Lost in Translation? The Case of the Medieval Professor and the Ivory Korean Tower

EXPAT LIFE, Korean Life Add comments

By 3WM

Anyone who’s first arrived in Korea knows the feeling of stepping off the plane, walking through the airport and emerging to head for one’s new life abroad.  And for most of us the usual pattern of culture shock plays out with the initial excitement at everything new, then anxiety and frustration when all that luster wears off, and, if you stay long enough, adjustment and even biculturalism for the long-termers.  Sure, there are innumerous aspects of this cultural clash, but there’s no doubt that it takes place.

Many people who’ve stayed in Korea say, “suck it up.”  You’re going to face challenges and confusion but roll with it and be cognizant of the cultural cues and times you’ll need to bow, stay quiet and move on.  There’s always that sense of tact–did you find a way to make it work?; could you find a way to make it work?  So many factors are often in play–money, housing, health, family, contracts, coworkers etc–that it’s difficult to parse out exactly what sends a person over the edge, what makes someone choose to leave.

Over the years the staff members of 3WM have come into contact with many of these stories (and we have a few of our own).  Each time there have always been common threads and drastically different factors.  We’ve known the many teachers, the migrant workers, the hotel chefs, the USFK servicemembers, the bar owners, the fashion designers, the students, the photographers,  the academy owners, the radio and TV personalities, the film makers, the journalists–well, the point is we’ve been able to learn about a diverse array of experiences and personalities.

Recently one of these stories came to our attention and once again raised those questions–was it a cultural clash?; could it have been different?; can these things be prevented?; does Korea need to change things?; do foreigners need to “suck it up”?

We present you the reader with what we’ve found with the note that not all the details are clear–some of the parties involved declined requests for comments (or just ignored them).  Below is a list of relevant links, some with comments indicating to what extent parties were willing to speak.

      • The author of the Chronicle article, David McNeill, provided some comments about the case but was unable to speak freely; McNeill’s editor, Ian Wilhelm, responded to requests for a comment with the following: “I appreciate your interest in the story, but I’ll decline to speak about it or give David the green light to go into details. It’s probably best for The Chronicle that we let the article speak for itself.”
      • [UPDATE]  On Feb. 20, Korea University’s Office of External Affairs sent a lengthy attached reply in the following email:Greetings from Korea University.
        Please find below an official account of the situation Professor Michael Foster is embroiled in with Korea University. The attached file is a reply to 3WM and intended for your reference only. It should not be linked to your site or made available online.
        The article contributed by Professor Michael Foster contains information that is false and misleading.Generally the information provided by the university outlines Michael Foster’s alleged failure to conduct classes as scheduled, his illegal departure from the university and the country, his threatening of the head of his department and his distribution of improper emails to university staff.Furthermore, the university says Mr. Foster is facing police charges for his threats and other charges under Articles of the Criminal Act of Korea, including but not limited to fraud, obstruction of business and slander.Lastly, the university flatly denies Mr. Foster ever faced any discrimination or threats while under employment there.

        Paul Z. Jambor, a full-time lecturer at Korea University’s College of Education, Art & Design said,  “I always say there are two sides to every story.  I myself have absolutely no complaints about Korea University, and the other colleagues I know who work for the English department have never voiced any complaints either.  Somehow Michael’s ordeal seems to be an isolated case.”


32 Responses to “Lost in Translation? The Case of the Medieval Professor and the Ivory Korean Tower”

  1. Charles Montgomery Says:

    Awesome job, particularly that translation from the Chosun Ilbo and the response from Foster (who to my mind seems to not quite understand that EVERYONE in Korea is expected to behave – but that’s just me^^).

  2. Jeff Says:

    Get with the program, dude. If you head to Korea, you better know it is Korea. And I would forget any litigation.

  3. socializationisafunnything Says:

    When I read the CHE piece on Dr. Foster it seemed odd that CHE would take the risk of representing Korea University the way they did. I thought they favored Foster’s side, actually – despite their inclusion of a quote from someone in Korea whose experience hadn’t been quite as harrowing as Dr. Foster’s. (And for the record, Dr. Foster’s picture at the top of the CHE story suggests his experiences did just a bit more than “bookend the piece” – as his 3WM account would have us believe.). Interestingly for me, in the 3WM piece Dr. Foster wrote: “Unfortunately, the article’s focus was on the least interesting and less important parts of my story.” Is this a shot at the writer at CHE – as though Dr. Foster had no skills for managing how he was portrayed? Even better, in the version for 3WM, we get the following from Dr. Foster: “Since my wife, a South Korean, hesitated to leave her country, we decided to stay for a few years, especially in light of the push Korean universities were making to internationalize themselves.” Is Dr. Foster blaming his spouse for his demise in Korea? Wait, let me nuance that a bit: doesn’t this passage just do some fancy rhetorical work to position Dr. Foster’s residence in Korea as the result of him making a sacrifice for his spouse?; and then doesn’t the intensifying adverb ‘especially’ also do some nice work to foreground the issue of internationalization of Korean universities – which (surprise!) is a key theme in Dr. Foster’s write-up for 3WM. I *do* sincerely hope that Dr. Foster’s medical issue got sorted, and further, that he had medical insurance back in the United States to sort it. I also hope that tenure track job prospects in the US look better now than they did when Dr. Foster’s wife “hesitated to leave her country, [and] [they] decided to stay for a few years” – because quite clearly, Dr. Foster’s decision to stay in Korea for a few years was not at all related the dismal situation for PhD-holding job seekers in America, the money adjuncts, sessionals, or even assistant profs make (much less save) in America, or student loans. ”Suck it up” is an understatement; an academic not willing to go back and “reclaim a decade of primary materials on medieval manuscripts, paleography, medieval Latin, and European history, part of me thinks Korea University should keep the materials” ? Really?

  4. John Says:

    Interesting. As to the larger question of differences between “International standards” and “Korean standards” there can be no doubt that Korea stands with China and Japan in insisting upon unique and willfully idiosyncratic standards. I’m always amused with the assumption that, in the fullness of time, Korea’s “unique” standards will be alleviated, as the process of internationalization is assumed to be inexorable. There is at least as much evidence to suggest that Korea will be persistently resolute in the desire to set itself apart, and will continue to view internationalization as a contagion.
    David McNeil’s article categorized Korea as a country with seemed, in the eyes of a foreigner, to be “increasingly cosmopolitan and vibrant,” and there’s the rub. The evidence which suggests the “increasingly” bit misses the subtext, which is that worldliness is a problem to be managed through exposure and proper classification. While it is possible that this process of exposure and classification may lead to true internationalization, the blind assumption that it is inevitably ordained reaches such a fever pitch in some individuals that to suggest otherwise is viewed as apostasy.

  5. Michael Foster Says:

    Great post, John–you hit the nail on the head, IMO.

    As for socialization’s long-winded post, perhaps I should just say this: I turned down another tenure-track job in a European country to go to Korea.

  6. KT Says:

    The Korean media does it again. The Chosun piece is a perfect example of what they do when it comes to trying to cover up something–they love to twist things and make things up and quote quotes that never existed. When it stops making sense like during the first two paragraphs, any Korean knows they’re at it again. I’d like to know what foreigners think of that kind of writing. It’s a blow up piece that has the only reason of destroying F and making the mighty university and all those who worship it or went to it feel like they’ve been attacked by another waygook. You can be sure there was some “business” meeting when the reporter or probably his editor met with KU people and put the story together.
    And my advice to F is to leave it all behind and get on with life–he will waste too much time and money and likely end up with nothing from a Korean court.

  7. Chris Says:

    Foster is a guy who needed someone to tell him to shutup; most professors love to hear themselves and in Korea that can be a problem. You don’t go to KU and start pontificating about gay rights and how messed up the country is…unless you want trouble because sure as hell enough it will come back…and it did. Who is this guy kidding, phd or not? All he needed to do was go to Daves and read the posts of those not so great as he. Sorry, but I have zero time for such people; why do you need something special in Korea? Because the govt is claiming to want a multicultural society? Because you’re some prof who signed a contract? You shot your mouth off and clearly didn’t bend to get through the Korean doorway. The country is mad f’d up and human rights are down in the gutters but is asking you to kiss some yellow Korean ass while banking large money such a big deal? Just teach all those texts you had in your office and cut the shit. I imagine you’re a mama’s boy with separation issues who got to Korea and immediatley thought, “get me the hell out of here.” Queue the defense mechanisms–shoot off at the country in the classroom…one of your only ways to fight back which sunk your ship…you probably knew this was coming and that’s why you planned your exit. Bitching about your pension is laughable. KU is Korea. They don’t owe you squat and you can be sure any “Korean” court will see it the same. The fact that you left the country and a contract is reason enough to make you pay some cash. So saeki, I’d just take it as an experience, let it build some character and probably avoid going to Asia–it isn’t the West. Even a doctor should be able to see that.

  8. Michael Foster Says:

    Fascinating response–essentially: it’s your fault because Korea is fucked up.

    Just should also mention: I had lived abroad for 9 years before coming to Korea. Living in a foreign culture isn’t new to me, but I do have some basic standards for how much I will tolerate.

  9. socializationisafunnything Says:

    I’ll take long-winded, and fair enough on the job offer in a European country. I guess what i can’t understand is how Dr. Foster couldn’t have seen it all coming, despite whatever optimism he may have had about being able to change/tolerate/internationalize (?) Korea. Further, it’s this sort of underlying ideology that contrasts “unique and willfully idiosyncratic standards” with a sort of ‘real’ or ‘true’ internationalization that is difficult to understand – as though “basic standards” aren’t localized, contingently worked out versions of what a person (uni/country) can or “will tolerate”; as though there are fewer unique and wilful idiosyncrasies in Europe or the US – better hidden perhaps, or maybe more accessible because of language? The presupposition that internationalization means non-negotiable “basic standards” implies a wilful ignorance to the likelihood that there are temporal, spatial, cultural (blah blah) dimensions on a thing’s trajectory to becoming ‘internationalized’. And concomitantly: that foreigners (in this case Dr. Foster) aren’t really obliged to acknowledge the unique and wilful idiosyncrasies at the root of their own basic standards. Just throwing it out there.

  10. Links of Interest | The Marmot's Hole Says:

    [...] Three Wise Monkeys has some stuff on the case of Michael Foster, formerly a professor in Korea who seems to have had a bad experience. Or the school with him. I [...]

  11. Michael Foster Says:

    The basic standard I referred to: honesty, consistent standards regardless of skin color, upholding contractural obligations, not threatening colleagues and students.

  12. PortaJohn Says:

    @# 8,

    …and there you have it. One can save an awful lot of time in reading blogs like this if you can weed out those whose essential position is as you state here: Korea is fucked up, and you’re an asshole for either not putting up with it, and you’re suspect and actually undesirable if you don’t constantly praise it and make excuses for it. Michael, I think the best thing you can do is, spread the word, tell your story, and get on with what looks to be a brilliant career. If only all the professors listed here had known what they were getting into.. sigh.
    Best of luck!

  13. University Guy Says:

    I’ve got a story that will top everyone.

    The difference between me and everyone else is that I’ve got documentation, witnesses, email correspondences, signed statements by faculty,….

    I’ve never been so scared in my life.

  14. kamiza Says:

    “The unbending tree breaks.” (Lao Tzu)

  15. John in NY Says:

    Mr. Foster, why did you not show up to work for 10 straight weeks?

  16. AssistantProfessorGuy Says:

    None of the assistant professors I know here in South Korea are entitled to a sabbatical. That’s not to say that some are. Some may well be. However, I strongly doubt it would be granted to them after a couple of years of service. This appears to be the case of conflicting expectations.

  17. AssistantProfessorGuy Says:

    I was clearly hasty in submitting my previous comment. Allow me to reiterate…

    None of the assistant professors I know here in South Korea are entitled to a sabbatical. That’s not to say that none are. But, there’s no need to explain that a sabbatical is never grated after just a couple of years of service. My own contract states the if I become unable to fulfill my commitments because of illness, I may be terminated from my position. I would imagine this is in line with the labor standards act. No, this appears to be a case of conflicting expectations. Nothing more, nothing less. Both parties should settle their differences, learn from the experience, and move on. Dragging this through the media is the wrong approach to take.

  18. hardyandtiny Says:

    If your grandfather dies you go home, there’s no problem there…

    “In November 2011, things quickly worsened when another colleague, Ms. L, a Korean-American professor of English linguistics in my department, asked my assistant, A-yeong Seok, to forward all emails that I had ever sent to her.”

    That you sent to A-yeong Seok?

    “In March 2012, a department assistant used the head of department’s stamp without his approval. The head of department, Mr. K, flew into a rage over this and requested that I be disciplined for the assistant’s behavior.”

    How exactly did he want you to be disciplined?

    “Things devolved quickly. Mr. K began sending threatening emails”

    Show example of a threatening email.

    “Shortly afterwards, KU stopped paying me and refused to acknowledge my letter of resignation, which I submitted at the end of November.”

    Which happend first, they stopped paying you or you resigned?

  19. bluesclues Says:

    “In March 2012, a department assistant used the head of department’s stamp without his approval. The head of department, Mr. K, flew into a rage over this and requested that I be disciplined for the assistant’s behavior.”

    How exactly did he want you to be disciplined?


    What did the department assistant give mr. foster a stamp for? Presumably it was to approve something for mr. foster specifically? Maybe to travel :) ?

    The point is not really about Korea being fucked up and Mr. Foster being an asshole, undesirable, or unwilling to make excuses for it. No one’s blaming him (well, maybe @Chris). IMO @kamiza is onto something

  20. Pedro Says:

    Who the hell cares how the KU 새끼들 wanted Foster punished? What do you wanna hear? Make him get the instant coffee or pay for the 회식 or face repeated observations? The guy, regardless of being a board, got the usual Corean deal once he started blabbing in classes. That does not work. Students, teachers, profs, admin are Korean and you’re a 외국인. See the problem? Mr. Foster I’d say stay outta Korea and enjoy life in your country.

  21. AssistantProfessorGuy Says:


    My contract states that I’m entitled to 7 days of leave if a close family member dies. I’m unsure if the death of a grandparent counts, but in the nearly two decades I’ve been here, all of my grandparents have died. I haven’t taken a day off for their deaths. Sure, I was saddened, but traveling halfway around the world wouldn’t have brought them back.


    I was in my mid 20s when I landed my position. I’m now in my 40s. One look and you know I’m clearly not Korean, or at least not ethnically. I’ve never had any problems with my employer. The dean of academic affairs even helped me conduct research for my dissertation. And so, to me, playing the race card is pathetic (and stereotypically American).

    As Mr. Jambor pointed out, there are always two sides to a story.

    As I previously suggested, this appears to be a case of conflicting expectations. Both sides, I would guess, share some of the blame. It’s certainly not something newsworthy.

  22. Allison Says:

    There’s more to this story and I doubt we’ll ever hear everything. I just wonder why Dr. Foster was so unprepared for Korea, and Koreans, when he has a Korean wife, and, presumably, Korean in-laws? Look before you leap.

  23. sam Says:

    Korea is a god damn shithole. I taught 4 years at a public school in Korea. I hate that fucking country

  24. Michael Foster Says:

    “why did you not show up to work for 10 straight weeks?”

    I did show up to work for 10 straight weeks.

    “That you sent to A-yeong Seok?”


    “How exactly did he want you to be disciplined?”

    I don’t know.

    “Show example of a threatening email”

    Happily–email me at michaelfoster.public [at] gmail.com and I’ll forward the emails.

  25. beenthere Says:

    My memories of Korea: lots of drinking and drunken Koreans, offensive and disgusting spitting–everywhere, blind admiration for anything related to money whether superficial or not (thus the guy who lives in a hole but has a shiny suit and a BMW), widespread discrimination/bigotry, good BBQ, some nice neighbors who brought bricks of rubber when I moved in, completely whacked walking sense, old ladies standing in the way, weird shit in the supermarket, vomit, great mountains, stupid singing rooms, white envelopes, smart subway system, crazy cool buses, short-shorts…well, good and bad and that’s the point. Sometimes you either can look the other way or decide to be the nail that sticks out. Foster’s story is pretty clear.

  26. charliemarlow Says:

    It is unfortunate that the level of cultural sophistication in US higher education is such that one
    academic’s cultural conflict is a significant news story.
    Anyone who has worked anywhere outside the US can tell stories at least as interesting, always with the same puzzle to work out as to who was to blame for what, if anything.
    We have not yet developed a seamless academic world of politically correct or politically incorrect views and behaviors, or a world where all the administrators are kind, non-judgemental, and fair-minded, and where free-thinking professors can attack the local culture with impunity, if not praise.
    Actually, I would suggest that the situation decried above is also prevalent in the US, especially if the ideological shoe is on the other foot.
    So parsing out M. Foster’s case will be like unraveling a dish of spaghetti, and to the same benefit.

  27. Michael Foster Says:

    @beenthere – I’m not quite sure if you sympathize with me or not, but no matter–I think you’re 100% correct in everything you say.

    To this day, I will never understand the spitting (and I’m quite amused to see Korea’s spitting culture used to attack my character in one of the articles translated here). One of the greatest joys of living outside of Korea for me now is that I can go for a walk outside and not hear that horrible, revolting sound. And I don’t have to look at the ground everywhere I go.

    I do appreciate how I now can enjoy the simple things!

  28. Kevin Were Says:

    Michael’s account reminds me of the two years I taught English at Hongik University. A colleague sent an email to other foreign teachers inviting them to a new bar for social drinks. Nothing coercive, debauched, illegal or otherwise, just an invitation to get together socially. The email came to the attention of the administration and the teacher was raked over the coals for ‘inciting the foreign teachers to drink.’ He nearly lost his job and had to go through a review panel to be reinstated. This is in an environment where students routinely get dragged to MTs and forced to drink in a country where alcohol is embedded into every aspect of life.
    I myself was not renewed after 2 years with the dubious and inexplicable charge of being ‘uncooperative’ – no details were ever given and nothing had previously been said to me – largely a result of my not volunteering to be a judge for speech contests I suspect. I fought the charge, was offered a probationary year’s renewal, then resigned, glad to be out of such a narrow-minded, intrusive system. The oft repeated comment among the foreign English teaching faculty there was ‘do your work, don’t say anything and keep your head down.’

  29. Harvey Says:

    Why did foster take his claim to the labor board and not the Korean techers appeal commision?
    Korea uni operates under the private school act.

  30. Harvey Says:

    Foster what pension u pay into?

  31. Michael Foster Says:

    Yes, KTPF. I contacted them and they told me they can’t give me my pension until KU submits a document to them. I asked them if it was possible for them to never submit that document, and the very nice woman with good English at KTPF said frankly, “it’s possible and it happens, but it’s very rare.” Lawyers I have spoken to have said my best bet is to try to convince KU to submit the documents on my own.

    Thank you for the info about the KTAC–I’ll try them next.

  32. notthesameJohn Says:

    It’s super important to mention that she spoke ‘good English’, even if you weren’t being sarcastic. I know here in the US my neighbor is always happy to be able to obtain info about her pension in her first language :\ <>

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