Pretoria - When Karin Cronje, 48, decided to pack up her life in Cape Town to go and teach English in South Korea, she was motivated by two things: the need for money to get her son through university and to finish a novel she had struggled to write.
“I can’t sit under the oak tree looking at the mountain and wondering where the hell I am in my life for another moment,” she says on the opening page of the memoir born of her experience, There Goes English Teacher.
But she admits that in spite of making a list of pros and cons, she did not really think her decision through carefully. Disillusioned with a job in publishing, and a training course, she thought would lead to another, she decided it was time to “do something noble” and so got a job at a hagwon - “a private school for after school” - packed up her life in South Africa and flew to South Korea.
Talking to staff at Exclusive Books Brooklyn, Pretoria, about There Goes English Teacher ahead of the Franschhoek Literary Festival this weekend, Cronje tells with wry humour of her experiences.
She urges the staff please not to label the book “travel”, as it is not a dispassionate telling of another country but admits that on one level it does have elements of Lost in Translation - a reference to the 2003 film set in Tokyo. “South African woman having mid-life crisis goes to foreign country, can’t understand the language and funny things happen
“Underneath is the metaphysical ‘lost in translation’ where I felt a loss of identity and my markers; I lost language, I lost memories, I had no voice in which to communicate. I was totally isolated in a little town, and stuck in this strange society”.
She reads out loud the incident from which the title is derived: describing how she filled up water bottles which she must carry uphill, slogging, aching, crestfallen with poorly dyed hair and ugly shoes, and the moment she sees herself as others see her and laughs: “There goes English teacher”.
The memoir is written in three parts, two being the years that Cronje taught in South Korea, first in the hagwon and later at a university, and the third the struggle of the first year of her return to South Africa.
Cronje says she had to forge a new identity in Korea, including deciding who she was, looking at her relationships, beliefs, ageing, displacement, and belonging. She realised then that one of the fundamental parts of her identity was being South African.
“The reverse culture shock of coming back was so severe, I really lost it, and seriously did everything wrong, scandalously wrong. I thought nothing could be as bad as when I left, but I’d changed so much,” she says. So had those she left behind.
She says the whole thing was “traumatic”, although the second year was better, especially after she met a man she describes as her “guru”.
Beside her story of South Korea is another, that of the “struggles and wonder” of the writing process. “One of the reasons I went was to finish a novel I was writing, Alles Mooi Weer, a book that went on to win the Jan Rabie Rapport Prize.
When she left for South Korea, she knew there was a flaw in that “nobody could read the main character, Hilette; I needed a drastic mind shift to fix this book, (and) it was there where the end of the book revealed itself”.
To see Cronje today, smart, a successful author, and in happy relationships with her family and friends, is a far cry from all that went wrong in the year of her return.
While she treasures memories and does not bear regrets, she has no plan to return to South Korea. It was an important chapter in her life, but like her books, it is done.