We had a chat with David Wills, one of our more ascerbic writers on life in Korea, how English teachers get screwed and why he decided to write a novel, the Dog Farm, about this experiences there.
RJ: From some of your previous articles on South Korea, it’s fair to deduce you’re not exactly crazy about the place – so why did you stay so long?
David: I wasn’t particularly fond of Korea, but it’s easy to get comfortable there. I moved to Daegu in April 2008, just before the world economy went to shit, and even before that happened I wasn’t liable to get a decent job back in Scotland. Even now, the people I went to university with – talented, motivated, intelligent – are working in bars and shops. In Korea I was getting big paycheques to do an easy job. All I had to put up with was the rudeness of people whenever I left my house.
Of course, I considered leaving and going somewhere like China (where I currently live; I absolutely adore China) but after six months in Korea I met my wife. Our contracts were staggered by six months and could only be increased twelve months at a time. After the first year I actually switched to a much better job and life became a lot easier. We ended up staying there about three and a half years before making our escape.
RJ: How would you sum up Korean culture now that you’ve grown older and wiser?
David: If you’re on the inside, you’re taken care of. I guess that’s pretty important. The country has developed fast but they still have a lot of old traditions that have kept their significance. Like pretending to respect your elders.
Honestly, I have a lot of criticism for Korea, but I went there in search of a new, different culture, and although it’s hard for a foreigner to ever truly come to understand it, I did get to glimpse a lot of beautiful and fascinating elements of life there. I love the things like using two hands to show respect.
RJ: Do English teachers really get screwed so often by Korean language schools? How?
David: There are some great schools in Korea, but the bad ones are so nightmarish that they get most of the attention. In my first year, I don’t recall ever hearing people talk about how lucky they were, or how much they liked or respected their co-workers. In fact, all through my time there I’d say that the majority of my friends hated their jobs.
My first school was one of the worst. The recruiter lied about my hours and responsibilities, although that’s standard practice. The director was a monster. He beat the students with a stick, and treated the teachers pretty badly, too. We worked ridiculous hours and never got over time, and had all these fees taken from our paycheques. One of those fees was for health insurance, and one day I ended up in hospital and screwed for a three thousands US dollar bill because it turned out the director had been keeping my fucking money! Anyway, when I left that school I posted that story on the internet… and a few months later he sued me for libel.
But it’s not all bad and it would be unfair to suggest that there are only bad schools, even if they are in the majority. My second school (a job I found by word of mouth) was fantastic. The boss was very understanding and the hours were reasonable.
RJ: Can a foreigner ever really fit into Korea and be accepted?
David: No, not really. You can find your place there, but you will always be a foreigner unless you look Korean. They have a strong idea of Koreanness, and an equally strong notion of Otherness, and it all comes down to appearance. That’s one of the worst elements of life there: it’s very superficial. I had a lot of friends who were Korean-American and had come back to Korea after years of being told: ‘You’re part Korean, part American,’ by their adoptive families. Of course, back in Korea it turns out that unless they look Korean, they’re just plain American. A lot of these people had been put up for adoption because they had a GI for a father, and they wouldn’t have been accepted as a half-black or half-white baby.
If you can speak Korean and you marry a Korean and you have a Korean kid, you will certainly be treated a bit better than the hordes of teachers and soldiers that live there, but you will still be considered an outsider. You will still be expected to play the role of a foreigner, and no matter how many years you live there, you will not be Korean.
That’s pretty hard to get your head around from a Western perspective, and it’s something that made me really bitter about living there.
RJ: Tell us about your novel, the Dog Farm.
David: I knew before I went to Korea that I’d write a novel about it, although I suppose in the beginning I expected it to be a barely fictionalized version of the truth. I wrote notes and little bits and pieces for the first year and a half, but it was only in late 2009 that I sat down one day and started typing out the original version of the book as it currently is. I think the breakthrough came when I stopped trying to write my own story, and started putting together some actual fictional characters.
It then became a process of putting these characters into the sort of stories that you always hear about, and indeed things I had experienced myself. One problem came in choosing what to include. I mean, there are so many little quirks and experiences that are unique to life in Korea that I wanted to include. Somewhere along the line, though, I stopped trying to write about Korea and just focused on the characters. I let them take me through the story, and Korea just became a part of the scenery.
People tend to assume that the book will be more negative or aggressive than it really is, and that’s a fair assumption, given my old blog and some of the articles I’ve published. But the book is not an attack on Korea. Having grown up a bit, I’ve come to realize that we do largely bring our own fate upon ourselves, and I tried to explore that with some of the characters. They waltz into Korea and expect the country to solve all their problems, or play host to this drunken gap year that they have planned, and when they aren’t given the respect they want, they assume it’s racism. Not to let Korea off the hook, or to explain away much of the xenophobia that is rampant there, but probably the main theme of the book is this: that we may blame others for what happens to us, but often it’s our own fault.
You can find David Will’s book, the Dog Farm here on Amazon