An Outsider Who Has Made It in a Man's World

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An Outsider Who Has Made It in a Man's World

"There is a glass ceiling for women in the States. But here, it's more like a concrete ceiling," said Susan MacDonald, a well-known television personality in Korea. "Especially for foreigners here, there is a barrier to how far you can go," Ms. MacDonald, in her late 20s, said.

Ms. MacDonald has come a long way in Korea. She was born in Virginia but made her mark in Seoul. When she first arrived in Korea, she worked for a financial company where she was nearly physically threatened by a coworker, a Korean man, whom she had told to stop plagiarizing another company's annual reports. "I think it was not just because that I was a woman," she said. "But because I was a foreigner."

Ms. MacDonald has gone on to become a recognized English teacher on the Educational Broadcasting System's (EBS) "Special Lecture on English for University Entrance Exam," the host of "Intermediate English" on EBS radio and a sought-after translator. Much of her fame comes from her fluency in Korean. Her mother is Korean and her father Scottish-American. As a child, she lived in Pusan for five years where her father worked as an engineer. The family later returned to the States. After graduating from Columbia University where she majored in political science, she tried to take the U.S. Foreign Service exam in 1994, but the exam was canceled. When that happened, she decided to return her mother's home country.

Over time, Ms. MacDonald has developed a large following in Korea, mostly through her appearances on EBS. At a charity pet auction in Seoul last June, she served as the master of ceremonies and grabbed the attention away from a group of cute dogs in the bidding. Wearing a purple silk evening dress, Ms. MacDonald comfortably switched back and forth between Korean and English. Kim Joong-kwon, president of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, was so impressed that he said, "That Korean host speaks English so fluently."

Said Ms. MacDonald: "It was the biggest compliment I ever received in my life."

The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition recently met Ms. MacDonald at the EBS studio. Dressed casually in a red T-shirt and black jeans, she greeted a reporter warmly, with a little bow. She started recording the show starting at noon, and worked for the next three hours. Even though she skipped lunch, she remained full of energy. When the director stopped a taping because she made a small mistake, she exclaimed, "Aigo!" ("Oh, no!"), just like a typical Korean woman.

As she talked, Mrs. MacDonald emphasized she could be more honest for an English-language newspaper than for the local Korean press. Once, she complained about the Korean educational system. "Even though the tone became more softened by editing, I got e-mails from readers saying how dare I criticize their country," she said, taking a sip of iced green tea. On many other controversial Korean issues, such as eating dog, she is open minded. She said, "It is arrogant to judge Koreans to be barbarious just because they eat dog meat. Indians who worship cows would condemn westerners for eating beef."

Ms. MacDonald said expatriates ought to learn at least enough Korean to express themselves. She gained this tip during a shopping trip. "When I spoke in English, the shopkeeper insisted on 50,000 won, but after I asked why it's so expensive in Korean, the shocked shopkeeper directly discounted the price. After learning that I appear on TV programs, she offered me more of a discount," she said.

Korea's subculture is more complicated than the stereotypical beliefs held by foreigners, she said. "There's a saying that I think best expresses this: 'Koreans can be the worst enemies and the best friends.'"

by Chun Su-jin

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