Thursday, April 30, 2009

Albatrosses, News, and Hospitals.

I was blogosphere AWOL for a bit there. Sorry about that. I'm back again.

I've been spending the last few weeks directing my writing energies (and other energies, such as the TKD that I've taken the month off) into completing that albatross about my neck--the master's thesis (and other work related to the completion of said degree). About an hour ago, I e-mailed the final draft to my kind and understanding professor. It's DONE!!! Time for celebration!

So I have now finished the last paper for a class that I plan to complete for a long time. With the completion of a bit more paperwork, I'll not be a student "officially" for the first time since starting school. Wow. The end of an era.

In the time I've been failing to blog, I've appeared in the local paper (which you already knew if you could read the Korean comment Sa Beom Nim's wife left on my last entry). Check me out! For you non-Korean readers, it summarizes and profiles the work we do for the gifted students' classes. I teach writing to high school students and one section of literature to the middle school students (William teaches the other two middle school sections). It's a very fun class to teach and it gives me some overtime hours, which are good for the wallet.

Finally, I've been avoiding blogging because I've been going through some crazy medical testing/diagnosis stuff. While they're still not 100%, yesterday the doctor said he has a good idea what it is, but just needs to confirm it with another test in a month. It's not great, but the condition should be manageable.

I want to recommend to any ex-pats in Daegu that if you have some serious medical worries, check out Keimyung University's Dongsan Hospital International Clinic, near Seomun Market. The nearly-fluent nurse is helpful in deciphering medical instructions and both of the doctors I saw spoke passable medical English. I felt comfortable through the whole process. If you have any questions about this, shoot me an e-mail.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Eggs in a Basket?

About five minutes after walking in the door I was working at my desk when a tiny female teacher snuck in behind me and silently deposited a present before I could even see who it was--just some permed hair bobbing off into the distance as she darted stealthily to the next desk. What did she leave behind?

An egg. A brown egg. I assume it is hard-boiled.

I was so confused. Usually for this kind of food present, people will leave it on the communal plate. Gifts left on my desk are usually individually packaged. I continued to wonder about this for a few minutes until I noticed a student walk in with a few eggs, these wrapped in pastel-colored plastic.

Oh, the thought creeping in as sneakily as my mysterious springtime Korean Santa, it's Easter on Sunday.

But why, Korea, would you maintain the egg tradition without the decorations part (because the eggs are brown and can't be dyed, but NOT the chocolate? I fail to understand this country.


Speaking of failing to understand this country and things (like eggs and crazy people) that belong in baskets, my jaw was on the floor the whole time William read this article aloud to me. You should read the article; it's about a convicted sex offender who works as a teacher.

I learned this delightful fact about Korea from the article:

Currently, criminal records of those sentenced to less than three years in prison are removed after five years. As such, schools can't always ascertain the criminal record of would-be teachers.

Um... ok. So foreign teachers are required to submit police checks from countries that track sex offenders FOREVER to fill positions where they are almost never alone with the children, while Korean teachers with seven prior rape convictions can rent motel rooms for runaway teenagers who trust them much more than they ever would a foreigner? Ok. Got it.

I am in shock.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Dear Seoul,

I need to write you a letter of apology. After the amazing weekend we spent together at the Korean Lindy Exchange, I realize I may have been hasty in judging you so negatively. You see, my dear, when I first met you, your size and complexity scared me a little. Although I had a delightful time with family and friends, I didn't really get a chance to know you. In fact, I kind of ignored you, just looking a bit at your shiny displays in Cheongyecheon and spending most of my time outside of your center.

I continued to dismiss you through several more visits as a fun place to visit, but a rotten place to live. Sure, I knew you had great food and good shopping. I knew you had wonderful museums and beautiful sites. I even partook of some of your great festivals. I loved it when you sent your swing dancers down to more provincial Daegu, as they had grown exceptional from your nightly dancing options.

However, I've come to realize, my dear Seoul, that my hatred of you was like hatred of anything in life--based on ignorance and insecurity (or fear). I have largely defeated my ignorance of both Korea and you, finally coming to understand your complicated subway lines and orient myself in some of the areas that are full of interesting sites. So all that remained was my own insecurity. And these are largely the same insecurities I have experienced about large cities my whole life.

You see, I am very uncomfortable in cities. Although I love cultural features available exclusively to city dwellers, such as live theater and swing dancing, I prefer to be surrounded by nature--water, trees, mountains. I get confused easily in crowded areas with lots of buildings that all look the same to me (though I immediately know if I've walked past a particular group of trees or stream before, even if many years have passed). Furthermore, I am nervous around city folk. They are suave and know about things like fashion and social climbing--things that I have no talent for understanding. I feel like I won't be able to make friends. That I'll be condemned to repeat the socially awkward teenage years of the introverted nerd that I really am deep down.

But the thing is, lovely city, this was based on a ridiculous assumption of my own extreme social failure. I made plenty of friends this weekend--and connected with many more I'd met at previous swing events. Even people with whom I can barely communicate hugged me as I departed Sunday night.

So you see, Seoul, I still don't want to live with you--truth is, if I did, I'd be fat and broke from your delicious food and sad so far from natural surroundings--but I can see now why people, even sane ones, might enjoy life within your bounds. Thank you for helping me to understand that I'm finally confident enough in myself to live anywhere in the world--even in a big city.

With great love and appreciation,
A swing dancer

Seoul Tower

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Meeting the boyfriend's mom.

In America, most of us mention to our parents that we're dating someone within the first few weeks (or earlier) of deciding you're boyfriend and girlfriend (or boyfriend and boyfriend, or whatever). Usually there is some kind of meeting arranged around months two or three of dating (later if you live in different states, but rarely does it go beyond six months or a year before there is a dinner with the folks). Obviously, some families vary on this, but generally, we're pretty open with our parents and nobody expects us to marry everyone we publicly announce that we're dating.

In Korea, I've known people who dated secretly for several years with the parents never knowing the boy/girlfriend even exists. Men, especially, don't introduce girls (or even mention her) to their folks unless they are planning to marry that girl. Therefore, meeting the parents is not exactly the same as getting engaged, but in traditional Korea, assuming the man's parents approve of the girl, it is in effect the same thing. Many young ladies I've known who were the "secret" girlfriend for years were all planning weddings the day after meeting their man's mom (or dumped following disapproval).

A few months ago, Min Gi told me he'd told his mom about me. She had noticed that he talked on the phone in English a lot, and told him that the girl he was talking to (me) must like him (I do!). He then told her about our relationship. She decided she wanted to meet me (or was willing to meet me and Min Gi wanted us to meet--I still don't know which because he'd paint the rosiest picture of the situation; I do love that about him).

Since I understood the cultural context associated with such a meeting, I asked Min Gi if we could wait until after my Vietnam trip because I didn't want to worry about too many things at once.

However, his brother and sister-in-law didn't want to wait. We met them just after New Year's, and while I'd been a little nervous leading up to the meeting, we all had a great time together. Min Gi's younger brother, Min Soo, is an architect and rarely interacts with foreigners or children, so he spoke Korean in these long, complex, nuanced sentences that made it difficult for me to follow. His wife is a computer teacher in elementary school. So when Min Gi ran off to the bathroom, we had to discover a new way of communicating with each other. He would speak something and then his wife would "translate" into baby Korean. It was kind of hilarious. I wanted to blog about it at the time, but that week I was still recovering from icky stomach issues.

Then at the end of February, Min Soo got a job in Daegu (he'd been working in Gangwondo and visiting his wife only on the weekends--sadly this is an all-too-common marital arrangement in Korea). He was happy to move back to the city. The couple just got a new apartment in Daegok, so Sunday I was invited to a family housewarming lunch where I'd meet the mom for the first time.

Lunch was lovely, prepared by Min Gi's sister-in-law. Min Gi's mom was quiet, but warm. She only tried to speak to me when no one else was around, almost like she was shy to try in front of her children.

After eating, the five of us took a trip to the nearby Daegu arboretum. It was pretty, but cold. I didn't bring my camera to this meeting because I was too nervous about it. However, Min Gi couldn't stop taking pictures with his handphone. He even stole his mom's phone at one point and changed her background picture from one of Min Soo and his wife to one of us.

One of the pictures Min Gi took in the greenhouse at the arboretum. Me and his mom.

It all went well. Min Gi said his mom liked me. Again, even if she was less enthusiastic than his implication, I'll choose to believe his rosy picture of the world. Because it's his family, and he knows them best. Because his opinion is the one that matters most to me, in the end. Because I love him.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Revision Matters.

Just to show my students (hopefully) the power of revision, I took a chisel to yesterday's post. Check out the new version. What do you think? Does it read better?

An American in Korea (take 2)

"Americans eat hamburgers every day."

Actually, I'm a vegetarian.

"Americans are Christian. They believe in God."

Although I celebrate Christmas, I wouldn't really call myself Christian. As for whether I believe in God, that's a long story for another time.

"Americans are white. They have blond hair and blue eyes."

Tell that to my black, adopted sister. And my hair is red, thankyouverymuch.

Every day I hear strange generalizations made by Korean students about natives from my country. Although many of these misunderstandings are easy to correct for my students, other mistaken beliefs—that Americans are selfish, materialistic, rude, dangerous, or lazy--are not so easy to contradict. Partly because they are based on deep-rooted cultural differences. And partly because it's really hard to see your own culture objectively enough to be able to explain to another person why a stereotype is wrong, even if you can see that it is.

This semester, I was excited when I learned I'd been assigned to teach an American Cultures class with Ms. Lim. However, I quickly became overwhelmed. Where do you even begin to explain your own culture to another person? How can you help them understand your culture through comparisons with their own when you are only beginning to understand theirs in the most superficial of ways? I was never more grateful than at that moment to be co-teaching with such an intelligent Korean woman.

As we teach the course, most of our planning meetings consist of frank discussions about the differences between American and Korean culture. In this last month I have learned so much about Korean culture through my conversations with her. For example, though I knew both Koreans and Americans to be hard working people, I saw Americans as valuing efficiency more than Koreans did.

When I told this to Ms. Lim, she was horrified. "But Koreans really value efficiency!"

"Then why do they spend so much time at the office being unproductive--taking naps, socializing, goofing off? If they worked more efficiently, then they could leave earlier and spend more time with their families."

She thought about this for a moment. "Koreans don't see it this way. When they are at work, they are part of the company. Their job is to make sure the company works efficiently. If they went home early, and someone needed to talk to them about something, it could cause a problem for the company's efficiency."

A light went off in my head. "I think I get it. Americans direct their efficiency towards individual productivity. Even though they are part of a company, they tend to think in terms of it being my job and my work. It's not that Americans aren't team players, they just don't view the company above their personal tasks."

"I think that's a better way to explain it. We don't want to offend the students."

I laughed a little. "I suppose if we were in America, Koreans would see our work habits as selfish and inconvenient to cooperative efficiency."

I love this kind of cultural exchange. In fact, a big reason that I left the U.S. to teach in Korea was my interest in learning about another culture by living in it. I have immersed myself in everything Korean: I try all the spicy food; I practice taekwondo; I study the language; I visit the temples; I make friends with the people. For the last year and a half, I have been trying to make sense of my adopted country, Korea, and usually I must do so by making comparisons with my homeland, America.

Although I thought I was coming here to learn about the world and another way of life, I find myself paying more attention to American issues than I did when I lived there. Unexpectedly, Ive discovered a hobby here in Korea that originated in my own land, swing dance. Suddenly, things that used to bother me about America (like our overly competitive society and eagerness to pretend there are no class differences at birth) are starting to make sense. I’m finding more and more that Edward T. Hall, a well-known anthropologist, was right when he said, “The real job is not to understand foreign culture, but to understand our own.”

Ironically, I had to move halfway around the world to begin to do just that.


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