Book Review: Korean Teachers Explores Women’s Struggles at a Language School
By Seo Su-jin, translated by Elizabeth Buehler
Fiction/Harriett Press/Hardcover/223 pages/$30.92/Buy here
4 out of 5
As for her debut in fiction, Seo Su-jin – a certified language teacher who has taught at several universities in Seoul – had to look no further than her own experience to find material.
A Korean language school at H University forms the backdrop for the short story, which spans an academic year. Each chapter, divided by seasonal school terms, centers on a female teacher.
Korean Teachers, which won the Hankyoreh Literary Prize in 2020, shines a light on the daily struggles in South Korea through the rather unconventional setting of a language school.
As the Hallyu craze sparked a boom in interest in the Korean language, Seo deromanticizes the country, turning educational institutions into relentless capitalist money-making machines in a microcosm of society as a whole.
The secondary characters are migrant students from all over the world. The rich, like the new Chinese rich, are highly valued for their origin.
Less so are migrant workers from developing countries, who have racked up massive debts to pursue their dreams of working abroad and yet are exploited by their employers.
Class struggles in South Korea were also the subject of the Oscar-winning film Parasite (2019) and the Netflix hit Squid Game (2021).
Korean Teachers is far less dramatic, but is nonetheless an uncomfortable read in which the teachers fall victim to their own personal demons as they struggle to survive.
The teachers – Seon-yi in the spring, Mi-ju in the summer, Ga-eun in the fall and Han-hee in the winter – are treated by the school as cheap replaceable workers paid by the hour.
Seon-yi’s desire for financial stability forces her to remain silent about sexual harassment. Mi-ju, strict with her students for their own good, refuses to give up on her principles even if they cost her a glowing review.
Ga-eun falls in love with a student. Han-hee, who is pregnant, wonders if she will still have a job after giving birth.
Their toxic work environment gives rise to microaggressions and unhealthy competition between teachers.
Befitting the language school setting, there are didactic segments on the quirks of the Korean language, which are expertly translated by Elizabeth Buehler, a PhD student in comparative literature from Harvard University.