Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

He will sell well in Asia

If the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line, then how I ended up teaching English in Korea started off with an interview for a teaching position in Indonesia.

It also helped that I had in the words of an interviewer, “the All-American look.”

In the summer of 1990 I had just finished teaching an adult education class—an ESL class—at Illinois Valley Community College (actually, it was an off-site class at a church in Streator, Illinois) when I got a phone call from this ELSI (English Language Schools International) in California about the teaching position. This was followed by another phone call—a phone interview—and then, I was told that I would have to have another interview at a language institute in a suburb of Chicago—located on the campus of Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois.

So on a hot August morning, I was on my way to what I thought was the last step before I would get on a plane and start a new job at a new language school in Indonesia. Although my teaching experience was limited to a reading class for a summer ESL course at Western Illinois University in 1988, six months at a language school in Japan, and the adult education course I just finished, it seemed as though I was a shoo-in for the job.

Even the person who had interviewed me on the phone thought so.

“The interview is just a formality,” she had told me. “We just want you to sit down and have a face-to-face with a teacher to assess your teaching skills.”

That was good enough for me. In fact, I was so confident that I was going to get the job that I picked a copy of Fodor’s travel guide for Southeast Asia to read up on In-donesia. Between reading about hotels and the best place to find a cup of coffee, I tried to learn as much as I could about Indonesia to impress the interviewer what-ever knowledge and information I could glean from that book. I even thought about going to LaSalle’s public library to see if there were any books about Indonesia.

The interview went quite well. Although I didn’t have the chance to dazzle the interviewer with my knowledge of Indonesia, I thought that I did quite answering his questions about my ESL teaching philosophy and how I would teach certain language points. For example, I was asked how I would do error correction and how I would handle teaching a multi-level class (something I had just done teaching the adult education class at IVCC).

When I left the interview and Concordia two hours later I was already thinking about what I would need to bring to Indonesia and about taking on this temporary job at a Del Monte canning factory in Mendota, Illinois to tide me over until I left.

I didn’t get the job but I ended up working at Del Monte until almost the end of October. When the recruiter had called me to inform me that I didn’t get the job, she had told me that the school felt my ESL methodology background was a little weak for a new school opening.

Fair enough.

“They needed someone with a little more experience, especially in curriculum development,” she explained.

She also assured me that there would be other teaching jobs in the future—positions that I would be better suited for given my experience.

“We have jobs opening up in Korea all the time,” she told me, “if you are interested.”

I was and a month later she called me again with an offer to teach at a language institute in Seoul. Two months later, on December 8, 1990 I arrived in Seoul.

Applying to teach at that school in Indonesia and the interview at Concordia would have been an obscure footnote to the teaching career I would go on to have in Korea had I not been offered a chance to be the academic director of a new school opening up in downtown Seoul in 1992. Actually, it wasn’t a new school, but the managing director who was related to the owner of the publishing company that owned the language institute I had been teaching at, wanted to revamp the school’s curriculum and offer a new program. He also wanted to hire an academic director and my name came up (along with three other instructor’s names).

I had an interview with him and a few days later, I was called into the office of my boss.

“Mr. Yoon likes you,” my boss said. “The job is yours if you want it. He really wants you.”

“What do you think?”

I heard rumors about Mr. Yoon being too demanding and dictatorial at his language institute. One rumor was that he held onto instructor’s passports so they could not leave the country, or in the parlance of the profession, “do a runner” – leave the country without telling anyone when things got too difficult.

“Personally, I wouldn’t want to work for him but if you’re looking for some job advancement, I’d take it.”

I sat there in the chair and stared at my boss. “My sentiments exactly.”

“Just don’t do a runner,” he laughed.

On my way out he handed me a folder, my personnel file. “This belongs to you.”

That night, back in my apartment I was a little curious as to what was contained in my personnel file.

Well, I’m the boss now so I guess it is okay for me to take a look.

Inside the folder there was my initial application, letters of reference, copies of my diplomas and transcripts as well as my CV. Some of the more recent documents were two observation assessments when I was observed by the former academic director a month after I had started teaching.

And then there it was—the interview form the interviewer had filled out when I had interviewed for the teaching position in Indonesia.

Hmm, I wonder what he wrote?

There were some comments underneath some of the questions pertaining to my teaching experience and background but what really caught my attention was what was scribbled in the margin.

He’s got that All-American look.

He will sell well in Asia.

I blinked my eyes and started at the scribbled remarks again.

All-American look.

Sell well in Asia.

Gee, made me think I was a character in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American or worse, a character in The Ugly American. What the hell was this “All-American Look” supposed to be, anyhow?

There were some good comments about how I was enthusiastic and motivated and that I had some teaching experience, but I kept on coming back to those two comments. It was really bizarre. I never thought that teaching overseas was all about “image.”

A few months later, in May 1992 when things didn’t work out for me as academic director (the managing director was way too dictatorial for me) at the school in downtown Seoul I was back to teaching again at my former language institute. I forgot to hand back my personnel file to my boss and he never asked me for it. Six months later I finished my contract and, after a vacation back in the States, started teaching at a university in western Seoul.

From time to time I have thought about those comments and have had a few laughs. I am not so sure about that All-American look, but I guess I did okay “selling well” in Asia because I am still here.


  1. hmmm. very interesting. I wonder on what basis I was hired as an ESL teacher at Voice of America, Thammasat University, and AUA Language Center in Bangkok…in 1969.

  2. Not so long ago, it was true that most Koreans preferred American English teachers and their accents to others from other English speaking countries. In some sense, it is still true. That’s why they preferred you. Hakwon owners are just businessmen. They don’t care about what and how you can teach English. That is how it goes!

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