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.