By Kellyn Gross
An Open Letter to My Hosts at Jiam:
Annyeong haseyo. Hello. My name is Kellyn. I visited your community last month along with other expats as part of the ISC media team. Shin Yong Cheol, your family welcomed us into its home and to volunteer on the small farm that you started with the lily grower, Hyeong Taek Bae—who has a wonderfully mischievous smile and an infectious laugh. Your wives fed us like royalty, and I slept on a warm ondol floor next to your gracious wife and only infant son. He woke us at times with his cries of hunger, as babies are inclined to do. But no matter. Being privy to your intimate lives was educational. It was humbling.
Not many personal stories were shared during that weekend, for which I understand. Farming is your business, and we had a language barrier. You utilized our free labor as much as possible because anything helps the bottom line in your precarious line of work. Conducting interviews about the socioeconomic aspects of Korean farming seemed rather unfitting given that we needed to meticulously plant 20, then 21, then 23 rows of bok choi starts in your greenhouse. Growing crops is difficult and often unrewarding work. You don’t need an interview to determine that, but to discover it firsthand.
Nonetheless, I was fine to end planting that first day and join you all for a homemade dak galbi dinner. The Korean Peasants League leaders gave encouraging introductions, and the farmers’ words were eloquent even before the soju started flowing. I was reminded not to romanticize the plight of Korean farmers, as much as just see you for who you are: mothers and fathers; daughters and sons; sisters and brothers; wives, husbands and friends trying your best to put food on the table and enjoy life’s simple beauty.
Connection and simplicity was what I needed at that time. I’d like to share why.
I was irritable that Sunday evening following our farm visit because I was hungry and tired from lack of sleep and a hangover. But my irritability was quickly replaced with anger due to my job. I arrived at my middle school on Monday as I usually do, sleepy but ready to seize the day. My students are challenging, so I must rely on sheer moxie to engage them. Yet even more than usual, my students were unmoved. My generally helpful co-teacher was even apathetic, and my schedule was changed without notice. As the week progressed, my work difficulties multiplied at my elementary and high schools as well. Two days of canceled classes for Sports Day were reinstated, so I had to teach classes on a whim with no co-teachers. Three open classes were sprung on me, and I had to produce one open-class lesson plan in short order. Subsequently, I couldn’t keep up with any of my district-coordinator duties or my articles for the ISC media team.
People’s attitudes and these unforeseen changes made my work week maddening, but the real reason for my anger was what was implicit in these situations. I was angry because for you and the old women working on your farms, you might not have had the choice to do such manual labor. Living through the 1930s or the 1970s as children, you might not have had the choice to do anything else as adults given your backgrounds. And I don’t doubt that you have seen and lived through some incredibly challenging ordeals as farmers. Incredibly. Yet you continue to tend your crops at sunrise each and every day in order to feed your family members and put a roof over their heads.
On the contrary, I had the disheartening experience to stand in front of a classroom of middle schoolers who were born in the 1990s and are oblivious to the choices they do have over their futures. They have choices, and yet they are more concerned with k-pop and cellphone games then being engaged in their learning or their society–complaining to me about being tired from staying up too late watching TV dramas. Tired, I thought. Try standing in a greenhouse for up to 10 hours a day as an 82-year-old.
Even when I broached the subject of our farm visit and the implications of rice imports flooding into Korea in 2014, my co-teacher was uneasy and wouldn’t interpret for my students. It was too much for me in light of visiting you, and it reinforced what I have always struggled with during my time here—and what I will struggle with when I return to the USA: social inequality.
Teachers I work with in public schools are far removed from the daily lives of farmers, even if we largely commute to work in rural areas. Some colleagues grew up poor on farms themselves, and yet they tell me that they don’t concern themselves with agricultural issues. For my middle school students living in an insular ski-resort town, they are ignorant and ambivalent about the social and economic sacrifices generations have made before and for them. Complacency is what is taught, so it seems, because their very educators are complacent.
Because most of my coworkers became teachers not to inspire, but to be hired into a profession that is both lucrative and secure. And in the past almost three years of my living in Gangwondo–my working with 13 different Korean English teachers–I have only stepped into a co-teacher’s home on three occasions. We hadn’t known you, Mr. Shin, more than five minutes when you opened your home to us and fed everyone lavishly for two days. Again, I’m humbled by that experience. The generosity of you and your friends reinforced my belief that farmers and the working class are the backbone, conscience, hope and lifeblood of society.
This is not without my own dilemma and feeling of shame.
When I was dipping each and every bok choi seedling into the cold water tubs in preparation for planting, Mr. Hyeong said to me: How much money do you make? I think you make more money than us farmers. You are rich in Korea. My answer was probably unsatisfactory, Mr. Hyeong, but I tried.
You see, I’ve been asked this question too numerous to count in Korea. Each time I feel ashamed, but I can’t deny a response. I’m answering truthfully when I say that I make about 2.3 million won each month after taxes. Wealth eludes me in the scheme of things, but it’s a fact. My salary here is higher as a foreigner than the average monthly income of 1.5 million won for Koreans. This privilege is a consequence of my being an American English-speaker. And I can’t really complain when said privilege affords me far more opportunities than most in the world.
Yet, I’m human. I hurt as a teacher when I’m unsuccessful in the classroom. I hurt when I can’t relate to my coworkers because of differing values. I hurt when I witness inequality because I’m so intrinsically a part of it. My intention was to make some cash, travel and teach in Korea. I also wanted a cultural exchange, and to do right by my host country while enjoying a sojourn. But it hasn’t always been what I expected, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.
Nonetheless, meeting people like you in Jiam keeps me sane in Korea. People like you give me hope and courage to do better by myself and by others. And in the case of the lily farmer, Hyeong Taek Bae, people like you give me flowers. And they blossom long after our time together, reminding me of the dignity of life and the value of hard work. Kamsahamnida. Thank you.