent.

For further information, both about the book and more about the reality of conditions for Korean university teachers, please also check out this author interview in the Korea Times and this dedicated Reddit thread.

If you’re interested in attending, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address). I will contact you to confirm, and will include you in the club reminder email with the Zoom link a few days before the event.

Finally, below is a SPOILER FILLED list of suggested discussion topics and questions that we use to loosely structure meetings. But the meetings are still very small and informal really, and, to help me ensure they’re as safe a space as possible, there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself. So please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

♥♥♥

General Questions/Thoughts

  • Anyone who’s ever worked a Korean hagwon, school, or university will instantly relate to the teachers’ many complaints about their management, bureaucracy, and students. Do you have any similar experiences to share?
  • How about similar experiences as a Korean language student?
  • The teachers in the book all have different opinions on the appropriate levels of how social to be with students, how difficult to make their courses, and what the students’ needs are. Which teacher’s opinions are most like your own?
  • Did anyone else find the romanized Korean words pretty difficult to follow at times? I wish the original Hangul had also been included alongside them, and am frustrated that so few translations of Korean works provide these!

Spring Semester—Seon-yi

  • If you were a teacher, what would you do if you discovered that your adult students were surreptitiously taking (appearance focused, but non-sexual) pictures of you at your workplace and uploading them to social media?
  • Obviously, Seon-yi is very upset that Quan is ultimately going to be deported, losing all the considerable money he and his wife Phuong invested in coming to Korea. It also results in a mass exodus of Vietnamese students, for which she is unfairly blamed. Should she have handled it differently? Could she have handled it differently, seeing as, ironically, she was the only victim among the teachers who didn’t file a police report?

Summer Semester—Mi-ju

  • Have you, or someone you know, made a similarly egregious case of misgendering someone? What happened and what were the consequences?
  • How could Mi-ju have avoided her own mistake?
  • In Korea, my students invariably struggle with my attempts to use even the most basic sexuality and gender-inclusive language in the classroom, and would much prefer I stuck to simply he/she and assuming everyone is heterosexual (admittedly, most of my students are low-level; by no means is their reluctance necessarily due to ignorance or homophobia). What have been your own experiences with using such language in Korea, or indeed in any country where little thought is given to political correctness, let alone preferred pronouns?

Autumn Semester—Ga-eun

  • I liked the point about Ga-eun being popular with the students partially because she teaches low-level classes—whereas as you advance, progress becomes much more difficult and frustrating, and this gets reflected in lower student evaluations for those trying to teach you more difficult stuff. This is reflected in my own evaluations!
  • Are there points where Ga-eun is too accommodating of Tanya’s depression? Which sounds cold, so let me rephrase it: are there instances where accommodating Tanya’s mental health needs ultimately defeats the purpose of her attending the classes at all? To further explain: in a “Korean Gender” summer school course I taught once, I required students to give a presentation, having learned from my own favorite lecturer 20 years earlier that being able to give presentations is a much more useful and necessary skill than writing essays, and that gaining confidence in public speaking, does, well, ultimately require actually speaking in public at some point. Then I was confronted with a student who was able to give a perfectly fine presentation, but only to me alone—which placed me in quite a dilemma.
  • What do you think of Hye-seon’s method of warning Ga-eun of the possible consequences of her illicit relationship with Yuto? Seeing as it shocks her into quitting her job, then I’m guessing not very highly. But how would you have handled it instead?

Winter Semester—Han-hee

  • I respected Han-hee’s realism in this story, her having no illusions about the chances of taking up comfortable university positions in England after her English husband Jacob’s absence from academia for four years. Ironically then, the notion of a PhD holder settling for teaching at a kindergarten, one of the standard, entry level ESL jobs for foreigners in Korea which most do straight after graduating, felt anything but realistic.
  • Were the problems with her physical health ultimately her own fault? How badly did she need to continue working in the late stages of her pregnancy? Certainly, it seems clear that she wouldn’t have been hired at H University again, which is why she wanted to prove how essential she was. But would getting a similar job elsewhere later, at a commensurate or slightly lower pay and level, really have been that difficult? Or am I completely underestimating the sexism and difficulties faced by mothers hoping to return to the workforce?
  • I admired Han-hee’s grit too, in resolving to wait for years if necessary for the sake of justice. But in light of what happens at H University in the next story, do you think in the end she will give up and move to the UK with Jacob?

Short-Term Winter CourseSeon-yi

  • Did anyone else cringe at how immature the international students sounded, finding them more like high-school children than adults?
  • Do you think that, again, Seon-yi will be made a scapegoat, in this case by both H University and the media?

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

May Book Club Meeting: “I’m Waiting for You: And Other Stories” by Kim Bo-young, Thursday May 26, 7pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

For this month’s meeting, we’re covering I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories by SF giant Kim Bo-Young (2021), translated by Sung Ryu and Sophie Bowman. As described by Amazon:

Two worlds, four stories, infinite possibilities 

In “I’m Waiting for You” and “On My Way,” an engaged couple coordinate their separate missions to distant corners of the galaxy to ensure—through relativity—they can arrive back on Earth simultaneously to make it down the aisle. But small incidents wreak havoc on space and time, driving their wedding date further away. As centuries on Earth pass and the land and climate change, one thing is constant: the desire of the lovers to be together. In two separate yet linked stories, Kim Bo-Young cleverly demonstrate the idea love that is timeless and hope springs eternal, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges and the deepest despair.

In “The Prophet of Corruption” and “That One Life,” humanity is viewed through the eyes of its creators: godlike beings for which everything on Earth—from the richest woman to a speck of dirt—is an extension of their will. When one of the creations questions the righteousness of this arrangement, it is deemed a perversion—a disease—that must be excised and cured. Yet the Prophet Naban, whose “child” is rebelling, isn’t sure the rebellion is bad. What if that which is considered criminal is instead the natural order—and those who condemn it corrupt? Exploring the dichotomy between the philosophical and the corporeal, Kim ponders the fate of free-will, as she considers the most basic of questions: who am I?

For further reviews, please see Locus, Asia Media, London Korea Links (who advises against the audio version), and, of course, Books and Bao (from 1:52 if the video doesn’t automatically start there):

If you’re interested in attending, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address). I will contact you to confirm, and will include you in the club email a few days before the event with a list of suggested discussion topics and questions that we use to loosely structure meetings. But the meetings are still very small and informal really, and, to help me ensure they’re as safe a space as possible, there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself. So please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

(Apologies for the very short notice this month BTW! Meanwhile, the book choice for the next month’s meeting, to be held on Thursday June 30, will be “Korean Teachers” by Seo Su-jin)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

April Book Club Meeting: “Shoko’s Smile: Stories” by Choi Eun-young, Thursday April 28th, 7pm

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes.

Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

The moment I choose the acclaimed Shoko’s Smile for April’s bookclub meeting on Thursday the 28th, I learn that author Choi Eun-young and translator Sung Ryu will be giving a live virtual talk at the Korean Literature Night the night before!

Time may be of the essence though—a note on the signup page says there’s a deadline of April 10 to register. While that may actually just be referring to entering the draw to win a free copy of the book, and indeed a moment ago I was still able to register to attend, if you also want to do so I recommend registering as soon as possible just in case.

But I still recommend attending our own meeting too of course!

If you’re interested, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address), and I will contact you a week or so before the event. To keep the meetings remain small and informal, and to help me ensure they’re as safe a space as possible, there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself, so please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to order and read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

March Book Club Meeting: “Tower” by Bae Myung-hoon, Thursday March 31st, 7pm

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes.

Just a short announcement sorry—this first week of semester has been very hectic, and on Friday I injured my knee, making it painful to walk (did I mention my university is on a steep mountain?). But more posts are nearing completion, and in the meantime it gives me great relief and pleasure to direct you to Philip Gowman’s excellent review and many related links at London Korean Links for this month’s book club choice—Tower by SF maestro Bae Myung-hoon, (2009), released in translation last year.

If you’re interested in attending, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address), and I will contact you a week or so before the event. To keep the meetings remain small and informal, and to help me ensure they’re as safe a space as possible, there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself, so please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to order and read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

February Book Club Meeting: “Love in the Big City” by Sang Young Park, Thursday 24th 7:00pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

Hello everyone! For February’s book club meeting on Zoom, we’re reading Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park (2021), translated into English by Anton Hur and recently released in paperback. As described by publisher Grove Atlantic in the US (published by Tilted Axis Press in the UK):

Love in the Big City is the English-language debut of Sang Young Park, one of Korea’s most exciting young writers. A runaway bestseller, the novel hit the top five lists of all the major bookstores and went into nine printings. Both award-winning for its unique literary voice and perspective, and particularly resonant with young readers, it has been a phenomenon in Korea and is poised to capture a worldwide readership.

Love in the Big City is an energetic, joyful, and moving novel that depicts both the glittering nighttime world of Seoul and the bleary-eyed morning-after. Young is a cynical yet fun-loving Korean student who pinballs from home to class to the beds of recent Tinder matches. He and Jaehee, his female best friend and roommate, frequent nearby bars where they push away their anxieties about their love lives, families, and money with rounds of soju and ice-cold Marlboro Reds that they keep in their freezer. Yet over time, even Jaehee leaves Young to settle down, leaving him alone to care for his ailing mother and to find companionship in his relationships with a series of men, including one whose handsomeness is matched by his coldness, and another who might end up being the great love of his life.

A brilliantly written novel filled with powerful sensory descriptions and both humor and emotion, Love in the Big City is an exploration of millennial loneliness as well as the joys of queer life, that should appeal to readers of Sayaka Murata, Han Kang, and Cho Nam-Joo.

For glowing reviews. see Asymptote, Electric Literature, NPR, The New York Times, and you may also be interested in an interview of Park by Hur at Words without Borders, as well as Hurs’ reflections at Literary Hub on translating a bestselling queer Korean novel as a gay Korean man. Alternatively, if videos are more your thing, then check out an author talk at The Korea Society, a conversation between Park and Alexander Chee and an interview of Park by Hur at LTI Korea, and, of course, Books and Bao’s excellent quick review below:

For purchasing the book, try Aladin in Korea (hardback), or publishers Grove Atlantic (US) and Tilted Axis Press (UK).

If you’re interested in attending, please contact me via email, or leave a comment below (only I will be able to see your email address), and I will contact you a week or so before the event. To keep the meetings small and informal, and to help me ensure they’re as safe a space as possible, there’s a limit of 12 participants including myself, so please get in touch early to ensure your place (and give you time to order and read the book!).

See you on Zoom!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Announcing the First Book of The Grand Narrative Book Club: “If I Had Your Face” by Frances Cha, Thursday 27 January 7:00pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my books.

Or, if you just want to be my friend (your loss!), I’ll settle for a shared love of books in general.

Just as in a romance though, a relationship on that basis can still entail a bittersweet mix of passion and frustrated longing. Specifically, as my own taste in books has rarely meshed with my friends’, I’ve found there’s only so much I can wax lyrical about my latest conquests when they’re so unlikely to ever read them themselves. And with 52 books read in 2021, plus a goal of 72 in 2022, that’s of lot of pent-up passion not to have an outlet for.

But you already know where it’s going to go now.

As I type this, I’m loving If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, “a fierce social commentary about gender roles, class divisions and, yes, plastic surgery in South Korea.” I’ve been especially struck by how realistically Cha depicts the daily lives and conversations of the four main young(ish) Korean female characters, much more so than in previous Korean or Korea-related fiction I’ve encountered. “Finally,” I said to myself, “I’ve found characters in a book talking just like my Korean friends and I talk!”

Yet we’re not in our 20s or early-30s either. Beyond the swearing and sex talk that I love so much, does Cha indeed portray their lives realistically? It’s been especially difficult for someone with my background to tell, slowing down my reading with so many nagging thoughts and questions.

Then something occurred to me in the shower. It’s a popular book, making Time’s list of 100 must-read books in 2020 for instance, meaning there’s many of you out there with your own opinions, insights, and maybe even your own nagging questions. So why not share them with each other on Zoom?

I’m envisaging something very intimate and informal, cameras on, with a maximum of 12 participants (but in practice probably much fewer than that). To ensure it’s as safe a space as possible, I’ll screen all attendees as much as I’m able, the Zoom link will be invite only, and once it’s started I’ll be very busy behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly.

Just for that last reason alone, I want to be clear that this will be a discussion, and definitely not any kind of lecture, webinar, or even dominated by me. While in my duties as host I will have prepared many hopefully interesting questions and potential talking points to raise if necessary, I strongly encourage—nay, demand—everyone attending to come up with at least couple of their own (please!).

For those amongst you who are interested but haven’t read the book yet, I’m thinking that by Thursday, January 27 is plenty of time to order, read, and digest it, and that 7pm on that evening (Korean time) is both late enough to drink eat first, and early enough to get a discussion of a decent length in before people get tired. We could also decide the next month’s book then too.

If you’re interested in attending, please leave a comment below (your email address will only be visible to me) or contact me, and I’ll get in touch in a group email closer to the date. Any thoughts, suggestions, and advice for running a book club would also be very welcome.

See you on Zoom!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)