THE HIGHLY-ENTERTAINING TRAGICOMICAL STORY OF AN ENGLISH TEACHER IN KOREA
The novel White Monkey by Carlos Hughes was published in 2016. The author was born in England in 1972 and he has taught in China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. It was thanks to Goodreads that I discovered this book. I didn’t win the giveaways organized by the author, but I downloaded the ebook for free during an Amazon promotion. Having worked as an English teacher with a striking majority of undisciplined students in my home country and as a native Italian teacher with wonderful students in Austria and Mexico, I absolutely wanted to read this novel and I’m really satisfied about it.
The main character is Darren Finnegan. He was born in 1985 and he comes from an English town called Wigan, between Liverpool and Manchester. Three of his grandparents were Irish and his maternal grandmother was Welsh and he has the typical appearance of an Irishman: pale skin and red hair. Despite this he feels very British.
Darren is an only child and his father wants him to start working with him as soon as he leaves school, but Darren has no intention of emptying bins for the rest of his life, so he goes to Huddersfield to study sociology, even if his father thinks that having a degree is a waste of time, since all the good jobs go to ethnic minorities, homosexuals and the disabled. He can offer him a stable job.
Rachel is Darren’s first girlfriend. When they meet, they are both 18 and spend three happy years together with summer holidays in the South of France, Crete and Vienna. However, after the final exams, Darren receives a note from Rachel and that is the end of their story.
Darren goes back to Wigan and he realizes that his degree in sociology is completely useless. He’s offered only call centre jobs. Then he reads that Korean schools are looking for English teachers. Good salary, free apartment and flight paid for. Darren needs to grab an atlas to find out that Korea is in Asia, near China. So geographically ignorant?! Unfortunately I have met many people like him.
Darren has found out that his former girlfriend Rachel has moved to Korea with Luke, one of Darren’s friends, so he now wants to go there to win her back. Darren has made up his mind: he’s going to teach English in Korea, even if his father thinks that all Asians look the same, with the same black hair and the same face.
Flight to Seoul from Manchester: 10 hours. Darren has flown only twice before and not so far away, having visited Crete and Dublin. Darren signs a 12-month contract as a teacher in Korea, but he would be happier working in an office in Wigan.
Mr Kim, the school owner, speaks English, but he’s very unfriendly. He doesn’t like white men because he believes they just want to sleep with Korean women. He prefers to hire American female teachers because he thinks teaching is not a real man’s job. Moreover, he doesn’t like the sound of British English. With all his prejudices, Mr Kim is the Korean version of Darren’s father.
The other foreign English teachers are Billy from Ulster who has a Korean girlfriend, the American Natalie with an East Asian Studies major and the Canadian Kevin who is 46 and wants to have sex with a 19-year-old girl. Koreans learn English because they love America, so Mr Kim wants them to lie and tell new students and their parents that they all come from the USA.
In Darren’s first class there are 13 children aged 8 or 9. They run, scream, laugh and throw pens. Darren tries to take charge but to no avail. This is how he realizes that it isn’t true that all Oriental kids love studying.
The American Natalie is also very geographically ignorant and thinks that Yorkshire is a town! Anyway she also has a useful tip for Darren, that is using stickers and sweets to bribe his students so that they behave better.
I was shocked to learn that Korean students have a disgusting pastime called dong chim. They form a gun with their hands and try to insert their fingers in the victim’s anus. Teachers can also be their victims, because they know they can’t be punished. It’s appalling, but unfortunately ill-behaved students are untouchable in Italy too.
After being victim of this stupid play for several times, Billy is very angry and he reacts insulting and shaking his assailant. Mr Kim is furious and Billy quits the job. Kevin is sure he will find another soon. He thinks life in Korea is addictive: part-time hours, full-time wages and living rent-free. Kevin has already spent several years in Korea and has no intention of going back to Newfoundland to work on a fishing boat in the middle of the Atlantic. This is why he doesn’t care about dong chim.
Mr Kim’s ideal teachers are white American women, preferably young and good-looking, but they are hard to find because his school isn’t in Seoul. Darren and Natalie visit the capital every weekend. It takes an hour to get there by bus. Natalie hates Kevin because he uses offensive nicknames for his Korean colleagues. Moreover he likes teenage girls and can’t speak Korean. Natalie took a Korean language module as part of her degree, but she didn’t learn very much.
Darren is shocked when he realizes that Mr Kim admires Hitler, but Kevin tells him that Korea has different rules. Political correctness doesn’t work in the same way there and many people think Hitler was a great leader. Darren can’t report him as he could have done in England.
During a weekend in Seoul, Darren sees Rachel and Luke who are arguing, but he decides to walk away with Natalie who in the meantime has become his girlfriend.
Darren works 22 hours a week in a small town among the cabbage fields between Seoul and Daejeon. The locals want to touch his ginger hair and take pictures of him. His red head is a rarity in a sea of black hair.
After giving English classes to children, Darren has the opportunity to test his teaching skills with teenage students, but they are ignorant too. They don’ know that the English language originated in England and they have never heard of Shakespeare and Dickens.
Joe, the new fat American teacher obliges his students to stand up for the entire lesson because if they’re tired they keep quiet. The do-gooder Natalie thinks that’s child abuse and she complains with Kevin who however isn’t worried for a bunch of bad-behaved kids.
Joe, who is in his 40s like Kevin, likes katoeys, that is ladyboys. Natalie is furious because she thinks that he’s exploiting poor people. Darren has a sociology degree, but he doesn’t care about racism, sexism, homophobia and global poverty as the communist Western feminist Natalie does. She’s still thinking about her former boyfriend Kurt. She’s already regretting her decision of leaving him to see the world.
One day Joe punches a student whose nickname is Gordon in his face after being his dong chim victim and he breaks his nose. The child is taken to the local hospital. Mr Kim says teachers should accept dong chim as part of Korean culture. They shouldn’t see it as a sexual assault! Joe gives up his job and Gordon becomes the new hero among students. Darren is attacked by his dong chim for the second time and takes him to Mr Kim, but the school owner refuses to punish the student and gets angry at Darren instead!
Darren’s revenge: laxative chocolate cupcakes. Gordon is the fattest student and eats more cupcakes than any of his classmates. Darren has mixed the laxative cupcakes with normal ones. After that day, Gordon’s parents remove him from the school.
Natalie admits she’s dating Darren just because he’s one of the few available white men in town, but after getting used to Korean food, he’s gaining weight and Mr Kim tells him that he can’t control his classes because he’s fat. For this reason, he wants Darren to start going to the gym with him three times a week after work, but Mr Kim runs away from the gym after seeing Ayize, his former black teacher from South Africa. The Korean school owner thinks Ayize is a witch doctor, while the truth is that the black man is a doctor of linguistics who speaks five languages. He arrived in Korea to work as a professor of African languages in Seoul, but then he married a Korean woman and they had a daughter. His wife brought him back to her hometown and after being fired by Mr Kim, he has found a job as a high school teacher.
Darren receives an e-mail from his university friend Asif who would like to start working with him, but when Mr Kim sees Asif’s CV he immediately tells Darren that he won’t hire any teacher who looks like Osama bin Laden. Korean parents don’t like dark-skinned teachers. Moreover Asif has no English name, even if he’s a British citizen like Darren. Asif has a degree in business studies.
Darren decides to go and watch a cricket game in an Australian bar, but Odin, an Australian teacher working in another school in town, begins to insult both him and Natalie. Darren reacts, but he’s beaten by Odin’s friend, a giant Australian guy of Croatian descent whose name is Igor. Natalie gets angry and leaves Darren alone. This is the end of their relationship. The students laugh at Darren’s black eyes and keep telling him he looks like a panda and their mocking behaviour last for ten days, until Darren tightly ties the bendy pencil of one of his most insolent eight-year-old students.
Some days before Christmas, Darren is obliged by Mr Kim to put on a Santa costume to help him with his school advertising in town. Without realising it, six months earlier Darren signed a contract written in Korean where there is written that teachers have to do such things, if they don’t want to lose their job. Three days before Christmas, Natalie quits her job and goes back to the States. It’s Kevin who informs Darren.
The Korean teacher Mi Hyun visits Darren on Christmas. They eat and watch Titanic together. Nice surprise for him. People scream and laugh at Darren in the streets. Koreans find him amusing like a monkey in a zoo. Fortunately, Mi Hyun keeps visiting Darren and they become a couple after spending a night together. She is 23. Despite his dislike for Asians, Darren’s dad is happy because this time his son has a thin girlfriend.
Anyway the happy end is not near yet. Maureen is the new Australian teacher. Her features: fat, around 30 years old, blonde hair and a red spotty face. She has a degree in education and a great experience teaching abroad. Maureen tells Darren he can’t teach and that his students are bored by his classes. Maureen knows how to teach English and she shares tips with Darren.
Darren wasn’t interested in Asian women before moving to Korea, because Wigan was mostly populated by white people. Maureen instead thinks that Korean women are only interested in their physical appearance. She doesn’t like Korean men because their masculine attributes are smaller than her vibrator. Mi Hyun is not bothered by her words and she isn’t even convinced that Maureen is a woman because she’s ugly.
Darren celebrates his 22nd birthday in Korea and Jung Won, the other Korean teacher, has a special birthday present for him: he attacks Igor when he’s drunk. He’s in love with Natalie and believes that she left because of him. He isn’t worried because his father is the chief of the police and in Korea foreigners always lose against Koreans.
Darren saves a nice sum of money every month, but he doesn’t want to buy a laptop, so he goes to an Internet café, even if also his students and a retarded boy go there. The latter is around 18 years old and very strong. He hits Darren every time, but he can’t hit him back because he’s a teacher, so his revenge is shaking his Pepsi bottle while he’s away and restarting the computer, so that he loses his video game score.
After being promoted to teacher co-ordinator, Maureen orders Darren to go to her house for a job meeting after work. Darren is worried and his fears come true when a half-naked Maureen invites him to be the recipient of anal sex. She would like to use a big black truncheon. At this point Darren runs away.
Mr Kim wants to fire Darren before he completes his last month to avoid paying his airfare and severance pay. He gives Darren a warning letter for arriving one minute late and another for wearing brown shoes. He then tries a different move and fires Mi Hyun. Dating between employees of the same school is forbidden, as it’s written in the contract. However, Mr Kim didn’t care when Darren dated Natalie, but now he sees Mi Hyun’s as a foreigner’s whore, a traitor of the Korean race. Darren is fired too, after slapping Mr Kim’s hat off his head. That starts a fight. Mr Kim beats Darren who is saved by Mi Hyun who smashes a fire extinguisher across the back of his head. Mr Kim wants to call the police, but Jung Won promises to help his friend.
In 2009, Darren and Mi Hyun visit England. Mi Hyun has bought matching blu-and-white striped sailor pullovers and Darren is afraid he will look like a bisexual French submariner. Darren is now working in a Korean public school and he’s going to marry Mi Hyun. His parents are flying back to Korea with him to attend his marriage. In 2015, Darren is still working in Korea and with all the experience he has gained in the meanwhile he can help the new foreign teachers.
White Monkey is a fast-paced book, it’s full of interesting events and I really hope to read more novels written by this author. The title made me think about a thing my husband, who is Mexican, told me when we were still boyfriend and girlfriend. It seems that in some parts of Mexico the locals use the expression “white monkeys” when they talk about Europeans, because we are generally white and hairy, but I think that in this case such title was chosen because, according to the narrator, in Korea white people are often treated like monkeys in a zoo.
I have found some mistakes in White Monkey, such as “ad nauseum” instead of “ad nauseam” or a fake website that sometimes is spelled as “koreaeducators.com” and others as “koreaneducators.com”, but the novel is so enjoyable that they don’t spoil the pleasure of reading it. Well done! Well done! Well done! I highly recommend this book!