Archive for the ‘Living in Korea’ Category

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Guest Post: Korea and the Shawshank Redemption

August 1, 2011

John Morgan of Morgan Recruiters is a dear friend and colleague who is leaving Korea after many many years here. He has a sharp sense of humor and a treasure trove of stories gathered in his years of teaching and recruiting. He is planning to start a blog about his experiences and observations, and thought he’d like to dip his toe in the blogging pool by guest-posting here. I’m honored. As soon as John gets his blog up and running, I will be sure to share the link here.

Korea and the Shawshank Redemption
-Reflections on leaving Korea after 14 years

“I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.”
-Morgan Freeman narrating in the Shawshank Redemption

I chose the above quote for a couple of reasons. One is that I simply love Morgan Freeman narrating anything. Morgan Freeman could narrate his shopping list and make it sound important and dignified. But more importantly this quote adequately sums up how I feel about getting ready to leave Korea after being here for 14 years.
As I prepare to leave Korea in just a little over a week, like Morgan Freeman’s character Red in the Shawshank Redemption, I find myself unable to keep a thought in my head. As the days wind down until I board the plane to leave Korea, the place I’ve called home for so long, my insides have become a mixture of feelings – sadness, excitement, fear, anxiety, wonder. So many emotions course through me that most days it feels like riding on a roller-coaster with some days being at the top of the world and other days being total downers. The idea of leaving behind what I have known for the better part of my life might very well be the most daunting thing I’ve ever had to do. I am leaving behind some of the most wonderful people I have ever had the honor of knowing, people that I have come to think of as family and that is the hardest part about leaving.
Leaving Korea after so many years brings me to another idea in Shawshank that relates to how I feel, and that is the notion of being “institutionalized”. In Shawshank Red expresses that he is “institutionalized”, that he has been in Shawshank for so long that he can no longer make it on the outside. I too have spent a lot of time wondering about “making it on the outside”. What is HST? What is a playdate? Which one of my jokes will get me charged with sexual harassment? (probably all of them). How much should I tip? Am I “institutionalized”? Are those of us that have been here for over a decade (hereby known as the “D+ club”), doomed to struggle if we were to leave Korea? Perhaps not, but I would wager that the reverse culture shock in going back is going to be very difficult. Being in Korea has changed me so much that the young 26 year old man that walked off the plane at Kimpo International Airport on December 4th, 1996 with the intention of staying one year to pay off his student loan no longer exists.
But the central theme of Shawshank that I hold onto, that gives me the strength I need through preparing to leave – is that of hope. Red tells Andy that “hope is a dangerous thing”, but it is Andy who goes though some of the most despairing and horrific experiences any person could possibly endure while still holding onto hope who ultimately teaches Red the most important lesson of all – “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”. This is the lesson that I want to carry with me when I go back to Canada. That no matter how difficult some of the days may get, no matter how much I might feel despair, there is always hope.
I hope Yunhee, Joshua and I will be able to live a happy and successful life in Canada.
I hope I will be able to see all of my friends in Korea again soon.
I hope.

John Morgan
July 30th, 2011

*My name is John Morgan, father, husband, teacher, recruiter. I lived in Korea for 14 years and had a great time here. In this blog, I’d like to share my experiences throughout the years of living and teaching in Korea.

Next week: “My last class in Korea and the notion of the ‘Expiry Date’

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Drinking with Ghosts

February 5, 2011

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Dark

December 5, 2010

The fight continues
so many die
you know it’s not the answer
yet you continue to try

My cold blooded brother
why can’t you see
despite your offense
we try to concede

I’ve lost so many children
and yet refrain from attack
because I value brotherhood
and know there’s more than that
-Y. Keren. K – International Studies major

Yet the government threatens the North
Which never threatens them really
Only provoking them more
While lost people in the country
Wander, panic and will die eventually
Without a country.
-Anonymous – Business Admin. major

Feel Betrayed yesterday’s happening.
I ask you why you did.
Do just regular military training.
you just find excuse.
No imortant than human’s life.
Think about what you did.
-SC Hong – Human Ecology major

The upper land is Korea
and the lower land also Korea
but all Koreans aim at each other
The names are same
but our minds are different above all

Just 60 years of a long and long period
we just only have lived for 60 years
but the thing that is left to us
is not the same history nor longing for each other
but just hatred holding a rifle
– Anonymous, History major

For whom does this fight arise?
We are all Korean
Hope two become one.
– SJ, History Major

One day it happened without any notice
The bloodstain of 60 years ago hasn’t dried
A longing for unification fades away
beyond an ashen shell smoke
Nobody knows the end of the labyrinth
on this peninsula cut by the frigid sword
two of us built the rigid wall
Now we, who have the same face but different landmarks
aim our rifles at each other’s chest.
-CYW, Social Sciences Major

In Korea, all young men must serve in the military for a period of about two years. Most of them do this in the middle of their university years, leaving school often after the second or third year to serve. I absolutely love having these students in my classes when they return from service. They sit in the front row, their bright, nervous eyes following my every move. Without fail, a shift happens in every one of them while they are away. They return to school grateful and determined to make the most of life, unsure of how to fit back into the world, worried that they’ve lost all their English skill, and still quietly confident in something deeper within them. They come back as men.

My heart is sore from thinking about those of my students in the middle of this transition right now, trying to serve and get back to their families, girlfriends and studies who now have to contemplate the nearness of violence.

My facebook page and email inbox has been full of messages urging me to stay safe, and perhaps, come home. It is hard to explain how complacent one becomes about the North Korean threat after having lived here for so long. I have already been here through five major incidents, starting from 1996. With each incident, my fear lessened, and I started to follow the lead of the Koreans around me, taking it all as just another news story.

I will always remember the first time I heard an air raid siren. As a brand-new teacher, nobody had warned me that there was always a civil defense drill on the 15th of every month. I and my roommate, Didi, were at home for lunch when the siren started. Praying and cursing, I ran downstairs to ask our apartment security what we should do. He was sitting in his cubicle, watching tv, feet up on his desk. Unable to speak any Korean, I pointed to the sky and and shrugged my shoulders in the universal body language of confusion. He laughed, and spread out his arms like an airplane and proceeded to make bombing noises. I went back upstairs and prepared to die what was to be an apparently hilarious death.

In 1996, a North Korean submarine landed on the South Korean coast, with 24 NK commandos being ultimately killed after trying to infliltrate. I registered with my embassy, and carefully studied the Canadian embassy’s evacuation plan, which involved me somehow getting myself to the closest American air base ( kilometers away ) and getting in line behind all the Americans, and then Brits, to wait for a seat on an evacuation flight. In 1999, a naval battle broke out in the Yellow Sea. I would go out clubbing on a Saturday night and see all the other teachers with little backpacks on, containing passport, valuables and 1000 dollars US, ready to run should war break out between tequila shots. I half-heartedly tried to put together a “running” backpack, and even tried to stuff my cat in the main compartment to see if he would fit. ( He refused. )
In 2002, while Korea was hosting the World Cup, a South Korean ship was sunk during yet another naval battle. I sat at an outdoor meat restaurant with my husband and a small group of Korean and expat friends, and watched the Korea/Turkey game in my red t-shirt, talking for a moment about the clash, and then turning back to our soju, Kalbi and cheering. In 2009, there was yet another naval battle. I did the dishes. Then, this year in March, the Cheonan warship sunk, presumably the work of North Korea, taking with it 56 South Korean lives. I held my breath, just for a moment.

Over time, I have learned to take my cue from the Koreans around me. With each skirmish, I have watched them look at tv screens, shake their heads, and then turn back to the routine. Countless times, I have turned to my husband and asked, ” But what would we do?” only to have him say, ” Don’t worry. It’s not going to happen. ” It seems almost impossible to describe the feeling one gets when living here for a long time. I honestly don’t know if it is fatigue or fear that brings about this particular feeling of apathy about the North. I just know that over time, I have become numb to it.

This most recent incident has woken me. The poetry at the beginning of this post was written in my English through Creative Writing class which met the next day. I had expected that my students would be too focused on other things to really care, or that there would be a strong sympathy with the North, which is often seen on University campuses. I was stopped in my tracks as I read over their shoulders. They too, were wide awake to the fact that their lives of exams, and blind dates and job searches could change at any moment. They were angry, and scared.

I can’t offer any kind of political analysis except to say that what makes this time feel different has much to do with the transition of power in the North, and that the South currently has a President who is as far from the previous ” Sunshine Policy” as one can get. This was also an attack on land, with civilians dying and homes destroyed. This also follows the attack on the
Cheonan, much too soon. South Koreans are still grieving the young lives lost on that ship. How much more will they take before they decide to fight back?

That day, I got off a bus on my way home and stopped in front of a tv screen in a convenience store window with about 10 other Korean passers-by and watched the images of gutted homes and black smoke clouds. I looked at the faces around me, and a chill went through my heart.

Still, it is not as simple as getting on a plane and going home. My husband is still of fighting age, and would automatically be drafted were things to escalate. Even if he and I could get out, how could we leave his mother, his brother and extended family behind? I have spent 14 years abroad, and have no work or credit history in Canada, not to mention that all my property, possessions and money is here. My whole life is in this country. I am not willing to leave it unless it will cost me my life.

I am angry that everything I have is held in the hands of a few hard-hearted men. I am angry that South Korea, a country that has managed to grow and prosper at an almost unreal rate, keeps getting kicked by it’s jealous brother to the North. I am angry that my mother-in-law has to contemplate the possibility of a second war in her lifetime. I am angry that one of my Creative Writing students who is graduating this semester, just got a job and had to sit in my class and write a poem about how he is willing to fight.

Yet, once again, a few days have passed, and emotion has started to dull. I don’t think anything will happen in the next month. Possibly – not in the next year. Still, I am closer to believing that something will eventually happen. My husband and I sat down over yet another meal of kalbi and soju, and this time, we made a plan about what we would do if things spun out of control with no warning – because if it is to happen, that will be how it will happen. An overreaction, a miscalculation. A mistake.

** Thank you to my Creative Writing students who allowed me to share some excerpts on this blog. You are all an inspiration to me.

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Calling My Tribe

October 16, 2010

I recently joined the Mondo Beyondo Dream Lab, thanks to a nudge from the fabulous Kyran Pittman of Notes to Self. One of the themes of this particular dreamlab is the idea of “tribe” – surrounding yourself with people who support and nurture your deepest self. One of the exercises I was supposed to do last week was to describe what my tribe would look like. I had no idea.

When I was a university student majoring in English Lit, my school opened up a fine arts department with majors in Theatre and Visual Arts. Suddenly, there were little pockets of delightful strangeness opening up all over the very small campus. The department had just opened, so there were just a few of those Fine Arts students walking around. When I saw one of them, usually dressed in black, and looking like they were laughing at a secret joke, I would feel a pull. I didn’t think of myself as any kind of artist. Still, these people were different. Having grown up just a little odd, I instantly recognized and appreciated that difference.

Then I met and fell in love with one of the Acting majors. This was such a sweet time for me. Not only was I in the middle of a very innocent and open-hearted love, I was quietly being accepted by his Theatre friends as one their own, even though I was still an English major. About a year later I decided to join the department. My father worried that I was just following my boyfriend into a path that would lead to the unemployment line, but I knew that I had found my tribe. I don’t think I was particularly meant to be an actor. However, the hours I spent around the green room talking about BIG THINGS were home to me. Classmates gave me mixtapes so that I could hear new music. Professors gave me books to read that they thought would interest me. Many bottles of wine were consumed. I was being nurtured on the deepest level.

Sixteen years later, my primary identity is “Foreigner”. I am not a woman, a Canadian, a teacher, a writer, a coffee-drinker or a goofball. Before all those things, I am foreign first. When I first came to Korea, it was a novelty. Trails of kids would chase me in the street yelling “hello” over and over like like talking dolls stuck on repeat. I thought it was cute. The blatant staring made me feel special and exotic. I became pleasantly aware of my soft pink curves. The feeling of walking through a society without having to really be part of it was freeing.

That is different now. Usually in Seoul, people don’t stare or point anymore, and kids usually have a foreign teacher of their own and don’t feel compelled to chase the ones they see in the streets. I have married a Korean, participate in traditional Korean family ceremonies, and have made a very good life here. More importantly, I have learned how to blend. I know which of my “foreign” behaviours will call attention to me, and I know how to put on “Korean” manners. When I meet new Koreans, they sometimes say that I am almost Korean. For them, that is the highest compliment they could pay me. Still, I will always be a foreigner. I have a Korean family, I have Korean friends. What I don’t have is a Korean tribe.

Being an expat and making expat friends is also tricky. In the beginning, I put a lot of effort into making friends with other foreigners. The problem is, most other expats eventually go home. We share coffees, dinners, secrets and trust and on the other end of it, I find myself alone again. This has caused me to turn in on myself, keep myself company, and close my heart a little. Today, though, I am rethinking. One of the really good things about the expat world is the opportunity to become friends with people whose path you would never cross at home. We are all very different, yet we are all foreigners and that binds us into some kind of a misfit tribe.

So, I am calling my tribe. I am ready to open up and be nurtured, to let people pass through my life and enjoy them while they are with me, let them go with love when they need to move on. I still don’t know what my tribe will “look” like. But, I’m sitting here with an empty chair on the other side of my coffee shop table and enough money in my wallet to treat you to an espresso. Come find me.