Monday, August 31, 2009

The New Digs Got Me Standin' Up Straight

Recently two co-workers, a couple to be precise, were finishing up their contract at the school I work for and it occurred to me- luckily before it did anyone else- that their apartment would be up for grabs. I ran to my supervisor and pleaded for it and she warned me: this apartment would cost me extra. Thinking of the growing curvature in my back from leaning over for half a year in my shower and kitchen I begged to know the expense. She said with a heavy sigh, 100,000 won. Would I still be interested? Ladies and gentlemen, 100,000 won as of this writing translates to $80.47 US Dollars. Considering my last apartment in Boston was $750.00 with at least $200 extra dollars in utilities, involved two roommates at each other's throats, and was right next to the commuter rail line that made my room rattle when it passed like in the Blues Brothers, I gave her a Cheshire Cat's grin. "Oh yeah, I can swing that."

Here's the digs:

This is room is where the bed and couch are and it's already larger than the previous studio I lived in. Outside the gated balcony lies some of the most beautiful foliage I have seen in the concrete jungle. Now the best part..

Hooooley shittttt. That was mainly the first thing I thought of when I saw this bathroom. I mean, hot damn that's a real shower! That is not a sink with a hose out the nozzle. That is a vegas hotel room shower stall. De-licious. My back feels better already.

The kitchen though is my favorite part.

I have an oven now! A kitchen table with chairs! There's a device I can put my wet dishes in to be air dried! A legit fridge! 80 bucks. All this can be yours for 80 bucks.

And the willingness to uproot yourself into an entirely new paradigm with an infant's grasping of the language but still....80 bucks.

Those are my closets. That is my little bitty TV. It's actually a regular sized TV but compared to all the negative space around it looks like a golf pencil dropped into a mine shaft. That sounded grosser than it should have. Moving on..

Inside one of said closets. The interesting thing about moving in here is that suddenly I want to spend money for no reason to fill up all the space but common sense is staying my hand.

Moving into this apartment marks the start of my sixth month here in Korea. I have a bicycle now with a basket, I can read Korean perfectly, I understand the language and can communicate moderately well in any situation. I am learning how to be an effective kindergarten teacher more and more everyday. It has truly been a remarkable shift in just half a year. It defines the phrase that a single day can change your life. So if you're on this side of the world, hey, gimmie a buzz. There's plenty of room on the couch for ya!

Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Much Ado About Swine Flu

There is a global pandemic going on right now in case you didn't know it. It is sweeping the world with the fury of a turtle on meth but it is enough to terrify the current culture I am habituating to the point where now my Hogawon has declared a draconian law that we cannot leave the country in anyway shape or form until Christmas. And even then we must return by at least Dec. 30th so we can have four days to display signs of the virus before classes start back up on Jan. 4th. [NOTE: that means that out of a year contract we have had, beyond weekends, two working weeks of vacation. Think about that before signing with a Hogawon over a Public School if you're interesting in coming over here. They get five weeks.]

Now on the one hand this makes a degree of sense. We deal with children, no one wants to see children being hurt and they see this as a preventative measure to insure the safety of their clientele and reputation as a safe educational haven amongst stiff competition. That's on the plus side of their argument. Now here are my counters:

-This more than implies that Swine Flu is a "foreigner's disease" and that only those with contact from another country will get it, despite the amount of Chinese and North Korean workers that move in and out of South Korea like it's the Mexican Boarder. Regular business is done with Japan and America resulting in expensed trips abroad for these sakes: are they immune by proxy of intention then?

-This is a culture that issues an anti-biotic at the start of a runny nose, has terrible pollution, and insists that Kim chi can cure the Swine Flu, yet finds it rude to blow your nose in public? Not a single child in my school sneezes with a hand over their mouth and I have yet to watch an adult do it on the street as well. When afternoon classes break all of the children stampede out into the hall of our school to be individually fed a snack of cold rice noodles or Korean pizza with the same fork! That's over a hundred children swapping spit in the span of three minutes four times a day. Beyond that, when you go to a restaurant your table is littered with almost twenty small dishes by the end of it, most of them soup, and those soups contain three to four spoons for the three or four people eating from it together! Seriously folks, we need to have all taken a mid-level high school biology class before being sat down to discuss the spreading of germs by the kleenex impaired.

Now here's my most practical one:

-Nowhere in the contract that I signed does it say anything even remotely allowing to be told where I can or cannot go on my vacations or for how long. I am granted the eleven days off that I worked my butt off for by contract. Therefore it is none of the school's business on what day I return. The counter argument is that the parent's of the children are concerned. That's a valid counter, but one that should be dealt with by the school directors and compensated accordingly. It just plainly is not our responsibility. If this was a government mandate that would be one thing, but it isn't. It's the directors trying to exert control over something they simply have no right to.

In my opinion the Public Schools are doing it right. They are delaying the restarting of schools after the summer break for a week in hopes that this magical number of seven days will allow children returning from their various trips abroad to have enough time to display any illnesses by the ending of that seven days and therefore not go back to school to infect the other children. That's what the directors of my Hogawon want to do with us by making it that we can't return later than the four days before school restarts. The problem though is that what if we do return with swine flu and are laid up? They still are going to be out teachers with no one but themselves to cover for it while having to pay the sick teacher's sick pay and medical insurance expenses, hence doubling their own expense. Also, what about the kids that come back with it? What do we get for compensation of them infecting us? Shouldn't everyone be forced to take a thermometer exam to see if you are displaying a high fever to be allowed into the school again on Jan, 4th just like they do at the airport when you land in Korea now? Simple logic and not the least bit as racist as these ridiculous edicts imply.

Right now it goes without saying that all of the teachers are more than pissed about this decree. There is organizing on how it will be fought because it will have to be. Until this government tells me that I cannot do something I am not going to be told what I can do on my contractually allotted and well earned vacation days. The outbreak of the swine flu is a terrible thing to have happened, but it is not the onus of the teachers to make up for these unseen circumstances, it's the school's.

Needless to say, more to come as we start this interesting second half of my twelve month contract...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Homogenous Societies Do Not Breed Introspection

That was something a lady at the Boston Language Institution told me when I decided to move to Korea. She had just recently returned from numerous years in the "dirty south" as I like to call it. It was one of those lines that someone said to me but I was too busy trying to get out of my own way and focused entirely on the move that it went through the sieve of the moment and caught at the back of my mind's drain. The events of today's class dislodged it with a vengeance over some fantastic fried chicken served with kimshi and rice and good company for dinner.

One of the subjects I teach along with reading and writing is Social Studies to 4th graders. Not only Social Studies but American Social Studies at that. Why, I could not tell you. They are adamant about it however and some of the other teachers from Canada are rather outspokenly flummoxed at the notion of having to teach Koreans about a country they've never even been too or know next to nothing about save popular music and TV shows. I joke, hey, that's all these kids know, you're on an even playing field. Regardless, I'm teaching kids in their second language about a society and it's system of government including ethics and history that has zero emotional relevance with them, and them understanding maybe every seventh word of what I'm saying or they're reading. Challenging to say the least.

That brings us to today's topic: Diversity. A rather hotbutton issue back home and I remember writing a huge article about it for my college newspaper when they instituted the new "diversity on campus" program. Regardless of my feelings on what the phrase might mean in a political context, the word by itself has a rather simple and real definition when distilled to its honest essence- variety. In fact, that is the definition in the Social Studies book. Variety. In a country where everyone has black straight hair, brown eyes, similar height, and the wackiest thing on the menu is maybe some mild curry every other Wednesday instead of the daily serving of rice with kimshi and fish, explaining diversity to these kids was like teaching eskimos how to sow bermuda shorts.

Specific to the lesson was American ancestry and all of the different cultures that have moved to the United States from different areas of the world. To connect the lessons to them in some way or another I always make special handouts that draw parallels to the topics in the book to South Korea. When we talked about immigration I gave them an article I hobbled together about a school here in SK that reeducates North Korea refugee's children to living in a completely different paradigm. In this case, I made a handout about Koreatown, Los Angeles. A place near and dear to my heart that had some of the best parties in LA and the ever interesting Barcade where some hipster made a speakeasy in their apartment filled with old 80's arcade machines. They didn't need to know that stuff. But it is the most diverse neighborhood in the Uniter States with almost 25 different countries immigrants and ancestors being represented in a five square block radius. 18% of the population is Korean, the rest goes down in percentage from there.

Didn't care.

I can't say I blame them, they're in fourth grade, those are concepts that don't really mean anything to a kid, especially when they've never even seen a black person before. [Side Note: I asked the director of my school during a moment of conversation why there aren't many black people around Suji and she said flatly, "because we don't invite them." Hooo-kay, I thought.] These kids are getting their cultural fix from the wacky white guy infiltrating their country teaching them Social Studies. Most of the children here will never leave their town and in this country you do not move out of your parents house until you are married. What was interesting was when we got to the point of discussing generations and ancestors.

I wrote the four countries that I can immediately draw my lineage having originated from when they moved to America and how they beget my parents, which in turn sprung me. They didn't understand it in anyway shape or form. I talked about my grandparents, what my mom's father and mother did, what my father's father and mother did and how their heritages shaped my parent's lives, which in turn shaped mine. So I then turned the questions to them, tell me about your grandparents. Nothing but blank stares. What did they do for jobs? Blank stares. What are their names? Super hard blank stares. What do your parents do for a job? Amazingly hostile bored blank stares. Finally one broke the silence in my 4 o'clock class with, "I don't know, he goes to his office."

Now my kindergartners know what their parents do. They've also been taught English, and by proxy western culture, for three years already by the time they came to me, but they know. The elementary students I teach in the afternoons have not had Western/English kindergarten foundations and subsequently have terrible grammar and speaking skills next to my kinders, but along with that they have no direct connection to the lines of questioning that the children indoctrinated with western thinking can answer. They literally don't think about it. Dad works, Mom cooks, grandpa is old, thats it. What matters is how well they study and what their grades are, not how They fit into the social order. They are coming to an American Social Studies class from a purely communal society standpoint on material that is highly individualistic. It is a fantastic contrast to experience.

Which brings me to my dinner. Another teacher mentioned how homogeneous societies don't breed introspection and like some Manchurian Candidate trigger the memory of my instructor's comment all those months ago in Boston came into perfect context. Things are very regimented here in SK.. A child of 10 years old will get home from school and after school activities by at least 10 o'clock and after homework wake up to start it over again. They study their ass off to get into university and from there, depending on their test scores, they go into their profession and then around mid twenties they take a spouse and start their own family. They don't jump careers like in the west. They don't get married in their thirties. They don't spend huge amounts of willpower on wondering what their "calling" is in that I can see. They do it, and God help you if you don't do it 110%, even if it's obvious you HATE it with every fiber of your being. To see how much different the seven year olds are from the thirteen year olds is fascinating. What is this country going to be like in twenty years when they are coming into control after growing up westernized I wonder..

On a funny note regarding they all have the same hair, one of the things parents do to change their young boys hair up is give them a perm. After a few weeks it relaxes into some nice looking waves but the initial perm is hilarious. One boy in my class just got one over the weekend and he happens to be the class bully. Watching a kid cause people to cry around him while looking like a midget stand in from the Brady Bunch is unintentionally spectacular.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mosaic Cafe

The weather on June 20th, 2009 was awful. The rain was plummeting in sheets and collecting into unavoidable lakes reminding everyone of the inadequate drainage system here in South Korea. It was a constant storm that had been falling for almost two days with no sign of letting up and despite the rain the heat was trapped in with nowhere to go. The humidity was sweltering. I was offered the opportunity to play my first gig in South Korea two weeks previously and I accepted with delight knowing nothing of where I was playing or with whom. Running to the bus stop with my guitar case getting soaked and my clothes sticking to my body and my backpack full of chords feeling heavier with the drench I wondered if I would have accepted so easily had I known the weather anticipating me.

Once I got off at the Jongja Subway stop and walked the two blocks to the the Mosaic Cafe I was shocked and delighted at the location however. It felt like something out of San Francisco. The event was an art opening for a co-worker Amanda Kilpatrick's artwork and it was packed with friends and extended friends that she knew and I had corralled from my school to come. There were locals and ex-patriots everywhere and the food served was excellent, though no booze, which made most of the people I brought ready to jump out of their skins and they bolted the second I unplugged to wet their whistles.

The opening act, David James, was very impressive and set the mood nicely. He is a superb player. I went up and clunked through my first set in almost five months since I arrived here. It felt wonderful to perform again- how it sounded is another story and most likely never one to be retold to the narrator of one's own story honestly. The final act was named Mary Beth who played for over an hour with a wide variety of material and stories that could run a little bit too long between songs making the audience anxious. Perhaps it was myself and the women from my office who were anxious to go join with the over-boarders for a much deserved beer actually. She asked to borrow my strap, I had to stay, as I relayed in countless texts towards the end of her set.

Once we left the cafe it had of course stopped raining and was suddenly pleasant. The rest of the weekend was cool and blue skied, a perfect juxtaposition to the hurricane like thunderstorms of the previous two days. The knot of not preforming having loosened, I found it fitting.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Open Classes Day or Fear and Loathing on the Kindergarten Campaign Trail

Has it really been a month since I posted last? Ugh! So sorry but as this entry will attest, I have been busy busy busy with one of the most important events in a Hogawon's school year.

I recently had my "Open Class Day" which any reader of this blog who has ever taught overseas will probably immediately identify with and sympathize. For those of you who teach in the Western countries I imagine there is probably something comparable to this event. For all the rest of you, including myself up until four weeks ago, let me summarize this intense and important event in the academic school calendar for a Korean Hogawon in the most honest way I can:

"Open Class Day" is the day where the parents of the children enrolled at a private academy get a chance to see how their money is being spent.

The nicely padded lines of "demonstrating our program to the adults" or "giving our students a chance to show their knowledge with their parents" is about as honest and effective as sitting in a methadone clinic decorated with posters of kittens dangling off trees with a cursive "Hang in There" tilted on the bottom. At the end of the day "Open Class Day" will make or break a school's financial future for the next year and with that event horizon come people's careers. A bad impression will lead to a bad reputation and as anyone in business understands, a satisfied costumer is mute next to an unhappy one. You can guess this leads to some anxiety within the school.

For the sixty minutes that the parents were in my classroom my supervisor and I spent four weeks preparing. When I got my class the room I received was literally disgusting. The teacher and supervisor who had it before us really didn't do anything to improve it at all. There was dust everywhere, absent staples holding up nothing scattershot throughout the walls like tommy gun bullets, ridiculous felt boards holding up slacking over colored paper of yellowing smily face suns and ugly trees. It looked like a derelict day care center to be completely honest with you. Rebecca, my supervisor, and I basically inherited a mess.

Then there were the kids. The class I have is full of adorable little humans but the level between them is so vast they are really two different classes. The smart kids are very very smart and the slow kids are very very slow. It brought a huge degree of anxiety to the people who run the school when they sat in my class and saw firsthand what I deal with daily, and had commented on to them about up to the point daily by the way, that the kids were leveled up together based on the parents shelling out money, not their inherent abilities. Being that I teach the highest level kindergarten class the spotlight was on my class big time and my class was underperforming by their standards due to the fact that half of them aren't geniuses like the other half. So we had rehearsals for the big show. Then another one with notes on how to make the dumb ones look not so dumb.

Then another one. And more notes, this time more activities almost like dance numbers.

The ANOTHER one! And more notes! This time with them needing to learn songs with only two days to go!

By the end of this I was absolutely flummoxed. I felt the school was using my class to cover up for their own mistakes of letting certain kids pass by the levels instead of paying attention to begin with. Plus the people that ran the school were talking about the slower ones in a negative light using phrases like "we just don't care about them" or "we can't let them drag us down." Hey, these are 6 year old kids, if four out of eight are smart enough to diagram a sentence at 6 thats great for you but the rest of them are not going to be tossed aside because they don't fit your model of the golden goose. I went to bat hard for these kids and found the school's behavior regarding them highly reprehensible. This lead to a lot of tension for a little while. Plus my supervisor would be in my room constantly scaring the living hell out of them to learn Yellow Submarine and other songs to impress their parents with. It was a dog and pony show basically and I was the white MC to it.

Well Open Class Day came, I wore a very nice suit, the kids were lined up in their seats with care, rows of chairs were set up and the parents came shuffling in and we were off. I'm a performer so being in front of a group of strangers is very comfortable for me and with that comes the ability to gauge and direct an audience's energy. When the kids were quiet, I would look at the parents and quip "wow! They are never this quiet," and that would make the parents laugh. The kids all jumped through their flaming hoops well enough. When the climax of the show hit and they did their screaming at the top of their lungs rendition of Yellow Submarine I saw the look on their parents smiling faces that we had succeeded. Money would be flowing in for the next year and the director of the school, who has said two words to me the entire time I've been there by the way, leaned over to my supervisor and whispered "he's very good." I shook their hands as the parents shuffled off and thanked them for coming and was called "Superman" by three of them.

Since then it has been a different situation altogether. My supervisor knows what will set me off and visa versa, our working relationship is much easier. The school leaves my class the hell alone and actually listens to my comments now after seeing firsthand I'm not just saying something for the sake of it. Basically I earned my stripes so I get to teach them in peace. Now that its over I can look back on the experience and feel pride in having accomplished it but WOW was it a hilariously tense and massively awkward four weeks. I mean I participated in really passionate arguments over Raffi songs versus Yellow Submarine. The subjects of debate alone are just so odd that during the heated exchanges I was outside myself looking down thinking, what are you talking about?! Grown ups arguing about the merits and value of a Beatles' song trumping "Down By the Bay" in grammatical value. Amazing.

So again, so sorry for the month delay in posting, my hands have just been very full. Normal posting schedule will resume and there is lots of more stuff to talk about. Thanks again for stopping by and we'll see you soon!

Physical update: I've lost 15lbs since I've been here! Yikes! The lifestyle here just pours the weight off you.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Meet the Kids

Today marks the end of my third month here in Korea.  The journey has had it's ups and downs, my ability to enjoy the adventure specifically has gone through comfort and crisis, but throughout it all the one thing that's kept me grounded has been the kids under my care.  Before coming to Korea my teaching experience was limited to substitute teaching where I would only really get to babysit a group of children one time for 45 minutes and then after the bell rang accept a whole new group of strangers.  Now though I am lucky enough to be able to watch a group of boys and girls mature before my eyes over a long period of time, day in and day out.  It's a truly humbling experience when I think on who these kids were when I first met them, or for that matter, who I was.

Bottom Row, from left: Joonsuh, Eileen, Jenny, Ariel, and Aaron.
Top Row, from left: Rachel, Eugene, Tony, and your humble scribe.

This picture was taken at Jenny's birthday party.  When I assumed the class a few months ago they had already been at LCI Kid's Club for two years and had only been taught by female teachers.  The transition towards accepting me took a couple weeks.  Mainly the boys were so excited to see another bigger boy and the girls were almost totally confused.  In addition to my naivety as an instructor there was also the cultural distinction of having only previously taught in the American Public School System which stresses absolutely NO PHYSICAL CONTACT with the children of any kind.  In Korea they do not believe in this however.  They believe in something that roughly translates to "skin-tact," which means playing with the children, picking them up, kissing them on the forehead, and basically showing them decent and deserved human affection.  Something, because of my previous experiences, I was reticent and basically inexperienced in my capacity to provide.  

When the first few weeks were going on the kids would grab me, wrap themselves around my leg, kiss me, and the whole time my instinct was to look into the security camera above our heads and mouth "I'm not touching them..."  As you can imagine this caused the kids and myself a great deal of confusion.  My supervisor would get calls from the parents saying things like, "(so and so) doesn't think Alan Teacher loves her/him."  My supervisor, who lived in England for about five years, understood my hesitations and just explained that in the culture I'm from I could get sued or thrown in jail if I touched a kid in what my culture would honestly see as inappropriate.  So for my education as an instructor one of the first things I had to learn was it's okay to kiss the kids and hug them and play.  It took almost 3 weeks to shake me out of my preconceptions and since then the connection between the students and I is almost palpable.  I genuinely can say I love these children and feel their affection towards me, so much so that discipline in class is not an issue like it was in the first month.  They don't want to let me down.  It's interesting how disarming a hug can be isn't it?

The personalities of the children never cease to surprise and entertain me.  Jenny's mother is an English teacher herself and has been a huge help in explaining her daughter to me.  At first glance you could say after watching Mrs. J's behavior that she is a little precocious, yet she is an only child and a damn smart one at that.  Over time I see she wants love from as many people as she can get it from, a situation I think we can all relate to.  Eileen is the quiet artist with a fantastic drawing style who likes to write poems in English and Korean.  Her parents are already in their early 60's which I think gives her that unique perspective growing up with people who, by this point, probably have a few more things figured out then the rest of us.  Ariel, here in her silly monkey face, is the daughter of a Doctor and a Nurse and is scarily intelligent.  Already proficient at the head of the class in English she is now focusing her attention on Chinese.  Her ability to remember the lessons after one day amazes me, much less her propensity towards multiplication in Kindergarten!  

Ahhh Eugene.  Mr. Eugene is an incredibly energetic only child that has the funniest voice I have ever heard on a kid.  I cannot tell if there's some cleft sinus condition or if he's just got a naturally deep nasally voice but he sounds much older than a child of 7 years old (6 in Western aging) should.  He is almost incapable of sitting still and if I were to play pop psychologist I think he has ADHD.  I find it interesting that if Eugene were raised in my culture he would have been given Riddlin by this point and maybe even taken to a psychologist but over here they do not believe in diagnosing such things, especially for children, because of the shame it brings on yourself and your family.  I cannot say which is better because I've seen plenty of people in the West over analyze and over prescribe these conditions and drugs to children whereas here the exact opposite is true.  Not to sound like a Scientologist but I think putting kids on psycho-chemical drugs is stupid and harmful, however, I don't think acknowledging a child's situation and working with them on conquering it through therapy is a bad thing either.  In the meantime I just work on corralling this tornado everyday to sit in his seat and focus on the work at hand.  Like other things here (and everywhere for that matter), going to English school is a status symbol and Eugene, Aaron, and Rachel, despite being amazingly adorable and good natured children, really shouldn't have been pushed through to the highest level Kindergarten class as their abilities are almost a full year below their classmates.  But English is a business here and if the parents are willing to pay almost a million WON a month, in the top level class they will go.  Besides, I truly don't know where I would be without hearing this manly nasally voice coming out of a 7 year old every morning going, "Hey Al."

Ariel has adopted a silly monkey face whenever there is a camera around now.

Tony is a fantastically adorable child that's been the test for me in terms of bullying.  There has to be one in every class right?  The thing is he doesn't mean to be so mean but whenever there is playtime he will go in elbows blazing and knock everyone else flat on their ass to get to the toy blocks first.  Girl, boy, it doesn't matter, if you're in Tony's way you're getting knocked out.  Also he is not ironically one of the most sensitive of the children and one of the few left that's prone to crying almost daily, specifically because he thinks everyone doesn't like him.  I'm always reminded of a phrase my brother told me when his son came into the world: with children logic goes right out the window.  Of course they think you're a jerk Tony, you grab stuff out of their hands and scream "MINE!" or laugh at them like a hobgoblin to make them feel bad if they're proud of themselves over a drawing or classwork.  So instead of using logic I use the tried and true method of rewards and demerits under the moniker of "stickers."  Everytime you're a prick you lose one sticker.  Every time you share and don't drop down from the top ropes onto a girl because she's got the "telephone block" you get a sticker.  Three months have gone by and it's finally starting to settle in.  

This was at the end of the day and Aaron and Rachel look less than amused.  Joonsuh is in his fighting pose ready to strike which is ironic considering what a gentle giant he is.  Joonsuh is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum to Tony.  He is a very large child, dense too, he must weigh almost 80 pounds at this point, and most other children think he is at least 9 or 10.  This frustrates him being only 7 years old but translates into his personality nicely as he is one of best mannered and behaved students in the class.  He always shares, puts out fights, never tattletales, and genuinely wants to learn.  It's interesting how class dynamics work and am always thankful that there's a Joonsuh or Ariel in my class to inspire the others.  

Three months have come an gone already.  It's incredible to think back on them.  It feels more like three years.  As much as the children are learning their English lessons, I'm learning twice as much on how to be a successful teacher towards them.  Seeing which avenues of attack yield the greatest results and which lead you face first into a brick wall.  I also heard from others that you don't know yourself until you've had a child.  I haven't been blessed with my own children yet but having adopted these eight kids these last few months I have certainly come face to face with my greatest strengths and been shamed by my greatest weaknesses.  Nothing, I've come to realize, dispels our illusions about ourselves like seeing how a child actually perceives you.  I thought I had patience, I was wrong.  I thought I was overflowing with compassion, ohhhh I was wrong.  Yet throughout this I have seen one truth about myself reflected through their comfort and behavior which makes me feel like I'm on the right path.

I am genuine.  

Monday, April 27, 2009

My Inevitable Quantum Of Confusion

Well dear readers the moment has come that everyone warned me about.  The feeling that my conscious mind told my unconscious mind to not even think about or else it'd get got when I began this madcap and rash journey.  I am homesick.

Really, really homesick.

It started kicking in about three weeks ago when I woke up on a Saturday morning to a huge spider bite in an area that spider bites should never, ever, besiege young men.   Nothing life threatening or challenging if treated with a trusty dose of strong rubbing alcohol I thought.  That started the sojourn over to the ridiculously huge shopping complex about a half mile down the road from me named Lotte Mart.  This complex has a massage suite, hair salon, Best Buy style electronics booth, Culture Center/daycare, eye-doctor, dentist, fully stocked grocery, five different floors, and not one single Goddamn bottle of rubbing alcohol anywhere on the premises.   

I asked tellers for it.  I asked the women at the cosmetic counters putting make-up on customers.  I asked those customers.  I asked the women wearing thigh high white stockings and red aprons roasting pork on a small grill for samples.  I asked the security guards in navy blue blazers and secret service style white earpieces.  I asked the information desk which in turn told me to ask someone else.  I spent over two hours walking around this colosseum to capitalism and left with nothing but a bunion and a thorough understanding that I can't speak {CENSORED}-ing Korean.  No one understood a thing I was saying and I defy you to come up with the charades equivalent of "rubbing alcohol."  

I decided to then just go exploring.  I walked to every outdoor market I could find, every 7-11, every Family mart.  I spent literally six hours looking for something that I could have fallen backwards blindfolded and found at home.  I was directed to everything other than what I was looking for like umbrellas or latex condoms slathered in numbing cream.  I gave the counter guy that one.  Rubbing probably brings this to mind but just saying alcohol kept getting me sent to the beer locker.  

I was literally lost in translation.  

This actualized the growing frustration that had been boiling inside me to this point.  The novelty of living here had started to wear off and up until this point I was subconsciously trying to avoid it.  Sure there were fun times and great new friends but there is also a constant sickness as my biology adjusts to this new environment, the stress of working for a Korean school that does not have our concepts of break-time or sick-time, and the budding loneliness of knowing my best friends are thousands of miles away and I'm pounding the pavement doing charades at confused strangers for a bottle of rubbing alcohol.  Which, it turns out, they do not even use in this country.  I was starting to feel at a loss.

After a couple more weeks of internalizing these feelings I started to observe my habits in my traveling journal.  I was no longer trying to learn Korean.  I was hanging out with other Westerners only and watching Western TV and drinking any found bottle of Budwieser like it was a good and fulfilling investment worth 10 bucks.  I was shunning the country I had moved Heaven and Earth to uproot and live in.  This just will not do.  

After actualizing my struggles to another person, making them tangible, I felt the space to research what the hell was going on with me.  One quick Google search later (hey, remember learning the Dewey Decimal system?  When knowledge required a library card?) and found a study done in 1954 published by Bobbs-Merrill that details the 5 distinct stages of culture shock.  Lo and behold, not only was I not the uncanny exception to the rule I always favor myself to be but I am smack dab in the middle of stage three: The Regression Phase.   

First things first, lets break down the stages.  Stage one is The Honeymoon Phase.  This is when everything is new and weird and awesome and exciting and comes with a sense of euphoria after overcoming anything mundane in this new paradigm like ordering food or getting a taxi.  Then, once "the newcomer," as we're called, has to face the problems of this new situation including not knowing directions, diet changes, or not finding a single {CENSORED}-ing bottle of rubbing alcohol any {CENSORED}-ing where in this Goddamn country we immediately slip into stage two, The Rejection Phase.  

Here "the newcomer" starts to dwell on the negative aspects of the new country and rejects their host country because, basically, it ain't home.  The interesting part of the study shows that you either toughen up and get stronger or your body starts to fall apart health-wise and you go home.  I did the former.  I started working out more, got a Wii Fit, ate like a monk, cut tons of weight, and felt like a finely sharpened blade.  Yet internally I was still going crazy and it was boiling over leading to sore throats, anxiety, zits, and overall exhaustion after work.  Then, almost overnight, I found a can of Pringles at a small market hut and ate the living hell out of it.  I found chicken like they do at home and started making that for dinner more.  I even found broccoli and asparagus and was back on my diet instead of constant Kimshi, sushi, and kimbop.  Now here, dear readers, is where I reside, knee deep in stage three: The Regression Phase.

This is when you remember home as this fantastic shangri-la where all the little things that used to piss you off are suddenly no big deal anymore.  Where all the difficulties you might have had there seem marvelously silly and you spend most of your time wondering why you would have ever left to begin with.  This is not reality of course but an illusion created by the internal crisis of your subconscious mind going "I am freaking OUT here man!" and your conscious mind countering, "s'all good, I'm a world traveler.  Ain't no thang, I don't scare easy.  It's this stupid {CENSORED}-ing country that doesn't have any rubbing alcohol, not me."

If one can make it through this third stage, then we enter stage four, The Recovery Phase.  This is when things are still odd, you don't get the culture necessarily, but you can deal.  The novelty aspect of the honeymoon phase returns but with a more capable approach of being less anxious and able to communicate within the society a lot better.  The start of my third month is right around the corner and I can feel myself edging slowly towards this phase already.  I have been studying Korean again and enough that I can read the alphabet now, albiet like a newborn baby, and thanks to the Korean lessons I am having very simple conversations with natives like: "My name is Alan.  I am an English Teacher.  I would like one order of kimbop and a coke.  It's a pleasure to meet you."  It goes a long way to edging the anxiety.  Also, the work environment has edged off with a new teacher starting this last week giving all of us a break.  Finally.  Now instead of teaching all day with only three ten minute breaks I get an hour break between the morning and afternoon classes to finally grade papers and correct essays at school and not have to take it home with me anymore.  This is huge.  

The thing that really gives me hope in this study is that in stage four you get your sense of humor back and can laugh at yourself again.  I have just recently begun being able to look at things objectively and not desperately.  There are zits from stress, I could stand to put back on a pound or two that I've lost, and I am constantly fighting some kind of subtle malaise from the pollution here, but at least I can look back on that Saturday clocking over 6 miles on my pedometer making obscure gesticulations at strangers for a bottle of something they have never even heard of as truly hilarious.  They gave me a box of condoms with numbing cream on them for Christ's sakes.  

"Numbing.. cream?" I remember saying to the clerk, totally exasperated.  "I thought these things numbed you enough already."  He just smiled nervously and nodded his head up and down quickly, going, 'N-aye..n-aye.." (Which means "yes" here.)  

That's comedy.