By Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2019. All rights reserved.
Nuguyen Duong Hoang, Vietnamese exchange student at the university in the historically significant city of Gyeongju, South Korea, felt relieved to find the air quality and weather much improved compared to the dreaded air pollution alert days of the sweltering hot summer months. As he walked from the bus stop near the university to his English class during the cool, clear, blue skied morning in September, Hoang felt lucky to be able to live and study there in Gyeongju, which was famous in Korea as the former capital of the Shilla Dynasty during the conflict ridden, lengthy period of rivalry of the Three Kingdoms. (Shilla and the neighboring rival kingdoms of Baekje and Goguryeo, ruled the peninsula from the first century BCE to the seventh century CE.) What a relief it was to be able to walk outside without wearing the protective face mask, which resembled the kind of medical masks doctors and nurses wear during surgery, in order to protect his lungs from the harmful airborne pollutants. Today, unlike the long hot and humid days of July and August, the air alert application on Hoang’s smartphone told him that both the nanoparticle and super-nanoparticle counts were at the non-hazardous level. On air alert days, those harmful particles of Gobi dust from the Gobi Desert in China mixed together with industrial pollutants from both Chinese and Korean factories and power plants. All of those deadly pollutants, made worse by the addition of the yellow dust and pollen from the forested mountains so ubiquitous in Korea, were present in such great quantities as to make them clearly visible as they coated everything outside, from car windshields and hoods, to sidewalks and park benches. Every year the same dangerous air made life difficult in South Korea, since the particulate matter was a real health hazard for one’s lungs and respiratory system. From mid-spring, throughout the long hot summer, the air was dangerous to breathe, and the particle count did not diminish until the brisk cool days of fall in late September and early October made life outside at least a bit more tolerable. The hazardous air pollution in many Asian countries experiencing rapid economic development and growth, now made simply breathing outside in cities like Beijing and Seoul dangerous. However, in late September, at least in Gyeongju where Hoang lived and studied, the pollution was much abated, at least until next spring. The application on Hoang’s smartphone, which his parents ordered him to check daily when they spoke to him from Vietnam via Skype and Facebook chat, indicated that today the nanoparticle and super-nanoparticle counts were finally at a safe level, and that no face mask was required for simply walking and breathing outside.
Back in Vietnam, Hoang’s parents owned and managed a small guest house and hotel on the far outskirts of Hanoi, in an area that was, until just a few short years ago, essentially a rural village. With economic development and tourism both increasing at breakneck speed each passing year in Vietnam, Hoang’s parents got by just fine with the guest house as their livelihood and primary source of income. Hoang’s parents hoped the dear financial sacrifices they were making to afford their treasured and eldest son’s tuition at the private university in South Korea would all be worthwhile after Hoang returned four years later with his degree in Hotel Management. Hoang and his parents believed that, because South Korea was more economically advanced than Vietnam, the educational and university system in South Korea was superior to the one currently existent in Vietnam. With more and more Koreans traveling to Vietnam these days for both business and pleasure or tourism, Hoang’s family also believed that the Korean language skills Hoang was acquiring at the Korean university, would be of great use to the family’s business investment in the guest house, which they all hoped to expand considerably in the coming years. The potential benefits of Hoang completing his undergraduate studies in South Korea, the family decided, far outweighed the financial sacrifices and strain required to send Hoang abroad for school at a private university.
Like many Asian families, Hoang’s was extremely close knit and full of overprotective love, concern, and also a considerable amount of hope and ambition for the children to lead better lives than the elders of the previous generations had been forced to endure in a poorer but also rapidly developing country. Even though Hoang had lived away from his home and family in Vietnam for just one semester, he was already desperately homesick because he missed his parents and younger siblings terribly. The family back in Vietnam felt the same sense of pain due to the separation, and they attempted to stoically endure the palpable sense of loss, a feeling only somewhat and imperfectly ameliorated by the constant texting, Skype, and Facebook contacts with Hoang via smartphone and computer.
But on this particular morning, due mostly to the fine weather, Nuguyen Duong Hoang, as he made his way to class, was only partially aware of that constant sense of loss and homesickness always lingering in the background of his thoughts, though it was also true the young freshman was less than overjoyed with the prospect of sitting through another confusing and even indecipherable English class all the morning long. Unfortunately for Hoang, he viewed the English language to be an almost unsurmountable obstacle, the mastery and comprehension of which was blocked by some mysterious impediment which he, and many of his Vietnamese classmates, viewed with both frustrated consternation and fatalistic surrender. The problem was not Hoang’s English professor, who was a nice enough and kindly man who never seemed to hold against Hoang and his classmates personally the students’ sorely lacking ability with the English language. The warm hearted American professor was in fact the one thing about English class Hoang looked forward to each week, in spite of Hoang’s deep seated belief that all of his struggles and efforts to acquire fluency in this particular foreign tongue were essentially destined to remain hopelessly and fruitlessly in vain. The student was convinced he would never be able master English, what with its bizarre pronunciation and insuperable riddles of grammar and vocabulary, not to speak of the impossible task of boosting his own level of reading comprehension. Hoang convinced himself that he would never be able to converse freely and fluently with his American English professor. This belief troubled the young student greatly because he so much desired to engage in a true in-depth conversation with his professor in order to ask him many questions about Vietnam’s troubled history with The United States of America. The young Hoang had been spared the misfortune of having to live through those difficult and desperate years of the Vietnam War, but he longed to engage in a heartfelt exchange of ideas about the trauma of this shared history between his country and the country of this American professor, who was in fact the first American Hoang had ever met in person. But all of that was blocked, seemingly impossible to Hoang due to his inability to speak and communicate effectively in the American’s language.
In Korean class, thankfully for Hoang, the situation was much different. As another Asian language, Hangul, the term the Koreans use to refer to their language, came more naturally to Hoang than that insuperable mountain of riddles and impediments to meaningful communication that was the English language. Korean class was scheduled in the afternoon, so at least Hoang had that to look forward to in order to encourage him to try to make his way, befuddled though he was, through the morning English class.
Both Hoang’s English classes and his Korean classes were filled with a multi-national mixture of students from a variety of foreign countries. Korean class was composed of many students from Vietnam, like Hoang, who made up the largest contingent of foreign students. There were also a significant number of students from Uzbekistan, Mongolia, China, and even Russia. What all of the students in this multi-cultural and multi-national mixture had in common was the belief that, as a highly developed country economically speaking, South Korea was a nation where the universities had more to offer the students in terms of academic quality and excellence than the universities in their comparatively less developed native lands. This belief is primarily what drew them to the South Korean university in Gyeongju in the first place. The foreign students also believed that learning Hangul would be of great benefit to their careers, as this would enable them to find employment, either in Korea or in their home countries, working with Korean tourists, businesses, corporations, or somehow and in some way being connected through their work with the nation of South Korea and the Korean people.
English class contained the same mixture of students from foreign countries, with the addition of Korean students, who were of course absent from the Hangul classes because they already knew the language native to their homeland. There were now so many Vietnamese, Chinese, Mongolian, Uzbeks, and Russians at the university, they now outnumbered the Korean students in English class. The dearth of Korean students was the very reason why the university had invested so many of its meager resources in recruiting the foreign students in the first place. Two primary causes accounted for the noticeable and indeed the sharp decline in Korean student enrollment at the university. The first cause was the demographic problem impacting not only Korean universities, but also many other institutions of primary importance in Korean life such as the social welfare system. Decades of declining birth rates in South Korea transformed the age structure of the Korean population, leaving the nation with a large increase in the number of older people, and at the same time a sharp decrease in the number of school age and college age students. This demographic problem, which is really a kind of crisis facing the Korean economy and society, is the primary reason why there simply were not enough South Korean students to fill the open seats at the university. This crisis is not only limited to the education sector of South Korean society, because fewer young people relative to an increasing number of older people means the number of employed workers paying taxes into the social welfare system will inevitably decline, leaving the country to face a serious fiscal crisis, as the inevitable decrease in tax revenue will occur simultaneously with the increasing need for government expenditures required to serve an ageing population with social welfare services, pensions, healthcare, and other essential government functions.
The other cause of the decrease in Korean student enrollment at the university was the low ranking the university received from the official government agency tasked with the requirement to asses university quality in preparation for the possibility that at least some Korean universities will have to close down, cease operations, and fold due to this same problem of declining student enrollment. Essentially, these days the reputation and prestige of the university was unfortunately in question, due in large part to the financial difficulties resulting from the difficulty in filling seats with tuition paying students. There was also the issue of mismanagement and the improper and unethical use of funds by prior administrators, including a prior president of the university who was forced out and is even facing the possibility of prosecution for misuse of official university funds. A kind of circular feedback mechanism was now in operation, as the decline in enrollment led to a shortage of tuition funds and influenced the declining prestige and reputation of the university, leading to further declines in enrollment which only kept the cycle of decline continuing on into the future. The solution to the problem, so the current university administration hoped, was to aggressively recruit all of those foreign students in order to fill the seats and gaps left open by the decline in the enrollment of Korean students.
Hoang and his fellow foreign students were all well aware of how they were the crucial element of the university’s plan to compensate for the decrease of Korean students at the school, and they understood that they, the foreign students, were in fact required to keep the ship afloat financially. Nonetheless, they were more than content to remain at the university because they firmly believed learning Hangul and receiving their college education in Korea would help them and be of significant value in their future careers. As a student of hotel management, Hoang knew that more and more Koreans were traveling to Vietnam for vacations and business these days. Consequently, he very wisely concluded that knowledge of Korean language and culture would prove to be of inestimable value to him and his family when he returned to Hanoi to help run the guest house and family business in the hospitality industry. The young Vietnamese student believed Korean language and cultural skills would better enable him to attend to the needs of the family’s Korean guests, enabling him to offer a superior level of customer service which would act as an incentive for the Koreans to prolong their stays at his family’s hotel.
Not a few of the other foreign students at the university hoped to remain in South Korea to work and establish their careers there after graduation. Since South Korea was a more developed country compared to countries like Vietnam and Uzbekistan, students from these countries reasoned that they could earn a higher salary and experience a higher standard of living by remaining in South Korea than they could if they returned home directly after graduation. Whether they intended to remain in South Korea for a lengthy period of time, or whether they planned to stay there for only a few years, many of the students expected to profit handsomely and capitalize on the greater economic and career prospects available to them in South Korea due to the relatively more advanced state of that country’s economy.
Even while they were supposed to be minding their studies at the university, most of the foreign students, including almost all of the Vietnamese students, were overjoyed to devote themselves to their part-time jobs rather than to their schoolwork. This was mainly because their wages in South Korea seemed astronomically higher than the wages they could earn working the same jobs in their countries of origin. Due to the higher standard of living in South Korea, the foreign students believed they were earning a small fortune employed in such menial part-time jobs as restaurant servers or line cooks. Most commonly they worked in kalbi or pork and beef Korean style barbecue restaurants. Some of the professors at the university complained that the foreign students spent too much time working at their part-time jobs, leading them to neglect their studies. These students completed almost no homework since they had little time for it, working as they did until past midnight five days a week or more. Nonetheless, in spite of some complaints from the faculty, the foreign students refused to give up or cut back the hours at their part-time jobs because, coming as they did from economically developing nations, the wages they earned in South Korea were, in their minds at least, too high to forgo and let pass by.
Also of chief importance for this issue of the students prioritizing of work over their studies, was the fact that most of the students at the university, both the foreign ones and the Koreans, viewed the purpose of education instrumentally. The purpose of college, so the students almost unanimously believed, was to enable them to secure employment and a career. Few of them were interested in the weighty intellectual and academic matters that are the essence of a well-rounded liberal arts and sciences education of the kind available at many of the elite liberal art schools and universities in the United States or United Kingdom or elsewhere in the West. Hoang and his classmates were job and career focused students, not budding philosophers, theologians, historians, theorists, scientists, or literary types in the tradition of the humanities, social sciences, or physical and natural sciences as these fields of inquiry and scholarship are conceived in the West. Education was a more purely transactional proposition for most of the students at the university. They wanted to pay their tuition, do what was required of them to pass their classes and earn their degrees, which far too often was not really all that much, all in order to secure a job in the future. A degree was a credential required for a job and career, not viewed as evidence that one had paid serious attention to serious intellectual and academic matters as a true scholar would. Homework and schoolwork the students happily placed on the back burner while they devoted their more serious attention to those high paying jobs, highly paid in their opinions at least, at the kalbi restaurants.
This situation regarding the students’ views of their priorities in life in fact was the very reason why Hoang was so tired on this particular morning as he sluggishly walked from the bus stop located just outside the university entrance to his English class scheduled to be held in just a few minutes in the one of the main buildings on campus set atop a large hill. The walk up the hill did require some real effort, which to Hoang felt even more burdensome due to the fact that he had worked until 1:00 a.m., laboring in and then cleaning up the kitchen at the kalbi restaurant that employed him. Those long hours working in the restaurant always left him tired and sleep deprived in the mornings, providing him with diminished enthusiasm for his English studies at the university. Though Hoang believed the menial job paid well, it was physically and emotionally demanding and draining. Because his Korean language skills were lacking since he had only been living, studying, and working in the country for one semester, during his long and demanding hours of work Hoang often felt like a chicken with its head cut off as he tried his best to comply with the angry commands barked at him in Korean by both his Korean boss and the Korean customers in the restaurant. Hoang, with his weak language skills, often got the orders confused and wrong, and this unfortunate situation only deepened the insulting nature of the orders and commands shouted rudely at him from all directions.
“Hey Vietnam. Hey you, Vietnam guy. Another plate of kalbi for our table. Hurry up Vietnam. Bali bali. Quick quick now. And Vietnam, don’t forget the maekju beer and soju we already ordered fifteen minutes ago.”
So they all shouted and howled at Hoang all through the evening and late into the night, while the young Vietnamese student, instead of studying, spent his time rushing from one table to the next to the kitchen and back to another table, all the while trying his best to comply with the constant volley of impatient and angry requests in Korean which he often misunderstood and got completely wrong. It was not an easy thing for him to do, yet he endured the abuse each night because he believed the money he earned at the restaurant seemed very generous to him since it was many times more than what he could earn at a similar job back home in Vietnam.
Here in South Korea though, the truth was that language difficulties, cultural habits, and often outright and unconcealed racism often complicated the Vietnamese students’ interactions with Koreans, both at and away from the university. While at work, Hoang was filled with the distinct feeling that the customers in the restaurant looked down upon him because he was a foreigner, and more specifically, one from Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the same kind of feelings crept up on him all too often on campus whenever he attempted to communicate and interact with the Korean students there. Language and cultural barriers made most attempts at interaction between the Korean students and the foreign students uncomfortable, and so there were few meaningful friendships established between the students from different lands. If it was hard enough for the professors to encourage positive interactions and cooperation during group work time in class, the separation and self-segregation of the students from the different nations was even more pronounced outside of the classroom and in the school cafeteria, snack shops, student lounge areas, and anywhere else on campus where students spent their time before, after, and in-between classes. The Vietnamese students ate and socialized almost exclusively with other Vietnamese students, and the Koreans, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese, and Mongolians segregated themselves from each other in a similar fashion.
Complicating this situation was the fact that all of the students on campus were well aware of the fact that the presence of so many foreign students at the university was due to the administration’s strategy to keep the school open by filling in the gaps in enrollment left by the sharp decline in the number of Korean students opting to study at the university. The Korean students were filled with a sense of superiority when they realized how the foreigners were being used, if not manipulated, by the university in order to keep the doors open and the ship afloat. The Vietnamese and other foreign students, on their part, were well aware that the university needed them, perhaps even desperately, in order to stay in business, and this understanding of their crucial importance on campus also left them feeling a sense of their superiority. All of this complicated and spoiled the prospects for the development of true cross-cultural and cross-national friendships within the student body on campus. There was more going on at the university to discourage positive interactions between the different student factions than mere cultural and language barriers.
By the time Hoang arrived to English class, so tired was he from the late night of work and the not insubstantial trek up the hill to the building on campus wherein English class was held, he was ready to plop his head down on his desk and sleep through the class rather than exert himself attentively in another failed effort to learn that seemingly impossible language, English. The only reason why Hoang did not allow himself to sleep through the class was his realization that his American professor would not permit it and would sternly reprimand Hoang and possibly kick him out of class if he failed to stay awake. So Hoang made a great effort to stay awake during the class, chatting a bit in Vietnamese with some of his classmates before professor began to teach. Hoang made no effort to communicate with the Korean or Uzbek students in the class, and much to the American professor’s dismay, the students from the different countries represented in the class sat apart from each other, once again self-segregating themselves in the same manner they did in the school cafeteria and elsewhere around campus.
Of the twenty-two students in the class, fourteen were Vietnamese like Hoang. There were also four Uzbeks, one Mongolian, and only three Koreans. To the American English professor, whose name was David Moore, the Korean students looked as though they felt uncomfortable and out of place, surrounded as they were by the greater number of foreign students, feeling almost as if it were they, the Koreans, who were the true foreign visitors even though the class took place at a Korean university in their own homeland, South Korea. The Koreans sat quietly together, silently awaiting the commencement of class, while the Vietnamese chatted loudly in their native tongue, as did the Uzbeks. None of the students made any effort to bridge the cultural gap separating each national group from the others, and instead they remained safely in their comfort zones conversing exclusively with their compatriots
As the professor, David Moore, organized his attendance sheets and other instructional materials in the few minutes remaining before the class was scheduled to start at 9:00 a.m., he struggled to come up with some strategy he could use to break the ice and encourage his students surmount the walls of separation segregating them into their different national groups. Professor Moore considered utilizing a group work based teaching methodology in which he would purposely arrange the groups in order to facilitate cross-cultural and cross-national cooperation and communication, but from prior experience he knew that such lessons usually fell flat as the students steadfastly refused to leave the comfort zones they preferred to remain in by sticking together with their own countrymen and countrywomen. Even when the Professor arranged the desks and the rest of the classroom in a manner designed to facilitate the desired interaction, his efforts were almost always in vain. David Moore looked out among his students, at a loss of how he could best encourage more interaction among them, and it was then that he noticed that Nuguyen Duong Hoang looked as if he were just about ready to drift off into sleep even though the class had not even commenced. Hoang appeared to be teetering upon the edge between consciousness and slumber, even though he knew, as did all of the students in the class, that Professor Moore would not permit any student to sleep during class.
David Moore stared purposefully and intentionally directly at Hoang, waiting for the student to recognize his growing impatience and annoyance with Hoang’s impermissible behavior. Hoang was so tired and worn out from the late night of work at the kalbi restaurant, he did not notice the Professor’s disapproving glare. Hoang tilted his head from side to side with exhaustion, and finally, without intention or awareness, his head plopped itself face down on his desk as Hoang gave in and surrendered to his physical need for sleep. The professor continued to glare at Hoang, saying nothing while he watched in consternation the young Vietnamese student openly doze for several long minutes with his head face down on his desk. The other students in the class immediately sensed David Moore’s annoyance and disapproval of Hoang’s flagrant violation of one of Professor Moore’s cardinal rules for his English class, while the Professor said nothing and did nothing except for staring directly at Hoang until the other students in the class themselves began to feel uncomfortable. Finally, after several long, awkward minutes of this outward display of the Professor’s disapproval, one of the other Vietnamese students seated at the desk next to Hoang’s sharply elbowed the sleeping student in the side in order to wake him up. Hoang jumped up quickly from his desk chair as his head jerked up off of his desk when he was startled back into alertness by the elbow in his side, and he shouted out loudly something in Vietnamese that was unintelligible to Professor Moore, but which elicited a chorus of hearty laughter from the rest of the Vietnamese students in the class. The Koreans, Uzbeks, and the single Mongolian student, like Professor Moore, were unable to comprehend Hoang’s exclamation, but they too laughed along with the Vietnamese, so humorous the entire situation appeared to be to them all.
While asleep at his desk in the classroom, Hoang had dreamed he was back home in his parents guest house on the outskirts of Hanoi, sleeping in late on a lazy holiday, awaiting his loving mother to awaken him at a late morning hour, enticing him gently out of his slumber with the promise and scent of a hearty Vietnamese breakfast of pho, a delicious aromatic noodle soup topped with thin slices of beef. As he slept in both the English classroom and in the imagined dream, Hoang allowed himself to be surrounded by and enveloped within the delectable scent and aroma of his favorite Vietnamese food. So startled and shocked to be violently thrust out of this delicious dream when his classmate elbowed him in the side, the meaning of the Vietnamese words Hoang had shouted upon being forced back into consciousness was something like “Momma! Momma! Please don’t hit me. Don’t shake me. I am awake already now and want my noodles.” It was those words which led the rest of the Vietnamese students in the class to laugh out loud, some of them laughing uncontrollable and hysterically for several long minutes as they watched the startled Hoang slowly come to his wits, find his bearings, and return to the realization that he was, unfortunately, far away from his home and family in Vietnam and instead awaiting the start of another difficult English class taught by the openly perturbed Professor Moore with his disconcerting frown of disapproval to greet him this morning instead of one of his mother’s delectable bowls of homemade pho.
Fortunately for Hoang, David Moore was never one to hold a grudge, at least not against one of his students. Professor Moore was well aware of the demanding work schedules most of his Vietnamese students had committed themselves to, and he was always ready to sympathize with and help any student in his class who struggled with the English language. True, the professor had his pet peeves which from time to time interfered with his genuinely kind and understanding nature as both a Professor and a human being, but he was always willing and able to forgive and forget. He quickly on the spot decided to use this current episode of Hoang’s violation of cardinal rule number one, the prohibition of sleeping during his class, as a learning moment.
“Good morning Nuguyen Duong Hoang,” said Professor Moore. “I am glad to see you are now wide awake and ready to join us.”
Of course, Hoang was in reality not yet fully awake. Instead he continued to teeter back and forth between the misty, enchanting state of his Vietnam dreams of Momma and home, and the less ideal present reality of his presence in the English class in Gyeongju, South Korea, so far from home. Hoang made an attempt to apologize to the Professor, but once again, as was usually the case with Hoang and the English language, the proper words simply would not come out of his mouth. Unable to adequately communicate his apology to the professor, Hoang was a bit surprised, but also pleased that the kindly American made light of the situation instead of sternly reprimanding Hoang the way his teachers would have done back home in Vietnam for a similar infraction of the class rules. As his dreams of home escaped from the forefront of his mind and Hoang began to regain cognizance of his whereabouts, he began to wonder to himself, as he often did in Professor Moore’s English class, just why the American was so friendly to him and his Vietnamese and other classmates.
Situations like the present one led Hoang to recall the countless stories of those difficult years related to him by his grandparents and other relatives who had lived through the catastrophe that was the Vietnam War. Then there was the education he had acquired about that time of death and suffering all through his childhood and adolescence in the state run schools he had attended back home. Who was this friendly and kind American, David Moore, and why was he so unlike the murderous American devils his grandparents, other relatives, and teachers had spoken of for most of Hoang’s life? This sympathetic, non-threatening man standing there at the front of the classroom, wishing Hoang good morning and welcoming him back to class, was he really from that same country that had killed and traumatized so many of Hoang’s countrymen in that war in which the Americans had dropped more bombs upon Hoang’s tiny country than had been used in the entirety of World War II? Agent orange, massive death and violence, sometimes even rape and war crimes committed against civilians who were mere peasants, the destruction and devastation of his native land; how could it be possible that this friendly teacher hailed from the same nation responsible for all of that devastation the old people and teachers back home had talked about in horrific detail for the entirety of Hoang’s childhood and teenage years?
It simply did not seem possible that Professor Moore was really an American. Why did the professor not behave like those barbarian invaders who had ravaged Hoang’s homeland? Not once had Hoang witnessed the American professor raise his voice in anger against any wayward student like himself. So patient and understanding was this professor, so different he was from those other Americans who had flown the planes and dropped the bombs so many years ago, long before Hoang had been born in a rural district just beyond the outskirts of Hanoi in the year 1999.
Courageously, on several occasions during class, Hoang, unlike most of the other Vietnamese students who feared to bridge the topic of the War with an American professor, Hoang, in his faltering English, had attempted to ask Professor Moore to explain why the Americans had felt in necessary to come to his country to fight and kill so many Vietnamese, some of whom were Hoang’s direct ancestors. Unfortunately, for such a complicated and sensitive topic as the Vietnam War, the language barrier got in the way whenever Professor Moore carefully and painstakingly attempted to explain the meaning of something he called the domino theory and something else called the Cold War between capitalism and communism. Though the professor tried his best to make his explanations as simple and easy to grasp as possible, Hoang remained unable to fully comprehend the sense and meaning of David Moore’s failed attempts to answer Hoang’s questions about the Vietnam War and why the Americans had felt the need to fight it. However, Hoang was able to perceive the sense in which the American attempted to apologize to Hoang and his fellow Vietnamese classmates for a war and a disastrous course of foreign policy, one which the American professor said that most sensible people in the United States who remembered those terrible years, or had learned about them in school or from movies and books, now realized and conceded had been a terrible mistake.
Hoang remained confused about the question of why the Americans had fought with his country. This confusion resulted from Hoang’s difficulty with the English language, leaving him able to comprehend only bits and pieces of the American professor’s answers to his questions about the war. More importantly, Hoang did not understand why the powerful capitalist countries could not tolerate the existence of communism in such a small, and as Hoang believed, non-threatening country like Vietnam. Why were the Americans unable to simply leave the Vietnamese alone and free to choose the economic and political system they wanted for themselves? Why did the Americans believe they had the right and duty to intervene and try to force Vietnam, all the way on the other side of the earth, to adopt the form of government and economy the Americans preferred? Hoang was very confused, and also frustrated, because his limited English ability prevented him from asking the questions he really wanted to ask, and from engaging in the kind of in-depth conversation with Professor Moore that the gravity of the discussion topic required. What Hoang was able to understand, even with his limited listening comprehension skills in English, was that the American professor was simultaneously trying to apologize for the war and to provide some reasonable explanation concerning why such a rich and powerful country like the United States had felt it to be necessary to fight a war against such a relatively poorer and economically undeveloped country like Vietnam was during those war years. There was a keen sense of ambivalence about the Vietnam War in the professor’s descriptions of this dark spot in American history, and the professor was aware of the unsatisfactory nature of his attempts to answer Hoang’s questions. Professor Moore believed he was forced to simplify what was anything but a simple period of history and conflict by asking Hoang a question that the professor hoped even Hoang, with his limited English ability, could clearly understand.
“Hoang,” Professor addressed the student. “Why did you come to South Korea to attend university, rather than stay in Vietnam and study at a Vietnamese university?”
Hoang thought for some long silent moments while he searched in his mind for the proper words to piece together his response to the professor’s question. At first he was unable to find the right words to formulate his answer, but then all of a sudden, the appropriate words rose from the depths to the forefront of his mind, and he was able to answer the American professor.
“I come to Korea for study in the Korean university because Korean university more better than Vietnam university,” Hoang said.
“Hoang, why do you believe the universities in South Korea are better than the universities in Vietnam?” the professor asked.
“South Korea is a more richer and more developed country than my country, Vietnam. South Korean peoples have big money,” Hoang managed to answer with great effort.
“Why is South Korea more developed economically than Vietnam, Hoang?” the professor asked, continuing the line of questioning. “Why are living standards higher here?”
This follow up question Hoang was unable to answer, because the truth was he did not know the answer. After several long moments of silence while Professor Moore waited for Hoang to respond to the question, the professor finally answered his own question upon realizing that Hoang was unable to do so himself.
“Capitalism, free markets, and democracy have made South Korea the wealthy and developed country it is today. In 1953, just after the Korean War ended with the armistice agreement, the median family income here in South Korea was less than $300 US a year. The difficult years following the war witnessed the Korean economic miracle, often called the miracle on the Han River, due to the rapid and dramatic pace of economic growth and development here in South Korea. As a result, South Korea is a significant economic power to be reckoned with internationally. Though it is a small country geographically, about the same size as the American state of Indiana, South Korea consistently ranks between 7th and 9th in the world in terms of the total value of its exports and imports. The universities are better here because this country is an economic powerhouse. This economic power is a direct result of South Korea’s free market economic system, and nowadays, it’s fairly open and free political system. When the Americans fought that tragic and admittedly, at least nowadays by most Americans, that misled war, the Americans who supported that failed foreign policy hoped that someday Vietnam would be a free, open, and economically developed like South Korea is today.”
Professor Moore knew that any satisfactory answer to Hoang’s inquiry would unfortunately have to be complex and complicated beyond the young student’s ability to fully comprehend in English. But the American felt obliged to make this attempt to answer Hoang, despite the fact that most what he said would be lost in translation, because Professor Moore believed that he, as an American professor and therefore as a kind of spokesperson or representative for his county, and as a human being, recognized the legitimacy of the student’s concerns and believed they deserved to be addressed.
“What about China?” Hoang asked. “China is economic powerhouse like South Korea now, but China also communism country like Vietnam communism country.”
Professor Moore thought about the question for a while, and he realized eventually that he would have a hard time coming up with a satisfactory answer for the inquisitive and obviously bright Hoang. The professor had to concede that Hoang’s question raised a valid criticism of the explanation the professor was attempting to provide concerning why capitalist and democratic countries were generally speaking wealthier and freer, and better places in which to work and live, than were communist countries ruled by authoritarian governments. Professor Moore was trying to argue for the existence of a strong link between freedom and high standards of living, but he knew China’s phenomenal economic growth and development posed a sharp and valid rebuke of his argument. In consequence of the difficulty of accounting for both the lack of political freedom in China, coupled with China’s astounding pace of economic development, Professor Moore decided to take another tack in his efforts to justify his contention that it was the existence of freedom in countries like South Korea that made capitalism and democracy worth fighting for.
“Hoang,” Professor Moore addressed his student again. “Think carefully and answer honestly now. Where do you feel freer to say what you want to say and to do what you want to do? Are you more free here in South Korea or are you more free back home in Vietnam?”
Hoang thought about the question carefully for a few moments before he felt forced to concede, in his faltering English, that he was more free here in South Korea than he was back home in Vietnam.
“There is more freedom here in South Korea,” Hoang admitted. “South Korean peoples is more freer than Vietnam peoples.”
Professor Moore was pleased with the answer, even while he knew his attempts to explain why the United States so often becomes entangled in foreign conflicts like the Vietnam War would always remain fundamentally incomplete and unsatisfactory. This was in no small part due to his realization that in some essential way the high minded principles that formed the basis of the attempts to justify American involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as its entanglement in subsequent foreign misadventures and interventions, had in reality led to massive amounts of violence, destruction, and bloodshed that the American professor could never be able to justify on the basis of these same high minded principles. David Moore let the conversation rest and made no further efforts to justify the great amount of suffering his country had inflicted upon Hoang’s homeland, in large part because he understood all such justifications would inevitably fail to convince Hoang or anyone from any country, including most people from America itself, that the war had been required on the basis of humanitarian doctrines.
Professor Moore, as the class moved on to another less controversial discussion topic, was amazed at how polite, non-confrontational, and even deferential students like Hoang behaved and spoke when the topic of the Vietnam War arose during English class. Though they time and again expressed their lack of understanding of why the Americans had once viewed the war with their country to be a necessity, remarkably the students appeared to harbor little resentment, anger, ill will, or righteous indignation whenever they asked their difficult to answer questions about the war. The students never held their American professor to be in any way personally responsible for the tragedy that had befallen their respective countries, a tragedy which had taken place some three decades before the students had even been born. David Moore enjoyed teaching the students about the anti-war and counter culture movements that grew out of many Americans’ disagreement with and opposition to the war policy. Sometimes Professor Moore even used a hippie anthem and protest song as part of his curriculum in order to demonstrate to the students that support for the war was never unanimous in his country during those troubled years of the 1960s and early 1970s. The students, Vietnamese and others, were fascinated to learn about the hippies and their protest music while Professor Moore attempted to provide them with a balanced and objective view of how the war had divided the people of United States into opposed camps politically, and these lessons were always received with great enthusiasm and approval by the students.
On this particular morning, David Moore had allowed himself to become so engrossed and immersed in his discussion with Hoang about the war and the benefits of freedom, he lost track of the time. One of the Korean students in the class reminded the professor that class time had run out. Professor Moore glanced at his smartphone to check the time, apologized to the students for keeping them several minutes past the appointed hour for dismissal, and bid them all farewell as he ended the class.
Nuguyen Duong Hoang’s next class, thankfully, was Korean language, which the young Vietnamese freshman found to be much easier than English class. After Korean language class, he had about an hour free for lunch, which was usually ramyon or instant noodles, he always ate in the company of several other Vietnamese students, never having the inclination or desire to cross the linguistic and cultural divide in order to dine with Korean, Russian, Uzbek, Chinese, or Mongolian students. After lunch Hoang attended classes in his major field, hotel management, conducted in Korean language and taught by a Korean professor. Sometimes Hoang struggled to understand everything the Korean professor said during his lectures on hotel management, but still, Hoang was relieved to find his major classes to be much easier for him to follow than was English class.
Throughout his entire schedule of classes on this particular day, Hoang experienced some difficulty concentrating and focusing on the matters before him. He found himself to be unable to stop thinking about his discussion with Professor Moore during the morning English class. He tried and tried again in his mind to make sense of what seemed to him to be the contradictory depictions of the United States of America that Professor Moore made the crux of his lesson earlier that morning. Was America really the land of the free, as Professor Moore had said it was? Even after living in Korea for just one semester, the freshman sensed that he was in fact more free to say and do what he wished here than he ever was back home in Vietnam. He could speak his mind on political topics and discuss them without fear of repercussions from the government. As a young person, Hoang of course spent much of his free time online on his smartphone. His experience with technology in Korea reinforced his conviction that he was freer in Korea than he had ever been in Vietnam. There was no firewall modeled on the great Chinese firewall to limit and restrict Hoang’s access to politically sensitive and controversial information online. Here in South Korea, where the internet was relatively more open than it was in places like Vietnam and China, Hoang sensed that information about the whole world was available to him, just a few clicks away, literally at his fingertips.
If Hoang already felt more free here in South Korea, how much more open, he wondered, was that land of freedom the United States of America? Certainly, in spite of the years of propaganda and misinformation about the USA he had been exposed to through the Vietnamese educational system and government controlled media, his positive experience with the friendly American Professor Moore convinced him that America really was in fact the land of the free. But then why was the USA constantly involved in the affairs of so many countries around the globe, politically and also militarily? Hoang knew enough about world events and the history of his own country to realize that American interventionism, even in the name and cause of freedom, all too often contributed to the devastation through war of nations far far away from the shores of that beautiful country and bastion of freedom, the United States of America. Focusing on these crucial issues and dilemmas boiling beneath the surface of his calm and respectful outward demeanor all through Korean class and hotel management class, Hoang found himself to be unable to focus on the lectures and lessons delivered in Korean for the remainder of the day.
At five p.m. Hoang’s classes were finished for the day, and it was time for him to leave campus and take the bus to the kalbi restaurant to start his long and demanding evening and late night shift of work there. After the short bus ride from campus and a walk of only a few blocks downtown, Hoang reached the restaurant where he would work until past midnight, first taking customer orders and serving them, and then afterwards washing dishes, cleaning the tables and kitchen, and finally mopping up the floor. The work tired him out, and it left him with little time to devote to his homework. Nonetheless, Hoang welcomed the opportunity to work in Korea because his earnings there were so much greater than what he could earn in a similar job back in Vietnam.
Was this the freedom Professor Moore had spoken of, Hoang asked himself silently in his mind as he went about his duties in the restaurant. He decided that yes, the generous wages he would earn that evening were the direct result of the kind of freedom the American professor had described. He meditated silently upon the meaning and greatness of this lofty idea, freedom, as he performed the menial tasks assigned to him by his Korean boss, while somehow, inside, he was lost in a trance of deep thoughts and weighty ideas. Going about his duties mechanically, he was so far immersed in these contemplations that he was barley cognizant of the vociferous and angry complaints shouted at him in Korean by the impatient customers and easily annoyed Korean boss when he got an order wrong due to his faltering Korean language skills.
“Hey Vietnam! Hey Vietnam!” the Koreans shouted, reprimanding him for his imperfections as a server. “We want more soju and maekju here, and two more platters of beef, not just the one you brought us now. Hey Vietnam! Wake up and pay attention. Stop daydreaming and do your job without error. What are you thinking about Vietnam? What is that big smile on your face for? Bali bali. Quick quick. Don’t keep us waiting.”
Yes, this was what freedom was like, Hoang thought to himself. He was ready and willing to endure all the trouble and consternation it led to. He was happy and pleased to endure the abuse and let it all roll off his shoulders like water off his back. He smiled stoically and tolerated the insults and criticism, all the while trusting that someday, perhaps in the not too distant future when he graduated from the university, all of his many efforts would bear the fruits he sincerely believed would be made attainable to him by this fantastic concept now at the center of his thoughts and being, the concept and idea of freedom.