So last year I moved to a Chinese megacity on a wing, a prayer and two weeks’ notice. My students were between nine and forty-five years old with levels ranging from absolute beginners to professionally competent. I shared a large open-plan office with all the teaching staff of the language school and the view from my window was the toilets of the luxury mall where the school was based. Said mall blasted out ear-splitting pop tracks on a three-song loop between the hours of 8am and 10pm. This year, after an application process lasting four and a half months, ten days of intensive in-country training and industrial quantities of organised fun, I find myself in a tiny mountain town on the border of North and South Korea, about to begin a year teaching at a Foreign Language High School.
So last year I moved to a Chinese megacity on a wing, a prayer and two weeks’ notice. My students were between nine and forty-five years old with levels ranging from absolute beginners to professionally competent. I shared a large open-plan office with all the teaching staff of the language school and the view from my window was the toilets of the luxury mall where the school was based. Said mall blasted out ear-splitting pop tracks on a three-song loop between the hours of 8am and 10pm. This year, after an application process lasting four and a half months, ten days of intensive in-country training and industrial quantities of organised fun, I find myself in a tiny mountain town on the border of North and South Korea, about to begin a year teaching at a Foreign Language High School. I share a small office with a native Chinese and Japanese teacher, and the view from my window encompasses soaring snow-capped peaks, well-tended ancestral tombs and the occasional gently-circling hawk. Silence reigns (well, apart from the window-rattling heavy artillery fire of a morning but as I was cheerfully informed when I received my placement ‘not to worry: they are only practicing’). All things considered, it is safe to say that things this year are a little different.
Most of the experience to this point has felt like a luxury. There is a wealth of information available for foreigners moving to Korea, from whole YouTube channels dedicated to discussion of Korean culture and society, to free language-learning communities with online workbooks, to blogs on what to pack. The in-country training we received was delivered by Korean and English-speaking teachers with a wealth of experience in Korean public shools, and covered pedagogy, Korean culture and society and Korean language. Chinese culture, by contrast, is notoriously inaccessible to outsiders and in some ways this is understandable. In addition to being historically isolationist, its ancient unbroken history and culture were shattered during the Cultural Revolution and a new, capitalist way is being forged which has given rise to a hugely contradictory set of values and beliefs. Members of the generation that were brainwashed to wield the Little Red Book still stroll the streets in their Mao suits, swinging live chickens in plastic carrier bags at the feet of the towering skyscrapers and mall complexes of New China.
In Korea, the wounds of history also remain in a stark and physically obvious way – the DMZ 60km from my new flat runs like a scar across the peninsula. Like their Chinese neighbours in Manchuria, Korea was annexed by Japan, living and suffering under colonial rule for decades with their language, culture and even names taken from them. Also like China, they have a commitment to rebuilding their country: Korea has worked tirelessly since the 1950s to become the technologically-forward, developed nation it is today.
I have been wondering why it is, then, that this culture is so much more accessible than the other. It is not just the physical accessibility of ancient cultural sites and the plethora of artistic and cultural scenes and events (these were few and far between in Sichuan): in Korea, people so far seem to fall over themselves to help you understand and adapt to their culture, providing of course that you show willing to do so. This is essentially nothing more than the old rule of getting out what you put in – respecting the host culture leads to the host culture respecting you. In China, however, I felt that this just did not work. Many people were dismissive of my attempts at Chinese (a terrifying number had been taught at school that it is actually impossible for foreigners to learn it) and although people seemed keen to talk about the fact that China had 5000 years of history and culture, they were much less keen to go into any kind of detail about what this actually entailed, seeming bemused at my interest or even offended.
My initial thoughts are these: for Koreans, the narrative of development is a linear one: a little like the narrative of the French occupation, the invader took away their culture; killed and oppressed their people. Collaborators were punished in the aftermath, and the nation pulled together to assert its independence and autonomy. The destruction of Chinese culture and the deaths of 30 million in Mao’s Great Famine alone, however, were visited upon its people by their own leader: a leader who remains deified to this day, his body enbalmed in Tiannanmen Square; his statue towering over the centre of every town and city. The same old men and women swinging chickens in the newly-developed streets likely formed part of the Red Guards. It is comparable to a statue of Hitler remaining in every German town; elderly ex-members of the Hitler Youth quietly playing bowls in its shadow.
We are all taught a skewed version of history: rarely do British children study the oppression perpetrated by our people in the former colonies, few would be aware that the same war we call WWII is known to the Chinese as the War of Resistance against Japan, and there have been multiple works published on the myth of the French Resistance. The extent to which Chinese history as taught in Chinese school is not merely skewed but utterly fabricated is mind-blowing, however. One of the hardest moments of my time there came when a student pulled me aside and asked in hushed tones if it was true that Mao was responsible for the famine, as he could not believe that it had been caused simply by the weather. Whilst Korean history remains one of resistance to and victory over external oppression, China’s history of oppression stems from within itself. Its effects on the people caught up in decades of horror remain unaddressed and unreconciled.
Little wonder, then, that it was so difficult to get under the skin of Chinese culture, when it is so unclear what ‘Chinese culture’ really means today, and when it is frankly unsafe for Chinese people to discuss recent history which might make this more clear, especially with a foreigner. Although I am currently basking in the relative ease of the cultural transition to Korea, I am certain that as I spend more time here my views will shift and change and – particularly in my current location so close to the border – I will gain a deeper understanding of the effects of recent history and of the effect the division of the country still has on the population. Initially, however, my thoughts have been directed much towards the contrast between my Chinese life and my new one here in Korea; to the friends I left behind in Sichuan, and the struggles they face in rebuilding their country in such a difficult and painful context.