Korean Teachers

  • onJuly 1, 2021
  • Vol.52 Summer 2021
  • bySujin Seo
Korean Teachers
Tr. Lizzie Beuhler

Phuong said that she worked from 5:00 p.m. until 4:00 a.m. Sunday was her only day off. At 264 hours per month, 90,000 won meant that she made 3,400 won per hour.

“That’s your salary? For one month?”

Seon-yi pointed to the calendar on Phuong’s phone. She drew a circle around February and asked if the 90,000 won was for one month. Phuong nodded her head. Seon-yi stood in front of Phuong’s desk for a while. Phuong’s husband Quon, who sat next to her, said, “Teacher.” When Seon-yi turned to face him, he just looked up at her silently. Like Phuong, Quan—tan, short, and thin—worked in an underground factory in Dongdaemun. Phuong’s factory sewed buttons on shirts, and Quan’s sewed on zippers. The young couple had left their two-year-old child back in Vietnam. How much money did Quan make? Seon-yi felt lost.

“Give me your phone. I’ll call.”

Seon-yi called Phuong’s boss on her phone. The person who had pelted Phuong with curses. The boss didn’t answer at first, so she tried again and then left a message.

“Your boss didn’t answer. When he calls back, I will talk to him. Now we will learn Korean. You have to learn Korean in order to fight.”

In that moment, Seon-yi felt renewed conviction in her work. Phuong had to learn Korean in order to argue with her corrupt boss who didn’t pay her. So she could recognize when he used swear words not fit for humans, or complain when he paid her an illegal wage—no, so she wouldn’t have to work at such a factory in the first place.

Phuong’s phone rang as Seon-yi was determinedly handing out a list of Korean adjectives.

“It’s the boss.”

Phuong handed over her cell phone and Seon-yi answered.

“Hello—is this the boss of the factory where Phuong works?” she asked in the firmest possible voice.

The boss repeatedly asked who she was in a wary tone.

“It doesn’t matter who I am, does it?” she said, using the formal seubnida verb conjugation. “I’m calling to ask when you’re going to give Phuong the back pay you owe her.”

Seon-yi didn’t usually use this formal verb conjugation, so she’d thought that she wouldn’t need to teach it to her level one students. But as she made this call, she changed her mind. Seubnida form was definitely necessary in level one.

“It’s not that I don’t want to pay her. I haven’t gotten money from my clients—what am I supposed to do? I’m struggling, too.”

He used the informal “I,” na rather than jeo. Who did he think he was? Seon-yi hadn’t taught her students na yet, either.

“I’m asking for Phuong to get paid for her work. Isn’t paying her for her work a given? She told me that it’s not even a million won.”

Seon-yi was about to talk about Phuong’s hourly wage but stopped herself. The man on the phone was breathing roughly.

“You’re making me sound like a corrupt boss, but I’m not—I hire them because they have it so rough. You know that they’re working illegally, right? How are you criticizing me when you know what will happen if they get caught?”

Seon-yi felt like she was experiencing the phrase “blood flowing backwards” quite literally. Her blood went up to her head and her face grew warm. She felt dizzy.

“I know it’s illegal for them to work, but it’s also illegal for you to employ them. So when are you going to pay Phuong?”

She could hear the man quietly grumble “fuck.” Seon-yi’s entire body quivered. Phuong, Quan and the other sixteen students were all staring at her as if they were drilling into her with their eyes.

“Please text me the date.”

Seon-yi hung up without waiting for an answer. Her face flushed, and she breathed heavily.

“Teacher, are you okay?” Phuong asked.

“Yes, I’m okay. Tell me if your boss still doesn’t pay you. You will get paid. You will. I will fight this.”

Seon-yi caught her breath and continued straight into the lesson. She had to teach adjectives to her students. She had to teach “good” and “bad,” “many” and “few,” and “happy” and “sad.” Sometime she would also teach “fair” and “unfair,” and “impressed” and “insulting.” Seon-yi hoped that her students would find “fair” and “impressed” more useful to their lives in Korea than “unfair” or “insulting.”


©Jenny Kwak




On Wednesday, the day after the final exam, students filled out instructor evaluations in the break after the first period. Nika’s seat was empty. Mi-ju instructed the class leader to go to the administration office and bring back the evaluation forms, then she left the room. Instructors weren’t allowed to be in the classroom while the evaluation forms were being filled out. As Mi-ju walked down the hallway, she heard someone running up behind her. When she turned around, she saw that it was Marine.

“Teacher, Nika sent me a message for you,” Marine said.

Mi-ju shook her head.

“Marine,” she said, “tell this to your boyfriend—”

“Nika’s not my boyfriend,” Marine said as her face hardened.

“Okay, well, I don’t want to see Nika’s message, so—”

“Teacher, Nika really isn’t my boyfriend.”

“I see. Since you and Nika are so close, I thought . . .”

“Nika is a girl.”

Mi-ju stared blankly at Marine’s face. She wanted to ask what that meant, but she couldn’t bring herself to say anything. Marine repeated herself.

“Nika is a girl,” she said.

Mi-ju pulled out her attendance log and flipped to the student information sheet on the last page.


Name: Nika

Nationality: Belarus

Date of Birth: 4/27/1998

Sex: F


Mi-ju looked back up at Marine. Had Marine always been this tall? Mi-ju thought back on Marine and Nika wrestling. They’d been so insistent that they weren’t dating. Mi-ju asked herself why she’d assumed Nika was a boy, why she’d never doubted it. Was it because of the short hair? Because the other students shouted that Nika was handsome? Because Nika wore large T-shirts? Because she played basketball? Was it just because of those things? Mi-ju suddenly realized that at the beginning of the semester, Nika had played basketball with the male students, but at some point she’d started to spend time only with Marine. Had everyone realized she was a girl? Was only Mi-ju unaware? Mi-ju had asked Nika what kind of girl she liked. She’d ordered Nika to answer, giving “tall girls” and “pretty girls” as examples. She’d thought that Nika was a violent boy who liked showing off his strength. She’d vowed not to let herself lose against a student she saw as a boy who looked down on girls, who humiliated them. Had everyone else known?

“Nika is mad.”

Marine held her phone out to Mi-ju. A translation app appeared on the screen.


She is going to file a complaint against you.


Mi-ju stood in the hallway and stared at the word “she” for a long time.




I leave tomorrow.


Sometimes Korean grammar used the present tense to convey future plans, or a certain future. A future so certain that it was expressed in the present. But even if the future was as clear as the present, even if it was utterly unchangeable, it, too, could fall apart. If my mom dies tonight, I won’t leave tomorrow. If my flight is canceled, I won’t leave tomorrow. If an accident occurs on the way to the airport and I die, all future tense senten-
ces related to me vanish.

Ultimately, the only tense that language could express was the past. That was what Han-hui believed. The past tense expressed the past—nothing else.


Yesterday I went to school.


This sentence contained no meaning other than the truth of the past. Without any doubt, without any feelings of regret or happiness. The moment this sentence was articulated, the moment it was put into use, nothing about it would change. The past created the form of the sentence, and that past had a singular meaning. That was the firm truth. The past became an unshakable truth.

Han-hui’s life was the same. The only tense that existed for Han-hui was the past. If she thought about the future, everything went black before her eyes. In the past, I could say what I was going to do. I could say with certainty how things would turn out. I could be certain of the future—bring forth the present saying, “That will happen.” But the future turned out to be completely different from what Han-hui expected; it was always in opposition to her intention and expectation.


While working as a Korean teacher, Han-hui had been determined to “work hard,” and she assumed that things would “turn out well.” But things just kept getting worse. She’d sworn to herself, “I’ll become a professor,” “I’ll stay at H University,” but Han-hui knew better than anyone how empty those words were. The present was more terrifying to Han-hui than anything else: she hadn’t been fired, but she wasn’t staying, either. The only thing certain to Han-hui was her past—her work experience as a senior instructor at H University’s language school. In the present, her contract had neither been continued nor terminated, and no one knew the future.

But now that she was pregnant, time had completely changed for Han-hui. Something was alive inside her belly. She couldn’t see it now, but that thing so clearly inside her would have a future—it would come out into the world, breathe, and cry. The future created by this baby gave Han-hui a new sense of time, and knowing how uncertain that sense of time was made Han-hui constantly nervous.


The baby will be born.

It will grab Han-hui’s fingers with its small hands.

It will lean against the wall, using its strength to walk.


The fact that all of these sentences were assumptions rather than facts—the ease with which they could go wrong—scared Han-hui.


The baby will not be born.

It will not grab Han-hui’s fingers with its small hands.

It will not lean against the wall, using its strength to walk.

Now, Han-hui needed the future tense. She needed a stable future. She needed a secure future that existed not as an intention or an assumption, but as a fact.

Han-hui completely changed the topic of her presentation, which had been about teaching the Korean past and non-past. Her new topic was “Teaching the Korean Future Tense.” Han-hui was going to research a way to teach the future tense: not intention, not assumptions, but the future.


Together with the baby, I will survive.




The next day, Seon-yi went to the police station for the witness interview. One student who couldn’t get out had died of suffocation, and students who hadn’t understood the broadcast in time complained of chest pains. The entire dormitory building was covered with black soot, and the third-story room where the fire had started—along with the rooms on either side—had shattered windows.

The detective said that an interpreter had been present, so he’d received statements from the students. According to the students’ statements, several firecrackers had been set on fire in the dormitory room, and a blanket had caught fire while the students were taking pictures. Flustered, they tried to put out the fire by covering the blanket with another blanket, but the flames just spread even further. The students didn’t know how to report the fire, so they ran into the hallway and called the residential assistant’s phone number several times, but he didn’t answer. When the detective checked with the RA, he said that the students had called and repeated the words “fireworks” and “fire,” but he hadn’t understood right away because it sounded like they were just saying, “Fireworks make fire.” Time passed, and the fire grew out of control.

What happened, according the detective, was that the fire truck arrived only after the security guard, who had been sleeping, heard the commotion in the hallway and ordered everyone to evacuate over the PA system.

“I don’t think it’s arson, but . . .” The detective asked Seon-yi why she’d bought the students the fireworks.

“The students liked them,” Seon-yi said.

“Did you ever tell them to play with fireworks in the dorms?” Seon-yi considered what she’d said about fireworks. She remembered saying that you couldn’t bring them on a plane. So she must have told her students to light the fireworks before leaving Korea. Is that what it had sounded like? Go back to your rooms tonight and light up all the fireworks?

“I’m just asking you this to confirm the facts.” The police officer flipped through the other documents.

“I heard you were fired from H University six months ago. Did you get fired for coming to the police station at the time?”

Seon-yi raised her head sharply.

“I didn’t get fired. I was a contract worker, and my contract just didn’t get extended. I was told from the beginning that I would only be working for two semesters.”

“Yes, so the reason that the contract wasn’t extended was when you . . .”

“No, I didn’t file a complaint at the time. I . . .”

Seon-yi was about to explain why she’d gone to the police, but she couldn’t remember. She hadn’t wanted to file a complaint, and she was definitely going to wait for the school to deal with the matter, and in fact, she had waited, so why had she gone to the police? Why had she shown the detective the Instagram photo, and had him search that hashtag? There had been other instructors. Other instructors who were at the police station with Seon-yi who’d confidently gone through the steps to file a complaint. Where were they? Seon-yi didn’t understand how she’d ended up here again. She put her camel-colored coat, which was hanging from her chair, back on. The police station wasn’t well-heated. Her body shivered.

The enormous fire had burnt the entire dormitory building down, and news that a foreign student enrolled in a short-term Korean language course had died in the fire made headlines on popular portal websites. Dozens of articles appeared, one of which featured an interview with someone named P, who was said to be an official at H University’s language school.


Bringing over such an unmanageable number of students was the problem, P said. People needed to look into why so many students had been brought to Korea for these language programs. Now things were a mess because of the school and students trying to take advantage of the slack laws.


Another article included an interview with an intermediate-level classmate of the deceased.


We came to Korea because we like Korea. But Korea doesn’t like us. For Koreans, we are people who will spend money.



Translated by Lizzie Buehler


Korean Teachers 
(Harriet Press, 2021)

Copyright © 2020 by Sujin Seo
Translation copyright © 2021 by Lizzie Beuhler
Published with permission from Harriet Press