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LETTER FROM PUSAN: THE PARTY'S OVER | PAGE 1, 2
The early '90s was a unique time for young Americans looking to live overseas. Historically, American expatriate life -- while glamorized by notions of Hemingway in Paris or Kerouac in Mexico -- has consisted of upper-class Americans visiting foreign lands for study or international business and working-class Americans seeing the world as soldiers and sailors. But in the late '80s and early '90s the dawning of globalization and the rapid economic success of East Asian countries created a new niche for young Americans looking to live and work abroad as English teachers. Unlike missionary or Peace Corps endeavors of past years, these were not volunteer positions: These were well-paid jobs. Inspired by the promise of overseas living, cultural adventure and wages better than most entry-level jobs in the United States, thousands of young Americans set off for Japan, Taiwan or Korea after graduating from college.
Of these three countries, Korea had the most lenient hiring policies, and saw an unprecedented boom in foreign English teachers from 1993 to 1997. In the span of just a few years, Korean cities like Pusan went from hosting isolated, self-sufficient populations of American soldiers, missionaries and businessmen to supporting thousands of young, semi-qualified expatriate journeymen who worked and lived among the general population.
Considering its history of isolation, it's a wonder Korea embraced globalization so quickly. But then, Korea's social and economic progress in the last 50 years has been a wonder in itself, with the country having transformed itself from a war-ravaged peasant culture to the 11th largest economy in the world in one generation. By the mid-'90s, Korea was a strange mix of cellular phones, squattie-potties, luxury cars, semi-permanent architecture, urban bustle, environmental blight and a newly empowered middle class.
A main distinction of this Korean middle class from its American counterpart was its obsession with education. Ever since the days of the Chosun Dynasty 500 years ago, Korean society has functioned as a loose Confucian meritocracy, where advancement at various levels of society has been based on standardized examinations. And while this system has effectively turned bribery into a cottage industry in Korea, it has also instilled Koreans with an almost fearful respect for education. Learning is seen as the only dependable method of getting ahead in the world.
Private extracurricular study institutes, called hagwon, started to import large numbers of native-speaker English teachers after the 1988 Seoul Olympics. As the spending power and social competitiveness of the Korean middle class grew, so did the demand for these foreign teachers. American English lessons became so fashionable among Korean parents in the early 1990s that native-speaker hagwons became a virtually unregulated entrepreneurial gold mine. Businessmen with no educational background rented classroom space, printed advertisements, imported Americans and made money hand-over-fist. It seemed too good to be true.
Correspondingly, want ads were appearing in the classified sections of major American newspapers, promising one-way airfare to Korea and highly competitive wages for any American with a native understanding of English, a college degree and a pulse. To many, this also seemed too good to be true.
The golden age of middle-class expatriatism in Korea was under way.
During these boom years, few Americans came to Korea to find themselves or even to lose themselves. Most of them come to make money or buy time.
I first considered the possibility of expatriate life in Korea when my friend H-Man moved to Chonju City in 1994 and started sending me postcards about hunting mutant chihuahuas in the sewers of Seoul, teaching De Sade's "120 Days of Sodom" to classes full of Korean housewives and watching "Die Hard" while drinking peach liqueur with Buddhist monks. I didn't believe a word of it, of course, but I appreciated the idea that -- if he wasn't finding himself -- he was at least reinventing himself. Life overseas suddenly seemed more appealing to me than graduate school, and -- after a couple years of post-college traveling left me penniless -- I decided to go to Korea myself.
By the time I arrived in 1996, upwards of 10,000 Americans and Canadians were teaching in Korea on one-year E-2 visas, and more were coming every day. Of these new expatriates, an embarrassingly small number of them had teaching experience, TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification or even a genuine interest in Korean culture. Most of them were middle-class Americans with lots of wanderlust, useless liberal arts degrees and a keen desire to make fast money to pay off student loans or fund international travel. Perhaps at no time in history had so many young Americans been making so much money in a foreign country with absolutely no grasp of the native language or customs.
Add to this the fact that many Korean hagwon bosses were charlatans out to make a quick buck, and the problem became obvious. The untrained recent college grads who naively assumed they would be treated by Western standards of workplace fairness were suddenly forced to supervise elementary-aged children at 6 in the morning with no planned curriculum, to live in unheated shoe-box apartments and to play hardball every month when it came time to negotiate overtime pay. Scores of neophytes flew back home or bugged out on hasty tours of Southeast Asia after just a few weeks of working in Korea.
However, those Americans and Canadians who chose to stay created a vibrant Korean subcommunity. Perhaps to escape the rigors and idiosyncrasies of work, teacher expatriates in Pusan formed poetry circles, blues jams, rock-climbing clubs, underground newspapers, art exhibitions, basement raves and Web sites. On a given weekend, a bored American could attend a Bible study or a homosexual support meeting, hang out with Russian sailors at a downtown disco, work with Korean children at a suburban orphanage, ride with a motorcycle club or go for a polar bear swim in the Strait of Korea. Pusan's expat cow-punk band recorded a tape and toured Taegu and Seoul, and a local world-beat band consisting of Americans, Canadians and Koreans made so much money playing college festivals and department store promotions that they were investigated by immigration for work-visa violations. The streets of Pusan began to look downright cosmopolitan. Even the traditionally hooker-infested go-go bars adjacent to the U.S. military base began to resemble Aurora, Ill., dance clubs on Saturday nights.
At the height of the Pusan expat scene, I lived in a huge house at the foot of Kumjang Mountain with seven other foreigners. We all worked long schedules and tutored privately well into the evening, but nearly every night we would find time to sit on the upstairs balcony to drink beers together. It was an oddly satisfying experience. Someone had a Benny Goodman tape, and we never tired of listening to the tinny old music as we looked out at the lights of the city. None of us knew the first thing about 1930s swing, but it sounded curious, alien and exciting, like transmissions from outer space.
At least once a month, my housemates and I would throw all-night theme parties that would attract upwards of 50 people -- Koreans and expats alike. Our crowning achievement was a St. Patrick's Day bash that featured what could have been the only Korean bagpiper on the Pacific Rim. He only knew three songs, but nobody seemed to mind the repetition. Needless to say, our neighbors despised us.
In the same way that 1920s American expatriate life in Paris exuded a grim revolutionary spirit of reaction to the world, 1990s American expatriate life in Pusan took on a casual party spirit of distraction from the world.
It's too bad it couldn't last.
When the Korean economy crashed and the won devalued by half last December, Korea's expat teachers quietly began to leave. In droves.
These days, what the Pusan expatriate community lacks in usable garbage it makes up for in available jobs. So many Americans and Canadians have skipped town that university English teaching positions -- once highly competitive and sought-after as a stable alternative to hagwon work -- sometimes go unfilled. Though I have no more than a bachelor's degree, I easily found a job at a respected technical college earlier this year. After six months, I am now the ranking foreign teacher, and I have my own office and a four-day work week. Two years ago, my salary would have translated into $40,000. This year, I'll be lucky to clear $20,000.
Those hagwons that didn't crash with the economy and can still attract American teachers pay about $9,000 a year. And while $9,000 is certainly more than a language teacher could earn in Vietnam or Bulgaria, it doesn't put much of a dent in a college loan after living expenses have been subtracted. Consequently, Pusan's influx of young Americans has slowed to a trickle. A year ago there were so many Westerners here that we ignored each other on the street; these days I go weeks without seeing a new American face.
This sudden demographic change has made me more independent, more Korean. Sometimes at night I walk the streets of Pusan's Onchonjang district, near my new apartment. Three hundred fifty years ago, this area was the national center for trade with Japan; the fish market there has been in continuous operation since before the United States existed. These days, Onchonjang is a haunt for low-rent gangsters who cater to -- and prey on -- middle-aged people. The whole neighborhood is full of neon-swathed nightclubs where groups of Korean businessmen can drink premium whiskey, sing karaoke songs and grope high school-age "hostesses." Now that the expat exodus has reverted me into a novelty to these businessmen, they sometimes approach me and invite me to join them in the hostess clubs.
Sometimes I accept. And while the experience of having mini-skirted 17-year-olds shove chunks of pineapple into my mouth makes for interesting journal entries and my karaoke rendering of "Hound Dog" has evolved into a show-stopper, I nonetheless miss the insouciant energy of the old expat crowd.
No doubt as the English language grows in international popularity
and once-poor countries gain the economic clout to flash money at
adventuresome American college grads, that old expat crowd will resurface
elsewhere -- but I can't shake the wistfulness of knowing that Korea's moment is already gone.
Rolf Potts last wrote for Wanderlust about Las Vegas.