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Jaded

October 12, 2012

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O wake up, my love, my lover, wake up
 - Nick Cave, ” Where Do We Go Now, But Nowhere?”There are a handful of us who have offices in the Humanities Building. We are all accomplished teachers, long-term expats who have married into the culture, or been here long enough to have worked our way up from  academies, national schools  and university-based language centers. We are a collection of about 12 really talented, really good teachers, consistently scoring on the high end of student evaluations. We are off by ourselves – the other two buildings which house the rest of our department – the Institute for Technology and the Second Engineering Building  – have large groups of teachers in communal offices. We are the old guard – in small, dingy rooftop offices of two or three people.  We know each other very well; we have both a coffee and a whiskey fund. Some of my dearest friends that ever I will make in this lifetime work in my building. We love to bitch and gossip, we love to share amazing lesson ideas, we love to give more when it is asked of us, and we love to share a shot at the end of a mid-term Friday evening. Above all, we love to teach..most of the time.

There has been an ennui that has spread through our rooftop corridor, sticky like melted candy on fingertips, the kind that doesn’t come off no matter how much you wash, the kind you are forced to live with for hours. We are all still very solid performers, yet we all seem tired, nowhere near the turned-on, fully engaged teachers we have all been in the past.

When I am on the train home,  I close my eyes. I put my earphones in my ears, filling my head with my music, shutting  my eyelids against the people standing in front of me, the landscape flying past my window, crossing my arms against my heart, and turning my focus inward. I numb myself, until a particularly hot pepper, or a particularly kind smile wakes me up.

I am a jaded foreigner. I have an understanding with the other foreigners I meet. We love the country. Yet we have been here long enough that we have earned our right to complain. Motorcycles driving on the sidewalks, people pushing, two-faced culture, chemical-laden alcohol, sooty skies, empty music, crazy drivers, grade-obsessed students, laws and customs that cause you to shake your head and curl your lip…. we long-term foreigners sing this like a chorus of a hymn. We are part of and yet we are apart. We are strange….everywhere. We respond with boredom and disdain. How can we not?

I always thought this particularly strange experience made me special. The internet proves me wrong. It seems we, collectively, are bored and disdainful. We’ve seen it all, We’ve earned our right to complain, to deride. Life? Nothing compared to the immediate irritation of waiting in line more than one minute. Falling in love? Can’t compete with the glee I find in judgement of the fashion choices I find watching the latest Housewives Of Wherever.

Rewind to 1995. I was cleaning hotel rooms to pay the bills my acting work couldn’t pay. I had just accepted a job to teach at ECC Nam-Pundang ( pre-romanization change for those of you who have lived in Korea forever). I had no idea that Nam meant South. As the hotel maintenance man asked me where I was going, I pronounced Pundang like a slur, sure and happy that I was headed for a cultural and literal jungle. “Korea”, my friend V said. ” I don’t know much, except that everytime they’ve poked their head out of the sand, it has been kicked back down.” Dr. Greenlee, my history professor, stoppped me in the concourse of the Valley Mall and said, ” Korea? There’s going to be another war there. I don’t know when, but it will happen. Be careful.”

Still, I came. I landed with my best friend, Didi, and we navigated our way through seedy motels, yoghurt bottles we thought were shampoo, Gotham City-like rows of apartment buildings, beer halls where you couldn’t just order beer, bullet taxis with tires that left the ground when they hit the riverside road, coffee sold in hot cans and hot, buttered squid peddled  in movie theaters. We lived in a building where our neighbors informed our boss of our every move and the children followed us through the streets like we were the circus come to town.

Yes, I went low – I had my moments, preserved in frantically written diaries, where I questioned my sanity, longed for my family and Mary Brown’s Fried Chicken in alternating bouts of intensity. I also took a concealed tape recorder with me as I went through my day, so that I could record the little bits of Korean the corner “supa” – supermarket owners spoke to me, the way that the Mandu shop owner called me “Miss Canada”, the sound of the drycleaner as he walked the corridors at 7 am to collect laundry,  the classical music rip-off that the academy bus used as it backed up… I made a tape and sent it off to my one of my dearest friends, G, so that he could share in this amazing, other-worldly, teeth-on-edge, ears-pricked-up, skin-tingling experience that I was having.

These days, when I meet a new American  or Canadian, our commonality is complaint. I go home to Newfoundland, have a drink in a bar and my commonality with the bartender is how much life pisses us off, how we have so many better things to do than to be there, together in a room, listening to music, telling our favorite stories, meeting someone new.

What human had ever earned the right to be bored by the smell of a changing season? What traveller has ever been so far gone that they should close eyelids against a people so similar in spirit and yet with such differently-shaped faces, different-smelling skins? When did this stop being amazing to me? When did I stop counting myself among the lucky? When did you?

I’m waking up. The curve of a cat’s tail because I feed it…. that’s enough. That’s enough to make me happy to open my eyes in the morning. Not much more is needed. It holds everything… something to learn, love, and understand. The same is true of every tiny thing that happens in my day. The big things hold more pleasure, fear, danger and beauty. How dare I even begin to close my eyes and tune these things out?

Last Thursday, I sat in the back of my classroom, watching my Introduction to Acting students as they presented forum theatre pieces dealing with what they condsider to be big issues: the plight of working moms, age discrimination, lookism and mandatory military service. The pieces were funny and focused. I hadn’t slept well the night before, was coasting on coffee, and waiting to share a bottle of wine with another teacher to mark the end of the teaching week.The students were full of adrenaline and passion, given a voice and using it. They were pushing beyond a very strict set of Korean lines, to say something about the meaning of their lives, to look for alternatives, solutions. I woke up. I connected, again….the first time this whole semester. How dare I think I’ve seen all I have to see in this country? In life? What gives me the right to take a few very limited experiences and turn them into an all-encompassing world view?

Yes, I know what I know.

What I know is nothing.

Oh, wake up, my loves. My lovers, wake up.

 

10 comments

  1. This line is so perfectly true – Yet we have been here long enough that we have earned our right to complain. I’ve been there and understand.

    Very insightful. Every time I begin a new journal, I write some resolutions. One reoccurring one is to see things through a child’s eyes, to look for the wonder in life. It can be hard, but it’s there if you seek it.


  2. Yes, Shad, I know you get this. Perhaps more than most.:-)


  3. Most people “know what they know” which is usually more than they think about all the time, but only the very good ones also “know what they don’t know”. In all my years I am only starting to understand a few things now which means we all have a lot to learn. Enjoy the journey instead of fighting it. Just Dear Old Dad again.


  4. I had to laugh…a mutual friend of ours had written on a piece of paper on his door – so he would see it just as he was leaving the sanctity of his home out going into the fray, “Be nice, even to the idiots”. While a bit more than jaded, it is symbolic of the struggle.

    Well done Shel; you have captured something in this piece; the hollowness of many days, the immense energy it can take to just go out. I have often remarked that tying to talk about all of this may be akin to coming home from war: there really is no way to articulate the complexity of emotion and experience. Having said that, “our little group, it’s always been, it always will until the end.” I can think of no better group of people to be lost in translation with.


  5. Thanks Dad and Gary.


  6. Yay!!! A call to arms! I’m lacing my boots. Off to smell the fall leaves. xox


  7. What a beautiful piece of writing. Sorry it took me so long to see it. I love your expat insights and appreciate being put in the category you wrote about (not sure I deserve that…) us up on the roof. Even though I may not be around that much, I am VERY fortunate to have you guys around me and consider myself blessed to have you all as colleagues.


    • Thank you so much, Mark. You know that you are an integral part of the group of which I write.:-)


  8. Hi Shelley, This was such a well-written piece. My sister and her husband teach in Korea so it was interesting to tie that in with your perspective. I really had no earthly idea about any of this. I suppose when you are over-saturated with anything that was once exciting, the buzz eventually wears off. …and so it goes…


  9. thanks for dunking our faces in the ice cold toilet, if only to appreciate the delicious sting of fresh air.



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