Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dispatches - December 2, 2009

I sss...ssstarted this ppp...pppost in the ggg...gggyomoshil (teachers' lounge). Typing necessitated the removal of my gloves, leaving my fingers fully exposed to the frosty elements. Between numb digits and chattering teeth, I beg your pardon for any temperature-induced typos.

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.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dispatches - November 25, 2009

Yesterday Jin and I went on a secret mission. I had in mind the perfect photo for the next edition of my holiday card and I knew Jin was just the man – or kid – for the job. For one thing, he has a Sony 14.2 megapixel digital SLR camera: a piece of equipment far too nice for someone his own age. Perhaps more importantly, however, Jin is a clever character – the kind that can appreciate the need for discretion...a need of paramount import when international clandestine correspondence (read: holiday cards sent to other countries) weighs in the balance.

For those of you hoping for a hint regarding the next installment of my coveted and much-anticipated holiday card, I'm afraid you'll simply have to stay tuned to your mailbox – I've revealed too much already. Well...OK...perhaps I can offer you, my loyal readers, a morsel: san. I'm such a softy.

Every year I look forward to my holiday card. My daily pursuits don't offer much opportunity to exercise my creative energies, but my annual card always scratches this least until I'm three dozen copies deep and it becomes tedious. But I digress. I enjoy keeping in touch with distant friends and relatives via old-fashioned letter-writing. Hearing how a card has brightened a recipient's day – or at least their refrigerator – brightens a moment for me as well. And the lingering and misguided hope always springs eternal that receiving a card will guilt the recipient into sending me one in return...*ahem*...

I suppose one could make a strong case that my holiday card is a personal tradition. And as much as I hate to admit it, they'd be right. While 'tradition' holds a place of esteem in the minds of most, it's a bit lower in my own lexicon. In my penultimate post, I promised pending commentary about my take on Korea and tradition. So hold onto your keyboards...

I've no problem with tradition reminding of shared values or reconnecting with a culture in common. Tradition offers the comfort of a collective beyond ourselves. It provides the promise of predictability. It returns the order of routine.

But tradition also insulates us from new ideas. It binds us to antiquated notions of acceptability. It prescribes limited possibilities and potential. When tradition ceases to be inclusive and crosses into the exclusive, that is where I respectfully – sometimes disrespectfully – step off the bandwagon.

Korea is steeped in tradition of both the implicit and explicit variety. A favorite joke among fellow ETA's is to refer to some element of life as 'traditional Korean'. It's a phrase that is uttered at near-comical frequency by our host friends, family, and co-workers. Of course I must remember that I am in a culture whose age easily surpasses that of my own culture by thousands of years. That being said, I had trouble suppressing a chuckle when I heard the 'traditional Korean' phrase applied to something as nondescript as a rice field.

Koreans are proud of their past – as they should be. The country is perhaps the best illustration of capitalism and globalization the world has ever seen. And maybe that's why I find some Korean habits so curious.

Take the recent swine flu epidemic. It receives considerable attention in Korea. Being that I am a teacher and children are one of the demographics most at risk, I am constantly reminded of the measures Korea is taking to combat the spread of the H1N1 virus. Students regularly get their temperatures taken upon arrival at school. Hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed in the hallways. Large group gatherings and festivals have been canceled for fear of easily spreading the contagion. All of these efforts to stem the spread of swing flu at school, but when the students sit down at the dinner table at night, these efforts are all for naught.

Korean food is traditionally served in communal fashion; small dishes are placed in the center of a table with diners reaching in with their chopsticks not to serve, but for each bite, returning time and time again with the same utensils to the same serving dish used by multiple people.

I suppose at least the spread would be contained to family members. But other traditions observed seem to run counter to logic as well. One of the first lessons about Korean culture that I picked up was the tradition of removing one's shoes upon entering a room or a building. Our dorm rooms at orientation actually featured a small recession built into the floor at the entrance that marked the area for visitors and occupants to leave their footwear. It doesn't take long to come up with a few benefits for removing shoes before walking through living quarters. In fact, when I think about some of the places my shoes travel throughout a day, I actually might extend this tradition to my State-side return.

Enforcing this tradition at school, however, is a policy decision of which I have no qualms firmly condemning as ridiculous. Students run through the halls in soccer sandals which they must carry to school, performing a silly balancing act at the doors each morning – rain or shine – as they remove their sneakers and put on their sandals. Now, if the school was clean this would make sense. If the sandals themselves were clean this would make sense.

But neither the school nor the sandals are clean. The school, in fact, is nothing short of filthy. As far as I can tell, there are no maintenance personnel employed at Se Kwang Middle School. In their stead, boys run around after sixth period with mops and brooms and – as one would expect from middle school boys – put in an extremely uninspired cleaning performance. My favorite part is the mops; students drench them at the stationary tubs in the storage closets and then drag them in a straight line down the middle of the hallways. I'm actually surprised I haven't seen kids break their necks on the slippery tile left in their wake. But I suspect that's thanks to the traction provided by years of grime layered on the floor.

I can't quite tell what color the walls in the stairwells used to be on account of the Pollock-like scuff marks that have been added throughout the years. One might suspect that the areas reserved for teachers would be substantially nicer.

Silly goose. With respect to the bathrooms, it's actually the opposite. I can't speak for the woman's restroom, but the male teachers' restroom is, delicately-put, unpleasant. At least some mental capacity is reserved for a daily value judgment as to whether I can forgo a visit to the facilities until I return home. After months at the school I have yet to detect the presence of a cleaning agent anywhere on the grounds, especially not in the bathroom. In my gyomoshil – or teachers' lounge – I've begun following an interesting method for cleaning employed by a few co-teachers. After watering the principal's flower boxes by the window, they proceed to circle the room, emptying the contents of the watering can onto the floor. Another teacher follows with a mop that, judging by its tatters, may or may not hold seniority over them at the school. At first I thought there must be a a cleaning solution involved and thus an explanation as to why the floor is watered daily, but after I saw the teacher move from flora to floor indiscriminately, I changed my evaluation.

During orientation we were advised to procure a pair of comfortable sandals or 'slippers' and save them expressly for indoor school use only. Once their virgin soles ventured into the out of doors, all was lost and wearing them inside would be the gravest of cultural sins. I frankly didn't have time to get a pair of new sandals during orientation and thus I showed up on the first day somewhat anxious regarding my footwear. My Italian loafers were well-polished and – if I do say so myself – pretty damn stylish. But they had seen the light of day and the sidewalks that go with it. I nervously asked my co-teacher about my shoes and she informed me that the policy at our school was simply for our comfort; if my feet were happy with my loafers than the school was happy with my loafers.

I felt a little self-conscious at first; my heels click on the floor. If it wasn't enough to look different than everyone else, I now announced my presence with my footwear. But it would be dishonest to say that the look created by school slippers didn't leave me at least slightly amused. One need not be fashion-savvy to answer this riddle: sportcoat, dress shirt, tie, cuffed-slacks, and … Adidas sandals: which doesn't belong? And thus I stepped over the cultural line – in well-heeled loafers – by wearing my shoes in school.

And after a couple of weeks I thought I had gotten away with it too. But the principal was onto my ruse. One fateful morning he brought me to the teachers' shoe locker, instructing me to change into some old pair of slides that had been long-forsaken by someone who wisely realized how ugly they were.

Allow me to pause for a moment. I fear that I am casting myself in an unflattering light and, as this is my blog, I see no reason to perpetuate anything but the most polished portrayal of its author. Yes, I am fashion-conscious. And yes, that is putting it lightly. I am perhaps (if by 'perhaps' I mean 'unequivocally') a bit too materialistic with respect to clothes. We all have our vices. Mine just so happens to go by the name of 'Ralph Lauren'. And while I'm not proud of it, I still assert that there are addictions far worse than a well-appointed wardrobe. Wearing my favorite blazer or a sharp tie puts a spring in my step. Whether this serves more as self-defense for my habit or commentary on the sorry state of my self-esteem is a topic for another post, but I see no remedy in the immediate future. And whatever effect this habit has on its owner, I try to balance it by remaining nonjudgmental with respect to the fashion choices of others. After all, let he without bow ties and bold colors cast the first critique.

But even after that digression into disclaimer, the point remains that it doesn't take a member of the fashion police to figure our that this look in school is ridiculous. At any rate, ever the cultural ambassador, once the jig was up I played along by dutifully donning my soccer slides everyday upon entering the front door.

That is, however, until I had a particularly taxing weekend – the kind of weekend that was so busy that it left you more tired Sunday evening than you were Friday afternoon. Hardly rested and rejuvenated for the lessons that lay ahead, I entered school on Monday in a mood that was, at best, less-than-enthusiastic. As I passed the footlocker, I took one look at my assigned cabinet and kept going.

I recall being in an emotional state of sorts (not unusual these days) and I wanted nothing to do with Korea. Seeing as how I was indeed in the geographic center of Korea itself, that first issue was not likely to get addressed anytime soon. The next item on my blacklist was school. Being a contracted middle school teacher on a Monday morning again left me with little recourse. And thus my displeasure with my presence in Korea under the auspices of teaching manifested that morning in the third item on my hit list: school footwear.

I gambled that I could play the naïve foreigner card if my principal caught me in loafers. And so I clicked past the cabinet and never looked back. To this day I have yet to return to my soccer slides. The principal must have noticed my footwear by now, but for one reason of restraint or another, he has yet to comment. I like to think it's due to guilt at his own footwear faux pas. Ever tending to the botanical garden of sorts that he has growing inside and outside of the school, he often walks between garden dirt and school hallway indiscriminately. Admittedly I cannot claim to be nonjudgmental at the top of the page and proceed to pass down a verdict a few paragraphs later, but let's call a spade a spade, shall we? The sorry state of the school aside, one can't very well claim that a strict policy of switching footwear is grounded in school cleanliness when the headmaster himself is traipsing around in fertilizer-laced garden clogs.

And so if the sneaker switch rests not upon maintenance – and it certainly doesn't hinge upon logic – then the buck stops with tradition. Changing shoes upon entering a building is how it's always been done in Korea. When I got down to brass tacks and pressed a few co-teachers to defend the policy, they quickly had to admit – sheepishly – that it was cultural tradition.

And that's fine...some of the time. But when tradition blatantly defies logic or efficiency or simple common sense, I must draw the line. Having kids carry extra cargo to and from school each day and requiring them to dance in the rain as they hop from one set of footwear to another all in the name of tradition (emphasized to connote the most cynical of voices) simply makes no sense. But more glaring is the fact that carrying out this tradition is a burden that interferes with day-to-day productivity.*

Entering a very different culture with very different traditions than those to which one has grown accustomed tends to have a magnifying affect. The U.S. is a young country by almost any standard and Korea has had a lot more time to develop traditions than my own country has. Beyond apple pie, the Super Bowl, and fireworks on the 4th of July, there is little consensus that finds one activity or honored rite as particularly American. Spending my formative years – and all others – in such a society, I suspect that I am suspect of tradition because I have not grown to rely on the comfort and assurance they can provide. But by the same token, I have not grown to tolerate the assumptions and antiquity they also facilitate.

Two weeks ago I taught a lesson about the difference between nationality and ethnicity. If you're thinking that this lesson most-certainly failed on account of the material than you would be correct. But I digress. In Korea, nationality and ethnicity are the same in the vast majority of instances. In what is a by-and-large homogenous society, being a Korean citizen means you are also an ethnic Korean. In the U.S., however, it's impossible to say what an American ought to look like. With the exception of Native Americans, an 'American' ethnicity doesn't exist.

My reasoning for calling ethnicity to mind is two-fold. The first is to mitigate the scrutiny I place upon tradition in Korea. In an environment where one's national heritage and pride is shared with a personal physiological identity, it's not difficult to imagine a strong allegiance to a set of traditions. Simply because my home doesn't display this commonality doesn't make it wrong.

My second observation is a bit less benign. In my inexpert opinion, pride is an emotion that ought to be linked to agency. We take pride in something we had a hand in. I'm proud of my alma mater because I worked hard to graduate and, in some small way, I like to think that I am furthering her regard in the world. I'm proud to be an American because I agree with many of the explicit ideals of my country and I try to live a life that strengthens the fabric of the nation. I'm proud of the Bow Tide (my model Christ-Craft) because it took me countless hours to construct...and because it's a bad-ass boat.

But I'm not proud of my brown eyes. Even if I placed particular import in that feature of a person – which I don't – I had nothing to do with that quality in myself. Pride in race is at best misguided and at worst a short mental leap to bigotry. Ethnic dialogue in Korea is a curious phenomenon. In a largely-uniform society that is beginning to attract an ever-growing number of foreigners, Korea is increasingly forced to address a pride in homogeneity that has historically been seen as a source of national strength.

One Korean tradition – for better or for worse – is invasion and occupation. Throughout its history, Korea has had to fend off other countries while struggling to preserve its own culture. Most recently it was the Japanese early in the 20th century (some might actually say the influx of native English speakers represents the most current invasion, but for once I will keep the discussion on literal terms). One not need look far to discover lingering resentment towards our neighbor to the east. Indeed half of the English newspapers I pick up at the bus terminal feature an article about still-delicate Japanese-Korean relations.

Fighting external aggression often requires inward strength and solidarity. Joining together with fellow countrymen to defeat a foreign threat takes a strong national identity and Korea has spent centuries honing their own. This spirit is not so easily turned off, however, in times of peace. And when there are no enemies at the gate, nationalistic tendencies can manifest in xenophobic fears. There is a developing dialogue in Korea between those that want to welcome outsiders and realize Korea's true globalized potential and those that want to protect Korea and insulate its ethnic majority.

Like much of Korea, this ongoing discussion moves the country two steps forward and one step back. At the same time I myself epitomize the embrace of foreigners, I have been privy to discussions that laud a homogenous and 'racially pure' Korea. As a student of history, I couldn't help but consider that, out of context, some of this rhetoric could easily be confused for that in 1920's and 30's Germany. I'll be quick to point out, however, that not once have I been victim to any such backlash against foreigners. In fact, I have found my presence received with nothing short of warmth and welcome wherever I go.

But it is fascinating to be a witness to the evolution of thought in a living and breathing country. And with that I come full-circle to tradition. While I'd like to claim that my refusal to sport soccer slides in school is my contribution to fighting prejudice and furthering the modernization of Korea, I'm fairly certain you'd call my bluff on a hand so patently false. I'm content to cast a critical eye to traditions we all blindly follow – myself included. Doubt, after all, is a personal tradition of sorts...just like my holiday cards.

* In the particular environment of an all-boys middle school, this tradition also poses a safety risk. Anything in the school not firmly bolted to the floor (read: everything) is employed as a weapon. Pencil cases and soccer slides are ubiquitous, always within reach, the perfect size, and thus frequently used as projectiles by the boys.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dispatches - November 8, 2009

Things in Korea happen fast and with little forewarning. It's not uncommon – indeed some of my friends have come to expect it – to begin a quiet night at home and find oneself whisked away to an unknown locale to meet unknown family acquaintances and eat unknown Korean fare. Perhaps the hardest element to adopt from this lifestyle is how plans – if there are any – change frequently from hour to hour and often from minute to minute. At first, myself and many a friend suspected that these unexpected detours were simply thanks to a lack of language skills. After all, there is little utility to plans when they cannot be understood by all parties involved. Even so, days of the week and times of day – or mentioning neither – are not easily lost in translation and we quickly began to discern that the problem might not be the Korean language, but Korea itself.

One of my favorite anecdotes to illustrate this traditional Korean modus operandi begins in the gyomoshil (think: teachers' lounge) of Se Kwang Middle School. I try to keep a low profile at school for various reasons: (1) Not being a trained educator, I am not very confident in my teaching abilities (2) I can't actually speak to most of the teachers – nor they with me – save a few particularly-proficient English instructors (3) We were told numerous times during orientation to expect frequent invitations to socialize after school with other teachers. That in and of itself would be fine – if it stopped there. Our orientation coordinators went on to provide vivid accounts of all-night drinking adventures with co-teachers that may or may not have ended with thinly-veiled solicitations for prostitution. But perhaps most-applicable to my own circumstances was (4) I am frequently exhausted after school and all I desire is a quiet evening – and maybe a nap.

And thus these thoughts were in the back of my mind when I was approached by a co-teacher one morning early in the term. He has a very low speaking volume and very rudimentary English skills. Even so, he is a friendly man and I was still very cognizant of making a sterling first impression. Through context clues, I deduced that there was a soccer team composed of teachers from the middle and high school and I was being recruited. A simple backyard pickup game this was not. Uniforms emblazoned with 'Se Kwang United' (a clear reference to the 'Manchester United' of English Premier League fame and also the professional team of Korean hero Park Ji Sung) were prominently featured in the team photograph this co-teacher proudly displayed on his desk. There was a time – long ago – when I played soccer. While I was never the second coming of Pele, I played enough soccer throughout my youth to consider it the sport with which I was the most comfortable.

But beyond some form of sport after school, I really couldn't overcome the language barrier to figure out exactly what was in store. I knew I shouldn't turn down invitations extended early in the school year, but visions of extracurricular activities with co-workers escalating from soccer matches to trips to tour Korean law enforcement facilities were nagging in the back of my mind. What's more, this teacher had approached me about the team and then commanded 'Let's go now' all within the span of three minutes. Apparently he saw no reason why I could not simply sign off of my computer, grab my bag, and accompany him – at that very moment. And while I would come to know these instantaneous invitations as traditional Korean, the planner in me still doesn't appreciate them. And so I manufactured an excuse about meeting my host brothers for my transportation after school and, wearing my best oblivious American expression, exited the situation.

But apparently I exuded the aura of a serious threat on the soccer pitch – must have been the bow ties – for the next day the co-teacher was back. This time he was curious about the type of soccer equipment I preferred. He was also eying my build – fitting me for my uniform. In another unexpected conversational twist, simple smalltalk about a preference for Nike was translated into an urgent demand to immediately leave school to purchase soccer spikes. I would have liked to have seen my face when upon realization that my broken conversation about shoe size conversions was being parlayed into a procurement mission. Once again, however, I was able to extricate myself from the gyomoshil without committing.

But, plagued with guilt, my afternoon naps were growing restless. I had begun slinking around school, spending less time in the gyomoshil and more in the English classroom, and ducking encounters as best I could. Soon the co-teacher was back in the hunt. This time, however, he came armed with new and convincing information: he had talked with my host brother and cleared a trip for that afternoon. Never mind that we were to depart for said trip two minutes hence, I couldn't very well continue to postpone the inevitable. In light of this ambush of information, I was caught. I was going. Reluctantly. But going.

I put on a happy face and followed the teacher to his car. He had to move quite a few things from the cabin to the trunk to accommodate me as a passenger and, while he was doing so, I counted evidence of at least a half dozen sports in the car. Golf clubs rested on top of soccer shoes and alongside a baseball bat. There were various pairs of running shoes in differing degrees of use and a tennis racket or two. There very well may have been a polo mallet and a spearfishing gun resting somewhere at the bottom, but there was so much stuff piled high that I can't be certain.

At any rate, the first sign that I was in for a unique afternoon occurred as I stood next to the front passenger door, waiting to sit down. Twenty years of on-and-off passenger experience had taught me that this is where someone sits when they are the only other person driving in a car. Silly me. The teacher instructed me to sit in the backseat. For a split second I expected another teacher to arrive at the car and thus provide some logical explanation as to why I was sitting where I was, but to this day my chauffeur-like car ride remains a mystery.

The soccer store wasn't much more than five miles from school, but five miles can seem like fifty when the passenger and driver share all of two dozen words in common. We arrived at the soccer shop and the teacher started talking with the attendant. They clearly knew each other and, judging by how serious the teacher took his soccer, I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that he was a frequent customer. At that point I still didn't have a firm grasp on the distance my return from soccer retirement would take me so I was not about to spend serious won (Korean currency) on a pair of boots. Whether I had any skills to begin with can be debated, but I also figured that whatever was left probably didn't depend upon the grade of soccer cleat I was wearing. After trying on a few pair and struggling to convey the concept of a half-size, I ended up with a blue pair of Mizuno spikes. I suspect I was secretly drawn to the red and white trim that contributed to the pair's overall American vibe.

At any rate, after securing shinguards and socks, I approached the counter ready to settle my tab. I had begun wondering during the fitting if my teacher was planning on paying. I hoped not. It would be a little uncomfortable for someone I had just met to buy my soccer equipment. It would also, in a way, obligate my participation. My suspicions were confirmed when we both extended our credit cards to the attendant. With both parties insisting, it was up to the employee who, of course, took the card of the person who spoke his language. I was not pleased with the end result, but there wasn't much I could do except graciously accept the gesture and rejoice. Rejoice that, soccer kit in hand, my afternoon was over.

Silly me. We left the store, but started walking in the direction opposite the car. I noticed immediately and, after inquiring, understood something about a 'brother' being nearby and paying him a visit. Alright, I thought, the teacher has a brother who works in town and we were dropping in to say hello. No harm in what surely wouldn't be more than a few minute detour.

Silly me. The teacher was accurate in that his 'brother' was only a few blocks away. We entered two incorrect doctor's offices, but the third time was a charm. At this point I was clinging to the assumption that the teacher's brother was a doctor, but I was losing faith by the minute. My suspicions were confirmed when a smiling man a full two feet taller than my teacher greeted us at the reception area of the third office. If these two were brothers, I told myself, then I was Santa Clause (hint: I am not).

At this point, the lingering fear of something amiss lingered no longer and forcibly made its way to the forefront of my thoughts. I assembled the facts: (1) I had just bought soccer gear (2) I was presumably expected to play for the teachers' team (3) These two gentlemen were not brothers, and (4) This man was a doctor in some capacity. At this point it's useful to pause for a moment to explain (5): recall that, during orientation, I had injured my foot at Tae Kwon Do practice. Early in the homestay I had still not fully recovered. As far as I could remember, however, I had told no one outside my orientation friends.

As the three of us slowly walked back to the doctor's office, my mind was racing. Try as I might, I couldn't arrive at the connection that allowed this teacher to know about my injured foot. But I couldn't be concerned about that at the moment. I was more occupied with what this doctor thought he was going to do to me. My mind was made up that I would make a break for it if he came within five feet of me with so much as a stethoscope. To make matters worse, upon entering his office, I was immediately confronted with a host of indicators that this doctor's specialty was orthopedics. A model of a knee was displayed prominently on his desk. Various diagrams of ligaments adorned the walls and there was more skeletal paraphernalia lying around than I could shake a femur at (both literally and figuratively: I did briefly consider fending off an examination with the model knee display).

The doctor took a seat behind his desk, wearing a grin that stretched from ear to ear. “Smile all you want Doc,” thought I, “I'm on to your little charade.” My teacher sat in front of the desk and I reluctantly sat at the side of the desk, between the two. The location was less-than-ideal for an escape – the co-teacher between myself and the door – but I figured that if I had the jump on him I'd at least make the lobby. The doctor, however, was tall with long legs. Being young and scrappy, I normally would give myself the edge, but I had a bum foot and we were on his turf.

I was eying a scale model of an ankle as a potential club when the doctor smiled at me and turned to his computer. He pulled up an internet browser. “Ah, crafty,” I observed, “he thinks I'll let my guard down if he shows me the procedure he has in mind.” I kept one eye on the model ankle and turned one to the computer screen. The computer screen which was pulled up to... The doctor then broke into fluent English, asking if I followed American football and what my favorite team was. Still cautious, but certainly off-guard with this turn of events, I revealed that I followed the Patriots. I even revealed my esteem for Tom Brady. “Stupid Cornelius!” I cursed to myself as I realized my weakness, “you've said too much!” But in my defense, Tom Brady is indeed a personal hero of mine. I'm willing to forget his time at Michigan (arch-nemesis of Penn State) given that he only took a few snaps there. What followed, however, is perhaps the most storied use of sixth-round draft status ever in professional football. After that nancy Drew Bledsoe got injured and opened the door for Brady, the latter proceeded to win three rings for the Pats, collecting two Super Bowl MVP's, a league MVP, and the season touchdown record for good measure...all while dating actresses and supermodels. Bad ass.

This doctor seemed to like Tom Brady too. I had to admit it, if his plan was to distract me by talking football, it was working brilliantly. Somewhere amid our analysis of AFC strength, I began to entertain the notion that perhaps I was not there for some procedure after all. Throughout the course of our conversation, I inferred that I was simply a means for this doctor to polish his English skills. He had a son that was a former student of my co-teacher and, when he heard that I was from the Philadelphia area, he excitedly mentioned his wish for his son to attend Wharton.

After thirty minutes discussing football and Philadelphia, I was walked to the elevator and handed a business card. My intuition told me that this new orthopedic friend considered me a potential avenue for his son's admission to business school, but to this day I can't be sure. I escaped intact, though more than a little curious as to how such a bizarre afternoon could unfold, but also glad that surely now it must be behind me.

Silly me. The way my co-teacher had parked his car made it nearly impossible to enter on the side of my original seat. Thinking nothing of it, I simply occupied the opposite side, but once again in the backseat. As the teacher pulled onto the main road, however, he motioned for me to move back to the passenger side. This struck me as more than odd, but I just had a football second-opinion from an orthopedic surgeon when all I wanted was soccer spikes: my standards for normalcy were devolving at an alarming rate.

It wasn't until a few miles later that I was able to solve the mystery of the rear seat switch. Driving in Korea is very much a passive enterprise for me. Yes, yes, I know that being a passenger is always a passive role, but at home I could serve as a co-pilot: navigating street signs, offering directional assistance, or commanding the the very least I could read the banners as storefronts passed by. That's not the case in Korea. The radio is incomprehensible as are the signs. As I noted in my Old ETA and the Sea saga, traffic ordinances are mere suggestions in Korea.

To make matters worse, the only scenery I have any chance of understanding – other automobiles – is composed almost-entirely of Hyundais and Kias. Now, now, now...before you go and judge me for being myself judgmental, hear me out. Korea has enacted such a strict protectionist trade policy to insulate its domestic car manufacturers from foreign competition that any such foreign vehicle is rendered essentially twice the price. A German car in the U.S. is something of a status symbol, but it's nothing unusual. A BMW or Mercedes is so rare in Korea, though, that I tend to stop whatever I'm doing whenever I see one and proceed to gawk with a 180-degree head-turn. A sedan that would set someone back $60,000 in the States stings to the tune of at least $120,000 in Korea. For a society that never misses a chance to highlight its globalized presence, what amount to xenophobic tariff practices strike me as a bit antiquated...if not hypocritical. And just to show a critique of hypocrisy that is not in and of itself hypocritical, I also find the penalties the U.S. puts on corn imports to protect domestic ethanol production to be downright disgraceful. And while I'm at it, the EU ought to be penalized for its support of EADS.

OK. My detour is complete. If not for the fact that I recognize you signed on to read a blog about teaching English in South Korea and not an online version of the Wall Street Journal, then for the fact that I have exhausted my current knowledge of economics. To be fair, Hyundai makes some beautiful cars. The Genesis is every bit as luxurious as its European counterparts and I hope it stirs up the market. I gawk every time I see the coupe version: its one helluva sexy car. My host father's Opirus – an upscale line made by Kia – is a sleek flagship sedan with all the amenities of a Mercedes E-Class or an Audi A-6. But that doesn't change the fact that seeing one of the latter two is pretty unusual in my neighborhood.

All of this to illustrate that there is not a whole lot for me to look at whilst I am being driven around town. And thus my mind and my eyes tend to wander. It just so happened that, sitting in the backseat, they happened to wander to the rear view mirror...and the stare of my co-teacher. I must have done a double-take because I tend to find the mistaken eye-contact in the rear view to be a little off-putting in the most normal of circumstances. When I figured out that the ability to look at me was the reason for the rear seat switch, I was somewhat unnerved. Our broken English/Korean conversations that involved all of twenty shared words now involved furtive glances by each of us.

During one of these mangled exchanges, I was asked if I played golf. At this point I was weary of admitting that I did anything beyond teach English – 100% of my time – because I suspected it would involve another dogged string of invitations until I acquiesced once again to an uncomfortable and awkward afternoon. I tried my best via facial features and atrocious Korean that I was awful at golf and did not play. That's actually pretty close to the truth. I like everything about golf except actually striking the ball with the club. The venue is often beautifully-manicured, there are always refreshments flowing at the end of a game, and there are even fun little carts to race when the grounds crew isn't looking. On account of my never having played the sport for any continued period of time, however, I'm awful. I can get about two holes into a course before I grow frustrated and my mind drifts to fun things to do with a golf cart rather than lining up my next shot.

At any rate, for true amateurs such as myself, the fun of golf lies in an afternoon of conversation with a small group of friends. If one cannot actually communicate with said friends, the only element of the game that salvages my enjoyment is lost, compounding what is already an exercise in frustration. I had no designs on lowering my handicap while in Korea.

But my co-teacher was undeterred. He 'asked' if we could meet his friend who played golf. I emphasize ask because, in Korea, invitations are a different species of request. They are often thinly-veiled assumptions of submission at best and, at worst, outright commands. I recognized this sitting in the backseat and, hanging my head, conceded to the visit.

When we arrived at a driving range I was again suspicious. This afternoon had been bizarre enough and I knew Korean habits well enough to sense that something was amiss. I further-detected a ruse when, instead of hopping out of the car and walking toward the entrance – behavior displayed by someone on an actual visit – we instead retrieved my co-teacher's golf bag from the trunk.

Driving ranges in Korea are prolific and also a bit different from those in the States. Imagine a massive, four-story skeleton of steel covered in green mesh. The structure extends close to four-hundred yards and is given a slope – ever so slight – from the back toward the front. It's like a batting cage for golfers. At any rate, we said hello to someone (this must have constituted the visit) and began hitting balls. 'Hitting' is actually generous: 'hacking' is almost-certainly more accurate in my case. I loosened my bow tie, still being dressed from school, tossed aside my blazer, and tried my best not to take aim at my co-teacher.

At this point I felt my sour attitude was justified. I had remained a good sport throughout an afternoon of soccer spike fittings and orthopedic surgeon consultations and I probably would have retained that decent demeanor had this visit actually been merely a visit. I had been promised a 6:00 pm return to my homestay and, as I marked 6:00 then 6:15, I began to lose patience.

At 6:30 I called attention to my watch and my co-teacher gestured that he understood and we began to gather his clubs. The ride home was uneventful – I dutifully sat in my assigned seat in the back and exchanged odd glances in the rear view. The only time I piped up was to direct him to my house. I couldn't remember being more excited to see my homestay.

That is, until my co-teacher exited the car with me and began walking toward the backdoor. What was this?! Surely he wasn't coming to dinner...visions of an awkward meal raced through my mind. I feared another helpless scenario – doomed to sit through supper as an entire year of golf t-times and soccer practices were planned – in Korean – before my very unknowing eyes. Thankfully, however, the teacher seemed to be slowing at the door. Jun – the elder of my two host brothers – met us at the threshold and exchanged pleasantries with who I would later learn was his math teacher. Jun and I would have some words later about just how much I appreciated walking blind into an ambush of a Korean afternoon. But at that moment I was simply relieved that my co-teacher was bidding adieu and making his departure. After his teacher had left, Jun smiled in a knowingly manner that left me suspicious about the hand he had played in this sordid string of circumstances.

I climbed the stairs to my room and tossed my soccer spikes into a corner, collapsing on my bed. With whatever lucidity I retained, I vowed never to leave my homestay again. And thus my most inexplicable afternoon in Korea is explained. Some may question the veracity of my tale or accuse its author of hyperbole, but lest they accept an invitation in this country themselves and all that is entailed, they may never understand the true scope of random occurrences that can beseech a helpless foreigner.

I began this post noting how things in Korea happen fast. The tale above illustrates the human hand in this phenomenon, but I've begun to wonder if it might not also be something in the air – literally. Last week winter struck in a matter of 24 hours. One day mild-mannered Cornelius was frolicking in fall-like Fahrenheit and the very next he was awakened with a chill and a dip of epic caliber in the Centigrade. I recall the same abrupt shift happening between summer and fall. I can't help but wonder if such sudden climactic alterations have something to do with the modus operandi for Korean invitations. I may never get to the bottom of it, but if we are all merely products of our environment, this begs the question: what commodity am I becoming? Whatever end result assimilation has in mind for our intrepid traveler, I find some measure of solace knowing that at the very least I'll be in the driver's seat upon my return.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dispatches - November 2, 2009

Terrific, you're back! I hope you weren't waiting too long for the conclusion of The Old ETA and the Sea. In the last installment, we left our daring and debonaire protagonist – me – in a harrowing predicament: sitting on a floating shantytown 300 yards from shore, hopelessly bored, with only his cellphone to entertain himself. Will he catch his trophy fish? Will he be forced to eat raw whatever does come out of the ocean? Will his cellphone battery last? Let's find out, shall we?

The bait we had put on the end of the fishing lines was not appetizing to me and apparently the fish agreed. To bide the time, I picked up a knotted mess of discarded line on the deck and began untying it. I quickly became engrossed in my pet project; not only was I occupying myself, but to anyone that happened to observe, this effort had all the trappings of ultimately serving a purpose related to fishing. As a Boy Scout I was adept with rope, earning the nickname 'Knots' after I won the Troop 87 knot board competition. In our adult lives we so often find ourselves immersed in mental tedium – reports or briefs or e-mails – that we rarely rediscover the latent and inherent joy of working with our hands. On the evolutionary scale, this type of work ought to resonate with our brains much more than intellectual pursuits. I won't claim that a well-written blog post doesn't provide me with some measure of satisfaction, but few things feel as complete as a day spent with chores in the backyard or...untying a piece of fishing line.

Perhaps that was a bit of a stretch, but my point remains. Whatever your thoughts on physical pursuits, that fishing line was about the only thing I had between myself and jumping into the water. Forty-five minutes into my project and I had a tightly-wound coil of line for Jin to use. For his own part, Jin was thoroughly enjoying himself and his new-found skill of catching two-inch long fish off the plank with my nicely untangled spool of fishing line.

About a half-hour later, I was approached by my host father who was excitedly gesturing toward the open water. My host mother joined the conversation with her cellphone translation application and I gathered that I was about to be invited to take to the high seas in pursuit of a fish I had never heard of. Doing my best impression of someone woefully ignorant of their surroundings and their present situation, I put on a glazed smile and went back to watching the dead-calm lines in the water. It wasn't until Jin approached with his excellent English skills that I knew the jig was up – I was going.

Outfitted with a fishing rod, a water bottle, and a life vest, I once again boarded what I thought was an open-air water taxi and left the comforts of the floating village. We journeyed out to sea at a brisk clip – the wind in my hair and the scenery of the mountains rising on either side of the bay was actually enjoyable. As I said before, I like boats. Besides, the roar of the motor made any awkward pseudo-English/pseudo-Korean conversation simply impossible. I was left to my own thoughts, which aren't exactly the best companions in my homesick and borderline-depressed state, but even destructive friends are welcome when the only alternative is loneliness.

After thirty minutes spent speeding over the calm water, our fearless captain (identified by the token cigarette in his mouth and the fact that he was the sole member of the crew not wearing a life vest) slowed the throttle near another floating village. He announced something incomprehensible – at least to me – over a speaker from his cockpit and, judging by the reaction of my fellow fishermen, the hunt was on. Lines dropped into the water from all sides of the boat and my host father enthusiastically motioned for me to follow suit. I was positioned at the bow, attempting to send text messages with one hand while balancing against the wake of passing boats. I'll pause here to more properly describe our vessel. Using nautical terms such as 'port' and 'bow' convey a sense that I was on a real seaworthy charge. The reality of the matter was that our twenty-foot craft was about eight feet wide. There was a small cabin large enough to house the controls and perhaps shelter a passenger or two from the elements. A large Yamaha outboard motor provided the propulsion and the deck was covered with odd stains that I would soon come to understand with vivid clarity.

It took mere moments for our quarry to strike. Two spots down, on the port side, an angler was frantically reeling something in. We could not have been at a depth of more than twenty to thirty feet because reeling in your line didn't take more than a few moments. When my neighbor's catch surfaced I had not a clue what it was, but it didn't look like a fish. When he reeled it aboard and into his bucket, I turned back to my own line...and perhaps a text message. Within seconds, however, there was commotion once again around this man. As I turned around, I noticed him hunched over and wiping what can only be described as black ink – it was black ink – from his face. It was at that moment that I came to the horrific realization that fishing in these parts was a contact sport. Whatever it was that this poor man had caught didn't appreciate it and decided to return the favor by spraying him with a cocktail dark as night. It was then that I also noticed the oil slick that had been left on the water where this creature had surfaced.

Now I am twenty-six years old and thus feel qualified to refer to myself as a 'man'. There was a time, however, when I was a 'boy'. To be quite honest, I'm not convinced that I am completely beyond that period, but for argument's sake, let's assume. I often call upon the knowledge I garnered in my youth – for better or for worse – in my adult life. All boys are fascinated by animals and thus, as a former boy, I am somewhat well-versed in the kingdom animalia and some of its odder entries. The stranger the appendages or abilities with which these creatures have been endowed by evolution, the better. As I stood there on the deck of the S.S. Kimchi, I channeled countless hours devoted to various Discovery Channel television programs and quickly surmised that I was dealing with none other than some form of cephalopod (think: squid). I would later research and find that the specific species was cuttlefish – the name that would haunt me from my host mother's incredibly prescient cellphone translation application.

But at the time, I assumed that snaring one of these slimy, bulbous, ink-spewing, and wholly-unappetizing denizens of the deep was a complete mistake. Surely we were after fish...real fish...the kind with scales, fins, and maybe – if I was lucky – teeth. I went back to my line and my text messages. Soon enough, however, my host father began excitedly reeling in his own spool. What surfaced this time was not a cuttlefish, but an octopus – a very small, perhaps six-inch long, octopus. The boy in me was again extremely curious. Mr. Choi shook the lure until the octopus plopped into our bucket with a slimy 'splat' and I investigated the eight arms with their tentacles and the color-changing creature that was gliding – or slithering – along the bottom.

More than curiosity, however, I felt pity. Before arriving in Korea, I was a vegetarian of seven years. I began eating meat two weeks prior to departure to get my stomach in shape – I wanted to experience the full breadth of Korean culture. I also assumed that it would be impossible to explain a vegetarian diet to my host family without inadvertently giving the impression that I did not care for their cooking. But my primary consideration remained how so much of a community can be tied to its food – I wasn't about to miss this substantial element of my new home. Now that I'm here, I would gladly miss that element of Korea altogether, but at the time I was game. Returning to the octopus, however, groping the bottom of that bucket and – as I understood it – suffocating, I was reminded once again of my desire to return to vegetarianism immediately upon return to the United States.

It wasn't long before I felt my line grow ever-so-slightly heavier. I reeled it in and found another octopus on the other end. I also found that my host father seemed excited and added this octopus to our bucket. Queue wide camera angle zooming into a closeup of my face. This is the horror film cliché indication that the protagonist has finally realized what the audience knew all along: he/she never had a chance. In this miniseries, I realized then and there and under no uncertain terms that these octopus were not a mistake or a chance occurrence, but rather the end game. This is what we had been fishing for all along! And the sobering corollary to this awakening was the premonition that we were not going to add these poor cephalopods to an aquarium when we got home: the next time I was going to see these guys was at dinner.

I could stomach this idea as part of my Korean adventure had it not been so damn easy to catch these critters. One need only bob his line up and down off the bottom for a few moments before the telltale weight of an octopus became discernible. Our collection was growing, and at an alarming rate! I could no longer see the bottom of our bucket and my host father didn't show any signs of slowing.

I had to take matters into my own hands. While I couldn't easily retard the progress of Mr. Choi, I could sabotage my own efforts. Craftily, I began stopping my line short of the bottom, feigning the up and down bob of my reel as though I was resting my lure on the seabed when, in reality, I was some distance above it. My suspicion that octopus can't jump was confirmed by the marked decrease in my success. Mr. Choi noticed my decreasing rate of octopus murder and pantomimed the proper technique several times. I responded in kind with pantomimed concerted effort. I had a twofold justification for the ruse: 1) the octopus squirming around the bottom of the bucket was indeed a gruesome site and I did not want to kill any more of them than I absolutely had to and 2) I do not find octopus appetizing and I surmised that the less octopus we caught, the less I would have to eat later on.

At that point, our captain spoke something through the speaker and my host father motioned for me to reel in my line. The captain fired up the outboard and we were off … off to another site about four minutes away. Apparently it was not enough to send one octopus population to the brink of endangerment: we had to spread our efforts to neighboring colonies as well. After we arrived at our third location and the haul showed no signs of letting up, I could no longer continue to sandbag my technique without arousing the suspicions of my fellow fishermen (and fisherlady – there was one woman aboard who seemed to be sharing an octopus bucket with the man immediately to my right. I assumed they were a couple. Thinking of a more unromantic outing than fishing for octopus and occasionally getting sprayed with cuttlefish ink I cannot, but to each, his own).

As much as I didn't want to, I began employing the proper method and subsequently began catching more helpless octopus. The occasional cuttlefish would find one of our hooks and someone would sound the alarm. I became vigilant for the sign of any commotion, keeping my head on a swivel to avoid a bath with black ink. I'm happy to report that I escaped unscathed thanks in part to some quick footwork, but probably more to chance.

I won't belabor the post with each subsequent change of venue our captain took, suffice to say that, as our bucket filled with octopus, I became resigned to their fate – and my own at a later dinner. To be fair, the afternoon could have been far worse. Mr. Choi was his usual gracious and considerate self, the weather was terrific, and perhaps most importantly, it didn't run too long. Back at the shantytown, as soon as I discerned this trip was going to take place, I immediately began fearing that I would not see my beloved floating wreck (notice how quickly standards change in Korea) until nightfall. At one of the later changes of location, I motioned to my watch to ask my host dad what time we would be heading back. My spirits soared when I learned that it would in fact be within the quarter hour, at three o'clock. We picked up the pace, reaching a new rate of mass murder, before the clock ran out.

The speed boat ride on the return was enjoyable like the trip out. Enjoyable unless I peeked into our bucket and a truly pitiful sight of slain sea creatures. Much like the deck of our cruiser spotted with ink, my conscience was spotted with guilt. And much like the tell-tale spots of fishing excursions past, out my damn spots were not. When I was a vegetarian, I never proselytized. A person's diet is their own choice and I never attempted to change that of fellow diners. Most casual acquaintances didn't know my dietary habits until they noticed my tip-toeing around a menu or inquiring about ingredients. Even then, I never cast a disapproving eye toward my carnivorous friends at the dinner table.

That being said, two avenues of conversation always pushed my buttons. One button was others who righteously lay claim to the title 'vegetarian' while eating all the seafood and poultry in sight. Simply not enjoying the taste of hamburgers does not make one a saint nor, in my opinion, a vegetarian. The other button was the general indifference many have to our friends in the sea. I've had countless conversations run short when the other party simply could not wrap their mind around the notion that fish were sentient beings who should qualify for protection under a 'vegetarian' diet. Never mind the alarming statistics with respect to declining fish populations worldwide, but why tuna are fair game when cows aren't is beyond me.

Down off your stump Cornelius. A PETA blog this is not, nor is it a venue for political commentary. Mr. Choi and I returned to our launching site – the shantytown on floats – and rejoined Jin and Mrs. Choi. I learned that the latter was herself quite a fisherwoman (lady?). Apparently there exists a species of fish that is attracted to the slop that was at the end of the hooks because she caught a couple decently-sized specimens. For his part, Jin had quite a collection of very tiny fish to show for his efforts. I thought I detected a hint of boredom on his face, though it simply could have been me projecting my hope onto the scene. Looking back, I probably wouldn't have passed off the fruits of my knot-untying project to Jin had I know they would be put to such unsavory pursuits.

To complete the sea life genocide trifecta, I realized that I had inadvertently contributed to a live fish being fed to a cat. Earlier in the day, I saw a cat observing the activities on our flotilla. Clearly he/she was the charge of this village's owners – if indeed such a place was or could be owned – and I mused to Jin that this cat must be the recipient of particularly-prime feline circumstances and frequent fish suppers. Jin is a bright and inquisitive fellow. I should have known that he would take at least one of his ample catch and test my observation. Surprise – cats do in fact like fish and will eat them when given the opportunity. Even so, this cat wasn't very sporting – the fish was served up on the dock right in front of the cat's nose and didn't have much of a chance to flop five feet back into the ocean. By this point, however, I was numb to the guilt.

What better way to assuage my conscience by slipping into my unconscious? Taking a chair and donning my sunglasses, I parked myself at the end of a plank and studied the setting sun. The color in the sky darkened everything below, leaving little hint from the calm of the bay that the gentle ebb and flow was more than cascading velvet. I was reminded of many a time at home. I know some that can lose themselves and their thoughts in such peaceful scenes, but I'm not so lucky. My mind tends to seize the opportunity by filling the void with anxious thoughts about past, present, and future. This was no different, but for a brief moment, a mind that was simultaneously racing and standing still was able to forget that I was in Korea.

My pseudo-slumber was interrupted with the announcement that we were to depart. We gathered our haul, hopped onto the taxi, and pointed our way back to solid ground. Although daylight was fading, a light was beginning to shine at the end of my tunnel; the end of my journey was near. I knew better than to let my guard down however. Case in point: before we departed the docks, Mr. Choi suspiciously disappeared into one of the restaurants with the two big fish my host mother had caught. My fear was materializing before my eyes – the bountiful bounty was about to become dinner! Whilst we awaited the fillets of fish, Mrs. Choi bought a box of Choco-Pies (think: marshmallow sandwiches coated in chocolate). Divining that I very well may be faced with a tantalizing dinner featuring nondescript fish and a yet-untold number of octopus later that night, I immediately downed two Choco-Pies and rationed another for the road.

Jin and I were pretty tuckered out after our long day; as Mr. Choi dropped the accelerator to the floor, we promptly passed out in the backseat. Nearing home, though, we encountered the traditional Korean Sunday afternoon traffic and our pace ground to a halt, leaving ample time for smalltalk. My dietary preferences somehow became a topic of conversation and, while I could not be sure, I specifically heard 'chicken burger'. Once again not wanting to allow my hopes to play tricks on me, I avoided the distinct impression that Mrs. Choi's sister was going to somehow make sure that there was a chicken burger waiting for me when we arrived at home.

But I should stop underestimating my host parents. Sure enough, there was a delicious fast-food dinner awaiting my return home. Apparently the extended family had heard about the octopus that was returning with us and, rather than avoiding our house for weeks (as my family would do – sensibly I might add), they decided to descend upon the Choi residence and prepare for a feast. I devoured my chicken burger and hung out with the little kids of the family upstairs. Despite being much closer to the adults in age, I somehow tend to find myself at the 'kids table'. To be honest, the 'somehow' is almost certainly the fact that I can have a more complete conversation with five-year old Koreans using their elementary English skills than I can with their parents while employing my atrocious Korean skills.

But just when I thought I had narrowly escaped revisiting my dastardly deeds of earlier that day, I heard the bell toll. It was Jin calling from downstairs. I reluctantly poked my head from around the corner, knowing full-well what was in store, and was enthusiastically asked by my host parents to join them around the coffee table. A half-dozen aunts and uncles had gathered around a portable stove, apparently enjoying the fruits of our labor. I looked into the large pot on the stove and spotted the evidence from the crimes I had committed. No need to assemble a jury or seek a plea bargain; I knew what I had done. I reluctantly sat down at a place prepared for me, resigned to pay my debt. Within moments I was face to face once again with an eight-legged cephalopod – no doubt one whose death was on my hands (or fishing rod).

While my writing thus far may have portrayed my eating habits in an unfavorable light – picky and unadventurous at best – I will actually try anything once. This wasn't the first time I had octopus prepared this way and I was a bit of an old hat at surviving such a meal. I immediately reached for the wasabi. While I may have to cry through a meal thanks to the overwhelming power of wasabi, I definitely wasn't going to taste anything else. And for good measure, I garnished each bite with a bath of soy sauce. That night I had my requisite dose of octopus for quite some time to come, and probably enough sodium to satisfy my recommended daily serving well into 2011.

And thus my two-part miniseries The Old ETA and the Sea concludes. I lived to tell – and blog – the tale. Sadly many octopus did not. Despite my not enjoying the eventual quarry of the day, I did enjoy the opportunity to commune with nature. While the moments that permitted reflection were all-too-brief and all-too-few, I welcomed them. A place at the bow of a boat speeding through the sound or a solitary chair in a quiet corner of a floating fishing village were unexpected, but enjoyable. What's more, it's just this type of adventure that I signed up for. And thus I'll sign off...for now. Be sure to check back soon for spooky tales of a Halloween spent in place named 'Gwangju', previously-promised commentary on the power of tradition, and more antics from my ample supply of stories from an all-boys middle school.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dispatches - October 28, 2009

In a former life, I was a naive college applicant. While that existence isn't all that far removed from my current life as a naive college graduate, I like to think that my writing has much improved. There was a time when I began every piece I encountered with a quotation. Shakespeare I am not, but many of my ideas now will be penned or will perish without the aid of those that have come before me.

But in a nod to Korea and Korean tradition, I'm going to completely ignore the promise I have just made and proceed to do the exact opposite – quoting someone else. Charles Gaines, a noted fisherman, once wrote that, 'Fishing is casting a petition into the unknown.' I enjoy fishing and did quite a bit of it as a kid. But modern society and its soundbites have thoroughly trained my attention span to accept stimulation only in short increments. Unfortunately this has rendered fishing enjoyable only in limited doses.

And this past weekend I had to take my medicine. Allow me to set the scene. Weeks ago I was told by my host family to keep a particular set of dates free on my calendar. A big fishing trip was in the works and it would span the entire weekend, replete with a big boat and a journey far out to sea. So epic as this excursion that it required both Saturday and Sunday to complete. My mind got to wondering – as it is prone to do – and it took little suggestion for me to envision a return trip with a massive marlin strapped to the roof of our Kia. And after I had decided that this thought was the most-likely occurrence, it wasn't too difficult a leap to imagining a totally bad-ass stuffed beast being proudly displayed above my fireplace in law school. I'm not sure fireplaces exist in Los Angeles, but recall that this is my imagination and it knows no bounds.

An overnight trip with my host family would be a first. We have a terrific relationship thus far and the prospect of such an extended journey didn't worry me in the least. But the prospect of losing a weekend – and its coveted free time – did worry me. Taking a queue from Korean behavior and the general lack of details I have oft-noted, I gave a vague affirmation that I would check my calendar and keep that weekend free.

What proceeded was textbook traditional Korean. Between the original invitation and our actual departure, the weekend itself was changed twice. The duration was curtailed from two days to one. The ultimate possibility of the trip – understandably dependent upon the weather – was in question until the day prior. And best of all, a departure time of 6 a.m. was announced the night before. Much like a metaphor for my journey to Korea overall, this trip had very much become a 'petition to the unknown'.

While Saturday was ultimately benign, it had all the trappings of disaster. To begin with, the night before was a wine party in town. The thought did cross my mind around glass three or four that imbibing mere hours prior to leaving solid land for what was sure to be a tumultuous sea was not the best idea. By glass seven or eight, however, I was beginning to think that this wine was in fact my only hope for enduring said sea.

I returned home a few hours before I was due to wake up, drank some water, and fell asleep. I had gone to bed unconvinced that we were actually going fishing and would wake up in a similar state of mind. It wasn't until I actually heard stirring downstairs at 5:30 a.m. that I began to change my mind. Last-minute schedule changes and frequent cancellations abound in Korea and I have come to expect the opposite of what was planned. At any rate, I was somewhat disheartened to see two massive coolers prepared to attend the trip with us – a three-hour tour this was not. An actual 6:30 departure for a disclosed 6:00 goal is punctual by Korean standards and thus surprised me.

Not nearly as much as the surprise of nocturnal driving in Korea. What ensued was perhaps one of the more frightening episodes on wheels I've ever experienced. I don't sleep well on buses, planes, or in cars – I require a flat surface. Thus as we zoomed out of Cheongju, I groggily dialed up some classical on my iPod in hopes that I could trick myself into a couple more hours of shuteye. Silly me.

It took all of three miles to render me wide awake. At the first red light run by my host father, I directed a laugh laced with heavy concern at Jin (Jun – the elder host brother – had manufactured a 'school project' two days prior that conveniently needed to be done that Saturday and was thus still asleep at home. My suspicions that he knew something I did not added to my skepticism about this trip.). My host parents heard my laugh from the backseat, but judging by their reaction – themselves laughing without a trace of the alarm I had exhibited – I gathered that traffic laws were merely suggestions at night.

Perhaps – and I am permitting a very tentative perhaps – on some desolate dessert road on a crystal clear night with not another soul in site, carefully side-stepping traffic signals would be permissible. But we were sharing a six-lane highway with freight trucks in the minimal visibility of early-morning fog. At least my host father was now stopping at red lights. That would be much safer. Silly me.

At the next red light, we stopped in the middle lane. As two 18-wheel trucks doing 70 mph flanked our Kia with nary a foot off the gas pedal, I shuddered to think about the poor soul that actually had the right of way. Perhaps it was the sweet sounds of Mendelssohn's violin concertos or perhaps it was the lull of constant speed, but I was somehow able to sleep for about half of the two-hour drive.

Towards the end, we stopped at a restaurant rest area of sorts for breakfast. For those that are unfamiliar with traditional Korean breakfast, you can start by forgetting everything you know about the first meal of the day. Gone are stapes such as cereal and toast. Instead, those ready to greet the day are greeted themselves with *surprise* rice. Accompanying the obligatory bowl of rice is food that looks awfully similar to dinner and lunch fare. That's because, in all likelihood, it was your dinner or lunch fare from the previous day. As far as I can tell, Koreans do not use distinctions such as time of day when deciding what food to eat. That being said, this is one of the many reasons why I consider my homestay to be nothing short of a miraculous collection of fortunate circumstances. It's not unusual for my host mother to have Dunkin' Donuts coffee and pastries waiting. The morning of this composition she tried her hand – quite ably – at French toast and, should something ever prove a misfire, there's always a box of Post cereal waiting as backup.

But I wasn't so lucky at this rest stop. Gauging my options – ranging from some sort of clam soup to spicy cabbage – I opted for kimbab. A word on kimbab: I discovered it during orientation and it quickly became my go-to Korean food when Western alternatives were unavailable. I've noticed that – by and large – the Korean foods that I do like seem suspiciously familiar to famous dishes indigenous to other cultures. For example, Koreans are adamant that kimbab is their own, but vegetables wrapped in rice and rolled in a thin sheet of dried seaweed is sushi – a 'California Roll' – anywhere else in the world. The thin cuts of pork and cheese that I like, fried and quite tasty, are so unhealthy that they must be western. And with those two entries, the list of Korean foods that I enjoy begins and ends.

But I digress. The main point of interest at this rest stop was not the food – that I'd rather forget. What was interesting, however, was the strategy to staff a skeleton crew of two for 8:30 on a Saturday morning. I felt half-amused and half-annoyed as I watched a young man literally run between the convenience shop and the kitchen as he simultaneously juggled the roles of cashier, dishwasher, manager, and chef. I would have felt half-sorry for him too had a family of twelve not entered the restaurant literally seconds ahead of my own family. As far as I was concerned, every step of this ridiculous dance was delaying my date with a fish. And it wasn't that I was now particularly keen on fishing, but as I saw it, the faster I hauled my trophy on-deck, the faster I got home.

With a belly full of kimbab and the remnants of the wine party, I finally spotted the ocean. The sun inches off the horizon was very pretty and I was reminded at how much I enjoyed the coast. We waited at the boat launch for a twenty-food motorboat taxi. We tossed our gear aboard, I blessed myself, and we were off!

I like boats. In fact, I had procrastinated my studying Korean in the months prior to departure by finishing a model Chris-Craft (aptly-named the Bow-Tide for those who were wondering) and piloting it around the pond in my backyard. Much of my childhood was landlocked in Atlanta, but the few chances I did get to sail or motor on the water I thoroughly enjoyed. My motoring that day took all of five minutes. Rather than the hour-long cruise to a larger vessel promised by Jin, our taxi ride took five minutes and ended at what can only be described as a shanty-town on floats. A network of rotted planks and tarp coverings joined a neighborhood of shacks a few hundred yards into the bay. Fishermen sat on plastic chairs watching for movement on their lines as they drank soju (Korean rice liquor) at 10:00 in the morning. As I parked myself in front of a fishing pole, I came to the sobering reality that my marlin would most-likely not materialize, any wine that was left in my system was not going to offset the oncoming tedium, and that I did not recall seeing my family pack our own supply of soju for the sojourn.

I did, however, have my cellphone and I began sending copious amounts of text messages to friends remarking on the hilarity of my situation. In the broader sense, the ability to communicate instantly while sitting on a makeshift raft that had no business floating served as a reminder for the stark dichotomy often found in Korea. While the country is regularly listed as one of the most connected nations in the world and features notable technology firms such as Samsung and LG, there is often a sense that Korea takes two steps forward only to take one step back.

For instance, children have their temperatures taken daily before entering school to detect for swine flu, but communal eating with chopsticks at meals receives not a second thought. Korea has had nothing short of a remarkable sustained economic surge that launched it from the the brink of desolation fifty years ago to a global leader today, yet women are still considered less-able than men. The educational system consistently places its pupils at the very top of international rankings, but those very same students not only pay a price in delayed social skills thanks to enormous academic pressures, but must face overwhelming odds when attempting to enter the very few schools in Korea that afford them a full range of social mobility.

Here I have refrained from referencing observations of seemingly-contradictory practices that can clearly be attributed to tradition (although the role of women very well may qualify given the influence of Confucian tenets). Tradition in Korea is markedly prominent – and personally prominent in part for a lack of such strong heritage in my own culture and in part thanks to my own negative connotations for the institution.

But I have begun another tangent that deserves its own post. And I am sleepy. Thus I will conclude the riveting tale of The Old ETA and the Sea as well as my not-too-riveting thoughts on the negative repercussions of unquestioned allegiance to tradition in Korea *phew* all in my next installment. I don't wish to spoil the surprise, but to keep you tuned in I will reveal a single, solitary hint: the term 'fishing' for my adventure is actually a red herring.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dispatches - October 18, 2009

In the previous post, I introduced 'Chris' – a mischievous second-year student who masterminded a racy entry for my 'Dream Middle School' lesson. I've remarked before that, while my age may betray me, I sometimes don't feel all that removed from middle school. As a teacher, I can laugh at some of the shenanigans the boys scheme up because I used to be a middle school boy myself. Perhaps relating more to philosophical conviction, I also let kids be kids. The agency of adulthood we all long for in our youth certainly has its moments, but that agency comes replete with problems. And the problems particular to adulthood – whether due to enhanced implications or our own enhanced awareness – always seem more dire. Though I understand the self-imposed, never-ending escalation of preparing the current generation to achieve ever-greater and ever-earlier success, I don't agree with it. When I tabulate the irreplaceable innocence of youth – cliché but true – I arrive at a cost much too high.

But I digress. Part of being in touch with my inner child – some would wryly call this my immaturity – means that I recognize the social dynamics I see unfolding. Watching Chris bully his peers and watching them respond – for better or for worse – brought back memories from my own middle school days. A minority of those memories are not particularly pleasant, but I certainly was not terrorized in my elementary education. Rather the more profound impact from watching my boys has been self-evaluation. I wonder where I would rank on the social scale of Se Kwang Middle School. I wonder how I would react to someone like Chris. I wonder if each generation is destined to pose these – and similar – questions. And if so, I wonder the purpose of it all.

I tend to do that a lot these days. Korea has challenged my notion of 'identity'. In the most superficial sense of the word I submit my markedly different appearance. At a core interpretation, my sense of self-worth. The former, usually manifested in stares from strangers, rarely registers as more than my amusement. But with the latter – as is usually the case – I am my own worst enemy.

Leaving the States – and the community, comfort, and ultimate complacency that comes with accruing personal history – can be liberating. Hiding behind the guise of an unknowing foreigner can excuse someone like me from quite a bit of the social responsibility not quite as easily shirked by a native.

Personal and shared history, however, also provide some level of comfort. And thus the cost born by the latter notion of identity. A blank canvas has left me quite able to sketch almost any rendition of Cornelius. But the ability to so quickly erase all I had outlined before has left me wondering the true substance of what was once there. I strongly suspect many of these musings are strongly influenced by my struggles with faith and doubt. Even so, Korea has catalyzed my introspection. A blog about an exchange experience in Korea is not the place – nor am I qualified – to seek answers about religion and existentialism, but the questions remain.

I remember it being high school – the middle school metaphor carries the anecdote only so far – when I did a science fair project that relied on a catalyst. The only thing I remember from this project – perhaps the entire year of tenth-grade chemistry – is that a catalyst facilitates a reaction without itself changing. When I wrote above that '...Korea has catalyzed my introspection', I suppose I had two meanings in mind. The obvious being that Korea – a culture far older than my own – certainly isn't the variable in my Cornelius equation.

Taking this one step further, I arrive at the second: I cannot fairly rest blame with Korea. Instead I rest blame squarely with Korea's food. Just kidding...but I wanted to make sure you were still paying attention. My ongoing battle with kimchi and octopus aside, what Korea does – or rather does not – provide are the distractions of the familiar. More and more frequently I am faced only with myself. My only distraction – an unfamiliar future. Two variables.

I lied – I remember two things from chemistry: experiments with two variables yield no reliable results. In this life – this experiment – I hypothesize that discovering one will lead to the other. Which I ought to solve for first is a question unto itself and, unto itself, still beyond my reach. But as long as the life in question is my own, there is sure to be a catalyst.