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In Korea, a Small Show of Courage

15 May 2012 One Comment

David Meth

David Meth
United States/South Korea

“…she left an indelible memory and influenced my writing. I don’t know if she had the same effect on anyone else in the class, but to look at Korea in 2012, it seems that she and women like her must have had a very strong impact on change.”

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Although this story goes back 42 years, it demonstrates how powerful a small act remains for the people who witness it, and how change may come in spite of what one person sees as a failure. I was teaching English as a Second Language at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, in 1972. The class consisted of a dozen or so highly educated, wealthy sons and daughters of the very small, elite upper class of the country. Many of the students attended the top universities of Korea and they were all polishing up their English to go abroad and study or work and, at that time, probably not return. English was more valuable than an airplane ticket out of the dictatorship of President Park Chung Hee because they all had the money. Now they needed the skills and the language. Although Korea is a modern, thriving democracy now with few vestiges of the struggles of the past, where  women are free to pursue their dreams, this story applies to many women in other countries around the world. It has stayed with me since I lived and taught there.

Among the well-dressed students who were chauffeured up the hill to Yonsei University’s private English Language Institute was a young woman who was quiet and unimposing, and who walked to class. Most of the young women were reticent in the presence of boisterous young men who considered themselves in complete control of their lives and everyone else’s. They could all speak English with varying degrees of fluency, so I asked each person to introduce him or herself and tell the class a little about what they were interested in, their hobbies, and what they did and wanted to do in the future. The men did not hesitate and often boasted about their education and their future, sometimes challenging others about which school was the top: Seoul National or Yonsei, or for the women, Ewha or Sookmyung, with a couple of other schools permitted in the ranks below. The women were not as bold, but they stood up for their position in class.

When it came time for the young woman I am writing about to participate, she didn’t seem as if she wanted to speak. I didn’t have to coax her because one of the men did. “Come on. You can tell us,” he said in English. “Where do you go to school?” The women became a bit uneasy, but curious nonetheless. I also became uncomfortable. Another man asked her what she did, as if she had to qualify to be in the same class with them.

I didn’t like they way they challenged her, but now she was compelled to defend herself. In clear, excellent English she said she worked and was not in school. But that wasn’t enough. One of the men asked her accusingly what kind of work she did. The young woman, in a corner, said she was in the “service” business. That was it. The other women looked at her, but remained silent. They did not work. Then men stared. She was confronted again, until I interrupted and thanked her. It was time to move on to the lesson.

Yonsei University. Credit: Nickpettit

The way everyone looked at her implied the definition of what they believed “service” to mean: not just some sort of clerk or working girl, because that would not give her the kind of English she possessed. Essentially, any kind of service is what other Koreans did for them. The look came across them collectively: she must be a prostitute. How else could she speak English so well, if not performing a “service” for Americans?

After class, she came up to me and in perfect English apologized, apparently for being who she was, although it was unclear who she was or what work she actually did. I told her not to pay attention to anything they said because in my class everyone was equal and what she did with English was her business. Of course that was coming from an American, not a Korean, and especially not a Korean woman. What did I know? I never found out what her definition of service was, or anything else about her, because she didn’t return to class. But she left an indelible memory and influenced my writing. I don’t know if she had the same effect on anyone else in the class, but to look at Korea in 2012, it seems that she and women like her must have had a very strong impact on change. Let’s hope her courage, if only for that one moment, spreads to other women around the world.

© 2012, David Meth

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David L. Meth is a novelist and award-winning playwright who writes on multicultural themes about people caught between cultures. His plays have been produced nationally and internationally. His play 9/12 won the 2008 Peace Writing International Award. He also received a 2009 Artistic Fellowship from the State of Connecticut for his play, To The Death of My Own Family. His play, Arty’s Poolroom (formerly The Broken Down Valise), was an O’Neill finalist. His first novel, A Hint of Light, about a half-black, half-Korean boy abandoned to the streets of Seoul, was published in 2010 to 5-star reviews on Amazon. More about him can be viewed on his website.

  The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

 

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One Comments to “In Korea, a Small Show of Courage”
  1. Juanita Havill says:

    Even small incidents of courage accumulate and eventually have an effect on our families, neighborhoods, communities, and countries. Bearing witness is an important act, too. Where is she now, David, this woman who haunts your memory? I wonder if her classmates have thought about her since that day.

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