Heo Hee: I’d like to discuss the issue of Korean education, which I believe is related to the “contemporariness” you often emphasize.
Jeong Yi Hyun: It is. Contemporariness sounds like an objective concept, but its definition really depends on how one sees and understands the contemporary era. I see myself as a single camera capturing this era from my own perspective. Maybe my fiction resembles documentaries. Not that documentaries are completely objective, either. And of course, it is the author’s prerogative to select or edit as they see fit.
Heo: There’s such a fever for education in Korea. It’s not easy being a student here [laughs]. What kind of memories of school do you have?
Jeong: I only have memories of hating school. One thing I’ll never forget is how one evening, as a high school senior in study hall, I looked up and took in the crammed classroom around me and thought, I will write about this someday . . . this desperation . . . I shall bear witness to this world [laughs]. And I did. I wrote about that moment in the preface to Goodbye, My Everything, which is based on teenagers in the 1990s. Any happiness I had back then was from outside that system: time and space outside of class, extracurriculars, playing hooky. I went to high school in the late 1980s, and we were the first “KTU (Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union) Generation.” Young teachers taught progressive values that clashed with the content in our textbooks. It was unsettling, and I didn’t know how to deal with that as a student. For example, the poetry in our literature textbook was only about how beautiful the world was, while our KTU teachers introduced us to minjung poetry (peoples’ poetry). It was in that clash between worlds where I first thought to seek new questions and answers. I’m currently serializing a YA novel featuring high school students in 2017. I had certain questions: Is “study hall” still the glorified incarceration that it was? That kind of stuff. Turns out, it still is. I graduated from high school about twenty years ago, but many things are surprisingly the same. I didn’t need to do a lot of research. That frightens me.
Heo: In your debut work “Romantic Love and Society” and earlier works “Girls’ Generation” and “Sampoong Department Store,” the district of Gangnam figures prominently. Korea’s resources are heavily centralized into Seoul, with the Gangnam district taking the lion’s share even within the capital. I wonder if living in Gangnam feels the same to Koreans as living in Manhattan must to Americans. Even just in terms of education, Gangnam exerts a significant influence. Many prestigious high schools that send students to Seoul National University and other prestigious colleges are in Gangnam—and Daechi-dong, the unofficial mecca of private tutoring, is also in Gangnam. Its high real estate prices are a result of its competitive education system. Would you like to comment on this “Gangnam desire” as a writer?
Jeong: I think with the word “Gangnam” as used among Koreans, the idea of “desire” is already present. Apparently, even within Gangnam, there are several hierarchies according to your exact address and how well you do academically. Even within this inner circle there are concentric circles of discrimination. It makes people anxious. Within that circle, children and parents compete as a team towards one goal. But what is that goal? Getting into a good university? Getting a good job afterwards? Jumping into it without an idea of what you want will only lead to emptiness. There are also lots of “post-Gangnam” maneuvers. Like sending your kids to an international school or overseas, or looking for a route outside of the Korean public school system. They either have a lot of money or consider themselves particularly passionate about their child’s education, but it all stems from a distrust of the Korean education system. It’s really an escape plan. They’re not interested in changing the system; they’re only concerned with their own child escaping it.
Heo: The English language is a route to a higher social position in Korean society. Parents resort to sending their kids to English kindergartens if they can afford it. Your story “Anna” depicts that. Kyung and Anna meet for the first time in eight years at an English kindergarten. There’s a hierarchy of language shown by how the teacher is Canadian, the co-teacher is a Korean American, and the teacher’s aide, who waits in the corridor, is Korean. Koreans are shown as complacently internalizing racist discrimination based on language imperialism. Do you have any further thoughts on this?
Jeong: I think it’s an extension of the aforementioned desire for escape. I’ve often wondered about it myse...