[Interview] Foreign professor speaks of Korea with both love and criticism

Posted on : 2016-04-17 08:20 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Robert Fouser is the author of two new books, based on his years of living in Korea, and advocacy for preservation of traditional buildings
Robert Fouser
Robert Fouser

Robert Fouser left South Korea in 2014 after six years as a professor of Korean language pedagogy in the Korean language education department of Seoul National University (SNU), and he returned with two books. One is “The Requirements of a Future Citizen” by Sejong Books, and the other is “Addicted to Seochon” by Sallim Books, which will be published on Apr. 15.

Fouser, 55, lived in South Korea between 1986 and 1993, when he taught English at Korea University. Starting in 1995, Fouser taught English and Korean at Kyoto University and Kagoshima University in Japan for about 10 years.

Such experience has enabled Fouser to see how South Korean society has changed during the presidencies of Roh Tae-woo (1988-93), Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-present) and has equipped him to compare South Korea with Japanese society.

Reading between the lines of Fouser’s thoughtful exposition of his early years and his experience in South Korea and in Japan, one can even see how the US has changed through the eyes of a outsider who had been overseas for years, so to speak. Fouser wrote the two books while staying in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

A Hankyoreh reporter met Fouser for an interview at a cafe in the Insa-dong neighborhood of Seoul on Apr. 1.

“I remember this article in the Washington Post in 2015. There was this survey about social discrimination in the US you could fill out that would compare your experience to that of different races. When I filled out the survey based on what I had gone through in Korea, it said my experience was that of a black woman,” Fouser said.

What happened to him in South Korea?

“I appreciate that they called me a ‘full-time professor’ at Seoul National University. I’ll give them that. But that’s all the credit they get,” he said. Fouser declined to go into any detail, apparently concerned he might look like a backstabber.

When we moved on to discussing the time Fouser spent living in Seochon, the neighborhood west of Gyeongbok Palance, calm returned to his facial expression.

Fouser became the president of a group promoting Seochon cultural research in 2009. During his time there, he worked to preserve hanok, or traditional Korean houses, that were in danger of being demolished in reckless development projects.

At one point, Fouser even moved into an old hanok in the Chebu neighborhood that he had repaired. He christened it “Eorakdang” (語樂堂), meaning “house of pleasure in language.”

“During the debate over redevelopment back then, the supporters were loud, and their opponents didn’t have a voice. Talking to the residents, I found that many of them were opposed to it. So I set up a group with people who cared about the neighborhood,” Fouser said.

“The group was started with the idea of studying, exploring and sharing information. We preserved the House of Yi Sang [a patriot poet under Japanese colonial rule], which they had been planning to tear down and rebuild, and we played a part in an eco-friendly restoration of the Suseong neighborhood ravine. We also publicized the issue of the Okin neighborhood redevelopment and succeeded at suspending the demolition work for the time being. It’s really too bad that the group broke up before could move on to the issue of gentrification.”

Fouser said that he took pride in seeing his neighbors in Seochon develop a spontaneity grounded in their sense of ownership and participatory spirit.

While other SNU professors excluded Fouser for being a foreigner who had not graduated from the university, in Seochon his status as a SNU professor was seen as an advantage.

“As an SNU professor, I naturally was included in the group in Seochon. They treated me like any other 50-something ’ajosshi‘ neighbor,” Fouser said, using a Korean word that refers to middle-aged men.

Fouser recalled his experience in Japan. “When I was living in Kyoto, there was a guy living in the same alley who was a member of the Communist Party. People thought nothing of it. They would say hi and spend time with me without keeping their distance. I was the same way,” he said.

“In Korea, though, people hang around with those who have the same ideology or who are from the same hometown, and they push away homosexuals or anyone else who is different. They also try to make you like themselves.”

“The government is the same way. It barges into your personal life and tries to regulate what you do. During the Roh Tae-woo regime, they made bars close at midnight to prevent people from spending too much money. Things are better now, but still.”

South Korea reminds Fouser of Japan before its surrender in World War II. In Japan, US troops took over, broke up the big conglomerates known as zaibatsu and dispersed power, but this never happened in South Korea, he points out.

As Fouser see it, even after South Korea’s modernization, there has never been a major change in the fundamental relationship between the state and the individual.

Fouser said that he understood what the term “Hell Joseon” meant right away when it started spreading in 2015. The term is a satirical take on the difficulties faced by young people in Korea.

Even where Fouser is living today, there is a whiff of “Hell US” in the air. He finds it hard to believe that mothers have to go back to work one week after giving birth or that health insurance benefits only kick in after you spend US$6,000 of your own money. These are things that he had never imagined when he began life overseas 29 years ago.

They are also the reasons that Fouser has volunteered for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and why he has even made a modest donation to his campaign.

“Whether in Korea or the US, there’s this sense deep down that something has to change. The problem is the spirit of participation. If we’re going to change things, going out to a rally at Gwanghwamun is important, but we also have to go out and vote,” Fouser said.

Looking forward, Fouser will be teaching Korean at Ohio State University, but as time permits he plans to put together a history of foreign language teaching in Korea during the Korean Empire (1897-1910) and the period just after liberation (roughly 1945-48).

Those who are close to Fouser refer to him as “Former Professor Fouser,” which in Korean is abbreviated to “Pajeon Gyosu,” a pun that could roughly be translated as “Green Onion Pancake Professor.” This shows how South Koreans respond to Fouser’s unusual love for their country.

That may also explain why Fouser speaks with South Korea with as much criticism as love.

By Lim Jong-uph, culture correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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