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!

Update: With many parallels to the issues for Korean teachers raised in the book, the Yonsei’s Korean Language Institute Union is currently in the second year of its dispute with Yonsei University.

Update 2: For the July 28 meeting, we’ve chosen Violets by Kyung-sook Shin (2001, trans. 2022). A separate announcement will be made later, but in the meantime please enjoy these reviews from The Guardian and Books and Bao:

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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)