So what can I say about my new job as an assistant professor at a university in Korea?
I want to steer clear of platitudes, but obviously it’s different from being a student. I was kind of a free spirit at Hampshire College—but certainly far from the freest. I climbed trees, sprinted across open fields of grass, lay in them at night to watch the stars, flapped my wings while riding bikes, photographed absolutely everything, read and edited books under trees, sang, whistled, loafed and talked with anyone who wanted to talk with me, shamelessly people-watched—and did all of this in full view of everyone. It was a great education.
I can’t do any of that now that I’m on the other side of the equation. One of my colleagues gently reminded me that I have to wear formal clothes at this place, which means that my shirt gets untucked if I move the wrong way, and that I am more or less in a constant state of discomfort. When I walk across this campus, which is a fairly forbidding place, being full of strangers who are at least a little curious about me, I cannot dally—I must go straight to wherever I’m going, or I’ll attract even more attention.
It’s also astounding to be working with so many foreigners—although everything and nothing is foreign to me—meaning, Americans (several southerners among them), Canadians, Brits, and one Australian—after an hiatus of two years. I was almost completely submerged in Korea for those two years, and now, to return to the relentless informality of the West, where everyone talks to everyone on a first-name basis, where people are free to swear their heads off and actually, you know, like, disagree; where women and men are not necessarily incredibly awkward when they interact together…it’s astounding, astounding! I can small-talk with people, and I don’t necessarily have to tiptoe around references to sex, drugs, feces, or culture, as I invariably must with the Koreans I worked with before—although the students are always a different matter.
So it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s also frightening because I feel, for the first time in this country, that I actually have to try to do a good job—that experienced, professional people are keeping an eye on me, whereas before in the public school in Sasang I was a monkey and a circus clown no matter what I did. Here, also, at this college the teachers are generally interested in imparting their knowledge of English to the students, while I think in public school everyone just wants to get the hell out as soon as possible. It’s unfortunate that so many people are being taught for their whole lives by teachers who just want to get the whole thing over with.
The students. The greatest thing is that if I turn my back I don’t have to worry that they’re going to start sticking their fingers up each other’s asses. I seriously could not turn my back on any of them, not for an instant, in public school. Korean college students aren’t afraid to yawn right in your face, and they also have a nasty habit of coughing without covering their mouths (an endemic problem in disease-prone Korea), but they do observe certain rules of etiquette—they always, always receive papers from you with two hands, which is a sign of respect and politeness that is meaningless in America but rather important here—so important that I’m definitely offended if someone doesn’t use both of their hands when they give something to me or take something away. This is what happens when you live in a weird foreign culture for so long.
Some of them also have pretensions to intellectualism, which is incredibly refreshing. I had concluded after numerous fruitless attempts to ask people about subjects beyond the pale of TV dramas and KPOP music videos that Koreans Just Aren’t All That Curious About Stuff, and after a fancy ethnological conversation on skype with one of my American friends my wife told me that Koreans never talk the way Westerners sometimes do—confirming at least one racist supposition—because people here are obsessed with their social status relative to one another (speaking from the viewpoint of American culture), which means that the questioning and debating and arguing that are necessary for having an actual in-depth discussion about history or books or movies or whatever just never happens.
But sometimes it does happen with my students. If they’re not with other Koreans.