But Cornelius, you ask, are you not typing from your desk indoors? Indeed I am, oh-so-observant reader, and thus my predicament: Koreans don't believe in heating schools. While it may sound counter-intuitive, I have actually taken to planning my routes between classes so that they take me outside. Perhaps it's my imagination or perhaps it's hypothermia setting in, but basking ever-so-briefly in the sun seems to be a better strategy for keeping warm than braving the blustery halls of Se Kwang Middle School.
Indeed since the halls are not heated, the doors and windows are left open, flapping in the breeze. And thus a trip to the bathroom (for a recount of the perils in store once I reach said destination, refer to the previous post) becomes an exercise in bundling up and bracing oneself for a walk of wind-tunnel caliber.
For their own part, my students seem accustomed to the climate indoors. I often teach kids who have traded in their blazers for down parkas and scarfs. And yet, despite a dip in the mercury, the sandal policy remains. In the last episode I spent the better half of your patience outlining my views on tradition – switching shoes to sandals in particular – and the cold weather has not only reinforced my resolve to continue wearing loafers (now out of necessity) but it has also confirmed my suspicion that this tradition is completely devoid of logical foundation. Forcing kids to wear sandals in below-freezing temperatures seems nothing short of cruel and unusual.
But students and their spirit are resilient. This I have observed time and time again in Korea. On the note of cruel and unusual, corporal punishment here is quite common. In fact, I'm the only teacher who doesn't roam the halls wielding a two-foot-long weapon. For some, the instrument of choice is a collection of sticks crudely wrapped together with electrical tape. For others, it can best be described as a sawed-off plastic billy club. All of these inventions have the appearance of a work in progress: something concocted hastily in one's garage and honed by many an encounter with smart-aleck students.
During orientation, we were introduced to the concept of physical punishment in school. Being a product of public school myself, I found the concept – prior to Korea – completely foreign. In the United States, a teacher raising so much as an errant finger against an insolent student found themselves in serious legal trouble.
To be fair, the most common use that I've witnessed for these instruments is to whack them on a desk to command the attention of the class. Most classes are rowdy and I don't blame a teacher for attempting to salvage their voice. That being said, the threat of physical pain is implicit. While that threat is not lost on me, after years of training it is almost-universally lost on the students. I cannot help but marvel whenever I see a student smirk playfully in the face of a club wielded by a frustrated instructor. What looks like a risky game of cat-and-mouse to me is apparently a time-honored dialogue being acted out by the teacher and the taught.
Every so often, however, the detente deteriorates. When a student is summoned to the gyomoshil, for instance, things can only head south for the boy. Here I've seen kids quake in fear as the teacher holds court. I can only guess as to the content of the conversation. Perhaps the offense was indeed grave, but I suspect that governing through fear is far less effective than other methods. Machiavelli I am not, but the same fear that breeds respect can also breed resentment. I much preferred the teachers in school that I respected for their ideas and their ability to connect with the class than those who relied upon a punitive approach. I worked harder for the former and was far more critical toward the latter.
As it turns out, I command neither fear nor friendship in my classes. My most menacing weapon is a stare sans-spectacles. Instead of striking fear into the hearts of my students, I awaken hunger in their bellies. I've found that the one and only means for motivation is food. A small marshmallow pie coated in chocolate – aptly-named 'Choco-Pie' – holds far more sway with my students than I ever will. A PowerPoint presentation that took hours of painstaking preparation barely registers on the decibel level of my classes. Silently placing a box of Choco-Pies on my desk, however, elicits an immediate response.
In the face of an insurmountable language barrier and equally-insurmountable student apathy, I am certainly not above bribery. Add to that a near-constant state of schedule flux and a thermostat that necessitates my marshaling all excess energy to maintain a core body temperature and I shamelessly employ whatever advantages I can.
But despite the challenges, school and I have reached a delicate truce of sorts. I am finally on to the 'schedule' designed for my classes. I don't want to speak too soon, but it seems that, in order for every student in Se Kwang to have class with the native speaker (yours truly), I teach on a bi-monthly basis. Take today for example: since it is the first day in December I have rotated back to students I last taught in October. Faces and tom-foolery are familiar.
And in this the season of thanks – at least Stateside – I have much to appreciate. Stories from school are easy fodder, but truth be told I have very fortunate circumstances. Just today a friend from a different city was in town and visited Se Kwang. He marveled at the 'SmartBoard' in my classroom and my ability to easily dial up websites and video clips on a large projection screen. My co-teachers are very considerate – after a typically-unappetizing lunch today a fellow English instructor saved a tuna sandwich for me from the home economics classroom. After school, my neighbor in the gyomoshil and an enthusiastic photographer drove me downtown to print part of my holiday card. Never mind that he mis-translated the words 'hundred' and 'thousand', I could not have fine-tuned the shot without his help. As an aside, approximately 900 extra prints are now stacked in my room looking for a home...
My host family may very well represent the most ideal set of circumstances in my entire program. Rather than bearing the brunt of Korean cuisine, I often wake up to Dunkin' Donuts at the breakfast table and a refrigerator stocked with snacks. Mrs. Choi insists on handling my dry cleaning cycle from hamper to hanger. Mr. Choi still drives me to the bus terminal for my frequent trips out of town. Rather than dropping me at the curb, however, he walks me in, buys my ticket, and sees me to my seat with a candy bar snack and an English newspaper for the ride.
Just the other week I was returning home from one of those trips and, upon entering the front door, realized that I had left my gloves on the bus. Far from ordinary gloves, these were my prized pair of Dunhill driving gloves. One dance with the buttery-soft chocolate leather – replete with red racing stripe – and you're smitten with these mittens. Naturally I was more than disappointed with my oversight: some lucky traveler was going to have the find of a lifetime waiting for them on seat 15. With what little confidence I could muster, I inquired of Jun whether the network of buses had a lost-and-found. Barely had my host brother posed the translated question to his father than Mr. Choi had flipped open his cell phone and was hot on the trail. As it turns out, he has a cousin that works at the Cheongju bus terminal. I've noted my amazement at the shear breadth of my family's network in Cheongju, but I'll note it again.
Armed with my departure city and my estimated time of arrival, Mr. Choi's cousin promised to report back the next day. And thus my dark night ended with a feint glimmer of hope. The initial report back from the field was not promising: no gloves were found on the bus that matched my itinerary. By the end of the school day I was resigned to my loss. But hark! Upon being picked up that afternoon, what to my wondering eyes should appear in the passenger seat of Mr. Choi's car, but my lost gloves, with each of all ten tiny fingers.
This anecdote seeks to highlight not only the remarkable thoughtfulness of my host family, but perhaps more importantly how very much I have to be very thankful for. Humorous lost-in-translation stories and awkward moments at school make for a slippery slope: it's much too easy to acquiesce to the temptation and the tendency to find fault in Korea. I must remind myself to pause and find the good as well. That's not quite as easy as it sounds when one is naturally inclined to cast a critical eye.
If I pause for just such a moment in this very paragraph, I wonder if I even have the right to apply my values to the the context of Korea. There are thousands of years of collective experience in one corner and twenty-six in my own. The Devil's advocate in me would argue that this lack of perspective provides a clear lens and makes me all-the-more qualified to render suggestions. The history student in me would remind that observing Eastern society from a Western vantage point is like comparing apples and oranges.
Perhaps it's fitting that, to find myself, I have journeyed to a country that is trying to do the very same thing. Modern Korea is a remarkable tale that is not nearly complete. The rapid rise from the devastation of war to an economic power has created an at-times-striking juxtaposition between modernity and antiquity. Things happen fast in Korea – seasons and social events alike – but some things stay the same.
Last week the U.S. Ambassador to Korea invited our program to her residence in Seoul to celebrate Thanksgiving. A year ago I never would have imagined a situation in which I anxiously awaited a turkey dinner. In fact, as a vegetarian I bemoaned the annual rite. But at this dinner I had my foot – and plenty of turkey – in my mouth. I also had the good fortune of finding myself at the Ambassador's table. She is quite an impressive figure – having been posted as a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea at the end of hostilities, a recipient of political favor she is not. I asked Ambassador Stephens about her own experience in the classroom some thirty years prior. She taught middle school boys too and I was interested to discern any evolution in education.
As a matter of fact, she recalled a cold school and rote memorization. She mentioned the danger of slower students being left behind under the pressure not just to succeed, but to excel. Many of her observations could very well have been applied to my school today. And thus I see in Korea a society passionately dedicated to advancement but simultaneously tied to methods of the past.
And maybe that's not such a bad thing after all. My general opinion on tradition aside, if it could be approached with the stated goal of understanding rather than abiding, I have no doubt that Korea will find itself.
As for me...well...that's something else entirely. That I will find myself here – or anywhere – is an end result of which I am much less certain. Pausing once more in this post, I cannot help but wonder if there really is anything to find. Looking back across times in my life in which I had no doubts – in which I was found – I wonder how I became lost again. Working under the assumption that answers are meant to be terminal, I suppose I never truly had any to call my own.
But I can be thankful for the opportunity to continue searching. Whether I find the answer – and myself – in the frigid halls of Se Kwang Middle School or the stacks of an imagined law library or not at all, being ever-mindful of the fortunate circumstances I can call my own ought to make the doubt a bit less bitter. I'll save that for the cranberry sauce. Happy Thanksgiving.