Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Cultural Experience

Today on BBC World Update with Dan Damon there was a segment about a Korean trade expo taking place in London.  He was doing interviews with several people, two of which were 18-year-old girls who were extremely interested in Korean culture.

They talked of how they became entranced by Korean culture when they started listening to K-pop music, which soon progressed to a love for Korean dramas, which led to a lust for knowledge of Korean history and culture.  They told tales of how much more respectful the people in the culture are here towards each other and others. They said they had visited for a week and loved it, and they plan on taking a gap year together to work in a children's orphanage here next year.

These comments got me thinking about my own experience here, and my own expectations of the culture and of myself in it before I came.  How was my perception of this country before I came; how is it now? Also, how true is Korea to the ideal set by Korean dramas and K-Pop music?

Before I came to Seoul for the first time, I was recommended to watch a popular drama called "Boys Over Flowers" (AKA Boys Before Flowers; Kot Poda Namja in Korean).  Later I found this was adapted from a Japanese comic, which has since been translated into several other languages and adapted to the screen in many different countries.  In the Korean version, it centers around a young girl named Geum-Jan-Di who is socioeconomically poor, but through a heroic act manages to garner a position in one of the most prestigious high schools in the country.  This school is dominated by a gang of four ultra-wealthy, idolized men known as the "Flower Four"; their leader is a boy named Gu-Jun-Pyo. Keum-Jan-Di manages to piss them off but refuses to appease them by giving any sort of apology; this strength makes Gu-Jyun-Pyo fall in love with her. The rest of the series is dramatic, with Gu-Jun-Pyo and Jan-Di often fighting and falling out but always coming back together, and Jan-Di often questioning her feelings for Jun-Pyo's best friend, Yoon-Ji-Hoo.

This series was so dramatic, I could literally not stop watching it until I reached the end.  I was an unshowered mess for three days in a dark room, only stopping to bring food into my room or use the bathroom. At the end, I came out of it like a zombie, re-hashing the series events in my mind, oblivious to the real universe.

Like any good soap, there was always an issue that was unbelievable waiting to be resolved. However, there was something amazing about the main characters in this series, something so appealing in the idea of such a passionate love between them.  Though materialism, duty, and honor came between them at times, they always found each other. 

This series made me love Korea before I even came.  I was fascinated by the culture of duty, honor, respect for the social hierarchy; the language, the food, and the fashion.  I thought that I would fit right in, and I had dreams of assimilating myself into the language and many other aspects of the culture.  

When I got here, I was so culture-shocked.  There were giant skyscrapers everywhere, not much vegetation; I couldn't read the labels on the food.  I missed my family, and I knew virtually no one. Adults and children stared at me everywhere I went and called me "waygookin" (foreigner).

After a few months, I eventually made some friends, but I still had the desire to blend in.  My first year, I studied the Korean language.  I learned Hangeul, the Korean alphabet.  Even though I gained 15 pounds my first year here through eating starchy high-calorie foods my body wasn't used to (i.e. white rice), and drinking lots of Korean beer (like the Koreans), I tried to dress like a Korean.  I wore bows and sparkles and skirts over leggings and dresses that didn't quite fit me, trying to fit the "girly" Korean look.  I didn't see myself; I thought I looked fine.  I liked playing dress-up.

I even tried to make some Korean friends.  Now, I will of course say that over the course of the 2.5 years I've been here now, I have definitely made a few sincere Korean friends.  Ultimately, though, many of the friendships I've tried to forge here have been awkward and superficial, to say the least.  I'll give you one example:  one night, I was on the train close to closing time.  A Korean girl saw me looking nervously at my phone and anxiously around me, and she sat down in the seat next to me when it came free. 
"Are you okay? Do you need some help?" She asked.

We proceeded to have a conversation about the train and I found out that her reason for helping me is that she had studied in Australia and she felt that many people had helped her there.  She wanted to return the favor.  I thought this sounded plausible enough, and eventually she asked if I'd like to hang out and have a drink together sometime.  I agreed.

Soon enough, I got a phone call from her and we went out to a hookah bar I liked in Gangnam called "Rainbow".  Though we had easily conversed on the train, this time it felt forced and awkward.  I asked her some questions and she seemed disinterested.  Then came the more interesting turn of events--she called her boyfriend on the phone and put him on video chat.  She instructed him to talk to me.  He said hello and got nervous and said he had to go, and she called him back two or three times to make him talk to me more. Turns out that her boyfriend had been wanting to practice his English with a native speaker, and it was clear to me from that point that I was being used only as a romantic offering.  Needless to say, I never saw that girl again, and she never called me, either.

I'd like to say that was my only experience like that one here, but unfortunately there have been other similar instances since that time. 

I spent a lot of my first year feeling angry at myself, awkward, confused, depressed, fat.  I hated being stared at by the Koreans, especially old Korean men (ajushis).  I hated being misunderstood by my co-teachers when I was making a sarcastic or joking comment.  I hated that I couldn't go shopping and find a pair of pants or shorts that fit me. I hated that I couldn't fit in.

It wasn't until I came back to Korea this time that I finally understood why I was so miserable much of the first year I came to Korea.  I realized that I am not Korean.  I am not Korean, I will never be Korean. While there are many aspects of this culture that I love and appreciate and think are amazing, they are not a part of my culture. 

In realizing this, an amazing thing happened. I stopped hating myself in this culture. I learned to love and appreciate myself within it and even appreciate the culture more. 

Don't get me wrong, many things still bug me, like being stared at or called out for being a foreigner--but these things make me angry for different reasons. I still think that this country has a long way to go before they can realize their dream of being a world power.  Part of that is acceptance, or at least tolerance, of other people within their culture.  Part of it is educating their people about outside cultures.

At least for the time being, I have to step back and realize that I'm part of the group that is helping Korea move forward; I'm part of the group of people who is educating Koreans about outside cultures. I am not here as a Korean; I am here as a representative of my own culture.

So, to those girls...I guess if I could speak to them, I'd tell them--don't try to be Korean. Don't expect to be accepted. Appreciate the time you have here for what it is; a cultural experience.


Friday, February 8, 2013

The Thirty-First Tale: Welcome to the Claassrroommm...(AKA Dance, Monkey, Dance, or "The Life of Anna Teacher": you choose)!

Oh my, it has been a very long time since I've written here--sorry all!

I guess I shouldn't start every entry that way; my blog posting is sporadic as it has always been.  Is there any surprise there?  No. Will it change in the future? Maybe, but probably not.  So, I suppose there's no need to be apologetic about it--it is what it is, like me, an ever-changing entity :D.

SO, let me revise my opening line: HEEEELLLLLOOOOOO EVVEEERYYYBODDDDYY!!!!!!!!!

This is generally how I greet my children when I'm teaching a kindergarten class.  In response, they will say, "HEEELLLLOOOOOOOO ANNA TEACHER!!!!!!!!!!!" Then I force them to do this about three more times by repeating the question until they become so obnoxiously loud that even I can't stand it.  Is it narcissism?  Possibly.  But c'mon, everyone knows it's fun to hear your name shouted a few times over (get your mind out of the gutter--we're talking about children here).

These days, I am still teaching on the hagwon (private academy) circuit.  These are short-term (one year) contracted gigs which offer attractive benefits to foreigners in order to come and be made into show monkeys for the Korean parents.  Other than this, one really doesn't have to have any special skills (you do have to have a university degree, also to show the parents in case they ask).  If you can do the "Dance, Monkey, Dance!" routine, then you are a shoe-in.

The particular one I'm working at is located in Northwest Seoul, close to Ahyeon Station.  I am not saying there are not challenges that come with my job; trust me, there are many, many challenges.  In fact, there are students such as those my boyfriend has, who are...let's just be PC about it and say, 'special'.  He has one particular boy who, when angered, finds joy in biting things furiously.  Not people, but objects.  Give him a fork or a spoon or any toy in sight and he's happy, well...angry, as a clam.  Though nobody has ever proven that clams are truly happy or angry yet, to my knowledge.  I'd like to see some data.

As far as my students go, I also have some very interesting ones.  Victor (I insist on calling him Victor Victorious in a mock superhero voice), a student who is about 12 years old in my afternoon classes, likes to keep the whole class entertained, literally the whole class time, by singing renditions of your and my favorite classic American songs from the 1950s+, as well as any song from a musical you can name.  The kid actually has a very nice voice, so most of the time I don't mind.  However, coupled with the actions and competing mousy voice of Jay, a nervous, nine year-old twitchy kid who cannot stop blinking and constantly asks, "Teacher, what?" strategically after I have explained the directions directly to him as slowly and clearly as humanly possible, five or six times, this proves to be too often overwhelming for even one American English monkey teacher.

The whole class goes something like this:

Victor: Hello, teacher.
Jay: Teacher, teacher, you bring hamburger?? I want beef. I can eat whole cow.
Me: No Jay, I did not bring beef. Or a cow.
Jay: Teacher gimme doughnut.
Me: Why? You think you should get a doughnut? What makes you think you should have a doughnut?

(I use simplified language, because Jay does not know the word "deserve" yet)

Victor is poring over his book calmly.

Victor (without looking up): Jay, be quiet.

Jay proceeds to stand up and open his mouth like he will possibly bite Victor, sticking his face in his face, then decides to make a pucker like a kiss at the last minute.  Victor pushes his face violently away.

Victor: WHAT ARE YOU DOING?? TEACHER,  HE IS GAY!!! GAY!!!!! (Giggling)
Jay: Hee hee hee...hee hee.  I not gay.  You are LESBIAN!!!!!!!

I am just watching the scene unfold, because these kinds of things happen so often in this class.

Me: Okay, okay.  Jay, sit down.  Victor, who cares if he's gay.  Gay people are people, too.  Jay, who cares if Victor is a lesbian.  Lesbians are cool, too.  Take out your book.

Victor starts in with his rendition of "Take my Breath Away", which becomes a mash up with "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from Les Miserables.  Jay is still standing up, with his coat still on, backpack untouched.

Alice (third student) quietly observes this, book out, pencil ready, smirking to herself.

Alice: Teacher, I think they are both crazy!!!!!!!!!

I nod and sigh.  Welcome to my class.

One of the larger and lesser acknowledged challenges of teaching English is not that of classroom discipline, but miscommunication with one's students (particularly when they are trying to explain something to you).  These days, I have been teaching using books that contain stories from some Asian culture (usually Chinese or Korean).  As I have little control over the curriculum, I did not choose these books and the stories, I find, are hit or miss; most often they are inane.

For example, one story is about a mean Mother-in-Law who is constantly screaming at her Daughter-in-Law, and her Daughter-in-Law is deathly afraid of her.  She is so afraid that she doesn't eat anything, and she is always forced to do the housework and cook for the family.  So, on New Year's Day, the Daughter-in-Law is making Tteokguk (rice cake soup) for them, and she cannot resist the smell of the dumplings in the soup.  As she puts one in her mouth, the Mother-In-Law comes in and screams, "You GREEDY GIRL!!!!!!"  As a result, the Daughter-in-Law chokes on the dumpling and dies.  At her burial, the family hears a cuckoo bird as it flies over her grave saying, "Tteok-guk! Tteok-guk!" So they believe that the girl has turned into a cuckoo.  Period.  The end.  Story's over.  What lesson did you learn??  Enter please: _______________________________________________.

Anyway, I digress.  Before we read these stories in class, there are discussion questions coupled with a picture in the book.  As my students all hate the book and the stories (they think it's very boring, and I quite agree with them) we often distract ourselves by stretching these conversation questions out as long as humanly possible.  On one particular occasion such as this, we were discussing the question, "Do you have a pet?", and my students quickly told me about another student in the class, Amy's, pet.  They explained that she had two crawfish.  Amy herself went on and on about how cute they were, etc.  Then one of the other students, Emma, suddenly got a sad look on her face.

"But, teacher!", she said, "One pet is die!"

I figured this meant that one of the crawfish died, and I asked Amy to confirm. Amy smiled a little bit sadly, and she said, "Yes, yes teacher.  One is die, but we had no food! There is no food in the house!"

I took this to mean that her family had gotten so desperate for food, or maybe she was in the house alone with no snack, that she killed and ate her beloved crawfish.  I looked at her, incredulously.

"Amy, you ATE your pet crawfish? What?! How could you!!!"  It felt bad being so accusatory, but I was truly slightly horrified at the heart of it all.

Amy said, "TEACHER, NO!!!!!!!!!!!!  The crawfish is starve."

Again, I shook my head. "Wait, wait, ate your crawfish after it starved to death?!"

"TEACHER, NOOOOOOOOOO!!! The crawfish is starve, it had no food.  But we did not eat!"

The whole class burst into giggles together, which lasted about 5 minutes.  I came to find out that Amy's pet crawfish had starved because apparently they eat a special kind of red worm that is only attainable at a fish store in some faraway land.  Or at least, that's what they explained to me. I'm still not really sure.  Still and all, Amy assures me that (even though this is Korea where they eat silk worm larvae) they did not eat her pet crawfish (affectionately named Alexander).

That's enough for today's tale...I will get back to you soon (or maybe not) with more from the life of Anna Teacher.

Me :)