An ESL Teacher Learns Life Lessons Behind Bars in South Korea: An Interview with Cullen Thomas, Author of Brother One Cell
In many ways, Cullen Thomas’s description of going to South Korea to teach English and explore Asia sounds familiar to many U.S. college graduates who find themselves doing exactly what he did in 1993. Of course, as Thomas and I discussed, the ESL market in South Korea was remarkably different in the early 90s, namely because it was less competitive and wages were higher than they are today. I spoke to Thomas recently by phone about why he chose to head to South Korea, how he wound up in prison there, and the hard lessons he learned while being jailed.
CCJ: So, how did you end up in South Korea? Was it by accident?
CT: No, it was not an accident. At that time, the most inviting opportunities seemed to be in Japan. I was really looking to teach in Japan. I didn’t know anything about Korea, even though where I went to school – Binghamton – there were thousands of Koreans there. But I learned there were a lot of teaching opportunities there. Also, I didn’t have to sign a contract. That was appealing to me, because I didn’t know if I’d like it. It turned out, I knew this guy who was teaching there, so I got in touch with him. He was on the ground and he helped me get work – that was how I got my first job there.
CCJ: When it comes to teaching in Korea, I can relate. I also had a good friend who had been teaching there for several years, so that’s how I wound up there as well. Your story changes drastically after that! Unlike other ESL instructors, your experiences in Korea took a dramatic turn for the worse. As we know – based upon the title of your book and its summary – things went downhill for you quickly. Tell us about the events that led up to your arrest. How do you see them differently now that you’re no longer in jail and back home?
CT: I was obviously being reckless, and if I had stayed steady teaching, and I still teach at NYU and at another organization, Gotham Writers’ Workshop, I would have been fine. I enjoy teaching and am passionate it about it. But at 23, I was a hot head and looking for more. So, I started thinking about making more money. Thinking back now, teaching was a good job. In the 1990s, South Korea was the place to be, I was making good money, plus, as I said, I enjoy teaching. It’s too bad it wasn’t enough and that I had these reckless ideas.
But it was also about liking to smoke and get high, even though I was late to that. I saw some teachers doing that, and I saw other Americans smuggling in drugs. I heard their stories from the sidelines, and I saw [their actions too]. So, I was looking for adventure and more money. It wasn’t just greed, but adventure. That’s hard to get across – the adventure aspect of it. Some readers might think, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ I seem to have surmounted that, even though some might say, ‘What a jerk.’ But overall, I have received positive responses from the expat community.
Furthermore, Brother One Cell offers a rare and valuable window into Korea itself, her culture and ways, and readers, especially those who’ve been in Korea teaching or travelling, have embraced that.
CCJ: So, you wind up serving time in South Korea. How did you feel about the country then, and how do you feel about it now?
CT: The back half of the book expresses a love and admiration for Korea, which I still have. I did that to myself. I mean, I broke the law, and it was a result of my own actions. So, here’s the irony. I was – and still am a teacher – and South Korea educated me.
CCJ: Many of my readers haven’t read your book yet – and I recommend they buy it now and read your most recent work as well – so for these folks, the ones who have yet to read your work, can you tell us about your fellow inmates. For instance, were you the only Caucasian in jail?
CT: Well, there were so many amazing characters, people I’ll never meet again. I was not the only American there. However, there were stretches of time where I was the only American. Most of the prisoners were Korean. This was a Korean world, which forced me to learn the language. By the end I was pretty fluent, could say a lot, hold my own and speak my peace. But there was a group of Pakistanis and a crew of Nigerians. My closest friend, actually, was Colombian. He had been convicted of smuggling emeralds and cocaine into the country. He was a very intelligent man, and he was able to help me see past my experience. He set my head straight and prepared me to do my time. He was a mentor and a real friend – I drew a lot of strength from him.
CCJ: Had you ever been involved with drugs or the selling of drugs prior to your conviction in S. Korea?
CT: Not at all. I’d never dealt drugs. In fact, the first time I was drunk, I was 18. Moreover, I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 19. So, I didn’t do any of that [that is, he didn’t do drugs, have intimate relationships, etc., until much later in life]. And sometimes I asked myself, ‘is that perhaps the reason I wound up here [in prison]? Perhaps it was because I had not done these things previously up to that point in my life.
CCJ: I see what you’re saying. You were a straight-laced kind of guy. You’d never broken the law, and then all of sudden you wind up in prison in South Korea. Could you tell us a little more about these characters you met and befriended in jail?
CT: Well, another character, a real memorable one, was this white American guy from Milwaukee. He had been in the U.S. Air Force, and had been discharged. It turned out he killed his two young sons. We were friends. Again, as a writer, it was such a challenge to present him in his fullness. And yet he did something so heinous.
CCJ: How old were his sons?
CT: They were younger than 10. They were Korean-American. He had married a Korean woman. He was manic depressive, had been a foster kid, and had been passed from one home to the next. He was also an alcoholic. He really wanted to kill himself. It reminds me of that woman many years ago who drowned all of her kids. When people hear these stories, they are horrified when these individuals say, ‘I loved my kids.’ I mean, he was really dealing with a whole mess of circumstances. That said, there is no way to excuse what he did. But I had to come to understand him, because I lived with him. He expressed deep remorse, pain, and clearly suffered. You can’t just dismiss that person. But that was a real challenge for me, and he is one of the more powerful characters I met while in prison.
CCJ: When you met him in jail, how old was he?
CT: He was in his late 30s, and he eventually killed himself. That’s ultimately what he had planned all along and wanted to do.
CCJ: How did he do that?
CT: He basically let himself die in Los Angeles.
CCJ: So, you kept up with him after he got out of jail?
CT: Yeah, I did.
CCJ: So, how did he essentially kill himself?
CT: Well, first I want to mention what we can learn from people like him. There are all sorts of religions that get at this concept, especially Sufism. That’s to say, once you start judging people, you narrow your world. This also enables us to ignore the fact that we all have the capacity to do things that might shock the shit out of us. Mark’s story was like that. Anyway, as for killing himself, he got skin cancer in Los Angeles. He just let it spread and it killed him.
CCJ: How old was he when he died?
CT: He was 45.
CCJ: Wow. That is young.
CT: Yes, and all of the things that happened to him could have been avoided [when he was a child], but those are the things that happened to him. Speaking of Mark, I remember these visits that were paid by the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. Embassy was required to visit us. This one woman who worked for the Embassy was pregnant at the time, and she was disgusted by Mark. I could tell that – it was all over her face. She was horrified, and I could see her struggling mightily with it. Again, that’s understandable. Yet she had to do her job. As for me, I knew him beyond the “child killer” [label]. But so many of the stories I heard were filled with enormous conflict and drama.
CCJ: Let’s switch gears and talk about writing and the writing process in jail. When you were in jail – initially – did you consider that your journey in his underworld, or space of punishment, would eventually be turned into a book?
CT: I was already writing – that was my aspiration. In fact, the first time I got paid for writing was in Korea. I started submitting stories to the Korea Times and the Korean Herald. At that point – as an expat – you could write and talk about your experiences living in Korea. So, I started writing these articles and was excited about the opportunity to share. As for writing a book, that was deep in my mind. As for immediate jail time, I knew I had to document it. It was really a battle for my sanity for the first year and half to two years of the time I spent in jail. And, as I said, I was not familiar with this world. I had never been in trouble. So, I kept a journal. We weren’t supposed to write about our case, and weren’t allowed [writing utensils]. But I did anyway, and it helped keep me sane. When it comes to writing, it’s a cliché of sorts, but for many prisoners, they start writing a lot, whether it’s just letters or legal appeals or full out scenes. Writing is a one of the last active powers they have. Even people who were never inclined to write or were not educated, they turn to writing. As for me, I already had that ambition. But, again, when I was first in jail, it wasn’t about writing a book. I just knew for myself that I had to do it.
CCJ: So, you really weren’t thinking that this would become a final project or even a book?
CT: No. I really could not think long-term at that point. I thought I had died. It was a death. I mean, now 3 ½ years doesn’t seem like a long time, but it did then. My whole world was taken away, so the writing was not that conscious [in terms of long-term goals].
CCJ: On a final note, your website mentions that you are working on another book or projects, is that correct? What is that you’re working on now?
CT: I’m doing all sorts of things. For instance, I recently did a travel guide with USA Today and started an interview series that dovetails with my book. It’s called “Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons.” It is a return to that experience. After all, those were the most intense years of my life. I am still writing and processing how it changed me and how it sill affects me. I am fascinated with crime and punishment, so this is a series about people who have been in prison or who have had direct exposure to it.
end of interview.
Thomas and I wrapped up our conversation about the overlap in my work on student loan debt, income inequality, poverty, and so forth. Both of tell stories about people who have been forgotten and have fallen off the ‘societal grid.’ Thomas offers a powerful, first-hand tale about what it is like to be dragged into the world of punishment. He takes full responsibility for the poor decisions he made, but it is clear that the experience has made him more sensitive to those who found themselves in trying circumstances the moment they entered the world. As stated previously, I urge all of you to read Thomas’s book about his time in a S. Korean jail and also follow his new projects. Finally, I have invited Thomas to be a guest on my new radio show, which launches on September 5th, to discuss his book and all of his more recent projects in further detail. Tune in to learn when Thomas will be a guest.
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Cryn Johannsen is the founder and executive director of All Education Matters (AEM) which was founded in order to educate the public and elected officials about the ever growing student loan debt crisis.
Johannsen is widely known across the US for her expertise about student loans and as an investigative journalist. Her written articles have been published frequently in USA Today, Moneycrashers.com, Huffington Post, Truthout.org, Hyervocal.com and The Loop 21.
On ESL101.com Johannsen’s feature column is be dedicated to topics that relate to the ESL field, the global economy, and working and living abroad.