Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas at Home


Things I have done while on vacation here in the good ‘ole Midwest:

Got lost in Wal-Mart
Cuddled my beagle
Exercised with mom
Coffee with dad
Napped
Slept in
Went to bed early
Snarfed, nommed, and generally devoured dozens of cookies.
Watched roughly eighteen million shows about renovating homes, buying the perfect home, and one show where you get to do both and then choose.

Things I have not done:

Blogged (or even written, L) with consistency or passion
Eaten kimchi
Missed my cheesebox apartment, my diet of peanut butter and eggs, or the Busan subway system
Not missed my friends in Korea
Taught English

I’m not a huge Christmas fan (call me Scrooge; I dare you) and I’m definitely not a fan of New Years—yet another arbitrary date that signifies nothing except that we are still breathing, our hearts beating, and 365 days have passed. Frankly, I can’t be bothered because I’m busy soaking up the last few moments of home-iness before hitting the road again.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m going to Australia, New Zealand, and possibly Singapore on a dream vacation; I’m not unhappy. But home is truly something special and nothing to be rushed. As George Moore, an Irish novelist I'd never heard of before, said,

“A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”

Pre-wedding tomfoolery with my roomie and Ian McKellan.

I ate all of these. And all of their white chocolate coating.


Mom's momma looking cheery on Christmas Eve.

Shelby?
Christmas Carnage.
Beagle glamour shot.
This is when I got my new camera. Practice shots!


Snowy time.


Love having a car. Love driving. Absolutely hate hate hate scraping it off in the mornings.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Grace and Joy and Merry Christmas


But he gives us more grace.

In Korea I feel as though I don’t have much more than grace and kimchi to get me through. But here in America there’s my mom’s lasagna, my dad’s pancakes, my sister’s cookies, Mama Penning chili, friends and family and a cozy fireplace. Grace is probably here, too, somewhere, but it’s buried beneath the tree and presents and Home.

The one thing Korea might have over America is sunshine. Since I arrived home ten days or so ago, I think it’s only been properly sunny on two of them—one of which I was cooped up in a plane for. Between the clouds and familiarity, it’s a lot harder to see the grace over here.

But it’s Christmas! And if there was ever a time for grace, it’s Christmas. Grace for your waistline as you eat some cookies. Grace for your crazier family members as they do what they always do which is not what you do on Christmas. Grace for your friends. Grace for hectic shopping malls and the impatient.

For me, I’m going to take some time this Christmas for grace. It’s always there—God is a constant quality of the world—but it’s hard to give it and even harder to receive it. That’s why Christmas is hard, perhaps. And life? Grace—and its very close but ineffable compatriot, joy—is its focal point.

So Merry Christmas, all y’all. May you find God’s grace in your life. May you find it, dwell upon it, immerse yourself in it: receive it, and give it. And may it give you joy.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure


            There was a lot at stake for The Hobbit. Would it live up to its Lord of the Rings predecessors? Would Jackson remain true to Tolkien’s work? What lore would he include? Did he have enough to work with for three movies?
            I’ve none of the real credentials of a Stephen-Colbert-level aficionado, but since reading and loving The Hobbit in elementary school and LotR parallel the movies, I’ve become something of an admirer of Peter Jackson and his adaptations. Like many Tolkien-lovers, I watched the first installment of my favorite Tolkien book with baited breath, anxiously asking the questions above.
Good Morning!
            The short answer? Yes. Jackson’s done it again: he’s given us Middle Earth in all its fictional glory. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was three hours of relief to those of us who missed Middle Earth the past decade since Return of the King came out in 2003.
            The star-studded cast was everything we hoped: McKellan, Weaving, and Serkis are brilliant in their reprised roles. Martin Freeman might actually be Bilbo Baggins, as far as I’m concerned, and Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords) was delightfully present as Elrond’s bitch elf. Richard Armitage and his sexy-enough-to-rival-Benedict Cumberbatch’s-voice gave Thorin the nuanced delivery he deserved, and Aidan Turner’s (Kili) smile has given fangirls like myself something about besides Orlando Bloom to twitter about.
            The deep choir theme for the dwarves called us all back to the hills of New Zealand starting with its mysterious Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold. Musical themes were kept and used appropriately, and Howard Shore’s new score masterfully interwove the quirkier folksy songs like the dwarves’ Chip the Glasses without undue cheesiness.
            But this movie was no masterpiece. Flashbacks engaged us Tolkien-lovers, but they dragged the plodding plot off its course. Enjoyable exposition pulled it backward, and delightful interpositions based on Jackson’s previous LotR installments halted it altogether. Frodo has little to no place in his own prequel. Cate Blanchette, Chris Lee, and Ian Holm—though exquisite—were pricey. The brilliance the Unexpected Party and Riddles in the Dark were isolated by relevant but slow backstory.
            The over-developed role of Azog (a compilation of himself and his son Bolg) did wonders for centralizing the antagonist of the story as we wait for Benedict Cumberbatch, but his presence changed the character of the story, upping the violence and drama level in an appropriately Hollywood—but not coming-of-age Hobbit—manner. And who knew P.J. had it in him to turn the barely-mentioned Radagast into Middle Earth’s version of Jar-Jar Binks?
            But in the end—although some of Gandalf’s lines felt recycled and the Goblin King had to go out with a line finally stupider than Legolas’ “A diversion!”—I am grateful.
Thanks, P.J., for another taste of Middle Earth. Thanks for the rock giant battle, for Sting, Orcrist and Glamdring. Thanks for Erebor and the Misty Mountains. Thanks for the stupidity of trolls, the stubbornness of dwarves, and the brave hearts of hobbits. And thanks for two more movies: we can’t wait.

The Road Goes Ever On...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Please


           What are we willing to give up for someone else’s life? Our lives? Our sports? Our property? Our rights? It’s an interesting question. We’ve learned after the events in Connecticut that teachers are willing to give up their lives for their students, but are the rest of us willing to give up our comfort? Our property? The safety a gun provides? Our traditions? Our “principles” that say a gun-owners right to property and pursuit of happiness is more valuable than a chance at saving a child’s life?
            If it’s about rights, we need to first admit that it’s about our rights, not just rights. Our right to choose, over another’s. My right to choose anything: my right to own a gun, my right to speed, my right to comfort, my right to an abortion. We are and have been fighting over who gets what right and whose rights are more important than someone else’s.
            What frustrates me more than anything is that the many people I know who own guns are also Christians and patriots—people who love God and country and many of whom have sacrificed much for both. These are some of the best people our country has to offer and to these people, I ask:
Patriots, are you willing to sacrifice your way of life to save someone else’s child? Are you willing to serve our country in a way that’s truly uncomfortable to you? Will you give up your priorities for the sake of a (well-researched and extremely probable) chance at saving a life? Is it worth it to you? Will you truly step up and be the best America has to offer, people full of sacrifice, integrity, and humility?
Christians, are you willing to trust your safety and the safety of your family to God rather than a handgun in the bedside table? Are you willing to allow for Godly sorrow rather than righteous anger? Are you willing to do what is right in the sight of God and man? To turn the other cheek? To walk two miles instead of one?
Please.
For once, America, let’s be radical. Let’s do something good. Let’s unify and get something done.
Data source: United Nations (Max Fisher — The Washington Post) Link

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Concert for my Subway Car


            I hate the subways. On the other hand, most people think alighting the steps of a Busan Bus is comparable to crossing the Rubicon to dance with Damocles’ sword. It’s a melee where the last man standing is sometimes a hand-cart toting ahjumma or a smelly, staring ahjusshi but it is never a foreigner clutching her bus pass and crying out to God for the lost innocence of her personal space.
            Every criticism against the bus is well-deserved, earned by a myriad of late and crowded Daewoos careening through the streets with little respect for the human life both inside and outside its walls[1]. But at least they have fresh air coming through the constantly opening doors. At least they have windows.
The subways only have blank glares, stale air, and advertisements plastered over door, windows, and wall—advertisements for plastic surgery, for clearing my skin, perfecting my hair. There are no windows, only rows of frowners, people who jostle and steal your seat and cough on you. Doors open only to admit the hordes of overly perfumed women, smelly men, and dull-eyed students—batches of automatons politely ignoring everyone else’s existence. Headphones, smartphones, and i-somethings appear from nowhere: tiny, electronic shields. No one smiles.
I don’t often take the subway during to-and-from-work times, but today I had to drop my violin off at its babysitter’s, so I hauled myself out of bed, skipped Bible study and joined the masses in the tube of disappointed dreams and despair.
Okay, I promise I’m finished being maudlin. That was the last one.
I had gone through my Bible memory verses on the bus and so attempted to pray on the subway. No dice. I’m not a good prayer at the best of times, but without a pen in my hand or even the hint of a skyline I’m hopeless. I patted my violin case in consolation and suddenly realized I was going to miss my little fiddle. Two months is a long time apart and we’ve been through a lot together—All State nerves, symphony and scholarship auditions, concerto performances, and that time when I was awarded a scholarship violin that was way better and my heart wandered for a semester or three . . .
A song floated into my mind—
            Come thou font of every blessing
            Tune my heart to sing thy grace
            Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
            Call for songs of loudest praise
            Teach me some melodious sonnet
            Sung by flaming tongues above—!
            Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
            Mount of Thy redeeming love.
Prone to wander in prayer, prone to leave my focus behind and chase after rabbit trails of thought instead of the God I love, I was grateful for the hymn. It haunted my mind, prayer-like, until my fingers itched to share it. I patted my violin case one more time.
“Not now,” I told it quietly, even as my heart thudded with excitement. “I’m on the subway and people stare enough at the foreigner. It’s scary to be different and we already sang on Sunday. It’s time for goodbye, not worship.”
But the idea grew like the thump, thump, thump of the Telltale Heart, and I had to work hard to consider the logistics. No room, too many people, too many disapproving stares, and too many stops of embarrassment to go before I could escape. But my fingers itched, my heart thumped and I knew that within, courage and fear within were tapping their toes to the beat I would play.
In the first car on the subway, there’s a small extra space for standing. I moved there with seven stops to go, unzipping the outer case, leaving the lock untouched. With six stops to go, I took off my scarf and the fingerless glove on my left hand. I set my purse down behind me and my case next to it. I stooped and sprung the lock. A finger brushed across the strings—still in tune—a look at the bridge—still straight. Tightened my bow. Took a deep breath. The eyes of all in the car were on me, but still I faced the wall.
With five stops to go, the subway emerges from the earth’s depths and becomes an elevated train. It was then—mountains and buildings flew by; the sun peaked in the windows, past the advertisements about fixing my skin, my nose, my eyes, obscuring the screens of the i-somethings—time to begin. I slipped my puffy coat off my left shoulder and turned to my audience.
The song was raw. My fingers shook, my legs wobbled, and I worried about the jolting starts and stops as we passed through the stations. Come Thou Font, simple; Amazing Grace, timeless; Flowers of Edinburgh, a toe-tapper.
I saw one head bob with the beat, but didn’t catch anyone’s eyes. I couldn’t smile. I looked out at the sun, facing my body toward the window and my violin’s sound down the long, metallic aisle and played as best my trembling fingers could manage.
It was at once a temporary farewell to Korea, a fist-pump of fighting! to the dull-eyed students, a thumbed nose at the glaring, staring, judging anti-toe tappers frowning at me. It was a timid cry for a revolution of joy and quirkiness, a suggestion to look up from their phones, a hope that the day would be brighter than an average, pushy subway ride. It was a little song of praise, too—wobbly and raw—to God, who has grown me to the point where I have the courage to stand up in a subway car full of grey, slumped shoulders and sing.
With one stop to go, I ended on an impertinent little g-chord and packed up. I pulled my left glove back on, slipped my arm back into my coat, and wound my scarf around my neck. Violin strapped to my left side, purse hanging on my right. I checked my cell phone, readied my subway card, and stepped into the cold, cold morning. 


[1] Today my bus driver pull a three-point 360 on a 30% incline, backtracking faster than the Millenium Falcon in order to avoid an ephemeral traffic jam. It was impressive, terrifying, and needless.

Monday, December 10, 2012

An Attempt at Maturity (Failed)


Sometimes it’s really difficult not to think of Koreans as children.

Even though my students seem so young. It would be better if I could blame it on the make-up the girls wear or the boyish style popular for men right now. Surely that plays a part—that and their healthy diet of kimchi making their skin positively glow with youthfulness.

I wish I were judging on appearances because it’s easy to know how wrong that is. Instead I often judge on social norms:

Girls scream in the hallways, giggle in the classroom, shuffle around cute boys like they’ve never yet conceived the idea of talking to them like human beings instead of shrieking at or hitting them as a form of flirtation. Boys whine and skulk and rarely make friends with girls.

No one has a car; most still live with their parents. Students seem to have no long-range processing abilities, taking very little initiative in their education or future. They can’t problem-solve and only a very few understand why that might be useful. Students tend to have a flat, na├»ve view of alcohol and smoking and their views on politics are usually centered on what everyone else thinks. Everyone is scared to raise their hand, think for themselves, or act alone. Pimples are the devil.

In short, Korea is horribly reminiscent of American middle school. Koreans bear a harsh resemblance to the hesitant, wariness I remember marked the lives of my classmates and I ten years ago.

I have to fight not to treat my students like the age they act. I can’t condescend, because their actions—the giggling, the interdependence, the lack of originality—are not indicators of immaturity. Maturity is a completely different matter here than in the states. Individual responsibility and ingenuity are not prized—why would my students try to attain Western ideals when their culture breathes their antithesis? Duty is important here, not creativity. Respect not pride. Concentration, not passion.

MoonSung, my tutee, said a middle school student recently asked her why he should study.

“What did you say?” I asked her.
“I said—” she pointed her finger imperiously. “You just do it. We say when you get to college, your agony will be ended.”

I did my best not to look horrified, but in my head I was doing a small tarantella of concern. Just do it? Mindlessly? Hopelessly? Without passion or enjoyment? With nothing but the intangible promise that someday the agony will be over—but, unless you are incredibly successful—a new agony, one of guilt and shame and disappointed dreams and, finally, resignation to a lower-level life, will begin? I see the shame that weighs around my students’ shoulders when they all explain why they entered Kosin University. “I messed up,” they say. “My tests were not good. I played too much when I was younger.” In short: “I enjoyed life too much, coveted freedom and did not do my duty.” These are the regrets of kids in their early twenties!

I’ve heard that this is the crux of all differences between Western and Eastern education. Westerners want students to start with passion—a love for their subject that will fuel them to perform well. Passion, we believe, will instill in us a blindness to hard work so much so that we don’t even notice the hours, days, and years of difficulty because to us, it isn’t a chore, but a blissful labor of love.

In the East, it’s flipped. Just do it, they say, and the passion will follow. Tiger Moms are mothers who force their children to study, practice, perfect a million different skills and subjects in order to drive their offspring to future glory. The world is terrified of Tiger Moms (many of whom are Asian) partly because they’re insane, but partly because they get shit done without any of that “enjoy your life” nonsense.

Do it, they tell their children. You don’t like it now—it’s hell to work hard while your friends aren’t—but when you’re older and you can speak three languages, play Gershwin and Tchaikovsky like a piano pro, and enter the top university in the country, you’ll love it. Tiger Moms are the hard-core image of all that Eastern education encourages.

Where Westerners say “Find your passion,” the Easterners declare, “Passion follows practice.” In the West we say, “When you’ve matured, we’ll listen to you,” and the Easterners laugh. “If you are younger, you will never be listened to.”

In the West we have millions of kids who, since their only passion is playing video games and even that isn’t much more than lack of apathy, don’t pursue anything at all. Or maybe they pursue something for a year or two, but when the passion fades, they divorce him or quit that or simply shrug and “follow their heart” for the next however long until their heart changes once again and they look around years later with nothing that lasts. On the other hand, the people that do find their passion, excel and become innovators, hard workers, and happy, functioning members of society.

In the East, millions of kids pursue exactly what their parents tell them to pursue, and after the rigors of high school and middle school, their childhood lost, they have also lost the ability to think for themselves and enjoy the interests they may have once had. Some commit suicide, but most resign themselves to lives of “quiet desperation” in which they could never identify the bitter longing for something they’ve never had. On the other hand, those that achieved everything their parents hoped they would attain honor and happiness and become rich and powerful functioning members of society.

Which is better? Or worse? Can they be melded together? How is it that I see the benefits of both, but despise the idea of the one I didn’t grow up with? How can my cultural inclinations be plasticized that I might truly seek after something great rather than something ingrained?

I find it almost impossible to see the benefits of what appears to be immaturity until I look at the Bible. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3)

There are many aspects of Christianity I like to wrinkle my nose at—tradition, submission, and humility for instance—but I like this mandate perhaps least of all. God tells us to have faith like a child, to see the world simply. He asks us to believe in him, to know the world is beautiful and that we are safe and loved and that, ultimately, someone else is in charge and that is actually where our joy and the beauty of this world come from.

There are some things about Koreans that I love, but their ability to believe in authority and to unquestioningly carry the torch of traditional thought like children accepting everything their elders say is most definitely not one of them.

In Helplessness Blues, a song by one of my new favorite bands Fleet Foxes, it says, “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique. Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.” I’m special and my individual thoughts and criticisms are important; they are what make me worthwhile, someone to listen to, a mature adult.

But maybe the Bible agrees more with the Korean way of humbly accepting the wisdom of those older, putting their heads down and doing as God has designed. “I was raised up believing,” Helplessness Blues says, “that I was somehow unique. Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking I’d say I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”

I think that’s what I’m supposed to want, but I’m not Korean and maybe—just like when I can’t speak the language or when I have to get my visa renewed or fight for my pension—that holds me back. It would be better, perhaps, if I reverted in some ways back to my middle school self, or even earlier. It would be better if I didn’t believe I was quite so important to the world. After all:

All people are like grass and
All their glory is like the flowers in the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall because
The breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely all people are like grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall
But the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40)

So where does that leave me? If Eastern culture is right in this instance (an if nearly impossible for me to accept), surely Western culture has some major facet going for it. Right?

Still I like my culture better. Sorry Asia, but America does a lot of things better. (Dessert, for instance. Also, driving. And feminism.) I like questioning authority, arguing, criticizing, analyzing. They are my strengths and they are so useful in today’s world of scientific improvement where logic wins at all costs. But in the moral sphere, in the type of growth that God calls us toward, I can’t really think of any inherent superiority the West has over the East. Discernment? Crafty as serpents? Anyone have any ideas?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

It's Midnight; No Time for a Title


I can’t believe how inconsistent life is. There are weeks, months even, I don’t have anything to say, not really. And then BAM—a book walks into my life, a TED talk, a thought, a moment and suddenly there are eighty thousand blog posts and essays I’d like to write. But during the doldrums weeks of nothing new I fashioned a life that made time for 500 words a day and nothing more. That just doesn’t cut it sometimes.

In four days, I’ll be across the globe in Chicago and then, hours later, in Arizona. In five days, I’ll have watched The Hobbit. In six days, my roommate will be married. A day later I’ll be back home, partying (re: napping) with my parents, seeing family and friends, and two weeks after that I’ll be in Australia and New Zealand for heaven only knows how long.

There’s packing to be done, presents to buy, an apartment to clean, goodbyes to give, grades and all sorts of school-related lose ends, but something else is niggling. It’s sort of like I’m drifting down a river, letting the current take me and I suddenly realize there’s a shark swimming next to me who has been trying to get my attention for the past three miles.

Or something like that.

But I’ve only just noticed the dorsal fin (or is that dolphins? There’s a shark in my imaginary river; marine biology is not my strong suit), and below the surface of the water lies 90% of both of us. Maybe more. I’m not really up-to-date on my shark to iceberg comparisons. Maybe I can make a better comparison within my own field of expertise. It’s like the first time you notice a long line of foreshadowing. You start rifling through the past pages to find the patterns, to understand it deeper, but your mind is already hungering for the next pages. You ache to know the realization to the fullest, to connect the dots and draw conclusions.

I like the shark analogy better because what’s unseen—the dots to connect, the pattern from which you can realize—is ginormous. Like so many subjects that draw me in, I’d have to read for days straight before I was even sure it was a dolphin under the water and not a shark. Meanwhile I have to keep swimming because there’s school stuff to take care of, an apartment to clean, and a plane to catch.

So, in shorthand, here’s the shark/dolphin/foreshadowing:

First, a TED talk about how to live a joyful, wholehearted life. The secret? Vulnerability.

“The willingness to say ‘I love you” first. The willingness to do something where there are no guarantees. The willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. The willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.”

The next surprise was a novel I found in Busan’s English Library (a godsend if there ever was one). “A spare and haunting, wise and beautiful novel about the endurance of the human spirit and the subtle ways individuals reclaim their humanity in a city ravaged by war.”

A devotional-type book going through Psalms 121-134 that offers a beautiful look at the joy, pain, and endurance of a life of faith. It is, for me, a comforting read, a reminder that I’m not in control of this mad-packed life.

Perhaps the most surprising is this rather dated scholarly book called Silencing the Self: Women and Depression. It was written in the early nineties, so there’s quite a bit of data about inequality in marriage and relationships that seems quite dated. But in many ways that old news feel is made exponentially more alarming by the turns of recent perspectives on gender expectations. Super interesting stuff (I can see you rolling your eyes, Libby, Hilary, Mom. That’s enough).

And finally, for the past three months I’ve stopped reading and studying the Bible. Instead I’ve been memorizing it, alternating between a chapter in the Old Testament with a chapter in the New. Honestly I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to my faith in many, many years. I can’t recommend it enough. So far I’ve got the first three chapters in James, Romans 12, Psalms 4, 5, 13, and Job 38. Tomorrow begins James 4 and then a refresher course in Psalm 8.

I don’t know what all that meant. Maybe it was mind-vomit, and the Lord bless you, keep you, and make you meet a benevolent shark/dolphin in the next twenty-four hours if you read all the way through it. You are beautiful people.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Adventure


“A monument only says, ‘At lease I got this far,’ while a footprint says, ‘This is where I was when I moved again.’”
           
Adventure stories were my meat and potatoes growing up—mice with swords, hobbits, dragons, good and evil, victory and defeat. The tropes are so deeply ingrained in me that I often don’t realize that not everyone takes the metaphor of life as a journey as deeply as I do. Not everyone imagines difficult conversations as battlefields, periods of boredom as the literal Doldrums. To others, pain is pain—a broken leg hurts and a broken heart heals. But to those of us inundated with the spell of fantasy, scars are stories with a beginning and end, replete with significance, mystery, romance.
            All that to say I wonder sometimes what brought me to Korea. What madness possessed me to cross the ocean and throw myself upon Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, China, and wherever else I might land? I’m a homebody so homebodyish that parties still—at twenty-three! Perhaps forever?—make me nervous and time away from home weighs on me down like a wet fur coat. Whatever am I doing on the opposite side of the globe?
            Leaving, or its milder, more symbolic form, going out for an evening, is necessary—even for the extreme introvert. After a day of watching Sherlock episodes and cleaning my apartment, I badly needed to get away from my Fortress of Solitude and enter the world of the living. But how—maybe you know the feeling—how could I ever leave my bed, my sweatpants and hoodie behind for the cold, wetness of the outside?
            I needed a disguise—the disguise of a person who didn’t mind the rainy streets and solitary bus ride out to the nearest worthwhile coffee shop. Pirate? Too scurvy. Knight? Rain would rust my armor. Ninja? Perhaps, but I don’t have the right shoes for the outfit. So instead I dressed up like a writer and took to the streets in my scarf, sweater, and skirt combo, armed with my netbook, Precise V5 Pilot pen, and a couple notebooks. I’m happy here in my cozy coffee shop—jazz pouting quietly in the background, bookshelves lining the walls, wooden tables, wooden floors and chairs and records bordering the cornice[1]. Michael Bolton looking angelic with flowing blonde locks on the cover of The One Thing. The Best of John Lennon. Beethoven and Schubert and Roy Fox.
            Maybe that’s all my travels abroad are sometimes—a disguise, a jaunt. Brian Jacques has taught me all too well the value of a quest, so that when college ended what else could I do but light out for Salamandastron? I think I’m okay with that. There are worse wastes of time, less idealistic reasons for travel. I do hope that the metaphor works the same in real life, though. I hope that I come back changed for the better, confident—or at the very least not as confused—that I have achieved something.
            Life is so big, I think. Stuck in the middle, I haven’t the eyes to make sense of it all. The stories—fantasies, adventures, journeys—help my faith in the meaningfulness of reality. There’s a piece of poetry I find similarly comforting. Says Robert Browning, “This world’s no blot for us, nor blank. It means intensely and it means good.”


[1] Outdated word compliments of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Granched by Gratitude


“Grateful” is not one of the g-words I’m overly committed to. I’m more of a “gung-ho” kind of gal. Or “game.” I like gargle, gibbet grunge, garrote, and granched as well (though dictionaries say “granched” is made up).
Recently, I’ve been trying to kindle up some my feeling of being grateful for my job. Here in Korea there are three types of jobs for your average English teacher: public, hagwons (private academies), and university. From what I gather from my friends, public schools are a bit like factory work. Everyone wears uniforms, teaches with a co-teacher who will probably spend most of her time insulting, ignoring, or haranguing you. Hagwons vary based on their owners and the age catered to, but most can be summed up by expletives. Sometimes (meaning the first month) everything runs smoothly and the kids are cute, the owner sweet, and the hagwon filled with magical unicorns. Other times pay is withheld, hours are changed, and the kids are hellions born hiding their true demonic nature behind adorableness.
These jobs—public and private—are like coffins.
They serve their purpose—paying off loans—but you don’t want to be in one. Also, you can never get out of them. Seriously. Or you can, but you don’t get your free flight home which is where the metaphor kind of breaks down.
In Korea, university jobs are the buffet at this country-wide wake. Your hours are flexible, your students are fully-functioning adults, and your co-teachers speak English and usually understand words like “contract” and “overtime” and “the hell with this.” Plus you get vacation time which, for everyone else in Asia, is a joke.
So why am I not grateful for one of the best jobs Korea has to offer? For the past couple of months I would have griped about the salary (it’s lower than the coffins’), the administration (Lord, beer me strength), my location (I’m at sea, on a mountain, Isolationapolis), and bizarre standards( only 30% of my classes can get As, even if more have earned it).
But all of those are red herrings. The real reason is that the rigmarole isn’t worth it in the short run. The short run is blank stares and late students, miscommunications and blind lesson plans, chaos and apathy in turns. In other words, even if the buffet is great, it’s still the buffet commemorating a casket occasion.
It’s the end of the semester now and finally—finally!—I’m starting to remember why we teach: improvement. My students who come to class consistently have, as I’ve promised them, shown improvement. My global kids—some of the lowest English-speakers in the school—not only know how to say “I didn’t get a handout,” but they willingly speak for fifteen whole minutes in English. It took three months of vicious bullying, but victory, my friends: victory is sweet.
So I am grateful. I’m grateful to my global students for listening, learning, and letting me coerce them into speaking English. I’m grateful to my juniors who have overlooked my first-semester snafus teaching an upper-level conversation class and learned their grammar anyway. To my freshmen who made some excellent skits yesterday and who laugh at my jokes. To my literature students who argued Maya Angelou and “Phenomenal Woman” with me for over an hour: thanks.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Hanok Thanksgiving

            We are out in the middle of nowhere with the darkness of morning broken only by a slow creamy orange sunrise. Stars still shine in the cold half-night sky, pale blue streaked with the brown-grey clouds. The floor beneath my sleeping pad and blanket is warm, heated by boiling water pushed through pipes. A sliding door is closed against the chill, but outside the smooth wood of the wraparound traditional Korean deck welcomes socked feet. Hanoks—traditional Korean houses—are sparse, and this hanok, tucked away on the ledge of a mountain is the essence of peace.
            Before the sun has crested the peach-fuzz profile of the far hills, the owner is up, building a fire. The rest is silence, so different from the bus-ridden existence of our city down the coast. It took three buses, a subway, a twenty-minute hike up a mountain and a merciful car owner to get us all the way out here with our various Thanksgiving accoutrements. Real Thanksgiving was spent in mid-week isolation—each of us fenced in by metal and wall, holed up in our cell-like apartments after a day of work.
            When the weekend rolled around, an early Saturday morning and the arduous trek away from modern life in a Korean city was a gift. Forget “thankful;” I was rejoicing. Tile-roofed homes nestled between curving roads and homey gardens of rice and greens, wood smoke and shoes slipped off on the stones below the deck. Through the sliding door, turkeys were cleaned and stuffed, potatoes were mashed, greens were casseroled, pies baked. We talked, we lazed, we went for walks and in the evening, dinner was served with laughter and the usual slice of appreciation.
            There was no football on the television we didn’t have, or an afternoon nap with my mom and beagle snoring softly in the lazy-boy like there might have been back home in Indiana. The stuffing was plain old Stove Top and the gravy a little congealed. The turkeys were small, uncarved by my dad’s skilled hands, tidbits stolen by me and my older sister as we strolled through the tiled kitchen. There were no familiar family squabbles. We didn’t turn on It’s a Wonderful Life after the last piece of pie was eaten, and there were no plans to get the Christmas tree up the following day—only three buses, a subway, a twenty-minute hike, and our cell-like apartments jammed into cement waiting for us.
            But how can that matter when you wake up to the cold shadow of the moon and the warm snickering of a steady sunrise? How can that matter when inside the floor is warm and the outside air delicious on the door with in its icy breath? Tell me, how can it when the “we” that wakes up with you, packs together, bundles themselves into coats and gloves and waits for the bus with you is your family too?
            We sat in the middle of nowhere together. The sun rose and the chill happily stayed, my heart aching for the joy of something the sun couldn’t bring, nor the chill explain—something wrapping me up in cords of mountains and clouds and waves of gratitude for a Thanksgiving spent far away at home.
Our hanok

Making the stuffing. The boys did most of the work.
I believe the girls were drinking hot cocoa in the next room
at this point.
Thanksgiving spread 
Carrying an oven across the country like a champ.



Thursday, November 22, 2012

I Medical


Sometimes I view my job here in Korea as a form of glorified cheerleading.

Me: How can you ask for a favor?
Freshmen: *cough* *pretend to look for a pencil* *glare balefully at the world*
Me: Look in the book—you can do it! “Would you mind…”
Freshmen: Would you mind . . . . mumblemumblemumble . . .
Me: Would you mind what?
Bill: Would you mind . . .open . . . window. . . mumbleshamefacedmumble
Me: Great, Bill! That’s it! Keep it up!
Bill: Would you mind window mumblemumbleducksheadmumble open me?
Me: Not really—but good job! John?
John: hurple?
Me: Almost! Would you mind opening . . . *point to the window*
John: win . . . dow?
Me: the window, but yes! Great job! Go team!!!!! *double thumbs up, smile, nod encouragingly*

I’ve found myself naturally adopting this cheerleading mentality with every Korean who talks to me. I nod. I smile. I throw thumbs up left right and center. Everyone needs more encouragement, right?

Wrong.

Remember my soccer buddy who is made of awesome and all things sweet? He came back the other day and took me to soccer, which was excellent fun. I wowed the little boys, got some exercise and a ride home from a guy called Young Boom.

Soccer buddy (in Korean): Do you have an English nickname?
YoungBoom: Ahhhhhh TIGER!!! YA!
Soccer buddy (to me):  “Boom” means “tiger.”
Me: I’m not calling him Tiger.

Soccer buddy: Okay, bye!

BoomTiger: Do you like . . . ummmm . . . cheekin?
Me: Um, yeah! Chickin’s good. *thumbs up*
I abhor chicken. It is greasy and makes my stomach feel like it’s hosting an unhappy but high on ecstasy amoeba party.
BoomTiger: Team. Cheekin. Eat?
Me: Um, no. I have to go home and study. Don't worry! I can take the subway.
BoomTiger: No! No! I drive. I medical. Me.
Me: I see. Cool. *thumbs up, smile*

BoomTiger: Gum?
Me: Sure! *anything-to-make-the-awkwardness-go-away smile*

It will take at least twenty minutes to get home. I ask questions—short, not scary questions—I chatter. I try to be a friendly, appreciative passenger. BoomTiger doesn’t know much English, but he asks questions, too.

BoomTiger: You like pizza? Chickin? Pasta?
BoomTiger: I drive car. You like?
BoomTiger: You like alcohol?
BoomTiger: You like music?
BoomTiger: Do you know ghjdiicsak? Music?
BoomTiger: Are you hungry? Food by Kosin eat?

I tried. I really did. I tried to stay encouraging. But when he said “Michael Jackson” and proceeded to belt a sampling of some incomprehensible rendition, wobbling his head back and forth like a mating peacock,[1] I shifted irreversibly into “polite.” Finally, as I was wondering what might possess someone to be quite so confident in their inabilities, he finished his warbling.

 BoomTiger: Shim shim? Do you know shim shim?
My phone dictionary displayed gratitude, heartfelt thanks.
Me: Yes. I shim shim. Thank you for the ride home.
BoomTiger: You. Phone.
Me: Hmm. Phone. Yes?
BoomTiger: Shim shim. Call!
Me: Ye-es.

I decided to check my phone again where I see the secondary meaning of shim shim. Bored. Meanwhile, BoomTiger has figured this out as well by calling a friend to ask him for the translation. I nodded and smiled, applauding the kind of efforts I rarely see even in my most dedicated students. Good job, BoomTiger! You tried really hard! Keep it up! Work on your verbs! I was already nodding and smiling when BoomTiger said, triumphantly:

BoomTiger: You bored. Call. Me!
Me: Oh. 
Oh please no. 
BoomTiger: Bored, yes. You? Me. Call!
Me: Oh, yes, bored, but--phone?
BoomTiger: You call. We food place. Eat. Alcohol. Okay?

Oh, be still my fluttering heart.

What went wrong? What could possibly make a boy think that, after sitting in the same car for ten minutes struggling to communicate the simplest banalities (even if she didn't already do that for a job), a girl would want to voluntarily sign up to do it again? Did I miss something? On the bright side, I've now got "medical insurance."

BoomTiger: You sick? Me call! I medical.

Oh good.


[1] Or rather, how I imagine mating peacocks do as they spread their useless but beautiful plumage.