Had it been set in an English-speaking country, Seo Su-Jin’s story about Korean language teachers in her home country of South Korea might be considered an addition to the campus novel genre. But in Korean Teachers, Seo’s debut novel translated into English by Elizabeth Buehler, education is portrayed as a service industry—with customer satisfaction as the main objective. While it may well resonate with certain segments of Western academia, it also echoes such other East Asian novels like Convenience Store Woman about everyday people going about their everyday lives.
Seo has structured her book into five parts, each named after a season corresponding to an academic term at the Korean language school where the teachers of the title are employed, including a short, interim term at the end that Seo uses to wrap up the story. We are introduced in the first part, Spring Semester, to Seon-yi, one of the newer Korean teachers at “H University” in Seoul: Seo names the different universities in the city by their first initials. Some of the teachers find it necessary to work at more than one university to earn enough to get by.
Over the years, the language school has seen an increase in Vietnamese students and has tailored classes specifically to these students. These are the ones Seon-yi has been assigned to teach. Other classes are not organized according to nationality, so Japanese, Canadian, and Belarusian students, just to name a few, all learn together. Seen as laborers, the Vietnamese are singled out.
The conversation about creating separate Vietnamese classes first began when it became obvious that several Vietnamese students were walking down the hallway in bare feet. But because the language school’s target students were adults who had graduated from high school, they couldn’t enforce a dress code. Besides, the lecturers were divided on whether students should be instructed to wear shoes during break periods. The problem was reported to the administration office, and instructions were given to call up the offending students after class and talk to them as cautiously as possible. This seemed to solve the problem.
Only it didn’t.
Seon-yi also runs into trouble after some of her students start posting innocuous photos of her on Instagram with hashtags like #KoreanHotGirl, #KoreanTeacher, and #KoreanPrettyGirl. She is mortified. Not sure what to do, she tells some of her coworkers—all women—and they convince her to go to the police before waiting to hear what type of action the university will take. The teachers fear that the administration will not take Seon-yi’s complaints seriously because of the language school’s reliance on revenue from Vietnamese students, its largest growing demographic.
The racism evident in the situation is presented without comment, but seems to parallel the treatment of the teachers themselves, who are forced to chase positive student evaluations from their foreign students.
There was something else that influenced evaluations: students’ nationalities. The European students, particularly those from Germany, didn’t give their teachers nine points unless they absolutely loved them. A good lecturer got eight points, a typical lecturer five or six, and a lecturer who needed more training got three or four points. They were scores that lecturers mustn’t receive. The Chinese students, who made up the majority of the language school’s enrolment, gave their teachers straight tens without even reading the questions, while the Japanese students carefully read each question before deciding how many points to give. It was the right way to fill out the evaluations, but it was infuriating for lecturers who needed at least nine points to keep their jobs.
The teachers themselves are presented as ordinary people with ordinary problems, complete with misunderstandings in human relationships. Ga-eun, the subject of the section on the Autumn Semester, is the teacher who seems most well-liked by her students and regularly receives the highest evaluation scores. Ga-eun is tall and striking like a movie star and takes her students on outings off campus, good graces that can be taken as something more. Mi-ju is an outspoken, tomboyish teacher who has been at the university for almost a decade. She lands in trouble due to a gender confusion with a Belarusian student who complains about her at the end of the Summer term.
The problems faced by non-white English teachers in Asia is mirrored in the Winter Semester section which tells the story of Han-hee, a lecturer-in-charge, who has administrative responsibilities on top of her classes. Han-hee has a foreign boyfriend who is fluent in Korean and had taught Korean language back in the UK, but has a difficult time finding a job in Seoul commensurate with his qualifications because he’s a foreigner.
One needs to be careful in drawing too many conclusions about the actual state of affairs in Korea: this is a novel after all and Seo is currently residing in Australia, not Korea. She wrote her novel during the early months of the pandemic, the deleterious effects of which on language schools, including hers in Australia, informed this seemingly effortless novel.