Tuesday, October 30, 2012


A.J. is tall for a Korean girl. She’s pretty and tomboyish and the first time I met her she was glaring at me from the back of my Global English classroom. Glaring death. I don’t remember if she had her arms crossed or if she slouched back in her seat, but that’s how I picture it now. For the first few weeks of class, she was what my mother calls a sourpuss.  Her death glare met me when I gave directions, when I elicited responses, when I happened to be within 10 yards of her.
Unfortunately, my instinctual reaction to any student who is not happy to be in my classroom is one of instant animosity. You don’t want to be here? Fine! I don’t want you here either![1] I don’t remember if I was cool or aloof, but that’s how I picture it now. Despite her decent comprehension, I had to drag answers out of her: “my mother is worker;” “my father is worker;” “my hobby is sports with friends.”
I have several students like A.J. this semester and, aloofness aside, I find that I’m drawn to many of them. I liked A.J.—almost immediately. She's the only girl student I have that likes sports and even if that emotion is distaste for my class, there’s a warm place in my heart for visible Korean emoting. I was curious.
I was looking forward to her midterm where I can pry a little; a one-on-one conversation about family and introduction stuff can explain a lot about a student. Maybe I could solve the mystery of the death glare.
A.J. came into her midterm.
I smiled and said hi. She looked nervous when she sat with her purse on her lap; she wasn’t glaring.
And that’s all I remember. I have no idea what her parents’ jobs are or where she’s from or why she chose Child Welfare as her major. I have no idea what her grade was, how the midterm went. None whatsoever.
            I have no idea why she came into class today with all kinds of spunk. I have no idea why she sits up straight and volunteers answers or even asks questions about words she wants to know. I have no idea what changed to make her actually smile after class and say “See you later!” None whatsoever.
            I like to think she woke up a couple days ago. She sat up in bed, frowned, and said, “The hell with this not being awesome stuff. I got this. I’m tall and I’m smart and I’m going to rock the world.”

[1] I will never be a good person. I know this. There are other things to be like hungry, hard-working, hirtellous—and that’s just the h’s.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Feeling Korean

On Thursday, our English department head told us, laughing, that English department heads always get cancer because foreigners give them so much stress. Maybe, she added, I’ll get breast cancer. Ha! Ha! Ha!
            We tried to smile politely because, being veterans of Korea, we know sometimes things are lost in translation. But still we’re not sure if it’s a joke or what the joke is or why our department head is both laughing and why she thinks the very simple issues we’ve raised are nuisance enough to kill her. Surely it’s more stressful for a foreigner to live in Korea than a Korean to interact with a couple foreigners. Surely our requests for our contract to be honored are reasonable. Surely.
            The longer I’m in Korea, the more I see and feel Korean. Not only do I finally notice my small face and high nose; I’m happy to have them. Although a medically dubious claim, our department head’s stress to the point of cancer is beginning to make a lot more sense to me.
            When Koreans are told to work overtime, they do it. And they do it without overtime pay, incentives, or ill-will toward their company. Overtime isn’t good news to them, but there’s no furrowing of the brows that says, “Why should I? Is this the best way to increase productivity? Have you thought about x, y, and z?”
            Time is not yours to arbitrate in Korea; you are too far down on the totem pole for that. You may want more time to sleep or to be with friends, but you are a student now: time is dictated by your professors. Now you’re a company worker: time is given to you by that company. You have to earn time; it is not an essential right. Right now the company is busy, so, company employee, you stay until 11 each night instead of the tacitly assumed 9:30 and, for fun, we’ll have a mandatory company retreat on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll play games and drink soju and it will increase productivity through team spirit. You will not experience more stress.
            Why don’t you quit? I asked my friend. She works in a hospital, and for about two months every year they work three hours overtime every day without pay. She shrugged.
            “There’s more work for the hospital at that time,” she explained. “And if I quit . . . other companies are worse.” She laughed. “I finish work at seven or eight on a bad day but on Facebook I see my friends at Seoul writing ‘Early day’ and like that when they finish work so early.”
            Here at Kosin, while we foreigners are dragging our feet on some random government or school stipulation, weighing the benefits for our students and the logic behind the decision, the Korean teachers don’t bat an eye. They certainly don’t raise questions like, “Is it ethical for a Christian school to violate a contract—taking away pensions and severance—in order to save money?”
            Our department head blinks at us when we do. “Everyone is taking a pay cut. No one gets a pension anymore. Even Korean teachers. Actually, three art teachers were changed to part time recently.”
            “In violation of their contract?” We are horrified.
            She didn’t understand why. The next issue—getting into the English department office when the secretary locks us out—was similarly thorny.
“Our secretary . . . I cannot convince her. She is stubborn. The secretary wants extra pay for coming to extra events,” our department chair said, shaking her head in disappointed frustration.
Now it was our turn to be baffled. Convince her? Of what? Why shouldn’t she get pay for extra work?
Photo unrelated except as evidence to my parents that I'm still alive.
It all makes me hate those geography textbooks we had growing up that covered every spare inch of their spreads with colorful pictures of cultural dress and drama and transportation methods of other cultures to explain their differences with America: windmills for the Dutch, yellow and blue-jerseyed Soccer players for Brazil; the Nutcracker for Russia; Sushi and chopsticks for Japan. The unknown and unheard-of traditions. As if those things separated us; as if any of the unknown clothes, language, dancing, chopsticks—were the barrier that kept us from understanding one another.
As if it weren’t the known—the assumptions, the unquestioned—that was the real problem. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rhythm, Music, and My Man

I am hurt today. One of my better students said something unkind about my teaching abilities, and another agreed with him in front of the class. I came home crying, ashamed, upset at knowing that he’s right—I don’t teach that class very well. Otherwise the comment would not have hurt me. I also don’t play soccer anymore or practice my violin very much. Nothing happens with my writing and I step on my kindle and leave my camera behind and feelings of worthlessness are scarily able to slip into my mind.

As my good friend Alyssa would say with characteristic enthusiasm and some hand-flailing:

fuck. that. shit.

I am Fallen and God is the one who picks me up. I am worth so much and it’s not because my there’s anything worthy about me—about my teachings skills, or work ethic or success or my inherent humanity[1]. I am worth more than all the riches of the world because I am created, loved, and cared for by Christ. I will do everything for him—including work extra hard to be a better teacher, forgive myself when I fail and forgive my students when they hurt me.

Back off, doubt. This bitch be armed with Bonhoeffer.

“The existence of a natural right of the individual follows from the fact that it is God’s will to create the individual and to endow him with eternal life.”

“God gives before He demands.”

I'm crazy for you.

[1] What a joke. We know what humanity does when left to its own devices and it is not something that brings us worth. Pol Pot, gay-bashing, Christian-hating, self-absorption, and an ineffable God complex.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Snapshots of Happy

I don’t have my camera anymore. I miss it, but not as much as I imagined because as much as I like photography, I’m not very good at capturing the moments I actually want to remember. Often I think I engage in art simply to remember, so here are the moments from today I want to remember.

The mortar and rock wall stood cool, practically crumbling, on my right with a fancy new apartment building on my left as I walked down the narrow alleyway to the bus stop.

Reading emails from my parents promising a skype date  today and a kindle in the mail soon while snuggled in my enormous pink hoodie, coffee steaming up my glasses as the morning sun warmed up my room with ambiance if not actual heat.

Four perfectly-timed bus transfers in one morning. Glory.

My violin sang this morning with everything my heart means when I pray.

Costco pizzas—with bulgogi and sausage and green pepper and onions and pepperoni—the size of hubcaps arrived after an hour’s wait, prefacing a lunch with my family here in Korea where our mouths were filled with laughter (and pizza and trailmix) and our tongue with shouts of joy, saying the Lord has done great things for us (Psalm 126:2, ish).

Telemann’s Fantasia in E minor shivered as I burned through the last 250 pages of my second novel this week wearing my new cutie bear socks and mismatched striped pajama pants.

Delicious, sickly sweetness of an irresistible nap.

My parents poking at one another in front of the webcam, all cute and happily married after a long time like you always dream of, sweeter than Ben Folds’ “Luckiest” lyrics.

Vocabulary study in my little notebook that claims, “Light a Lucky and you’ll never miss sweets that make you fat!” (because Korea doesn’t know what it prints on its notebooks), and learning how to use “fulgurant,” “sesquipedalian,” and “lambent” properly in a sentence.

Yawning with Hilary over skype, fighting sleep, content.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Korean Spirit

On the wrong day, Koreans piss me off. Sometimes it’s for “good[1]” reasons like my Korean girl students turning their backs to me and playing on their cell phones during class, or because sidewalks are chaos, ahjummas are pushy, and ajhusshis are handsy and smell like old, old, old sweat. Koreans gawk, but cute Korean boys are scared of Western women, possibly because we have hips and refuse to engage in “egyo” to make their skinniness seem manlier than it could ever be.

Other times it’s for “bad[2]” reasons such as Koreans’ inability to understand sarcasm or pronounce “zombie.” Koreans act and talk like children, sometimes on purpose (to look cute), sometimes because that’s how their dialect sounds compared with English, and sometimes because they are looking for freedom after their high school exams. They’re obsessed with appearance; they don’t have garbage cans. They can’t abide confrontation, are bureaucratic, and their views on women’s abilities and social roles are outdated enough to make my grandparents look like radical progressives.

At the end of these days, the wrong days—when Koreans can do nothing right—I watch American t.v. shows, eat peanut butter, and try to create a cocoon of anti-Korea. Ask any ex-pat who has been here for more than a year and I think they’d agree: this country wears on you. And sometimes even the anti-Korean cocoon doesn’t help.

So I run. On days when I work out in the gym, it’s a power trip. While everyone else is strolling on treadmills while talking on the phone, and generally soaking up “work-out atmosphere” without all that nasty business of perspiration, I am huffing and puffing, putting the treadmill through its paces, smelly and sweating. RAWR! I feel like the Hulk in a puppy shop (in a good way).

It is running outdoors, though, that really brings me back to peace with Korea. Sometime in the past two days, sunny summer slipped and broke into a chill autumn without letting me know and despite the subsequent cold I’ve contracted, the weather is perfect for exercise. Yesterday I ran for two hours and by the end I was so tired I could barely remember which country I was in or why I was in it or what could possibly be frustrating about Korea.

Every time I’ve gone running outside, at least one person—usually a genial older gentleman-type—gives me a huge smile and thumbs up. If the same man gave me a thumbs up when I’m wearing a skirt and make-up, I’d be running for home to form the anti-Korea cocoon. But when my face is the unattractive color of an overly-pesticided Fuji apple, I feel a surge of affection for the Korean people. There is something in them that loves to encourage the downtrodden. Their natural inclination to cheer and fist pump a person into “Fighting!” mode is an impulse Americans lack and it is one I find most admirable. One of the few phrases that most Koreans know is “cheer up.” That is what I try to remember when an ahjumma shoves me into a wall while exiting the subway.

[1] By this I mean that I would nod sympathetically if someone else were complaining about this.
[2] By this I mean that I would remind people that these sorts of things are what they sign up for when they live/travel abroad. These two distinctions are extremely arbitrary and subject to abrupt changes of heart based on mood and menstrual cycle.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Busker Days

They have begun and they are sweet.

The weather’s gotten crisper, but the sun shines warmly to mix with the blustering autumn wind. Lee and I usually walk for at least five minutes before settling into a spot, Lee leading the way through tight crowds of Korean shoppers. When we find the spot—that in itself is the art: a spot with lots of foot traffic, but still room to play, where there aren’t any angry street vendors or too much blasting music from the nearby stores, where we can have a solid wall behind us to amplify Lee’s voice, away from any sewage grates where it smells bad—when we find that spot we detach from the stream of shoppers and swing our instruments from our shoulders.

Lee’s guitar appears seconds later, and he begins to fiddle around while I go through my more laborious process of suiting up my violin. My case is in sad disrepair, the shoulder strap broken twice over and the black exterior shamefully scuffed from toting it through buses and subways and setting it on dirty sidewalks for busking. My rosin broke a while back, and the little shard of it I’ve been using won’t last much longer. I don’t take time to look at the scuffs on my violin’s body anymore, the fingerprints, the divots and dents, the little bit of blood on the D-string from where I broke open a cut on my first finger. The discolored, slightly warped bridge has gone long distances with me—the Tennessee Waltz in the Degage homeless shelter, symphonies in LaPorte amphitheaters, Blessed be Your Name in Chiang Mai, Jason Mraz on the streets of Busan. We’ve been together for a while.

I’m not a good violinist anymore, but I like to think we’re still close.

The crowds start to gather as we tune up. Lee asks me to play a B for him, sometimes, and I wonder if he knows I don’t have a B-string and how problematic it is to tune to my whimsical second finger on the G-string. A crowd gathers, people taking pictures and video as soon as the instruments are out. We’ve learned to ignore them until the money hat is in place. Seeders—a couple of 천원's (very roughly $1), a five(오천), a ten (만원, give them options)—come out of our wallet and into the hat first. Once a group of high school boys gave us money before we even started playing. Sometimes nearby street vendors drop in a couple ’s for us. You learn a lot about generosity and joy when you’re busking.

The ahjumma (older lady) vendor next to us smiles, showing her gold-capped tooth, and encourages us to play nearby when we ask. The jewelers down the street glare at us, certain we’ll clog up traffic (we will) and impede business (we might). Couples snuggle closer into each other’s linked arms and whisper as we play. Kids point and their parents gawk. We play for the smiles and for the schoolgirls leaning out of the sixth story window to wave at us.

Our first song is a crowd-gatherer (Stand by Me), if the crowds are willing. We cater. All the girls stare and giggle at Lee. The ahjummas smile at me and the men look baffled or concerned. When other musicians walk by, their violins at their side, or guitars or a cello strapped to their backs, they give us a nod, a smile. The bold ones jump in and play for a song or two, but that’s rare. When we finish the first, we “kahasamnida” the heck out of those who give a little money and start right into the second.Then the third. Jason Mraz, Ingrid Michaelson, HakunaMatata. Lee sings, Lee strums, I waffle about on the arpeggios, occasionally remembering harmonies and the licks we’ve practiced in between classes in our office.

Our third member for this day was Grace, a wonderful
percussionist and singer.
After four songs, Lee yells, “마지막 노래!” (last song) and we finish the set with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Sometimes people send their kids forward with money, sometimes everyone slinks away looking bored, sometimes we get large rounds of applause, and sometimes people want pictures with us. We take a break or, if the nearby vendors or shop-owners look peeved and we don’t like the acoustics or the crowds are stingy with smiles and 천원’s, we take off and move to another street corner.

Eventually we pack it in, give out our last smiles, and blend back into the crowd. On the bus we fish the천원’s out of the hat and guitar case and check the loot, straightening and counting all the single bills like a couple of change-machine heist-ers. How much do we make? Depends.On the whimsy of the crowd. Sometimes it’s good money, sometimes less so. Either way, it’s a perk.[1]

It is definitely work—it’s tiring and it takes a quick mind, a happy heart, and, for me, quite a few years of violin lessons—but it’s terribly fun. It’s like having a license to make people happy, to smile at them and to play a little music. It’s a way to connect with people who can’t speak to you about anything that matters, a way under the language barrier to something deeper and more joyful than words, a way for us to recharge, to learn that God is generous and joyful as well as merciful and just.

[1]A perk that pays for my choco-pie and ice-cream habits, unfortunately.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A New Seong

            I saw a student on the bus last night, which ordinarily is some cause for awkwardness. Many students aren’t sure whether to bow or wave or pretend they don’t see me while fervently hoping I don’t see them and wondering “Why, O God, why don’t teachers stay in school where they belong?” Luckily this is one of my good students—outgoing, sweet, eager, smart—and as soon as he got off the phone he said hello. We chatted pleasantly the entire ride home[1].
            “So, what does your father do?” I asked at one point. We’re on the Talking about Family unit, so it's on the mind.
This boy, Peter Seong, is a theology major taking extra English classes because he wants to be a missionary. He’s my golden boy of that class, geeky-looking behind his glasses, sitting up straight and answering every question in class, smiling his kind of goofy smile. He runs and makes copies for me when I forget to bring enough. I assumed his father and all of his ancestors had been pastors.
            “I don’t know,” he said.
            Maybe he misunderstood the question. Maybe he didn’t know how to say his father's job. In one class I had a student tell me his parents were “printers” as if carrying on some kind of Gutenberg tradition.
            “I come from a broken home,” he explained, interrupting my confusion. “My parents separated when I was sixteen.”
            “I see." I silently gave him a vocabulary point. “So what does your mother do?”
            “I don’t know. I live with my grandmother.” The bus chugged up Yeongdo’s mountain and Peter had to find his grip on his handholds again. “It’s okay.”
            “Do you have any siblings?” I asked. Why doesn’t one of your parents take care of you? I wanted to ask.
            “Yes. I have one sister. She’s older than me. She’s 31.”
            “Does she live with you? Or…?”
            “She is getting married next week! Actually she was not a believer, but her fiancé’s whole family is Christian, so now she is!” He grins at me—beaming like the world is too small for joy. 
             Maybe it is.
            “So. . . how did you become a Christian?” I asked. How do you smile so much? I wanted to ask. What's the secret?
            “Actually, I wanted to die,” he explained. The bus chugged and jolted up a corner. Skinny Peter settled into his stance and held firm. “I went to a church. Just me. We were worshiping and God told to me—just to me—” He pointed to his heart. “He speak, ‘I love you. I love you always and I forgive you.’ I was weeping and I said, “Yes,” and . . .that is why I had to forgive my parents for separating. Oh!”
            He had to jump off the bus at his stop, but not before waving a cheery goodbye. Aside from his confusion with say, speak, and tell, Peter had completely surprised me. How could I have predicted abandonment and estrangement in his goofy smile, his sweet eagerness to please?

(And about the title: like I could help it.)

[1] A rarity; it’s a long bus ride.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fistulas Are for Everyone

So I was reading about obstetric fistulas the other day in Half the Sky (mentioned here). For those of you who don’t know (like me) and don’t want to go to Wikipedia, obstetric fistulas are painful holes that develop between the rectum and vagina. They’re usually caused by poor medical treatment when a woman is giving birth, but unless surgically fixed, will continue to be humiliating and painful holes for the rest of a woman’s life.

What kinds of pictures do you put in a post about fistulas
and worms? Landscapes . . . 
That’s rough, you and I say, but there’s AIDS too. And poverty.

Call me callous, but I’m human and so are you: the world is full of suffering of one kind or another. We all agree these women with fistulas suffer (“the modern day leper” from one source), but so do lots of people—with muscular dystrophy, with cancer. The list of physical ailments goes on and on; fistulas are only one more problem.

Then I got worms.

You think and I wish I was joking. A week ago, all I knew about worms (the disease) was that we gave the dog pills for their prevention every month. Now I know so. So. SO much more. After I googled my symptoms and started reading, my first thought was this: I would rather re-label this apartment as my coffin and force the police to break down my door to discover the source of the worm-infested corpse stankiness than go to a doctor here in Korea for this. Ever.

. . . and happy memories. . .
Luckily it’s pretty treatable and aside from severe asscrack[1] itching, nothing but my self-esteem and all levels of comfort were destroyed. But even if no one knew—and believe me, until I figured out and took the first steps to treat it, no one did—I was ashamed. I still am. This post horrifies me just as it does you. Probably more so, because it’s disgusting and I feel disgusting and that’s the difference I had missed when I was reading about fistulas.

Shame. Fistulas are holes combining two parts of a woman’s body that women—especially women in traditional settings where fistulas normally occur—are never supposed to talk about. Undeserved shame is the real disease for these women, though that shouldn’t undermine the physical suffering of fistulas.

. . .and times when I'd never heard of a fistula.
It’s not like I hadn’t read that part: half the chapter was about a woman who was starving herself to death because she wanted to die due to her isolation. Not from the fistula, mind you, but from the shame. Still, I missed it in the same way you overlook words you don’t really know. The word is there; you see it and pass over it—until one day you learn its meaning and very suddenly it’s everywhere.

Fistulas are everywhere. Holes that aren’t supposed to be there and, anyway, “there” is not something we talk about. Maybe if we could talk about it, could give and receive our pain the way we do candy on Halloween—[2]asking for it, ready and willingly dropping into the asker’s hands—then physical fistulas, cancer, AIDS, poverty: they wouldn’t stand a chance.

[1] I apologize for the crassness, but it’s the half-hysterical giggle in my throat when I think about this word that makes me able to say it, unlike any of its socially more acceptable synonyms.
[2] Season references are always in style!