Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

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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.

 

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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.