I intended to write (ironically) about “compassion fatigue” yesterday, but then went off unexpectedly on a completely different track. My little detour into culturally specific emotions then got me reminiscing about another experience, so that is where I am going now, instead of back to the original idea.

Or that is where I would be going, if I could just get Robert Frost’s voice out of my head.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.


This time I am 25 years old and living in Southeast Asia. During my 10 months there, I spent most of that time teaching English to Koreans in a place called the “Language Teaching Research Center”. A fancy name for a place that was only slightly more legitimate than the 100 other language schools in the city of Seoul. The country was gearing up to host the Olympics at the time. Motivated by national pride (and “encouraged” by the military dictatorship), it seemed like all the citizens were trying to learn some English. That meant any native speaker with even the shoddiest photocopy of an obviously fake high school diploma could get a well-paid teaching job. When I went in for my first interview, the managers looked at my Bachelor’s Degree in English, teaching certification, and résumé showing 2½ years of experience and seemed to be thrown for a loop. One sputtered out “Oh! . . . you’re a real teacher!” and the conversation immediately switched course, with them trying to convince me how great it was to work there.

And it was great. We used something called “The Silent Method” which had one or two similarities to Montessori principles. The teacher was supposed to be in the background, not the center of the classroom, just facilitating the students when necessary. We did only speaking lessons – no homework, no tests, no writing of any kind. We had a couple of cabinets filled with materials separated into 6 or 7 different levels and could use whatever we chose to (or just improvise). There was only one iron-clad rule: don’t use any materials from a different level (so that, as students moved up, there would be no repeats.) Terms lasted two months, with the clients coming five days a week for one and half hour classes. The students, housewives and self-employed came in the mornings and afternoons, the working and business people in the evenings. By my final terms there, I could easily teach six groups a day with no stress. The cash poured in and for a short period, I was a millionaire. At least that was what my bank balance said. Of course that was in Korean won. Once I had exchanged the wons on the black market for dollars, it was a stack of bills small enough to be smuggled out of the country inside the pants leg of some jeans packed in my suitcase.

As cheesy as the method might sound, it was actually exactly what most of our students needed. They had graduated from high school with eight years of English behind them, but on the first day of Level One, they all could only say the same three sentences: “Europe have no culture, no history. Korea have 5000 year history. Korea have four distinct seasons.” If I asked them “What is your name?” they were stumped.

For me, teaching there became my own personal odyssey through all the facets of groupthink – my own and theirs. It started with the names. We addressed the students with Miss, Mrs., or Mr. and their family names – unfortunately about half the country has the same last name. (One of my fellow foreign teachers of the fake diploma variety claimed that he started every new course by saying “Okay – all the Kims go to that side of the room. All the Lees go to the other. The rest of you, get out!”) To make matters worse, that cliche about “they all look alike” was unfortunately true for me – at least at the start of my stay there. But as the months passed, my eyes got trained in distinguishing different features, and by the end of my stay, they all looked completely different to me. The funny thing was . . . they said the same thing about white people all looking alike.

One big perk was the Korean respect for teachers and authority figures of all kinds. They were also very generous and had the custom of giving teachers gifts at the end of the course. Sometimes, they also took me out for dinner. It was at the first few of these occasions that I discovered the intensity of pressure the Korean culture puts on its members to conform. I realized that “groupthink” could become . . . (I wanted to write “groupfeel”, but that sounds slightly obscene) . . . a shared emotion.

In the restaurant, we all sat on the floor around one low table, in other words, at the same level and in a way that everyone could see everyone else and no one had their backs turned to anyone. We were served different dishes that were all placed in the middle so that everyone ate from the same bowls. At some point in the evening, one of my students would stand up and sing a song – right there in the middle of the restaurant with no accompaniment. Once one person did it, each person in the circle was expected to do the same, one after another.

Eventually, it got around to me.

I didn’t sing. And I certainly didn’t sing alone. And in a public place, for heaven sakes.

I waved them off when they told me it was my turn. I tried the “Thanks but no thanks” tack. I tried to explain how impossible it would be for me; I explained it was a cultural thing . . . They were clearly disappointed, even disturbed. Some were adamant. “You have to,” they told me, “or you will destroy the Kibun.”

The non-conformist in me went into overdrive. And since I didn’t know what “keyboon” was, I had no problem destroying it. Better that than my pride.

Throughout the following months, I slowly learned the significance of Kibun. The Koreans translated the word as “harmony”, but it was really much more than that. Any time a group formed – in a classroom, in a family, in a restaurant – a “group feeling” developed and everyone there could sense it – like a shared emotion. Everyone was responsible for maintaining it, keeping it positive, harmonious. The group was more important than its individual members, each one of whom stood up in turn and sang that fact out to the others.

I had more dinners with classes, but had the foresight to announce beforehand and as a precondition that there would be no singing from this American individualist. And there never was.

Now, I am telling all this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence.

My thirty years since then have been spent mostly in Austria, which is not only geographically somewhere between the USA and Korea, but culturally as well. Especially when it comes to the relative importance of the individual versus the group (“STREBER! STREBER!”). In that time, I also had my own kids and started teaching gradeschoolers – both of which brought singing back into my life. I sometimes wonder – if the person I am today were back in that Korean restaurant, would I sing?

In the end, it might not matter. In all probability, my truly very bad singing voice would have been just as deadly to Kibun as my not singing at all.

I took the road less traveled by
and it didn’t make much difference.

3 thoughts on “Kibun

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