Propping Up the Fallen Ladder of Education: An Interview with Novelist Jeong Yi Hyun

  • onApril 4, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • byHeo Hee

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 myself, as a parent. I’ve asked other parents how they feel about the whole thing. They all use the word “opportunity” in their answers. They want to give their children as many opportunities as possible. It made me wonder what other desires lurk inside that word. They consider English to be a basic asset in ensuring their child’s future. The more uncertain the future, the more choices they want their children to have. There’s an underlying distrust here, not only of our education system but of society as a whole. They feel English is a fundamental aspect of the competitive advantage their children need to obtain to be successful individuals. It’s a somewhat futile hope, sending their children away to live happily ever after in a foreign country, or to live in Korea as somewhat more advantaged than their peers. This desire to send off their children to another country, to give them the means to survive after their escape from Korea, is practically a part of our collective unconscious. That English kindergarten in “Anna” with the mandatory English-only policy, I didn’t even have to model it after a specific place. It’s just a mélange of schools I know or have heard about.




Heo: The student debate topic in “Young Young, Summer” is interesting: “Must we attend school?” Rie points out, “The point of studying isn’t studying itself but to become better people, but we need to think about whether school as it is today is a place that produces better people.” Are these your own thoughts?

Jeong: More or less. Maybe it’s because my child is about to enter elementary school, but I’m thinking a lot about what school is and what it should be. Education ought to confer equal opportunities to all children, and that’s the point of compulsory education. But I don’t know if school accomplishes that in practice. Students may not have the right to be happy in school, but they should at least have the right not to be miserable. School should help them discover what they really enjoy doing and what they’re good at. It shouldn’t be a place where they’re forced to tie up their souls and lose their true selves little by little. It’s still in the future, but if my child finds mainstream education unbearable, I’m willing to consider the alternatives. But I can’t actively recommend the alternatives either, because I know the mainstream is still the safest bet. Because it’s not all freedom and variety outside of the mainstream, either. Outside the jungle, the Amazon awaits, and you may be avoiding a cat to find yourself in the jaws of a tiger. I hope someday we’ll hear more about the people who’ve flourished outside of the system. Not celebrities either, just ordinary people who might provide hope for a life outside the system.

Heo: As a final question, how do you, as a Korean fiction writer, wish to add to the discourse on Korean education?

Jeong: I’ve mentioned I’m working on a YA novel. The main character is a girl who played baseball for her school until she graduated from elementary school. But Korea doesn’t have a middle school baseball league for girls. She realizes this in her last year, and must choose between continuing her baseball outside of the mainstream or giving up on it. She decides to give up. And when she enters high school, she reluctantly joins a softball team.

It’s not quite a traditional sports narrative but a story of the people on the margins of that world. My serialization editor keeps wondering why there are no scenes from any games. I don’t think it’ll end up having any. Even if there are game scenes, I’m not going to depict the winning or the losing or dramatic homeruns that change the game’s outcome.

Literature perhaps deals with the confrontation between the individual and the world. The world almost never changes, so the individual must decide how and in what form to persist in the world. My character also goes through an internal struggle in her confrontation with the world at large, and my interest as a writer lies in her feelings of despair and joy as she goes through this period in her life. Of course, I could’ve written a novel where she puts together a women’s baseball team and conquers the world [laughs]. Make her overcome her difficulty and inspire hope in others. But that’s not within the scope of my literary interest. I think literary characters are thought experiments, simple in the way real people aren’t. If the character conflicts with society, I want to examine through that conflict what the underlying morality is, what such morality has in relation to this world, and what, ultimately, is the nature of such a world. That last one is the question I leave behind for the reader. 


by Heo Hee
Literary critic