But this class spoke up -- Taeho should sing a song. Taeho's just one of those kids -- sweet as fuck, always keen to give an answer, a little shy, a little goosey, doesn't draw too much attention to himself, but all around good stuff. I was a little confused as to why his classmates were targeting him. But I went with it. I pulled him by his shirt tails up to the front of the room. He was really embarrassed, but not in the way that crosses the line over into "upset". He stood there frozen for a moment while his classmates playfully jeered at him. Finally, I grabbed him by the shoulders: "Taeho... like this...." I turned him around to face the board. He nodded. He stood there for another ten seconds and then he closed his eyes and opened his mouth.
I swear to god, if I've ever heard anything like that live in my life, it's been long enough that I've forgotten it. And I don't think it would be a thing easily forgotten.
Taeho -- why the fuck would you ever hesitate to open your mouth, when things like that can come out of it?
Head Teacher this morning:
There is a what do you say how do you say what is name big store kind of big store really large store kind of wholestore this kind of like America has Walmart but Korean has Homeplus but this American store really big store called something what is called oh Costco there is Costco selling bread and meat and some good prices with bread and meat like Australian meat and American meat and good price on the bread and the meat and then if there is Costco near here I go to Costco a lot and my brother he is my little brother my younger brother he have Costco card but there is no Costco hear here and I have here is very unusual card kind of wedding card wedding invitation card for my American friend is getting married he will get married he sent the card the invitation card the card for the wedding he is American so card has Korean and also it has English because he is American so he has the invitation card the wedding card this here this kind of card has the English and Korean because he is American so he has American friends so American friends speak English so this wedding card has English on it and then maybe next weekend I go to the wedding at the wedding there is offi-offici-offici-offici-- Liz, how can I say? -- offici-offici-offici-offici-offici-- "Officiator?" -- offici-officia-officia-officia-- Liz, how can I say? -- "O-FFI-CI-A-TOR." -- officiator-officiator-officiator there is kind of MC officiator officiator kind of like one of his friend to do the -- in the America they have the priest is offici-offici-officiator but Korea we separate officator and MC so MC kind of friend but he is the little bit older so maybe he should be younger but he says even I am older I am still your friend and at the wedding we sometimes we wear the hanbok hanbok kind of traditional Korean clothing so at the wedding sometimes we the Korean wear the hanbok kind of traditional but hanbok is not so comfortable kind of heavy and if you get a spot on the hanbok you have to take to the cleaner so the weekend I'll I will go to the wedding and wear the hanbok or maybe not wear the hanbok and he's American friend foreign guy getting married.
What the real problem is, is that Grams has been here for three weekends now. I have had no time to play. In any sense of that word. And I will not get into the specifics, because my mother does read the blog (hi, mom), but even she knows what I mean. No alcohol. No late nights. No swear words. No... anything else that's fun, but not grandmother-proof.
And the weather is so nice and warm. Bastards are complaining about it being "hot" already -- it is not hot. And if you've lived in Korea for longer than a year, then you know better than to say that this is "hot" (I'm looking at you, Canadians). It is warm. It is not cold. It is fucking lovely, is what it is. And it makes me want to go out and play all the more.
The plan for this weekend is to cram in as much crap as possible on Saturday, avoid about seventeen invitations by coworkers to spend Grams' last night at their houses eating home-cooked meals (lovely as the offers may be) and then see her off at the airport Sunday morning. Then, I'm going to clean the shit out of my flat, walk my ass to Homeplus to pick up a DVD player (since my laptop has decided that telling me to get fucked is the correct way to respond when I put anything in the disc drive) and some fucking expensive Corona, go back to my clean flat, open every last door and window, sprawl out on the floor and get afternoon-shitfaced while watching Bertolucci films in my underwear (which is, just so you know, the only correct way to watch Bertolucci films).
And that's all I can really think about right now. So sorry about the questions. They'll just have to wait.
Tonight, Head Teacher (bless her) decided to take me, Grams, four other English teachers and one other subject teacher out for dinner. To have some time to socialize. The dinner went alright -- 삼계탕, not too much for Grams to handle. But things went a little lopsided at coffee afterward.
What happened was, I was playing Yeonsu, one of my old co's little daughters. We've taken to each other because we both speak Korean on about the same level. She can teach me little things in Korean. I can teach her little things in English. We're a good match. She immediately climbed up into my arms when we got out of the car at the restaurant, refused to sit in her kiddie chair at dinner because it wasn't next to me, and clung to me all through the coffee shop. As we were sitting there, she reached up and pulled out my earring. Then, she put it back in. I reached up and felt it: "어 연수야 잘했어.... 근데 거꾸로야. 괜찮다. That's your opinion."
My co smiled at me and said, "Liz...." in a tone of voice that let me know what was coming.
"Don't even say it."
"Haha Liz.... it's really almost that time, I think."
"I just got a boyfriend. Don't even say that out loud. I like to borrow -- not own."
"But you are so gentle with her. Just now, you said to her like that... 'That's your opinion' -- I was very touched. Because even I don't speak to her that way. I just say, 'No, you are wrong.'".
"But that's because you're full-time -- I'm just part-time, so I have patience to spare."
She smiled. It was enough for the group to latch on.
The next thirty minutes or so were spent discussing the virtues and follies of 경상도남 (my boyfriend), other foreigners who were married to Koreans, and how I would be good at it, because I'm very understanding and accepting of Korean culture. How they want to meet Busan to check it out before it goes any further, and whether or not I think I can ultimately marry a Korean man. As well as a few little anecdotes about some grammar and spelling mistakes I had made in Korean when speaking or writing to him, which were particularly humorous. Grams went strangely quiet.
I knew what she was thinking: 1. I don't want this to happen. Why are they even talking about this like it's possible? and 2. If this does happen, this is how it will always be -- I will always slightly not understand part of what is going on.
At that point, I patted her on the knee and addressed the table: "Maybe it's best not to talk about this now. She wants me to come home soon, after all...."
The other teachers all made uncomfortable faces. One of my other co's tried to pipe up to help: "Well, someday maybe even if you marry here, you can go back...."
Grams said: "I don't care who she brings back with her, so long as she does come back."
Our walk home was uncomfortable. I think she was overwhelmed in general. This was our first time since she's been here to be in a primarily Korean and Korean-speaking social environment, other than at school. There were parts of the conversation that she entirely could not understand, even when it was in English. I remember how overwhelmed I was by that the first few times I experienced it. But also, I know there was something else on her mind.
I don't know what to tell her. I'll never lie. And I don't know what the future holds. But I think tonight she got a realistic dose of something she hasn't wanted to face for a long time now. I hope she'll be alright.
Now you want to split my summer vacation into two separate weeks with a week of camps in between?
One thing I will say is that the after school class is coming around nicely. One big issue I cracked was that letting them work on their own or in groups on their assignments just was not cutting it. Nobody bothered to put these boys in my class based on any kind of a level, so some kids were racing ahead and finishing everything, while others were still trying to figure out what the fuck was even going on. I put them in groups right away, and have continued to reorganize the groups based on both bad behavior combinations and mixed levels so they could help each other along, but the margin was still so wide that eventually the higher kids got tired of helping the lower ones along.
So now, we do all of our work together as a class. And it's worked a charm. The higher level kids get to shout out all the answers and prove how smart they are, while the lower level kids can follow along just filling in the blanks until the subject matter has been repeated enough times that they finally figure out what it is they are writing. And then they start to pitch in. We also don't have any more issues with the few really troublesome rascals in the bunch getting their entire group distracted with their nonsense, because everyone else in their group is focused on calling out their answers and copying down everyone else's, so eventually they just get bored, give up, and start doing their work as well.
Jooyeong, by the way, is a fucking champion. The very next day after that entire thing went down, he came straight into class with his head held high, sat in the very front row, gave me a big ol' smile and said, "Hello, Teacher!" And he's been a fucking model citizen ever since. He even rides the other students to stop fucking around and get their shit together. He makes a point of calling me over during every activity to proudly show me all of his answers. Jooyeong and I are basically pals for life now. We went through the fire together, and came out stronger on the other side.
The boys also took the "foreign worker" thing to heart -- last week, a photo of an Indian man came up in a PPT and they started to giggle. I clapped my stick on the podium and said, "Didn't we talk about this already? Do we think that foreigners look funny?"
Wide eyes and serious faces. No, Teacher. Not funny.
Donghyeon. Donghyeon didn't learn from Jooyeong's example. Donghyeon said "씨발" on Monday while I was standing right there. Now. Donghyeon did not say it to me, or for the other students' amusement in front of me. He just said it. So we stayed about five minutes late to play a little game of "Let's Make a Deal!" Basically, it goes like this -- you want something from me, then you have to give something to me. For example, if I take up your cell phone for having it out in class, you have to give me something in order to get it back. In this case, Donghyeon wanted me not to take him to the teachers' office to face a Korean teacher. So I asked Donghyeon what he would give me in exchange.
No, thank you. Not interested. And besides, Donghyeon, don't I have that already?
The other students were so enthralled by the theater of the whole situation that they didn't even mind that the bell had already rung. They were sitting quietly in their seats, all eyes to the front, better than they ever do when I'm actually teaching.
How about a dance, Donghyeon? Give me a dance?
The other students cheered, and we all started clapping a rhythm together for him to move his little ass to. He couldn't make himself do it, try as he might. So I said I would settle for a song.
For those of you who think it sounds too cruel, I'll have you know that I chimed in and sang along with him, since he chose one I actually happen to know -- "곰 세 마리가". In retrospect, I should have made him sing a song in English. But live and learn.
Today, I also accidentally called an entire class to 손 머리 attention. I was standing in front of the room trying to get them to settle after the bell for them to go to give a closing speech about how the material had been difficult, and they had done a good job, but next time I would like to hear a little less talking. I was holding my stick in my hands, and kind of casually rested it on top of my head. One student assumed that I was demonstrating what I wanted them to do (since that is what I do, most of the time, after all....) and I heard it start to spread throughout the room. Before I knew it, there they all were with their little hands on their heads staring straight at me, waiting. Hilarious. I mean, I guess I'll take it.
Lots of other stories to tell, but I'm being rude. I did want to give one of these kinds of updates though, because they are my favorite. The students are still the apples of my eye. And, honestly, if it weren't for them today, I might be on my way to jail for murder (more schedule fuckery, poor communication and overtime work from HT). So, there you have it.
Can you talk more about how 'saving face' comes into play in a professional setting? With people other than Head Teacher, obviously. How are you expected to admit your mistakes and move on? How are you expected to handle other people’s mistakes and shortc
This is a really good question, and I've gotten a couple of others about saving face that I haven't gotten around to yet, simply because I still don't really feel like I have a terribly strong grasp on the subject, and I hate to run my mouth about things I don't really understand.
What I will do is talk about the conversations I've had with Busan about it, and how I've seen it at play with my coworkers. I feel comfortable enough with that.
I will preface this by saying that Busan, strangely enough, is not always the best source to go to for an understanding of Korean culture. But he is a perfect example of how cultural behaviors are by no means universal, and how there is a lot of deviation within any singular culture. We have to talk about these things generally, because there are always plenty of examples of people who fall outside the lines of cultural norms. And where I feel like a lot of foreigners get into trouble in Korea (and where I did and still do myself) is when they try to always play by the same basic set of cultural rules, even though they are dealing with individuals. It's good to understand that you're facing a different culture, but it's troublesome when you don't realize that people are still, at the end of the day, themselves. And everyone ultimately has their own way of dealing with things.
Busan, for example, has an infamous lack of 눈치. And 눈치, from how I understand it, ties in very closely with saving face. Noonchi is, very basically, the ability to notice, in social situations. In order to participate in saving face, you have to be able to notice how other people are feeling, or will feel. I blame noonchi, for example, for the fact that even when I put on my very best cheerful face to go into class when I'm having an off day, my students (who are teenage boys, and thereby not the most attentive of human beings) immediately answer my, "Good morning! How are you?" with, "Teacher, what's wrong?"
Busan's take on saving face is that he's crap at it, but he really, really likes it, when it's applied to him. Typical, no? What he means by that is that he's kind of a verbal bulldozer when it comes to other people's feelings, and tends to blurt out whatever he's thinking without taking the time to consider how that might make the other person feel. But. He's really sensitive himself, and tends to make some pretty bad mistakes from time to time. Such as blurting out whatever he's thinking. What he means when he says he needs people to be good at face-saving with him, is that he needs people to approach him gently when pointing out his mistakes, and not make him feel too badly about it.
Busan and I have also discussed how, from an American perspective, honesty and directness is somewhat of an indication of closeness. I've explained to him how saving face is not that difficult for me in a work setting, because I have a polite distance from my coworkers. Where I used to really get tripped up by saving face was in my close personal relationships. When I would realize that someone wasn't telling me what they really thought, I would get my feelings hurt. Why? Because I thought we were closer than that. In my American mind, you would speak honestly with someone you considered close. You would speak less honestly and directly with someone who you held at a bit of a distance. Therefore, when a close friend would save face with me, I suddenly felt distant from them.
Now. Here is where I don't really trust Busan's opinion -- I'll be honest. He told me that to him, at least, saving face is not something you need to be careful of with people you are close to in Korea. I don't know that I would really trust that across the board. I think that's probably just him. And even he doesn't really mean it, because he is actually quite sensitive to saving face. But that is what he said.
The biggest catalyst to my beginning to understand, come to terms with, and even sort of like face saving was meeting my old main co teacher. Why? Because she was fucking excellent at it. There would be things that I would only realize ages later that she was saving my face about, and when I did realize it, I didn't feel duped, or distant from her. I didn't feel embarrassed that I hadn't noticed it. What I felt was like she really cared about me, and didn't want to hurt my feelings, and went about saying whatever she needed to say in such a gentle way, that somehow she was managing to correct me without me even noticing that she was correcting me. And I felt grateful to her for that.
How did she do that? I really couldn't tell you. She is, in general, a masterful socializer and someone who always manages to put everyone at ease. She also has the ability to control the students with nothing more than a slight look of disappointment. Because people want to please her, and people want her to like them. Even teenage boys. Basically, she takes the time to get to know everyone as an individual, she always speaks with great thought and consideration, and she can read people's feelings really well. She has awesome noonchi.
One good specific example was the first time I taught an after school class, and it was basically turning into a complete disaster. She started out by telling me that my problem was not specific to the foreign teacher (read my insecurity correctly and debunked it), that many Korean teachers, especially new teachers would be having the same problem (reassured me that I was not alone), told me that the students sometimes just behave in difficult ways (shifted some of the blame), and then, and only then, did she say, would you like for me to give you some suggestions? You know I am always here for you and even though I'm not perfect, maybe there are some things that I can help you with (phrased her correction as sympathy and coming from a place of caring).
Now. Recently, Head Teacher has sailed into our office and started making some waves. As a result, I've had the chance to watch my other old co teacher, who shares our office with us, apply face saving with her on almost a daily basis. Head Teacher is older and also the head teacher, so my old co teacher has to deal with her a little carefully. My noonchi has improved a lot since I moved to Korea, and I'm now able to pick up on the palpable tension that starts to fill the room when someone is going to have to be contradicted. A good example of this was when a friend of mine sent me a message on Monday telling me that her coworker's father had passed away, and she knew she was supposed to give money, but she didn't know how much was appropriate to give, and would I please ask my coworkers.
Now. Where I'm shit at (or don't give a shit about) saving face is that I know it bothers Head Teacher when I ask my old co teachers about something before I will ask her, but I do it anyway. Partially to annoy her, but mostly because I don't really trust her answers, and it's happened enough times where she will jump in and give an answer, only to put my old co in the difficult position of having to either let me take a wrong answer as truth, or contradict Head Teacher in front of me (a subordinate). I would rather not put my old co in that position, to be honest, most of the time, but this was a timely issue, and it was nearing the end of the day. I asked my old co. Head Teacher jumped in before she could answer and said that 30,000 won was enough.
I saw it all over my old co's face -- that wasn't the right answer, in her opinion. I could see her struggling with how to handle the situation. She glanced up at me over the cubicle and made a slight face. Then she turned to Head Teacher and, in Korean, explained that even though 30,000 won was probably enough for us public school teachers, because there are a lot of us, don't you think private school teachers should give a bit more? Since there are not as many of them in an office. Old co knew that I would understand this in Korean. Head Teacher probably assumed that I wouldn't.
Head Teacher shot her down. No. Thirty thousand won is plenty. My old co glanced at me again to make sure that I was listening and understanding, and then she said, in Korean, I think more like fifty thousand or even more might be better in that situation, but I don't really know.... I'm just guessing.
Head Teacher stood by her answer. My old co shot me one last look. And then she dropped it. For all that Head Teacher knew, I hadn't caught any of this. But my old co had successfully corrected the situation for me, without calling Head Teacher out directly.
It's probably not the best example. I would say the example with me and my other old co teacher is a better one. But that's what I have for you now. I guess I'll try to keep making posts about saving face whenever I encounter it. It's definitely one of those things I come to appreciate more, the more I understand it. But I'm not fully there yet. And the truth is, truly excellent face saving is very difficult to comment on. Because, ideally, you shouldn't even notice it. I'm getting a little better at it every day, though. I hope.
Right now, the subject is "American Ladies":
American ladies are really dedicated and multi-tasking and mow the lawn and shopping for the food and usually there two or three children but sometimes five or six children and then the housewife does the laundry and the how do you say iron the clothes and vacuum and clean the windows and do the dishes and then the American ladies also do the cooking and the take care the children and in America the ladies are really family-oriented and sometimes they take care of the garden and plant roses and then also.....
I mean. I thought Korean ladies did most of those same things. But the really great part is that my grandmother is an American lady, so she probably already knows all of this.
She's trying to be nice. She's trying to be nice. She's trying to be nice....
What do you think of the new rule that the board of education instated that says there can be no corporal punishment anymore? I mean beating kids wrong but they've banned stuff like running laps or even holding hands up and such.
This question is so old now, that I don’t even know if the questioner is even still reading. I guess I just needed some time to get a proper bead on the situation. As it happens, something occurred this month that has brought this subject back to the forefront of school cafeteria table discussion.
Basically, I’m reduced to kind of repeating what I’ve overheard and been told by the other teachers at school, so don’t take this all for gospel — I haven’t been able to check any news sources for myself. But what happened essentially is that a teacher was caught kicking a student who showed up late for a field trip on some other students’ cell phone video cameras. A massive ordeal thus ensued, causing the teacher to be fired, charged, and now sued by the parents of the student in question.
What’s got the teachers all in a state is the revelation that the students in question (both the boy who was kicked and the ones who took the video) were part of the school’s 짱 group — essentially a milder form of a gang. The allegation now is that the students premeditated the entire ordeal, provoked the teacher into anger and were ready, waiting with their cell phones to capture the moment in order to cause exactly what has happened to happen.
Now. What I have to say about that is this: the teacher got bested. The kids sound like a bunch of little shits — don’t get me wrong. But as the adult in the situation, you should have the foresight not to fall prey to a scenario like this.
And what I want to make clear from the beginning is that I in no way support the abuse, physical or otherwise, of any child by any adult.
However. There, for me, is a clear difference between abuse and corporal punishment. One that I don’t think many Americans understand very well. I understand it, simply because I was raised in a household that engaged in corporal punishment.
Abuse is what is done in anger. It is the striking of a child while in the midst of emotion with the purpose of causing physical harm to that child. It is uncontrolled, lacks methodology and clear boundaries, and it is absolutely inexcusable on all levels.
Corporal punishment is exactly that — a punishment. It is the use of physical means in a measured, predetermined manner and minus any emotion on the part of the administrator to control and correct the behavior of a child.
My parents were very clear with me when I was growing up about their philosophy behind using corporal punishiment. It was not designed to cause me actual physical pain (although that may be an unpleasant side effect), but rather the intent was to, for lack of a better expression, put me in my place. When a child’s pride gets out of control, corporal punishment is used to bring that child back down to a child’s level. Nothing less, and nothing more. The reason for putting a child back down on a child’s level is not so that parents have the right to reign over that child, but rather so that that child will willingly accept the parents’ guidance, which is ultimately for the best for that child.
Hence the name for the stick many Korean teachers carry with them to class (although fewer and fewer as the years go by): the love stick. The idea is that discipline is actually another form of love. If you love a child, you will guide that child in ways that are occasionally unpleasant and difficult for the child to accept. A child does not always know what is best for her. It’s the job of the adults in that child’s life to see those instances and be willing to take the hard course of being temporarily disliked by that child in order to keep the child out of harm’s way.
And I stand behind that philosophy. I’m a little bit old school in my ideas about how a child should be raised — I don’t believe that allowing a child to behave in whatever way they choose is really for the best for that child. Society doesn’t work that way, and a well-adjusted adult will ultimately come from a household which held that person accountable as a child, and taught that person that they are not, in any respect, the center of the universe. Nor do they know everything. Nor do they have the right to behave in any manner they wish, or take whatever they want for themselves.
I’ve talked about this before in the other blog, but when I graduated university and saw my peers start to take on the challenges of adult life, I understood, quite literally, the meaning behind my parents’ word that I would ‘thank [them] for this someday’. I saw people flail about in their personal relationships, not understanding the basic principles of reciprocity and personal responsibility. I saw them fail miserably at making important networking connections, because of the personal impressions they left on other people. I saw them lose or quit job after job after job, because their boss was “mean” and expected them to do things that they didn’t want to do. Those were lessons my parents had drilled through to me early on — I didn’t have to face all of the difficulties of becoming an adult while also taking on all of those lessons at the same time. They prepared me well for life, and for social situations where I was not the adored and protected center of everyone’s attention, where everyone was not catering to me and my special sense of creative freedom.
Now. Is corporal punishiment the only way to drive those points home? No. I don’t think so. I’m not a parent yet, so I don’t really have a lot of room to comment, but I am a teacher, and a teacher who has learned how to control her students without even the vague threat of physical intervention. I would, actually, like to think that I would be able to outsmart my own children in similar ways, and not have to resort to corporal punishment. To me — I’ll be honest — corporal punishment does seem a bit easy. And I would feel a bit, personally, like I was caving in, in some way, or taking the easy way out if I used it. That might change when I have children of my own.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t see corporal punishiment as a completely valid and effective method of discipline. After all, I was raised with it, and I don’t feel like I was done any permanent psychological damage, and I would certainly never call it abuse. There were times in my teens where my arrogance and strong willed-ness were so out of control, that I can see quite clearly now, looking back, how my mother’s slap across my face was the exact right answer. Nothing she could’ve said would have corrected my behavior as quickly or as effectively. Did her slap ever leave a mark? No. It never even really hurt. What it did hurt was my pride. And it needed to be hurt, in those moments.
So the long and the short of it is, I’m not one of those foreign teachers who is “horrified” to see the boys undergo corporal punishment. And it has been, almost exclusively at my school, corporal punishment. I work with lovely teachers. And they know where the line is. If a teacher has had an extremely ugly altercation with a student, they will not be the ones to carry out the punishment — they will hand the student over to a teacher who is not involved in the situation to take care of it. Because they know full well that laying your hands on a child in anger is wrong.
But where the introduction of this new law is a correct move, in my opinion, is in the grey area that exists because of human error. Not all teachers are as respectable as the ones I work with. Not all of them can be trusted not to cross that line. And that’s not okay. And it does need to be taken care of. The difference between a teacher and a parent is a stark one, in many cases. A parent, in an ideal situation, will have a much closer bond with and attachment to their own child. They are also not dealing with hundreds of children at a time. That makes them, again ideally, a lot less likely to go off course and cross the line between corporal punishment and abuse.
Where I think they’ve gone wrong with this ban is that they’ve suddenly decided that, just by putting a law into place, they are going to solve the problem. It doesn’t work that way — both the teachers and the students are used to a certain way of doing things. When the students hear, “no more corporal punishment”, what they are thinking is, “no more punishment!” And the teachers are hearing more or less the same thing.
Now, there are a few training programs popping up here and there to help the teachers along in finding new methods of dealing with classroom control. And that’s good. But I think that it really does need to be taken further — a whole new system needs to be put in place. It’s something that the Korean teachers have spent a lot of time asking me about over the course of the last few months — how do American schools control the students without corporal punishment? They listen with nodding heads and sounds of approval as I describe our rather emotionless formal system of demerits and detentions and suspensions and expulsions.
Where they get hung up, quite rightly, is on the fact that American schools have a whole body of employees in place specifically to deal with the students’ discipline. Korean schools have the 학생부, but that staff is made up of a few homeroom teachers who already have their hands full. It is no one’s specific job to manage all of this nonsense. Homeroom teachers, at the moment, are expected almost single-handedly to deal with all of the discipline problems that arise in their classrooms. Which they can do — with corporal punishment. Going to battle with little more than psychological warfare takes a hell of a lot more effort. There is no sending students to the principal’s office — the principal is not to be bothered with such things.
But the fact that so many teachers at my own school are thinking about it enough to ask me, the foreign teacher, specifically about it, shows me that Korea will get there. They’re not idiots — they know that they need to work out a new system, and they will get around to it. It’s already beginning. It’s just going to be a little bit rough in the meantime while they go through the transition. They will get a system in place that will get the job done — I have nothing but faith in that. And the next generation of teachers and students will come into the game already knowing the rules, which will make things a lot simpler than changing the rules on everyone halfway through.
As for making a value judgment one way or the other about which way is better, I’m far from qualified to do that. What I do know is that everyone is actively engaged in making the situation work. And that’s what really counts.
Fine. Fair enough. She's the elder. And I'm pretty good at just taking this in stride. No matter how batshit it might make me.
But the one thing that's come up this week that hasn't come up for a long time with her is how I need to finish up my time here in Korea and come back to the States to start my proper life.
It was weird timing -- I came home from having this rather frustrating conversation with her at a coffee shop last night to wake up and read this post by The Korean this morning. And I was struck by how eerily the original article he's responding to exactly mirrors my situation, and how I agree more with TK.... and how that's ultimately the root of the problem.
First, a little about my background to explain:
I always did well in school. I never made a single B in my life. Once I got to middle school, and the option of taking advanced classes was open to me, I not only took them -- I aced them. Because I worked hard? No. Because it was easy for me. I skipped more class than the lowest of low life burnouts during high school. I never cracked a book to study. I did my homework in the passing period between classes or at lunch time. I aced exams on material I was taught during classes I spent doodling long, gossipy notes to my friends. My teachers mostly doted on me, despite my general apathy, because I was never directly disrespectful. But they knew I didn't really care beyond doing the bare minimum it took to keep on the A honor roll (which wasn't a lot).
As a result, I had a constant rebellion throughout my school life toward all the honors I was constantly being handed. I watched my little brother (who had a number of very severe learning disabilities and narcolepsy) struggle and fight his way through barely being able to pass. Yet, I sat around on my ass and made straight As. So now you want to give me an award for that? Big deal.
My senior year in high school saw me constantly tormenting my grandmother by systematically getting myself kicked out of every honor society I was accepted into. I refused to attend the induction ceremony for one. I refused to pay the dues for another. I wrote a scathing opinion piece for the school newspaper undermining the entire advanced English department, and another stating that I would be rejecting my selection as one of the "faculty top ten", because that award was supposed to go to students who showed advancement in character, yet it was always the students with the top grades who were selected. When it was time for me to take the SATs, I didn't study one single thing. I didn't buy one single book. I didn't even take a calculator with me to the exam. I took it once, and I was finished.
Basically, I behaved like a spoiled brat. It must have blown my brother's mind to sit there and have to watch me reject one after another of the things he had worked so hard with no hope of ever achieving. And I stand behind the sentiment that drove me to behave that way -- I didn't deserve to be honored above my brother, or others, who were working much harder than I was. But I do regret the arrogance with which I carried out that "cause". Severely.
Then, when it came time for me, the first in my family to ever have the opportunity, to select a university and a major, it wasn't the Ivies I was gunning for -- I decided to go completely off the map. A private art school to study, of all fucking things, poetry.
I don't regret that. Because in the years that followed, I learned an important lesson. One that has led me to and kept me in Korea.
You see, I thought I was going to be A Writer. And, although my pursuits were now in the creative rather than academic realm, I was still mostly a darling among my pupils for the professors. What I started to see was that the creative world was not much different from how it had been at school. It was still full of favoritism and self-importance -- the students who received praise for the professors still waltzed about all over campus as if they were gods, not stopping to question what it meant to be a big fish in a small pond. I was rewarded for, yes, my talent and yes, my dedication and yes, my character -- but also because I was an easy choice. I was handed internships with the closest of their friends, some of the best American poets and most important poetry journals of their day. I was chosen to receive the prize for best poetry manuscript thesis the year of my graduation. Another honor which I tried to reject. The difference this time was that my main mentor corrected my arrogant behavior.
He had asked me to stay after in his office one day after studio had finished, because he had something he wanted to talk to me about. He told me that I had been chosen, and I immediately became flushed with frustration. I spoke far too directly to a man who had gone out of his way to lead and guide me with nothing but brutal honesty about feeling favored and like it wasn't right. He told me that my general idea about the writing world was correct, but then, with the same brutal honesty he brought down on my work, he took me to task for the way I was behaving in that moment. Did I not trust and respect my professors? Who was I to question their choice? How could I make those kind of condemnations toward the people who had worked so hard to help me develop as a writer over the past four years? Who was I to place them and their characters in the same category as all that other nonsense I had observed? He put it bluntly -- I was being remarkably arrogant and disrespectful to call their judgment into question that way. And he wasn't just playing a little psychological game -- he meant it. And I suddenly felt ashamed.
Then, seeing that he had made his point, his tone softened. He looked me in the eye and he said, I want you to understand one thing -- you are receiving this prize because you have worked hard for it. There are other writers in this program who are just as talented as you are, but they haven't worked as consistently and as hard as you have over the course of the last four years. The progress you have made is not a result of raw talent -- I was your first year professor. I saw what you walked in here with. What you're walking out with was not given to you by God -- you built it with hard work and dedication. You built it by listening with humility to what everyone around you had to say, by taking all of the criticism into account and by working, working again, and working some more.
In the end, I accepted the prize. Not that I had much of a choice. Later on, I sat in that same office and talked about how I was conflicted about what to do with my future. I could stay in New York. I could take the predictable path to grad school -- not a single one of the successful writers we were surrounded by had ever dodged that path. I could continue on with the internships, the networking, the connections and the favoritism. I could play the game. Within five years, I was pretty much guaranteed to have something on the presses, something headed for the shelves with my name on it.
But -- And now I spoke with my head lowered. I didn't want to risk entering the same territory I'd entered before and offending this man again. But -- I can't help but feel like this world is just too small. Too claustrophobic. The same people who had taught me my style would be the people who would be judging me as worthy of publication, based on the very style they had taught me. The personal was all mixed in with the professional. New York Poetry was New York Poetry written by poets in New York about New York published by people in New York read by New Yorkers.
And what was more, I was tired. I was tired of the combination of ego and poverty. I was tired of feeling proud of being poor. I was tired of being patted on the back by everyone around me, while barely having enough money to make my rent every month. I was tired of making self-important excuses for the life situation I felt I was growing entirely too old to still be in.
I might lose. I might lose everything I had built up. I might lose my momentum. I might lose my writing. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I just had to get out.
Go. Get out, he said. If that's what you feel, then that's what's right. Just go and don't ever look back.
A couple of days before our final reading as graduating seniors, the administrative director for our department came by our studio to snap polaroids of us to display at the reading. We were instructed to skim through our manuscripts and select a line of our poetry to write across the bottom. When I handed my photo back to my professor, the one who had told me just to go, he looked down at it and chuckled to himself. Then, he cut his eyes back up at me and smiled. I had written, across the bottom of my photo, "And one left and never came back."
Flash forward to yesterday. Sitting at a table in a coffee shop with my grandmother. My dear grandmother who believes that I am the single most special person ever to walk the face of this planet. With a talent that would no doubt put Hemingway to shame, were it brought to its full potential. And my professors were so proud of me, as well. What ever happened to that? Why hadn't I stayed in the States and made good on the success and specialness that was obviously coming to me? Teaching is great -- teaching is fine. She's happy to see that I can meet all of my financial obligations now, but what about how famous I was supposed to be? How could I walk away from that?
My face got flushed then in the same way that it got flushed in my professor's office four years ago nearly to the day.
You see, Grams, I don't want to live in that small world. I don't want to be a big fish in a small pond. I'd rather be a small fish in a massive ocean. I don't think my writing will suffer from that. The only thing that stands to suffer is the recognition I receive for my writing. And who gives a shit about that anyway? Having something mediocre that's called great is not nearly as nice as having something great that no one knows about. In my perhaps-still-not-humble-enough opinion.
At the end of the day, writing is just a symbol for the things that we know and understand about this world and the people in it. The symbol, we know, is never greater in importance than what it signifies. Without the signified, there is no symbol. Right now, I'm working on my signified. If the symbol never comes, then I'll be okay with that.
Grandma INP: "Actually, I'd say meat is more important...."
Head Teacher: "AMERICANS EAT BREAD AS MAIN FOOD. MY HOST FAMILY MOTHER MADE BREAD IN A BREAD MACHINE EVERY DAY."
Grandma INP: "...... I like chicken."
Oh my god. I don't even know how to handle this train wreck right now.
And, after forcing the S.O. into a nice little American style conversation on Friday night (poor guy -- to be fair, I did try it his way first), he's gone a bit trigger happy and has decided to cram as many "dates" in as possible before Grams arrives. He will be meeting Grams, and he seems to have no fear about that, although I've got loads of apprehension -- my family's not known for being the friendliest to S.O. outsiders from the beginning, tending toward dead protective instead. And he got nervous enough, just meeting my friends for the first time. Making a good first impression is important to him, but he tends to go a bit funny from trying too hard. My grams is the matriarch of our family of very strong women -- she's not a character to be trifled with, but if there's one thing I know about Korean culture coming through for me on this one, he will without a doubt have no problems showing the proper amount of respect, which has been an issue with S.O. s of the past. There's a lot of potential for the extremely awkward. Look forward to the report of that. Anyway, there's not that much going on at work this week, anyway, as exams are on and then Thursday is Children's Day.
Mostly, I'm looking forward to the weather getting a bit warmer, work slowing down and the epic cookout weekend our little group is planning on one of the islands off the coast in Incheon probably sometime in June. For now, it's time to get myself together to go meet the S.O. for a movie date, and then meet the girls for dinner. Because I can do that tonight, seeing as I only have to teach one class tomorrow.
Everyone's complaining that it's looking more and more like Korea's infamous four seasons are going to fail us once again, and we're not going to get a spring this year. Me, I'm a fucking Texan. What do I care? Bring on the summer, I say.