There Goes English Teacher: life lessons from a globe-trotting educator
Working in a foreign country is difficult, but coming home to SA proves a tougher challenge for Karin Cronje, as she details in her memoir
The confusion of being plunged into an entirely foreign country and culture is rich and well-trodden territory for writers.
The embarrassing and amusing misunderstandings. The bizarre food. The loneliness and alienation. The random acts of kindness. The gradual acclimatisation and appreciation. The lessons learnt. You probably know the formula. This is not that book. At least, not exactly.
While those elements are certainly part of it, There Goes English Teacher stretches well beyond the expected, to embrace what the cover blurb calls, 'the full catastrophe of being a human'. There's nothing of the travel writer's ironic or impassive eye. It's an immersive experience in an unusual life.
Karin Cronje, a writer and lecturer, approaching 50, takes a job teaching English in Korea. She's not an English teacher. In fact, she's Afrikaans-speaking. And she can't find Korea on a map. It's a rather rash leap into the unknown but she needs to secure her son's university tuition.
She arrives at a hagwon, a small school in a Korean village. Lessons go on until midnight, the children seem oppressed by the endless school hours, and the powers that be have their own agendas and hierarchies she can't even begin to comprehend. Not understanding a word of Korean, she's plunged into the confusion one might expect in this alien world - the food, the misunderstandings and so on. She's a good writer and it makes interesting and entertaining reading.
It's a whole lot less entertaining for Cronje. She has migraines. She's constantly nauseous. She's in culture shock so deep she can't even begin to do what she came here for - to write.
Alongside the "foreigner abroad" narrative is the writing about her attempt to finish her novel, an undertaking which echoes the slippery search for resolution and clarity that characterises her real life. Back home, problems mount and even on the other side of the world she doesn't escape the worries and admin of possessions, tenants and house maintenance.
Cronje gradually works out enough of the system to feel slightly more comfortable. She identifies a few favourite Korean dishes, and has a favourite bar. She makes friends, the wonderful guru man Dae-ho and a cast of characters who populate the book.
And then it's time to come home to Cape Town. One anticipates reunions and wrapping up, but for Cronje re-entry is almost harder than leaving. And, for the reader, utterly compelling, in a car-wreck kind of way. She can't settle, she has nowhere to live and struggles to find work, her publishers make a hash of things.
Her relationships - including that with her beloved son Marko - are under strain, a dear friend dies, there are fallings-out. In a darkly comic but wincingly painful subplot, she gets involved in some convoluted car deal with a dodgy friend. Somewhat predictably (to the reader, if not the writer) it's a catastrophic mess.
Even for a memoir this book feels remarkably raw and personal. Ageing, loss, sex, identity, writing, mental health - it's all there. It's hilarious at times, heartbreaking in places. You will want to take her under your wing, or give her a stern talking to. Cronje can be insightful, brutally honest and self-reflective - although there's a sense, too, as in all writing of the self, of her blind spots and omissions.
It is a little uneven in places, the writing about writing her novel sometimes felt too much for this reader, but it's an intriguing and enjoyable book that will surprise you, move you and stay with you as an authentic and courageous exploration of the complexity and messiness of one human life.
• Our reviewer Kate Sidley gave 'There Goes English Teacher' 4/5 stars.