Stealing Cinderella: How I Became an International Fugitive for Love (Fencetree) is supposed to be a story of forbidden love, and it is – but without the longing glances and furtive clutches in the dark. One has to imagine the heat, the whispers, the kisses, because author Mark D. Diehl’s focus is Korean society, its history and social institutions – everything that made it all but impossible for Diehl to be with the woman he fell in love with.
Diehl was fresh out of college when he took a job teaching English in Taegu, the fourth largest city in South Korea where, at first blush, things look modern and Westernized, albeit smothered by industrial smog. Diehl, however, soon learned that centuries-old traditions and unwanted occupation by other countries had made its citizens wary, proud and fiercely protective.
Always a bit of a delinquent, young Diehl was hot to get out of his hometown Iowa City, ready for an adventure and some easy money, but he was warned before he even touched down at the airport. His seatmate on the plane fairly oozed with cautious advice. “Don’t get caught, man,” he told him, fearful that Diehl was an undocumented worker. “This close to North Korea, people are suspicious of foreigners. Not easygoing people, Koreans. They’re intense.”
Diehl, however, was blithely optimistic. He reported to his new boss, introduced himself to his students and started his adventure.
He couldn’t restrict himself to correcting their English, though. He was too curious, too eager to learn about their country, their lives. The conversations between Diehl and his students are nearly half the book, and it is here that we learn how Koreans think, how they live and how they explain how they live. It’s a wonderful window into life in South Korea.
His students live under cultural norms Diehl considers unacceptable, but his students help him understand why they accept it. He learns to accept their stoicism, their reluctance to smile; he learns to like their food, he masters their modes of transportation and he tolerates their skepticism of American ways. One of his students tells him, “You Americans think being different is good. In our language, ‘different’ and ‘wrong’ are the same word.”
Diehl stumbles around, dodging the criticism of his bosses and earning the respect and friendship of his students. All is good until he finds himself falling in love with a fellow teacher. This teacher is beautiful and, unfortunately, this teacher is Korean.
Suddenly, all the things he’d been learning about Korean culture are hitting home: the protectiveness, the suspicion of foreigners, the ethnocentrism. Suddenly, Diehl is pariah. A relationship between him and the woman he finds himself falling in love with is verboten. When they area together in public, the air burns with censure. His boss forbids them to socialize. When her family learns of their friendship, they beat her.
The young lovers plot their escape, and their months as fugitives are fraught with poverty and fear. What they endure to be together in grim and threatening situations is the stuff of action films, and yet it is Mark and Jennifer’s real-life experience and worth reading. It’s a good, exciting read, and it drives home how lucky we are to live in a country where we can fall in love with anyone who loves us back.
Stealing Cinderella is available for purchase.
About Mark D. Diehl:
Mark D. Diehl writes novels about power dynamics and the way people and organizations influence each other. He believes obedience and conformity are becoming humanity’s most important survival skills, and that we are thus evolving into a corporate species. He has been homeless in Japan, practiced law with a major multinational firm in Chicago, studied in Singapore, fled South Korea as a fugitive and been stranded in Hong Kong. He currently lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Find out more at his website.