The tutoring clincher came in the middle of the evening, when a family of Koreans and I were transferring from one apartment to another in the midst of an enormous high-rise complex in Sasang, one of Busan’s many throbbing hearts, with diaphanous arteries of airplanes and subways and cars and trucks pulsing outward in every direction you could imagine. The dark was deep, the street had no sidewalks, and the cars and motorbikes were flashing all around us.
The family and I passed one of the great entrances to these cement-and-glass monoliths that make up most of the city, and standing before the fluorescent lights of the doors was nothing less than a veritable gaggle of equally fluorescent mothers, the ajummas of Changjin Elementary School, my former employer. Some of them knew me by name, and even called out “Ian Sonsaegnim!” (Ian Teacher, or even better, Ian Sensai) when we passed, and I, taken by surprise, actually said “Hi guys” in English because I didn’t quite know who any of these curled, powdered, cadaverous women were, as it would not be the first time that perfect strangers have known about me from some shenanigan or other. Mine is the life of an F-list celebrity, after all.
Only after the mother of the family I was accompanying explained the situation to me did I turn around and nod to them and say something polite in Korean—at which point we were already some distance away, with the ajummas at our backs, and the wind in our faces, and the darknesses and dangers of the Korean night glaring into our eyes—while the ajummas themselves were also standing in perfect silence, all ten of them, staring cold jealous knives into the marrow of our very spines.
A forgotten American writer named Philip Wiley wrote in his once-famous book, Generation of Vipers, that moms had taken over 1950s America and that their dictates were viewed as unquestioned wisdom by everyone in the country. He called this phenomenon “Momism”, and regardless of whether it was a real issue in America in the past, it is certainly alive and well in South Korea today, where the jealousy of overzealous mothers is essentially the reason that something like forty thousand mostly American foreigners are currently employed as English teachers in Korea rather than as waiters and dishwashers in America. At least that’s what I’d probably be doing if I were stuck back in my home country.
This is also known as “Keeping Up With The Joneses” in English: you see the family next-door sending their kid off to an expensive hagwon (or cram-school) with a native speaker, so your kid has to go as well to have an edge in the vicious job market, or else he’ll never be able to make it as a doctor or a lawyer—the sole means by which a Korean male may be considered to be a success by his peers. A woman, on the other hand, achieves success by dressing nicely, dieting, getting eye and nose surgery, and making her skin as white as humanly possible, so as to seduce a doctor or lawyer into marriage. After marriage her job is to raise the children by forcing them to attend hagwons and also to hang out at cafes with her friends, while her husband works all day and all night all week for several decades. Few people are happy with this arrangement, and few people (except for me) benefit from it; but so long as these moms are jealous ain’t nothin’ gonna change.
So each of those moms staring at us was thinking the exact same thing: Fuck! Now I have to pay for a fucking tutor? Jesus Christ! Every last one of their lower jaws was lying on the pavement, cracked open like a chicken egg, because it’s not enough that these kids while away their lives jamming random English phrases into their minds with foreigners who can’t speak Korean and Koreans who can’t speak English: now they have to get tutored as well! God damn!
Momism, or more appropriately, Ajummaism, Ajummism (a beautiful neologism if I may say so myself) is a serious social issue in Korea, it drains billions of dollars out of the economy every year, it deprives children of their childhood, it fosters a culture of philistinism which looks on learning as the most onerous of tasks, rather than the most pleasant, where people spend their whole lives studying god knows what but can’t form a single coherent thought about their favorite movie—and although I believe the idea that children must always be studying is morally suspect and possibly abusive, and I am not sure just exactly how much helpful an hour of tutoring a week is for a child’s language skills, I’m still happy to work for them, because it’s all I got. I can work for the same wage as a lawyer here in Korea or I can slave my nights away at a call center in America—which would you choose?
So, what services do I provide?
At this point, with this delightful pair of families in Sasang, whose company I greatly enjoy, the hour I spend with one group of kids essentially goes like this: I bring a lesson and I try to converse and play games with the kids while these same kids are themselves so excited that they use this very expensive time to punch each other, yell at each other, steal each other’s pencils, yell random questions at me all together, growing bored and disaffected if I don’t answer each of their questions at once, etc., etc., while my lessons generally fall apart within forty minutes, at which point I am essentially yelling at them to stop hitting each other and to focus, over and over again.
I’ve been doing this for two or three months now, once a week, and I am not really sure it is helping these kids, although one-on-one tutoring is a whole different matter. The parents can hear what’s going on from another room, we’ve told them that their kids need to chill out, and they don’t seem to really care. It’s not that different from working at a public school. These just pay a lot more for me and treat me like a member of their family, rather than a child molester, which is generally how the Korean media views the English teachers who work for the government here.
Strangely enough, trying to reign in three out-of-control Korean children in their own home is just as difficult as trying to reign in thirty out-of-control Korean children in their English classroom, which is to say it is completely impossible.
Regardless of all these difficulties, English tutoring is still a kind of red gold here in Korea—not gold gold, not black gold, but red gold, red from the kimchi (of course!), and red from the lucrative jealousy of droves and droves of ajummistic ajummas, each knocking down my door, desperate to shove fistfuls of cash down my throat.