CLASS ACTJames David Bridgeman leads a full and happy life. As a teacher of English to Korean teenagers since 1992, Mr. Bridgeman every six months travels abroad. During a recent journey to Osaka, Japan, Mr. Bridgeman splurged on 71 rare, long-playing records that he will use at a club in Sinchon, in western Seoul, where he works part-time as a deejay. When Mr. Bridgeman walks along the streets near Hongik University, friends and students hail him, calling his name out loud.
Strangely, his friends and students call him neither James nor Mr. Bridgeman, which are on his diploma.
Like the names on Mr. Bridgeman’s diploma, the degree itself is not his, either. The degree, copies of which he has been circulating at language schools around Seoul for a decade is, in fact, a phony document.
James Bridgeman is a bogus English teacher, and he is not alone in that in Korea.
Last October, Cho Chul-won, a professor of English at Seoul National University, sensed something was not quite right with one of the school’s English instructors, Adrian Deann.
Since March 2001, Mr. Deann had taught freshmen and sophomores at Seoul National, and was considered to be doing a good job. Seoul National was glad to have a foreign lecturer who had, as Mr. Deann said he did, three master’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree from Harrington University in Britain.
The trouble is, Harrington University does not exist.
Mr. Cho, who does not like to talk about the case today because of the embarrassment it caused Seoul National, suggests that someone ratted out Mr. Deann.
“One fortunate thing was that Mr. Deann’s contract was getting ready to expire,” Mr. Cho says. “We simply didn’t renew his contract.”
Both Seoul National and the bogus teacher did not make an issue of the school’s refusal to renew. Mr. Deann went on teaching until February 2003, then suddenly quit, as if nothing happened. Quietly, Mr. Deann left Korea, reportedly accepting a teaching post at another university in Asia.
What Adrian Deann did is, in the eyes of his colleagues, inexcusable. Brett Bowie, who teaches English at Hankuk Aviation University, heard the story from his fellow teachers. Mr. Bowie’s first reaction was shock, followed by anger.
“The audacity of this idiot to have forged as many as four degrees, then to lie about them, simply amazes me,” says Mr. Bowie. “Because he had several master’s degrees, I’m sure he was pretty well paid. The scale of this hoax was just fantastic.”
Mr. Bowie says the Adrian Deann case hurt the reputation of all English teachers in Korea. “Those with fake degrees may only account for 1 or 2 percent of all English teachers here. But that’s enough of a blow. There are so many great teachers in Korea with legitimate qualifications, people who work really hard.”
Mr. Bowie goes on, “What really annoys me is how Korea’s No. 1 university, a truly prestigious place, tried to sweep this dirty story under the carpet. They just did not want to damage the image of the school. They should have crucified this jerk.”
Meanwhile, James Bridgeman, who calls himself “very lucky,” has been teaching in Korea with fake credentials for more than a decade now. Because Mr. Bridgeman works only at hagwon, or private institutions, his students are usually young children or teenagers. Though he is based in Seoul, Mr. Bridgeman works mainly in the outlying cities of the capital, in such places as Incheon and Anyang.
Mr. Bridgeman is not a monster with horns poking from his head. One recent weekday evening found him sitting in a cafe near his home in Sinchon, after teaching English to three children under 10. He looks like many footloose expatriates in Seoul -- wearing jeans and a T-shirt, lugging a giant backpack and reading a book that he is halfway through, Chang-rae Lee’s novel “A Gesture Life.”
Tall and nearing his mid-30s, Mr. Bridgeman graduated from a high school in Calgary, Canada. He did not bother to go to a university, he says, as he toys with a plate of spaghetti. “I thought about majoring in civil engineering, but later decided not to. And I’m glad I didn’t go to college. Back then, I had just been bitten by this huge travel bug and I wanted to see the world.”
After a moment, he adds, with a grim look, “I never considered myself stupid -- I just detest education and I’m self-taught. I’ve been learning all along while teaching. I just followed a different route.”
Like many people who have picked up things on their own, his taste in reading can’t be pinned down. He likes everything from Dante to science fiction. He recently finished, and was deeply touched by, Somerset Maugham’s classic “Of Human Bondage.”
In 1989, Mr. Bridgeman boarded a plane for Nepal, where he had his first teaching experience in a school that was so run-down it was missing a few walls. Following that experience, he backpacked across Southeast Asia for eight months, finally settling in Hong Kong. By then he had only $100 in his pocket.
The money was enough, however, for him to purchase a British identification card. He was helped because the original owner of the card -- one James David Bridgeman -- was about to leave Hong Kong. To this day, the fictitious James David Bridgeman has never met the real James David Bridgeman. But the fictitious Mr. Bridgeman says, smiling, “The ID was a steal -- I bought it for 200 Hong Kong dollars, which is like 20,000 won [$16].”
At that time in the early 1990s a British national did not need a work visa to make money in Hong Kong. Thus, James David Bridgeman started teaching English at private language schools. Mr. Bridgeman says, “Since English was used a lot in Hong Kong, it was not a hard job at all.” Sometimes, however, he had to ask students to help him with spelling. One of his Hong Kong students was a Korean businessman, and he turned out to be a whiz at spelling and grammar. Mr. Bridgeman says, “Every time I was not sure of something I called out the Korean’s name and got help -- that was my first encounter with Korea.”
When his tourist visa was about to expire, toward the end of 1991, Mr. Bridgeman knew it was time to move on. “Before I left the country, I came clean to my fellow teachers, who had believed that I was British all along,” Mr. Bridgeman says.
By then he wanted to go to either Northeast Asia or Thailand. “A friend of mine in Japan told me not to go to Japan -- everything there was too expensive,” he said, “and the government had strengthened its penalties for foreigners who might try to use fake IDs. Thailand, too, was having an election that year, which meant stricter measures against people like me. That’s how I ended up coming to Korea.”
He arrived in 1992. Documented as a British citizen based in Hong Kong and given a tourist visa, Mr. Bridgeman after three months returned to Hong Kong. “I wanted to go back to Korea,” he recalls, sipping a glass of red wine. “I wanted to settle down and teach.”
An official in charge of visas at the Seoul Immigration Office, says, “To teach English at any sort of institution in Korea, a foreigner must acquire an E-2 visa, which is good for two years. The qualifications are a four-year university degree as well as being a national of a country that has English as its official language, not to mention being a native speaker of English. If someone tries to work using only a tourist visa, he is bound to be caught and punished.”
Mr. Bridgeman wanted to be in Korea, but he also wanted a degree. He soon learned that he could acquire a college degree in Bangkok -- for a price. He flew to Thailand and almost as soon as he began walking down one of the major streets in Bangkok, professional counterfeiters approached him, handing him their phone numbers.
One counterfeiter offered him a degree from Calgary University for $250, which seemed like the perfect fit. “I didn’t want to lie too big,” says Mr. Bridgeman. “And that school was close to the truth.”
After he paid, Mr. Bridgeman was told to go to a ramshackle hotel on the edge of the city and wait there until the counterfeiter completed making the diploma. Mr. Bridgeman checked in at the hotel and stayed up all night, but there was no sign of the counterfeiter. “I thought I had been ripped off,” he says.
Near dawn, he heard someone in the hallway; it was the counterfeiter with his brand new diploma. “The man had all these secretive habits -- he himself used a fake name like Russell or Patrick,” Mr. Bridgeman says. “He handed me this perfect diploma, fresh off the press. It looked so real.”
The diploma, which came with a registered seal, indicated that James David Bridgeman had majored in journalism.
He flew back home to Seoul almost immediately, his credential not leaving his hands, and quickly obtained a position at a hagwon as well as several jobs as a private tutor. “Back in the early 1990s in Korea,” he says, “it was common for foreigners to photocopy a degree to get a teaching job.”
To this day he has used the Calgary University diploma with few problems. Once, at a language school, he mistakenly wrote on the application his last name as “Bridgehead.” “I sweated a lot when I realized what I had done. But nobody noticed the discrepancy before I managed to fix it.”
Any guilty feelings? Mr. Bridgeman says, “I’ve never figured it’s a bad thing. My mom always tells me ‘What you’re doing is wrong.’ But what have I done wrong? OK, I lied; I fooled some people. But I did not cheat anyone. I did not use the diploma to take advantage. I’m paid for what I do, not for my diploma. I’ve done my job properly. A degree, which is just a piece of paper, does not tell you how to teach.”
For some years now Korea has been a heaven and a haven for native English speakers interested in the teaching profession. Dave Sperling of Calabasas, California runs Dave’s ESL Cafe online, and says, “Many teachers want to take some time off before heading on to graduate school or finding a job in their own country, so teaching English abroad is an appealing option.”
Mr. Sperling’s Web site, one of the most popular of its kind, gets millions of hits per month, which translates to several thousand visitors.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the number of E-2 visa recipients leaped from 3,878 in 2000 to 5,670 in 2001, and the number continues to increase rapidly.
Teaching in Korea, however, does not always turn out to be a dream job. Mr. Bridgeman has had young students spit in his face and call him four-letter words. “I really love teaching and I like kids,” he says. “One thing I’ve learned is that if you get angry teaching English to Korean young people, you lose. You have to have patience.”
The hardest part for him though, has been living a lie. He has quit teaching at a hagwon, focusing now on giving private lessons to small groups of kids while doing voice-overs for an English-language radio program. Without a work visa, he must regularly obtain a tourist visa, which he does every six months. Each time Mr. Bridgeman fills in the forms to get that visa he has jotted down that he’s going to “climb a mountain” or to “write a book on Korea,” remarks that he says please the immigration officers a great deal. “I’ve done this innumerable times and no one has asked me any questions,” he says.
What amazes Mr. Bridgeman most over the past 10 years is that he has been the only person who lied for a living. On many occasions when he taught at a hagwon, school officials there badgered him to fib to students.
“Before I went to a class of adults who were taking business English, for instance, an official at a hagwon handed me a piece of paper and said, ‘Here’s your resume. Read it over and remember that you work at Samsung.’ He said that so that my background would impress the students.”
Another hagwon official told Mr. Bridgeman, before he went to apply for a tourist visa, to say that his sister had died to make it that much easier.
After all these years, the fictitious James David Bridgeman has grown to appreciate the real James David Bridgeman. “I like who I am,” he says. “I have no regrets.”
by Chun Su-jin