Wednesday, March 24, 2010

just keep crying

I'm going to make a terrible father.

I've discovered that I have this uncanny ability to make my students cry. Not all students, mind you. Just the more babyish. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to crying. I think it's a healthy release in moderation and a necessary part of experiencing grief or extreme joy. But this is starting to get ridiculous.

Last session I had one student who would cry at the drop of a hat if I did something he perceived as being "unfair" (such as punishing him when he did bad things). When I asked my Korean coworkers what to do in this situation, the general advice was "just rub him on the back and tell him it's okay," and other such conciliatory remarks. I tried it. He just cried more. Duh.

Finally, I got tired of it, and tired of having to teach my class over the loud sobs of an 11 year old. I tried making him go sit in the hall, but then his crying was just bothering everyone on the floor. I tried to give him the chance to go to the washroom and wash his face, but to no avail. Finally, I told him "John, you either stop crying in my classroom or you can go sit downstairs and talk to Ms. Tammy (my boss)." Sure enough, within a few sniffles, he had his pencil in hand and was back to work.

That was then, and this is now.

Now I have a 10 year old named Alice who, yet again, cries at the slightest correction that I offer. Not every time, mind you, but at least once a week or so. I suppose I should find a friendlier way to say "looks like you misspelled 'airport'." Talking to my coworkers, I found out that she's been like that since kindergarten. SINCE KINDERGARTEN. Holy crap. It's hard to imagine the cause. Perhaps ultra strict parents who expect nothing less than perfection. Maybe there's something else going on and this is merely the trigger for her to start crying. Whatever it is, it's driving me nuts.

I haven't gotten tough with her yet, but next time I'm bringing out the ol' "I'll give you something to cry about," routine. Well, maybe not, but I'm going to let her know that this isn't kindergarten and that she needs to do her work like everyone else (which, in that class, is one other it gets really awkward sometimes). Or, as my Korean coworker says, "Alice, stop being small." I'm really hoping that we can encourage her to view mistakes as possible learning experiences instead of focusing on the failure. But misspelled a freakin' word. Get over it.

At this point I just want to laugh at them when they start crying and hope that my mockery compels them to stop.

I told you, I'm going to make a terrible father.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Korean mentality

So here we are, watching the Winter Olympics. It's a great time of intense competition, where individuals and teams fight for their countries' honor as well as their own. However, even in those sports where the competition is on an individual level, there is still an unofficial sense of "teamship" between athletes from the same country. They may compete, but generally a Canadian or American will still be really happy if a fellow countryman gets a medal instead of them.

I've recently learned that this is drastically different from Korean thinking. I've always been aware of the competitive nature of Koreans. It's why I have a job. Parents want their kids to be the absolute best, so they're enrolled in private afterschool schools (Hagwons) in order to get every advantage that they can to get into the ridiculously competitive colleges and then get into the even more competitive jobs. It's a glorious cycle of addictive competition. However, I've never seen it stated so blatantly as last night.

A few nights ago, the Koreans were competing in the men's speed skating race (can't remember the length). Coming into the final leg of it, the Koreans looked like they were going to sweep the podium and claim all three medals. However, in the last few hundred meters, the third place skater tried to push for gold and cut across the second place skater. Both of them went down in a mess and some American (who's apparently famous or something) got silver. This seemed to be such a brazen display of greediness and the desire for gold. I just couldn't understand how the Korean could cut down his own "teammates" when getting all three medals would have been a great thing for Korea.

Well, I've noticed a debate that's been brewing with my students. They keep claiming Korea is in third place overall and I keep telling them "no, Korea is in fifth place in overall medals after France." Finally, after having a similar debate with a Korean friend of mine, she explained that Koreans only care about and count gold medals. The bronze and silver mean absolutely nothing to them. I was speechless. I didn't even know what to make of that. Suddenly the speed skater's actions made sense. It wouldn't matter if he got a bronze, it would only mean something if he pushed for the gold and triumphed. You only matter if you're number one.

I've mentioned this to my coworkers and they're all just as stunned as I am, but it makes so much sense. I suddenly feel a little bit sadder to be here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hangul Holidays

I've had several people ask me if I missed home during the holidays. Everyone misses home because of the everyday interactions with friends, the ability to easily connect with family and friends; even the ability to connect on some superficial level with anyone you meet out on the street. However, with holidays, the expectation of tradition makes most people assume that living abroad would be even more difficult during those times. I disagree.

While I most assuredly would have liked to have been home (I can hear mom heaving a sigh of relief) I saw this holiday season as a chance to fully immerse myself in where I was. I honestly wasn't all that interested in having Christmas parties with the other foreigners, or ringing in the New Year in traditional bar fashion; simulacra of western expectations . Instead, I wanted to use the holiday to enjoy time with friends and let that be reason enough to celebrate; a time to enjoy simply being.

I was fortunate enough to travel to Seoul with my coworkers and with a Korean named Sophie. We had a great time hitting up the shopping centers and even spent the night at a Jim Jil Bah (sauna). For less that $6, we had access to a full sauna, hot tub area, and got a pad to sleep on on the ground. Surrounded by Koreans. While I'm still trying to get used to sleeping on hard surfaces, it was interesting to be able to participate in a very Korean activity, something they consider a normal experience that seems very strange to most foreigners. A reminder of where I was and the chance to really be immersed in it.

The next day we traveled by bus to a ski resort, where friends of Sophie let us crash in one of their rooms. We had a great day of playing in the snow, bobsledding, and bowling. Mark and I even got 2.5 hours of free snowboarding lessons, after which I still have only mastered the ability to fall....repeatedly. The day after that, we traveled with the family we had stayed with and went to visit the East Sea. On the shore, we took turns lighting small paper hot air balloons and sending them floating over the water; sending our wishes out to sea. It was a lot of fun and a special moment I'll always remember. That and eating an octopus tentacle....that was still wiggling. Again, very Korean.

For New Year's eve, I decided against my original plan of going to Pusan, as I was tired of being around people and wanted to enjoy thoughtful silence. I spent the day reading and writing at a nearby coffeeshop and then spent the evening walking through a park, enjoying the fresh snowfall we had received the night before. It was a picturesque night, with the moon waxing gibbous over a park covered and padded with snow. I found a nice bench overlooking the park and spent the next hour smoking my pipe and thinking back through the last year.

It was a time of quiet contemplation, where I savored every memory, whether it be bad or good, of all I've experienced this year. Feelings of hurt and loss, confusion and loneliness coupled with feelings of joy and and an excitement for embarking on the unknown. I treasured the memories of friends and family from the last year, from Laguna Niguel to Berkeley to Chicago, St. Louis, Fayetteville, Marshall, Nacogdoches, Lake Charles, Denton, Allen, Austin, Houston, and various small towns in Wyoming. It's been a year of disconnection in some ways, and reconnection in so many other ways. Of losing my way and finding it again. And so many people have played a part in that; people I love who have helped me keep my feet on the ground and remember who I am, and who have encouraged me to run headlong into the future.

It was a good New Year's Eve.

What's more, during the holidays, I got to meet and spend a lot of time with Koreans and my desire to focus my efforts in learning the language were rekindled. I find myself enjoying Korea more and more, and looking more and more to the beginning of September with a growing uncertainty. Even now I've had possible job opportunities mentioned to me.

This weekend I got to meet and hand deliver my resumé to the Dean of Education at a nearby university thanks to a connection through a friend. She had lived in Austin for 7 years and knew exactly where Marshall was. Imagine my surprise! It was a brief meeting, but a reminder of the possibilities before me. Possibilities I will continue to ponder and struggle over in the coming months.

Your love and support is always felt, and always appreciated. I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, and that you were able to enjoy the company of those you love. Most of all, I hope that you were able to remember and enjoy where you were, and participate fully in the present.