Signal 8 Press, 2011
I arrived in Seoul, South Korea, in early January, 1976, half a year after graduating from college. To say that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into would be an enormous understatement. But, to a large degree, that was the point. I had joined the Peace Corps—taking a leave from the graduate school program that was, at best, a feeble attempt to forestall real life. Like most Peace Corps Volunteers, I had mixed motives in signing up: I wanted to help people, sure; but I also wanted an adventure. I also didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was buying time.
So we landed on a frigid morning, a group of twenty-five or so volunteers destined to work in “Higher Education English,” meaning that we would be teaching English as a Second Language to college students, most of whom were enrolled in English Education programs in their universities and colleges. Like my fellow volunteers, I knew no Korean, knew little about Korea, and had no teaching experience. Peace Corps remedied that with two months of intensive training—a full morning of Korean language studies in small groups (not to mention the language learning that occurred in the family homes that hosted us), and afternoons of lessons in both Korean culture and history and the rudiments of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). By the end of training, we were ready to head to our duty stations, in my case a provincial capital a hundred miles or so south of Seoul, into situations where there were no other foreigners and where English-speakers were few.
While the experience was not uniformly positive, those two years of Peace Corps service were extraordinary, and have shaped just about everything I have done since. They taught me about poverty, since Korea in the ´70s was still a very poor country. They taught me to cope with hardship. They also instilled me with an indelible fondness for Korea, and in the 35 years since I completed my service I have been back many times for business and pleasure, including a wonderful trip earlier this year with other former Peace Corps Volunteers.
So I was pleased when the opportunity came up recently to review Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea by an American English teacher in Korea. I relished the chance to share another American’s experience in Korea, updated by three decades. And for the most part I wasn’t disappointed. The writing is excellent, and the conversational tone is just right for this sort of memoir/travelogue. Plus, author Chris Tharp, as far as I can tell, gets the important stuff right—his digressions into Korean culture and history, his comments on contemporary politics and society, even his understanding of the Korean view of their country’s place in the world today, seem to me to be spot on, and are probably enlightening to readers who don’t know the country. It’s a fun read.
If there is disappointment here, it stems from the author’s limited experience in the country. Yes, he’s lived there six years, but he seems to have spent it almost entirely in Pusan (hanging out with other expats), with only brief forays into the surrounding countryside. His time spent with Koreans outside of the classroom seems to be confined to drinking sessions (or over-drinking sessions), which he seems to believe is the national pastime, and a succession of girlfriends. And there are omissions that I think might have presented a more complete picture of life in the Land of Morning Calm. Tharp says he doesn’t like visiting Buddhist Temples, but Buddhism has had an important impact on Korea, as have both animist religions and Christianity, both mentioned only in passing. Tharp addresses anti-Americanism but doesn’t discuss the role that the stationing of 30,000 American troops (42,000 when I lived there) on the peninsula has played in that sentiment. (In fairness, he does mention one incident involving an American soldier that inflamed public opinion, but the tensions run much deeper.) And while Tharp does talk about some regional rivalries in Korea, he doesn’t mention that these rivalries have their roots in the warring kingdoms that arose two thousand years ago, which also helps to put the separation of North and South Korea in context.
Tharp is part of what we might call the Anti-Peace Corps, the cadre of young native-English speakers drawn from all over the world who have descended on Korea to fill the demand for English teachers. In the ´70s, the Peace Corps met some of that demand at very little cost to the Koreans. But the Peace Corps left Korea in the ´80s—after the country reached middle-income status—and now the country can afford to hire people to come teach. Unlike Peace Corps Volunteers, these teachers generally receive no training—not in teaching techniques, not in Korean culture, and not in Korean language. With little preparation in cultural sensitivity, it is no surprise when these foreigners clash with their hosts, such as the numerous incidents Tharp recounts in Dispatches.
But I don’t mean to be overly harsh, and I readily admit that some of my criticism is the result of my nostalgia for a Korea that is these days hard to find. In fact, I enjoyed Dispatches very much, and appreciated Tharp’s growth over the period described in the book. In the sections covering his early days in the country, Tharp is condescending toward Koreans (in the tradition of Paul Theroux—a former Peace Corps Volunteer—who never met a local he couldn’t make fun of). But over time, it’s clear that Tharp’s affection for Korea and his understanding of the country have grown, so that in the later sections of the book the self-portrait is of a man who is much more in tune with his surroundings. I also was touched by Tharp’s account of the loss of both his mother and father while living abroad (which closely paralleled the deaths of both of my parents while I lived in Singapore in the ´80s and early ´90s), and the challenges of being so distant from family. I also could relate to Tharp’s experience in other ways, including his love of Korean food and his struggles with the Korean language.
If you’re considering teaching English abroad, of if you’re just interested in what life is like for a foreigner in Korea, read this book.