Infusion Staff Interview: Monica Heilman

Infusion has been blessed with some pretty amazing staff members this year, all of whom are really worth getting to know. To celebrate these talented and dedicated ETA’s, here starts a series of web exclusive interviews, giving you a snapshot into our passions and daily lives in Korea.

Last weekend I sat down with Monica Heilman, a second year ETA in Busan, and staff editor for Infusion this year. We met at a coffee shop in the D-Cube mall at the Sindorim stop in Seoul. The shop was so packed with Saturday afternoon shoppers that we could barely find a couple stool spots in the far back corner, near windows overlooking the taxi-stacked street and open square outside. It was the kind of crowded where it takes you over a minute to figure out where you can leave your puffy winter coat so it’s not in the way. We ordered coffee and tea and began to chat.


Morgan: So first, tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from in the US? What did you study in college?

Monica: I’m from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and I went to university at the University of Denver. I was actually born in Germany, because my dad was in the military and stationed there.

How long did you live there?

Only one year, so I don’t remember anything. My students last year–they wrote me goodbye letters, and they wrote a little in German but I was like, “I don’t understand any of it–sorry!”

Haha it was nice of them to try…

Yeah. I came to Korea straight after college. The reason I wanted to come to Korea is that my mom’s extended family is here. Actually this is the first time meeting all my family. It’s pretty surreal. I was here when I was younger, like two or three, but not since then.

How has meeting your family formed a part of your experience here? I know that’s a huge question…

Yeah it’s been really huge. (Actually I should write an Infusion piece about it…). Last year in Gimhae, my aunt came to my homestay, and I cried right away. She was really calm so I felt really embarrassed, but later I noticed she was dabbing at her eyes a little bit… I went to my grandparents’ after that and stayed with them for chuseok. That day, family members kept trickling in. It was just surreal, and hard to believe. I have a cousin who is my same age, and in Korea that is a big deal. People think, “oh you’re the same age! You can be really good friends!” So on chuseok I walked in and we both had a reaction like “oh, oh! It must be you!” I had heard a lot about her from my mom, but didn’t know her.

So do you get to see her often?

She lives in another city, Suncheon. I have three aunts in Korea. One is in Busan, one is in Suncheon, and one is in Seoul. And I have an uncle who is actually doing missionary work in India, so I still haven’t met him. But last year during winter break I spent a week with this cousin’s family, and hung out with them a lot. It was really hard to speak in honorifics. That’s one thing about being here–my Korean has improved a lot! One of the first things my grandpa said when he met me was, “oh, you really can’t speak Korean…” I could understand that – my understanding was pretty good – but speaking was hard. However just this last chuseok my grandma told me that my Korean is really good, so I really did improve! Recently I moved in with my aunt in Busan, and it’s been great.

So tell me about your school. You are at a different school from last year…What have been some your best lessons, or most memorable students?

Changing schools has been good, but a challenge. Last year I was getting a handle on what these students think and what motivates them, and now it’s all different. This year I am at an all-girls high school which is a little lower-level, but the classes are leveled which is really amazing. At first I found myself doing a lot of basic comparisons, like “oh this school has good technology,” or “students are more shy…” this and that. Last year I know my second semester I changed a lot and felt like I got so much better, and so I am hoping I feel the same this year.

I really loved doing YDAC last year. We had five students to a team, and sometimes I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it, but we had so much fun going out, and meeting other students, and talking with other teachers. I really emphasized when I was recruiting students–”don’t feel like your English level has to be really high.” So we had a balance of some advanced students and some not. But at the end of the year, these were the students who wrote me letters and the note in German.

So I loved your art submission last year, The Faces of Fulbright. What has it been like for you to do art in Korea? How has that changed or added to your experience here?

I was really excited to find out more about Korean art. Last year I kept telling myself I should do more art, but I got really busy. But this year I have loved being in Busan because I can go out, and stumble into some random gallery without trying. I didn’t ever find an art class, which I might still try and do. But to be honest, I don’t feel like I have made real or substantial art here. Just still life sketching, doodling, or small things here and there.  

Last year, when the Ferguson non-indictment came out I was upset about it, so I did a couple pieces. When stuff like this happens I feel a push to express myself. It’s harder artistically, but it’s really satisfying too. I want to get to a point where I’m doing it more naturally. In college, I double majored in Sociology and Art. I was planning on graduating in three years, actually, with just a Sociology major, but I ended up getting convinced to stay a fourth year to turn my art minor into a major. It was really fun to spend that year drawing a lot, being in the studio and meeting artists. But moving from that to Korea… I’m not pushed to make art here. So for example I have my sketchbook. Part of it is leftovers from college, and part of it is from Korea. But in college I would finish one a year.

Do you have some artistic goals for this year?

Yeah, vague goals. In Busan there is the Gamcheon Culture Village. And I really want to do a piece on that, and different scenes of Busan. I ran into one artist, this seemed like such a coincidence…At a coffee shop I went to there was this gallery on the third floor. It was the last day of the exhibit and so the artist was there. He is a pretty established artist named 허 휘, and does “scenes of Busan.” It was cool to find it, and I bought two copies of his book. There were a lot of landscapes, most of which were places I have been to by now. I want to try to find inspiration like that.

What have been some other artists who have influenced you? Especially in the Busan art scene?

I am terrible… I have seen a lot of artists I really like in Korea, but I don’t remember their names. There was one recently, 김원갑. There was a night painting he did of a harbor in Busan. I really like that there’s a stark contrast in the lighting. Sunrise paintings, sunset or night scenes–I think they have a powerful energy. In general, for a while I really loved Norman Rockwell. I love street art and graffiti too. In college I became a fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat. His work is really loose, expressionist, and abstract–it’s really hard for me to make stuff like that. I do more detail, and lines…but I did a piece based on his style in college, and it was really fun. It’s been fun looking around and seeing street art in Korea, too. I’m finding it in Busan–especially in Gamcheon, which they are trying to revitalize. I think sometimes in Korea they will do street art in an old neighborhood to revitalize and modernize it. I see a lot of that. Actually around my aunt’s house on a particular bus route there is a ton of street art. One day when it’s warm I want to walk around and see all of it.

Do you use art in the classroom?

A little. In the beginning of this semester I realized I was having students work a lot on their own. A lot of it was leaning towards “draw this,” or “create this.” Maybe the best lesson example is I did was a coat of arms lesson. Students get a template and draw what’s important to their identity: their families, their hobbies, their dreams, or whatever they want to do. I try to not do that too much though, because I don’t want to isolate kids who aren’t artistic or don’t like drawing. Drawing on the board is a lot harder than I thought!

Yeah, and spelling on the board… So how has it been for you to be involved with Infusion? You were a Staff Editor last year as well, right? How was it?

I really loved it. Last year having that first staff meeting was so refreshing–having in-depth conversations in English! And working with writers was great too. I worked at my university’s writing center for three years in college, and I really loved that work; it was refreshing and fun to work with people on what they’ve written. And same with Infusion. It’s also nice because you know everyone, but you get to see a different side of people. Last year I worked with Sam on his short story “Mandarin,” which was a neat experience for both of us because he said he was just trying out fiction, and I was new to editing fiction, so we did a lot of just sounding it out. But it was cool because at the Infusion meeting, some people asked, “Fiction? I don’t know…Is that really relevant?” and I got to be like, “Yes! It is!” And the piece made it in.

Yeah, and I really like that story too! What is one of your favorite Infusion pieces?

The year before I came to Korea one of my favorites was “Spit” by Gabrielle Nygaard because it was just so funny… but now I also really like the one by Katelyn Hemmeke about students after the suneung and the ping pong… (“Reality”).

I remember that one! So I really love the reading list on your blog, and I was wondering what you are reading now.

I’m reading “The Old Garden.It’s about this guy in the Gwangju Revolution. My school has this little itty bitty English library in the teacher’s office. So I walked by, saw this one, and thought, “oh cool! It’s about Korea, and written by a Korean author,” and it’s been really good. The main character has been in prison for about twenty years, and then he gets out and sees modern Korea, and how things have changed. It’s so fascinating. Check it out.

And my last question is: What is your favorite word in Korean?

오이– cucumber!

Many thanks to Monica for meeting up with me, and for her hard work as an Infusion staff editor this year. Stay tuned for more staff interviews as the year goes on!


Morgan Kinsinger

Infusion Web Manager, ‘15-’16