Chinese Lessons

  • onJuly 1, 2021
  • Vol.52 Summer 2021
  • byKim Miwol
A Book Nobody Ever Opens

Su worked at a Korean language institute that was located near Yeonan Pier in Incheon. It was affiliated with a small, two-year junior college. She taught Korean to foreigners, though technically they were mostly Chinese. There were some Vietnamese, Uzbeks, and Mongolians among them, but nine out of ten were from China. It was for this reason the language school recruited instructors who were fluent in Chinese even though classes were supposed to be conducted in Korean only.

She came to the institute to teach Korean but the students weren’t there to learn the language. They were there for the visas. Student visas were the easiest to obtain for Chinese nationals seeking to stay long-term in Korea. For that reason, they were willing to pay expensive tuition fees to register themselves as students with the institute. Once they got hold of their visas, they immediately searched for jobs, which was illegal. That was their real purpose—to get a job and earn money. Their plans were understandable because the monthly wage they earned under short-term employment in Korea was similar to six months’ worth of pay in China. That was why the ships arriving at the Port of Incheon from Qingdao, Dalian and Tianjin were packed full with so many young and prospective illegal immigrants. The language school was not unaware that it was actually the source for the vast numbers of illegal immigrants being churned out. And the students knew that the school was fully aware of that fact. The Korean expression “What’s good is good” seemed to fit this very situation.

Yet there was not one student who knew the exact meaning of that phrase. The students were unable to read and understand Korean idioms, not to mention simple, straightforward phrases. It might not be too much of a stretch to say that the only expressions they could say after completing the six-month curriculum was “eolmayeyo (how much is it),” “gwenchanayo (it’s okay),” and “bballi bballi (hurry up).” It was no surprise there was not one class that was able to stick to the set curriculum. Students spoke in Chinese amongst themselves and even with the instructors because that was faster and more convenient. The only real improvement at the school was the instructors’ Chinese language skills, which they had to use every day to reprimand the students.

Seven students were present in the classroom. Twenty-three out of the thirty students enrolled were absent.

“This has to stop. Do you know that our student attrition rate is over eighty percent?” wailed the principal of the language institute to the instructors during the morning meeting.

The average percentage of foreign students who were illegally employed while being enrolled in Korean universities or language institutes was about 10 percent nationwide. The fact that Su’s language school showed an attrition rate that was a staggering eight times higher than the national average suggested that the school management was inept. The language institute’s efforts to retain students were not on par with the fervor it showed when it came to enrolling new students and procuring funds, which led the school to accept whatever students that came by without any appropriate screening. Nevertheless, that failure, according to the principal, was due to the instructors.

“The students have no respect for you because you’re all such pushovers. You need to take special measures against long-term absentees. Remember that class attendance rates will be taken into consideration in your assessments.”

The room broke into chatter once the meeting was over. That was because the assessment was scheduled to take place in ten days. The school extended the instructors’ contracts every three months. Introducing oneself as a Korean language instructor who taught foreign students at a university-affiliated language institute garnered admiration from many people, who usually likened the instructors to university professors. But that was far from the truth. The instructors were simply non-regular workers who lived in constant fear of losing their jobs every three months, in addition to concerns about their meager pay. It was the same for Su. She justified to herself that her daily three-hour commute to and from Incheon was necessary for her career. She kept reminding herself she’d leave that godforsaken place for good when the time was right, at her own doing before the principal said anything, that she would soon teach proper students at a proper language institute in Seoul.

But all of that was to take place at some unknown time in the future. For now, she was forced to remain on her toes about the assessment, about whether her contract would be renewed. Don’t worry about the things that haven’t taken place yet, think about them later, Su told herself. She made up her mind to focus on how she should deal with the students who were absent long-term.

Dangsinui ireumeun mueossimnikka? (What is your name?)”

Je ireumeun Hong Gil-dong imnida. (My name is Hong Gil-dong.)”

Dangsinui jibeun eodie isseumnikka? (Where do you live?)”

Jeohui jibeun Seoule isseumnida. (I live in Seoul.)”

As the seven students read aloud the sentences that could easily be found in first grade textbooks, Su reviewed the attendance book. There weren’t just one or two long-term absentees. There were so many. And she had to somehow make those students return to school or have them expelled if she intended to receive favorable results in the assessment. The latter measure would be easier to implement than the former. But the students would face immediate deportation once they were expelled.

Most Chinese students came to Korea by borrowing money from brokers. It would take at least a year to pay back the millions of won they’d borrowed for dorm and tuition fees. However, since the money earned after paying back the borrowed sum would solely belong to them, the students did whatever they could to avoid deportation during their first year. And so, what they feared most was jejeok—expulsion. Even with their meager knowledge of Korean, they fully understood what that word meant. The institute often brought up expulsion to threaten students to return to school. Every morning the students would agonize, deciding on whether to go to school or to work. The majority of them chose work.

The types of work they found in Korea weren’t many. Most of the male students worked for courier companies. They would ride on motor bikes from morning to night, endlessly delivering goods. Most of these men didn’t have motorcycle licenses, let alone work visas, but the courier companies preferred to employ them for their cheap labor. Although they failed to read even the easiest words in their Korean workbooks, they could read the addresses and company names in the Incheon area no matter how long and complicated they were. They were forced to learn them because their daily pay would be cut if any delivery errors occurred. There were also the words they could use as deftly as any Koreans: sibal (fuck), gaesaekki (son of a bitch), byeongsin (retard). Female students usually worked as servers at cafeterias in industrial complexes or worked for online shopping malls, packing products for delivery. The waft of menthol was ever present among them, from the pain relief patches covering their necks and shoulders. Despite being in their early twenties, their complexions were even more lifeless than the cheap sets of earrings sold at the underground shopping arcade at Dong Incheon subway station. It was even possible to ascertain how long these young women had been in Korea just by looking at their faces.


©Jenny Kwak


As Su scanned the attendance book her eyes stopped at one name. Tsueng. He was absent for more than ten days, including today, making him the longest absentee in her class. When she had warned him of imminent expulsion if he continued to miss class, he simply remained silent, giving no excuse, leading her to worry about him even more. During the ten days she hadn’t seen him, he had grown so shabby and unkempt he was barely recognizable.




It was close to ten when they left the seafood restaurant. They walked toward Yeonan Pier, where the large boats were docked. The night air was brutally cold. The strong sea wind that had traveled across the ocean hit their faces like knives, clawing at them endlessly. Su noticed that her hands and feet had grown numb from the freezing wind although they had walked only a few steps. She turned to check on Tsueng and found his ears and cheeks red from the cold. Yet neither of them suggested turning back.

“Have you ever seen a sea like this?”

Tsueng didn’t respond.

“Doesn’t it seem so barren?”

Tsueng didn’t understand the Korean Su was speaking to him. That put her more at ease.

There was perpetual movement at the sea of Incheon, with large ships arriving and departing, and cranes loading and unloading containers. One would be greeted by the strong smell of petroleum rather than the salty sea breeze when one drew near the sea. The horizon always seemed hazy from wherever one looked. The waves that hit against the cement pier weren’t blue, but grey. The wind grew fiercer.

“Koreans love the sea. Maybe because we don’t get to see it every day. You would know, wouldn’t you, since you come from a land-locked area? People come to the sea when they’re struggling with something. They stand tall, shoulders straight, and cry out to the waters that they’ll get over whatever’s bothering them. After that, they brush off the sand from their clothes and get up, ready to start over.”

Tsueng still didn’t understand a word Su said but wore an expression as though he did.

“But this place here isn’t that kind of sea. This sea gives no consolation at all,” she mumbled, as though speaking to herself. She checked her wrist watch. “It’s late and I’m freezing. We’ve got to go. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” Tsueng answered, not missing a beat, as though he’d been waiting for her to say something he understood.

Su vaguely recalled him saying he was from the northeast region of China, where the cold would be far worse than in Incheon. Yet his family would be there.

“Where’s your home? How long does it take to get there?” she asked.

“Twenty-four hours by boat.”

She looked squarely into his face, surprised at the answer. Although she had asked him where he lived now in Korea, he’d somehow understood she was asking him about his real home in China. Come to think of it, there can be only one home. It may be unbearably cold where he came from, but his loved ones would be there, making it the warmest place on earth.

“Wow, that’s really far. It only takes me less than an hour and a half by subway,” she remarked. She intended to say it as a joke, but it sounded lame.

No place in Korea required an entire day of travel to reach. Su tried to imagine a large ferry gliding through the waters of the ocean. What sort of thoughts could have crossed Tsueng’s mind as he lay in his cramped single-person bunk in third-class during that twenty-four-hour-long journey? As he disembarked from the ship that brought him to a port city in Korea, where the time was an hour faster than where he came from? Could he have realized then that his heart still remained at home, which was at the other side of the vast open sea, even though he wasn’t physically there? Could he have made up his mind then that he’d get used to this unfamiliar country so as to return home as soon as he could?

Tsueng’s sight was fixed on the barren sea—no, somewhere far beyond it.



Translated by Juyeon Lee


Chinese Lessons 
A Book Nobody Ever Opens 
Changbi, 2011