There Goes English Teacher – a memoir, by Karin Cronje (Modjaji Books)
Anecdotally it would seem that hundreds of young South Africans have gone to South-east Asia to teach English. The money is good, prices are cheap, and the social life with South Africans and other expatriates is fun.
Karin Cronje did it too, but she was 49, she went to a small village in South Korea where virtually no one spoke English – her Korean was non-existent – and there were few expatriates with whom to bond socially.
As for making friends with Koreans, that was a pretty hopeless task. “It’s just too foreign. The society is fundamentally different from the way we are. They won’t let you in, you will forever be this outsider to whom they are mostly very polite, and that’s it.”
Cronje had planned to stay in Korea until what she calls her decrepitude, building up her pension, saving money to put her son through his architecture degree and also raising money for her former domestic worker’s pension. “I was going to make loads of money and spend a substantial chunk of my life there, like 15 years or so.”
She discovered that while the money was good for young people who had just finished their studies and needed to pay off loans, it wasn’t really enough for a woman entering her 50s who had more extensive goals.
In fact she stayed for just two years, returning to South Africa in time for the publication of her second Afrikaans novel Alles mooi weer.
“There’s a line in English Teacher that says you have to go home before home isn’t home any more. I saw expatriates in Korea who had completely lost touch, with home and with themselves. They never settle there properly, and they become floaters. One woman who had been in Korea for five years summed up the danger – she said she was not at home in her own country any more, and she was certainly not at home in Korea.”
One of the aims Cronje wanted to achieve in Korea was to rewrite Alles mooi weer, whose protagonist, Hilette, was so obnoxious even Cronje couldn’t stand her.
“It’s one thing to have an anti-hero – I enjoy anti-heroes more than beautiful heroes – but I had such a deep hatred for Hilette. Every negative feeling I had about myself and my culture I projected on to Hilette, and I thought going away would help me change the tone of that woman. In that sense Korea was a success story because I started to have some empathy with her – I must have been feeling more at ease with aspects of myself.”
And the book, when it appeared, was critically acclaimed, winning the Jan Rabie / Rapport prize.
There were, says Cronje, beautiful moments in Korea. She became close to Dae-ho who taught meditation and with whom she connected on a spiritual level: “Without that man, that gentle man, I don’t know how I would have survived.” She also made a couple of Korean friends.
But the work wasn’t satisfactory. Her first job was at a private after-care centre for children whose parents were paying a premium for them to learn English, and the children would be there till all hours of the night after a full day at government schools. There was far too much emphasis on rote learning and ticking off boxes, and too little on really learning to speak English.
Her second job was at university which was better, but a she was unnerved by what she calls the cesspool of gossip among the expats. As a result of trying not to stand out like a sore thumb among the tiny and reserved Koreans, and not getting involved in expat politics, Cronje increasingly isolated herself and shut herself down.
She returned home to Cape Town and had to find somewhere to live as she had tenants in her Newlands home. Then followed an unsettling period staying with various friends, trying to find her scattered boxes, and coping with some of the dodgy friends her son Marko had made in her absence.
She had changed, but her friends hadn’t and relationships suffered. She worried about money, about getting older, about her relationship with Marko, and whether she would ever have sex again. One night, while staying in her friend Dorrian’s cottage, she had a meltdown. Her description sounds like a nervous breakdown but Cronje says no, it was a breakthrough.
“There had been the two years in Korea where I had to be silent and make myself small. Then back here people messed me over while I was trying to fit in and not connecting, making me not me, and on top of all that being exhausted. And then that night in Dorrian’s cottage I thought, f*** that! I found my voice again. That’s what broke through.”
After years of staying in other’s people’s houses, renting here and there, today Cronje lives in a light, bright house she has bought in Simon’s Town with sweeping views of False Bay. Marko is married to a wonderful woman and Cronje now has two small grandchildren. Life is looking good.
There Goes English Teacher is both highly readable and brave. Not many of us would lay ourselves open the way Cronje has. But she has no regrets.
“I was happy to reveal the Korean experiences, even though I was writing about personal and intimate things. But the stuff I wrote about life after coming back – that gave me sleepless nights.
“However, the worst thing that can happen for me is self-censorship. If I start censoring myself then I don’t want to live any more. I expect the world to do that, but bloody hell, if I start doing that to myself, it’s like cutting out my tongue.”
- This review/interview also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday January 27 2019.