Slinging English in Korea

Mark Sampson’s novel lays bare the high life of Canadian ESL teachers abroad

In 2003, Mark Sampson joined the flood of English as a second language teachers flocking to Asia for employment. Korea has been a particular draw for ESL teachers, renowned for generous contracts and a high quality of life. Peaking at about 22,000 foreign teachers there in 2011 with a slight decline since, the trend has seen Canadians, Americans, Australians, Brits, New Zealanders, Irish and South Africans snapping up E2 working visas and year-long contracts teaching English to students young and old, in public and private schools as well as after-hours language academies (hagwons) and universities and giving private lessons. The teachers are often young and jobless back home, although some are older people in search of a change.

Sad Peninsula, Sampson’s second novel, after Off Book, draws on the author’s three years in Seoul to paint a fabulously rich picture of expat life revealing what Facebook posts and email from your sons and daughters abroad might not. Sampson’s Seoul will be instantly recognizable to many expats, whether they had participated in the hedonistic throb of Itaewon, Hongdae or any one of a dozen bar districts across the country, or just saw their colleagues limp into work after nights filled with cheap drinks and drama.

Sad Peninsula tells two stories in alternating chapters, one in the present, another set in the past. The first is about Michael Barrett, a 30-year-old Canadian ex-journalist who arrives in Seoul in 2003, a refugee from personal and professional failure in Halifax. Over three years, he transforms from a naive Canadian and failed adult into a savvy, confident and driven man. Interwoven with his story is that of Eun-young, a teenaged girl under Japanese occupation in the 1930s; we learn of her abduction as a “comfort woman” in Manchuria and the shame she experienced upon her return to Korea. Michael and Eun-young’s stories converge through Jin, girlfriend to the former and grand-niece to the latter.

In telling Michael’s story, Sampson’s characterization of expat culture is incisive. Thousands of foreigners “[sling] English like hamburgers,” often impelled by “shut doors and embarrassing tragedies” back home but mostly drawn by easy jobs requiring not much more than a university degree, the right passport and a pulse. Many do not know how to teach. Few ever bother to learn any Korean. They revel in a playground of privilege: held to low professional standards, they find themselves in a society whose tolerance of alcohol is a frat boy’s dream. Even more important to the male, white, heterosexual majority of teachers, they are suddenly rich in sexual capital because of their race and language.

Expat circles are highly codified, providing initiations, strategies and stereotypes for coping with life in a foreign country. Michael hears expats make ignorant pronouncements about Korea and how to handle Korean people. He feels himself “adopted” by his co-workers and, later, finds himself teaching a new roommate the ropes: “[getting] immigration papers stamped, explaining how the subway works … how to order his dinner from the front-counter staff at the school.” But Sampson does not flinch from showcasing the racism and misogyny also prevalent among the expats. Some of them go to play Scrabble in mall food courts for no other reason than to flaunt their fluency in English to bewildered passers-by; they see the vast majority of Korean females as faceless, drunken girls (never as women).

Michael finds himself through Jin, a young woman he meets in a club. They flirt over literary tastes, and Jin offers to show him “the real Korea,” thus beginning Michael’s courtship of her and of Korea beyond the expat fishbowl. Jin is a fascinating character who undergoes her own transformation. Fluent in English and French, versed in Kundera and other western authors, lively, attractive yet reserved in her sexuality (unlike the nameless women in clubs whom the expats alternately pursue and slut-shame), Jin is very much Michael’s kind of Korean. There is some irony in her role as Michael’s Virgil given her ambivalence toward Korea and her own Korean-ness and yet, as the novel progresses, she seems to become born again into her culture at the expense of her relationship with Michael.

Ultimately, the key relationship in the book is between Michael and the charismatic and casually racist Canadian, Rob Cruise. In effect, Sad Peninsula is an arena of competing masculinities: Rob champions an exploitative libido and a “bro code” swagger, which the sensitive, introspective Michael is alternately attracted to and repelled by. Rob’s character demonstrates the rhetoric of a widespread ideal of selfish alpha masculinity, and it is to Sampson’s credit that he does not devolve into a caricature.

Michael is initially susceptible to Rob: “he promises to seize my reticence and toss it with delight into Seoul’s great fevered flow. He will teach me to take what I want here.” For Rob, Korea is there for the plunder and his English teaching is cursory. Michael is later repelled by his predatory sexuality (he overhears an apparent sexual assault in the next room) and his disrespect for Korean people and society. Michael’s relationship with Jin is haunted by the knowledge that even she once had a one-night stand with Rob. Michael ultimately triumphs in his competition with Rob: he gets the girl and thrives, while Rob’s money-making schemes come to ruin and he is revealed to have been a sex offender in Canada.

This complex and original novel begins to stumble, however, when Michael discovers that Jin’s great-aunt Eun-young was a comfort woman and he begins to write about her. Michael admits “this is not my story,” but he is nevertheless “determined to lift what [he wants] from these women.” Michael acknowledges that his appropriation of the comfort women’s story is transgressive and inappropriate but never makes an attempt at justification. In fact, he triumphantly adopts the project as a symbol of his success in understanding the “real Korea” and in confronting the cowardice that caused his personal and professional failures in Canada.

The treatment of Eun-young is the greatest weakness in Sad Peninsula. The contrast between the present-day story, with autobiographical undertones, and the story of the historical Other is profoundly disconcerting. Whereas Michael’s tale is rich and nuanced, Eun-young’s comes off as somewhat dry and didactic. Nor is Eun-young’s story given any critical narrative frame. Sampson composes these portions of the novel with the same authority and in the same tone as that of Michael’s story.

Sad Peninsula fails to make a strong case for parallels between Michael’s world and Eun-young’s. Troubled as we may be by the exploitative actions of the expats, these pale in comparison with the wholesale rape and slaughter perpetuated by the Japanese occupation of Korea. The juxtaposition would seem to beg the question of whether or not the globalization and anglicization of Korea bear any similarity to the cultural and military imperialism of the Japanese, but the unevenness of the stories means this does not come through. The second-hand historical narrative distracts from a strong and insightful travelogue.