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?


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.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Kids Vote Republican

If you never knew it, my sister is an incredible writer. It's galling because she's actually a music teacher and spent most of her school years bs'ing her way through writing and reading assignments, but she writes a mean blog post. Most of her writing is about her job as a middle school orchestra teacher. Since not all of you grew up in a family of musical educators, I think you'll find the stories of the job entertaining. Plus my sister's a riot.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Intimidated by Joy

The other day I was editing my novel (don’t laugh and don’t ask to see it because at this stage it’s laughable) and I discovered that most of the scenes I’d written were downers. Even the scenes that were supposed to be happy carried this dour, cynical certainty that things were going to get worse pretty soon. And I realized:

I don’t think people will believe me when I write about happiness and joy.

So much so that nothing I write—and usually nothing I say in conversation—ever conveys the unbridled joy that I know. Always, always I try to reign it in with a more believable frown.

The implications make me gag a little. It’s as if we all believe that true joy is a delusion at worst and an illusion at best. But I also realized:

My joys are much more personal than my sorrows. The situations, the people, the thoughts that make me truly happy mean so much to me that I try to hug them tight to my chest because if someone were to see them and to disbelieve them, ignore them, or, God forbid, laugh at them, that joy might be lost forever. Besides, if joy is so personal, can I possibly write it in such a way that you don’t gag from sentimentality?

It’s a tall order. It terrifies me to try. But “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” So:

Every Wednesday I take a two-bus commute across the city to a little apartment situated on the fourth floor, above the third-floor Nore-bang.[1] When I open the door faces turn and laughter pours out into the hallway before I can slip the door closed. Shoes spill over the entryway, into the tiny, over-warm living room packed tight with twelve or so of us. I yank my shoes off quickly, tight-roping over stretched legs and sprawled conversations into my usual corner, sinking into our circle. Two hours later, the circle stretches wide as we go our separate ways—by bus, subway, scooter, and foot. We’ll meet again next week.

That’s the best I can do until I grow up a little more. The happiest moments of my life have been when I disappear into the heartbeat of a group like that. It’s been a long time since that’s happened to me on the soccer field or in an orchestra: shared passion, shared goals.[2] Here in Busan it’s difficult to disappear. As a foreign teacher I stand apart—naturally excluded from my students both by nationality and occupation. It is inevitable, understandable, an interesting part of the expat lifestyle to be apart in a culture obsessed with togetherness.

And it makes my Wednesday nights all the more joyful.
To be honest, I'm still not completely sure what we were doing in this picture since we were supposed to "make a
Downton Abbey face" and I've only watched one episode. Still, I think it gives a decent insight into the group.
Squirrels notwithstanding.

[1] Karaoke room, for you non-expat waygooks.
[2] Punny!