The Expat Who Came to Dinner

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The Expat Who Came to Dinner

Gertrude Ferrar is on the job five days a week, putting in a 9-to-5 day, like most other working people. The only remarkable thing is that, at age 82, she is well beyond the normal retirement age.

The senior editorial adviser for Unibooks Korea, a publishing company that specializes in English-language textbooks for Korean-speaking children, Mrs. Ferrar is a pioneer in the field with more than 15 years of experience. She has also written several children's storybooks in English.

"People who speak English here normally hold several job titles," said Mrs. Ferrar, who has also taught English at colleges and founded Language Arts Testing & Training, a company specializing in providing English services for both public and private sector officials.

Robert and Gertrude Ferrar arrived in Seoul in 1963, with the expectation that they would stay for no more than 10 days. Mr. Ferrar, an executive engineer for IT&T, an electronics firm, had been sent to Seoul to fix a systems problem for the U.S. Air Force. "I guess the bug was bigger than what the air force originally thought because things kept dragging out and we ended up staying for more than a year," said Mrs. Ferrar. Her two grown children had elected to stay in the United States.

An adventurer at heart, Mrs. Ferrar was fascinated by Korea. "I felt comfortable from day one, but my husband hated it here," she recalled. When it was time for Mr. Ferrar to return to the United States, the couple legally separated and Mrs. Ferrar decided to stay on.

How was an American woman living alone in Seoul in the mid-1960s to earn a living? For Mrs. Ferrar, the choice was obvious. Armed with a degree in the psychology of communication from Teachers College, Columbia University and two years of experience in teaching writing at Monmouth College in Illinois, she began to teach English. "Korea needed English teachers and it was a good decision for my own personal mental health," she said. "I didn't have time to be unhappy because I needed to make a living."

Striking out on her own, Mrs. Ferrar also needed to make adjustments in her lifestyle. From the exclusive expatriate housing in U.N. Village in Hannam-dong, she moved to more humble accommodations on a hill in Sangdo-dong, near Yeouido.

"My first job in Korea was as an associate professor at Dongguk University, teaching English. My monthly salary was 48,000 won plus a 100-percent bonus each quarter," she said, adding, "Back then, that went a long way."

Kim Jung-hoon, 63, a retired banker who now runs an apple orchard in Miryang, South Gyeongsang province, has been a tremendous help throughout the years. Mr. Kim, whom Mrs. Ferrar calls her Korean son, was working at his father's fabric shop nearly 40 years ago when she came shopping for fabric.

"I had not brought many clothes with me because we really thought we would not be here for long. So I needed to buy fabric to get dresses made," she said. Mr. Kim, then a college student helping out at his father's business, came out from the back of the store, bringing a roll of silk. "He said, 'This is poor silk,' and I corrected him, saying 'pure silk,' " she said.

Since that day in 1963, Mr. Kim and his family have always been by her side. "He was very helpful because he spoke both English and Korean," said Mrs. Ferrar who, even today, speaks little Korean.

"Back in the 1960s, if I asked for directions in English, people would look frustrated and just take me there," she said. "Now, if I look the least bit lost, people come up to me and say 'May I help you?'" Other than relying on the kindness of strangers, Mrs. Ferrar depends largely on nonverbal ways of communication. To illustrate her point, she relates how, after a week in Seoul, she went to Dongdaemun Market and had sheets and pillowcases custom made, all without speaking a word of Korean. "Remember, there were no bedsheets in Korea at the time. Yet, I communicated and got what I wanted," she said.

"Language is not the only means of communication and I am good at it," Mrs. Ferrar said, adding that her ability to communicate probably made her a good teacher. She also enjoyed teaching, she said, because there is pleasure in having someone accomplish something ?with help. "I could do that with teaching English."

While the octogenarian is kept busy during the week at her job, correcting English and making sure that the situations presented in the books are real and age-appropriate for children, she looks forward to weekends when she spends the bulk of her time bird-watching.

"My driver takes me to Imjingak, near the DMZ, and I sit in the car with binoculars," said Mrs. Ferrar, who suffers from bad knees and has difficulty walking. Apparently, ducks, geese, and cranes are easy to approach in a car.

Although she had never done serious bird-watching in New York City, her hometown, it has become her favorite hobby. "I used to go for solitary walks in the countryside during my early years in Seoul, and when you do that you inevitably see birds. That is how I got started," she explained.

"It is a challenge to find them and then identify the different birds," she said. Ganghwa Island is another spot she likes to frequent to catch a glimpse of birds. "The mudflat in Ganghwa Island attracts birds and bird-watching is best done as the tide is going out," said Mrs. Ferrar.

"Because Korea is on a major migration route, bird-watching is a year-round activity," she said. Cranes are Mrs. Ferrar's favorite birds. "Two weeks ago, on a Saturday, we saw three white-naped cranes on the rice field east of Imjingak," she said. "The next day on Ganghwa Island, I had a very poor day. On the way home, however, I saw four red-crowned cranes from Ganghwa Bridge." Cranes are not easily spotted, making her weekend a major success.

Mrs. Ferrar seems to have nested in Korea for good. "She has a great love for Korea and she is a generous soul," said Cho Eun-ah, Mrs. Ferrar's former personal assistant. "Many of her friends here are notable Koreans whom she's known 30 years or more."

Although she returns to the United States every year or two to visit her family, including two great-grandchildren and another one due any day, Mrs. Ferrar does not plan on going back for good. She plans on taking permanent residency in Korea, an option that has become viable, she says, with the recent changes in Korean immigration law. When the time comes, she would like to be buried in a plot where Mr. Kim, her Korean son, might join her. "I made this my home and I have a life here," she said.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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