A dystopian novelist turns his attention to a memoir, recounting the 18 months he lived in South Korea.
In 1993, 23-year-old University of Iowa graduate Diehl (The Book of Wanda, 2018, etc.) accepted a position at SNM Academy in Taegu (now known as Daegu), South Korea, teaching English to adults. SNM had nine levels of classes, 101 through 109. There was also a Junior Academy for younger students. At the junior school, the author met Jennifer, a beautiful, young Korean woman who captured his heart. She was a Taegu native teaching English there. Their relationship—first one of friendship, then love—broke Korean social norms and put them in great danger. She was the middle child and, worse, the second daughter of a wealthy, professional family. “I was a disappointment to them the day I was born,” she told Diehl. Within the family, her needs were subservient to those of her older sister and younger brother. Combining the drama and excitement of a novel with some sociological commentary, the author offers both a tender love story and an eye-opening depiction of Korean values, restrictions, and strengths in the early ’90s. As a white man, he was viewed with suspicion, which turned into outright hostility whenever he was seen walking or dining with Jennifer. Through re-creations of classroom dialogue with his most advanced students, the 109s, Diehl deftly highlights various aspects of Korean social stratification. One student explained: “Men are different. To men, most important is respect. Way to get respect is to be a manager. When every man is manager and every woman is mother, then everyone is happy.” After Jennifer’s parents discovered she was dating an American, threatening to disgrace the family, they beat her mercilessly. Here the narrative turns from being intriguing and at times lighthearted to gripping, as under the cover of darkness and with contrived documentation, the couple fled to Hong Kong and later the United States.
An engrossing, poignant, and often disturbing adventure; loaded with historical and cultural details about the Korean Peninsula.