“I am not ‘from’ anymore.” Diasporic identity in Karen Cronje’s There Goes English Teacher (2019)

Gert Hanekom

 

Karin Cronje’s memoir, There Goes English Teacher, relates the story of the eponymous narrator’s experiences during her time as an English teacher in a small village, Gwong-Soon, in South Korea. The text engages in particular with the manner in which individual identity is impacted upon by immersing oneself willingly in a decidedly foreign environment. The author grapples with this theme, as with others, by means of a singularly incisive, quick-paced, even breathless narrative that, overall, evokes, more than details, the complexities of living with one’s own decisions and motivations and, ultimately, how one defines one’s place in the contemporary world (encapsulated in the exposition by statements such as “The Misery of the Franticness. I don’t call the shots in my life anymore.”, 22). She also looks at her identity as defined by the people she encounters abroad, the question of Afrikaner identity and the Afrikaner diaspora, and her identity as a mother. She does so in a strikingly accessible and non-sentimental fashion.

Let us define, for the sake of this review, individual identity as that which encompasses the manner in which one views, considers and interacts with that and those which one comes into contact with. These ways of seeing, thinking and doing are determined, to a large extent, by the environment in which, and the people by which, one is raised, i.e. one’s heritage. This relational identity is constructed both by the self and by those one encounters. In the case of this memoir, the narrator can be viewed, without going into too much detail, as a middle-aged Afrikaner female and successful author who decides to go and teach English in Korea; a description that no doubt elicits a myriad of assumptions and associations for which we need not enter into a lengthy discussion here. In my view, the author quite successfully draws the reader away from such assumptions, both overtly (“Truth is I am not ‘from’ anymore.”, 23), and covertly by not harping on specific comparisons between her own cultural identity and that which she is confronted with in Korea. This has the effect of rendering the culture shock that she experiences in more universal shades than had she simply portrayed herself in the manner of the above description. This experience of shock is made less culturally specific still through musings such as the following: “I am still in culture shock. Culture shock is a like a prolonged psychotic episode. I think a shock is a shock. What does it matter which word you bang in front of it?’ (24). Of course, this attempt to make the experience more universal, in conjunction with a sparse, informal vocabulary, as well as the fact that the text is written in English, does much for the text’s accessibility to a wide audience.

Throughout the text there are many instances where aspects of the narrator’s identity, as defined earlier, are challenged in her strange new environment. Some such aspects are related to her sense of aesthetics, and the ‘new’ possibilities of symbolic meaning in gestures and actions, as expressed, for example, through her observations of etiquette among the people she interacts with: “Graciousness has to do with economy of movement, I realise, as I observe her. She doesn’t make a superfluous movement […] The ritual is not stylised, but natural, though everything probably symbolises something. This is a country with a rich heritage of symbols. Although I don’t know what goes for what, I do know that I’m in an elevated, spiritual place.” (142). Of course, in principle, this is the experience of all individuals who venture abroad and are brought into contact with cultures far removed from their own in terms of history and tradition.

Also of interest is the manner in which many Korean people, in particular those she does not build specific relationships with, define her identity: “My red cell still won’t phone as far as South Africa, which here exists for no one. They simply don’t know where it is, or, actually, what it is. All they hear is Africa.” (23). This oversimplified view of the identity of the ‘other’ as a ‘type’ rather than an individual is a theme that recurs in a multitude of literary texts (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts, to name a few), and also in the experiences of many South Africans who go abroad to various countries. The author’s engagement with this theme, as can be seen in the quoted text above, as well as in other instances in the novel, is poignantly and effectively brought to light through a pervasive, sympathetic sense of humour, for example, “’Where you from?’ / ‘South Africa.’ / ‘Aprica?’ Why ‘p’ instead of ‘f’? There’s no answer.” (23).

In the larger context of the memoir, these words (“Truth is I am not ‘from’ anymore.”, 23) not only serve to draw the reader’s attention away from assumptions of the narrator’s perceived identity, as described, but it also alludes to her feeling of not really belonging, perhaps precisely because she is an Afrikaner, and therefore by default associated with those who perpetrated the inequities of the past in her country of origin. This sentiment is further emphasized, after the narrator’s return to South Africa, by the words, “I was going to come back home to love. Yet I am as alienated and lonely here as I was in Korea.” (263). These words also evoke a sense that whatever aspects of identity, or acceptance of her identity, it was that she failed to find at home, she also failed to find in Korea, which is also a recurring theme among Afrikaner ‘expats’ no matter where they choose to venture away from their country.

Finally, the theme of the narrator’s identity, as a mother in relation to her son, Marko, and the tension inherent in this relationship in terms of the formation of both the identity of the relationship itself as a unit, and of the necessary separation of, and widening schism between, the identities of (Afrikaner) mother and son, in which her time abroad conceivably played an important role, is best elucidated on the tenderly written penultimate page: “Marko has just been for dinner. I had good wine and a leg of lamb, the way he likes it. At first we smiled uncomfortably, and then we hugged and laughed. And we both knew we had cut the cord, God, this excruciating thing, oh, my boy, you have no idea what it took. To tear away from your child, to let him go, free him of yourself […]” (279).

In this There Goes English Teacher is effective: to make accessible and convey non-sentimentally various aspects surrounding the theme of relational identity in general, how it is shaped by others and events in our lives, and of the specific alienation of the individual Afrikaner identity, both ‘at home’ and abroad. Despite a few potentially irksome stylistic elements, such as the use of exclamation marks and staccato sentence constructions, especially earlier on, which in itself may in fact effectively contribute to evoking the breathlessness of the narrator’s experience, the various themes, and in particular the theme of relational identity in the memoir, are brought to the reader elegantly, humorously and, above all, human-ly.

 

 

a stilet.digital revisit-review, by Gert Hanekom, as part of a series on Afrikaans texts of diasporic predicament & belonging. Do read this piece in conjuction with others in the series, by Zhandi van Zyl and Drew Kiser.