Harold Dale, 31, has the distinction of being the only non-Korean English teacher living and teaching on the islands just visible from the mainland that are collectively known as Chuja-do. He gave The Weekly’s Brett Crehan an email interview last week. — Ed.
Chuja is the only territory of Jeju Special Self-Governing Province that wasn’t lifted above sea level by volcanic eruptions. Geology and linguistics push Chuja more in the direction of Jeolla province (on the Korean mainland) than Jeju Island.
There are more people drinking in a mainland rural town on a Saturday night than live on Chuja. We can predict, given the size and isolation of the island group what its main industry might be: fishing. There are two elementary schools, one middle school, no high schools and no colleges — and, if I’ve learned anything at all from my interview with Harold, there’s no paucity of beauty there either.
After putting together a resume that includes five years as an American football coach for his alma mater and three years as a substitute teacher in the Ohio and Louisiana public school systems, Harold, who is of mixed African-American and South Korean descent “kinda found the Chuja job by accident.”
Out of a choice of five different positions on Jeju, he set down Chuja as his final preference. He received a call from the recruiter asking him if he was sure he wanted the placement. In a statement in keeping with an admirer of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “Awakening of Intelligence” — if anything an exercise in training oneself to not simply turn the other cheek, but to brush off the fact that the slap ever occurred — Harold, “said what the hell, and here I am [on Chuja].”
His students seem “more mature” than their actual age, he said. Harold attributes this to the fact that, “most households consist of the father, who is most likely a fisherman, and the mother, who will work at a local shop or [her] own business. This tends to leave a lot of the children with [the] task that usually would be fulfilled by the parent. Things like helping with younger siblings or even working in the family owned shops.” None of the above is meant to imply that the worthy folks living out there wear the seats out of their pants or don the same jacket for years for want of money.
“A lot of people assume that since the main occupation of Chuja is fisherman, that they don’t have a lot of income. That’s far from the case. The yellow corvina (a little golden fish Chuja is famous for) is big, big money! Plus, these people don’t have any large expenses. They are simple people who have no reason to spend much money as it is.”
Does the isolation, and perhaps the ennui, cause the children to give less than a damn about being educated? “The kids not being interested in education is just plain silly. I mean, the kids know that the best way to leave the island is to become a better student and it will lead to more opportunities.”
When not compelled to introspection by both the beauty and the solitude of the gray-brown rock-bound island group (not forgetting the lush and nearly ubiquitous green of vegetation extending uphill almost as soon as the littoral ends), Harold finds other opportunities for walking — “some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen” — dining (at, you guessed it, seafood restaurants), and witnessing the fog pile around him: “[It] tends to linger about halfway up the mountain. So you get these great images of half the mountain being covered in fog and the other half full of vegetation.”
“Chuja results in a lot of what I like to call ‘me’ time. This is something that can either drive you crazy or make you a better person. Since I am the only English speaking foreigner, I don’t have the luxury of having a daily conversation about daily thoughts that pop up. So instead, I just use my time for a lot of self reflection. I [t]end to write down a lot of personal notes and enjoy writing about little things I see on a day to day bas[i]s.”
Harold comes to Jeju to meet friends “whenever the ferries run” on the weekends, but this is not to say that Harold hasn’t made himself a part of the community on his home of choice.
“Since it is such a small community, you become invested in each others’ lives without even knowing it. The local grocery store makes sure to set aside a chicken for me every Tuesday. The restaurants I go to already know what I’m going to order. I make it a point to go to all the local marts and purchase groceries from each one. It is a small gesture to show that you understand how a small community works.”
There is no shortage of “characters” who round off the ranks of this water-encircled community of fishers, publicans, shop-keeps and chefs: “The restaurant owner [of Harold’s favorite restaurant] is this short, squat guy that is just amazing when it comes to fish. His hands always are a little puffy due to … having them in the water working with fish. He's an overly nice guy who is always around to fill your cup with his 'special' soju.”
And then there’s a shop owner on lower Chuja who, “might have been the first person in the community that I properly met. He speaks a little English so he tends to be able to hold a few minute conversation here and there. He's about mid-fifties with shaggy salt and pepper hair. The best thing is he wears these pair of glasses that are held together by tape in every location possible. So naturally they sit crooked on his face. The glasses combined with his joyful smile always leaves me in a good mood.”
Chuja is decidedly not boring — or it could be, Harold warns.
“[I]t's possible to make any place in the world boring. Its all what you make it. If you want to sit in your room all day, then yeah, it's going to suck. But if you’re willing to go out try something new, embrace what's around you, chances are you'll probably find yourself enjoying your surroundings. It's just a ride, enjoy it while you can. That's just my approach on life in general though. The mind’s like a parachute, it only works when it's open.”
This from a man who has wintered on Chuja.
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