Caveat: Happy Birthday, School

So it turns out that today is my school's birthday.  And, since this is Korea, that means I don't have to work today.  Hmm.

Actually, I'm not really into NOT working, these days.  I've been really enjoying my job, and not really enjoying my "life-at-home" — because of the frustration and lack of control around my apartment situation.  Hopefully, they won't move me again.  But… I'm still trying to come to terms with the latest round of disappointments and frustrations.  But… without complaining to anyone at work, which is hard.  I just carry it around bottled up, and vent on this blog.  I'm sure everyone is really tired of hearing about it. OK, OK.  Change the subject.

I still have no internet, either.  And I went to a PC방 last night in Yeonggwang only to find my blog site was blocked there, too.  What's with that, anway?  At this rate, I'm going to have to invest in one of those VPN accounts that Chinese disidents use when they want to surf the firewalled internet.  And it's just because I want to work on my blog?  The thing that's funny is that the blog itself isn't blocked … anyone at my school or at that PC방 can view the content of it (and presumeably all the other blogs that are out there hosted by typepad) — I just can't get at the administration website.  What's the rationale between allowing people to view content but not make updates?  What, exactly, do they think they're blocking?  Is it a mistake? 

Hmm.. probably:  "Never attribute to malice that which can be more simply explained by stupidity." 

So I came to Gwangju, today, because I know where there's a cafe with free wi-fi that doesn't appear to have any annoying IP blocks on it.   I'm sitting drinking iced coffee and downloading some episodes of dramas — because on top of everything else, my cable TV in my new apartment appears to work only sporadically.  Yet another problem to try to ask for help on without seeming to be complaining about it.  Not that cable TV is good for me.  I lived just fine for 2 years in Ilsan without it, and never missed it.  But given the lack of internet in my apartment, the cable TV was providing some distraction, anyway.

I'm not doing very well at NOT talking about my issues with my living situation, am I?  I would go off and travel somewhere, but I'm really a bit burned out on that, too. 

Well, back when my cable TV was working, guess what I saw?  They were televising a "go-stop" tournament.  I blogged about this game a few months ago.  Seeing this on TV was almost more bizarre than the 24-hour baduk channel (바둑 is the Korean name for the game we call by the japanese name:  "go").  Though it's maybe not quite as bizarre as the fact that Korean cable TV has two channels devoted to televising Starcraft tournaments (Starcraft is a multiplayer video game).

Here's a picture of the go-stop game on TV:

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Caveat: Just a bad dream

I awoke from a vivid but unpleasant dream this morning. I was moving into yet another apartment. Go figure. This time, the "apartment" was a traditional style Korean house (perhaps influenced in appearance by the historical drama I was watching yesterday afternoon). But it was full of machinery and network servers (hmm… shades of life in Long Beach). And… it was filthy. Of course. I started trying to clean. I found a corpse under the kitchen sink. The bathroom wall was rotting and full of maggots.

OK. It was just a bad dream.

I had kind of a bad day yesterday. Stewing in my new apartment, but I was feeling sickly — my stomach was upset, either from stress or something I ate Saturday. Or both. I had a "toseuteu" (toast) on Saturday — maybe that was it.

I caught up on watching some Korean dramas. I finished the "Oh My Lady" series, and started two new series: 제중원, which is the first Korean "historical drama" I've found interesting, taking place in 1880's Korea, around the establishment of the first western-style hospital in the country; and 연애시대, a contemporary romantic drama involving a divorced couple that keep gravitating back to each other.

Caveat: The Karmic Consequences of Complaints?

I don't dare complain to anyone about my new apartment – each time something has gone wrong, and I've said something negative about my apartment, the next apartment is worse, in some way.
It's easy to feel like someone in the administrative office hates me. It certainly leaves me feeling unwelcome and unliked. But… I really think they have no idea how this whole process has impacted my feelings. Koreans, in general, don't think about the feelings of others (especially "outsiders") the same way that many in the "West" seem to. And, I think it's possible that they have tended to interpret my complaints about my various apartments as "calls to action," when, in fact, I'm really mostly merely venting my feelings.

Anyway… so what's the new apartment like? It's very small. Smaller, even, than my apartment in Ilsan, by maybe several dozen square feet. But it's very clean. That's the positive. And the smallness doesn't actually bother me, although I admit I'm still missing that first place I was in in Yeonggwang, which, despite it's filth, was roomy and quirky. This new place is just a "box in a building" – but it's clean, and has an A/C unit (which I know I'll appreciate come the dog days of Korean high summer).

My biggest complaint about the new place is: the missing "extras" – many of those things that have been "standard furnishings" in each of my Korean apartments up until now. There is no washing machine (I'm supposed to use a public one in the lobby of my building – I don't see this happening very often, as it seems both inconvenient and fraught with communication difficulties vis-a-vis the other residents and the building manager), there is no microwave (my place in Ilsan had no microwave, but it did come with a toaster oven that functioned as an adequate substitute), there are no broom, trash can, toilet brush, or cleaning supplies of any kind (good thing it's clean, but, it means I'll have to invest in these things, which is a little bit annoying), there is no desk or chair (but the place is so small that I allowed the guys moving me in to convince me there was no point in getting a desk or chair – where would a desk and chair go?), there was no bedding (admittedly, they could see I had my own – that I had bought for my first place, because the stuff given to me at that place was too filthy to use), there were no kitchen dishes of any kind (again, they knew I had some of my own – but my set is incomplete and I'd been relying on things like a fry pan, bowl, etc., being provided).

OK… this is just more venting, right? I'm going to try very, very hard not to complain to the people who put me here, because at the rate things are going, if I do, next they'll stick me in a closet or a barley field somewhere with some chickens.

Caveat: Alligator needs a doctor

Today, I get to move – 3rd time since starting this job, last month.  Maybe it will work out.  Maybe not.

Meanwhile, busy day ahead of me.  Some girls saw that I had used some tissue paper to wrap the mouth of the alligator, and immediately felt this was a medical emergency.  They proceeded to operate, although they were also trying to watch Girls' Generation (소녀시대 = a popular Korean pop group) music videos on the computer.

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Caveat: Staff Volleyball

We had staff volleyball yesterday afternoon.  It typically happens on Wednesday afternoons, if it's going to happen.  This time, instead of it being "intramural," Hongnong Elementary (my school) was playing against Beopseong Elementary (the next school down the road), and so we all piled into various vehicles at around 3 pm and drove over to Beopseong.  I thought I would have to play.  But they were taking the competition with the other school too seriously, and they had already seen that I wasn't really very good at volleyball, so, as the game against the other school progressed, it became evident that I wouldn't be invited to play.  I just sat and watched.  

First, there were a couple women's games (female staff vs female staff), and Hongnong won those games.  My fellow foreign teacher (who I got to know because she went through orientation training with me at Gwangju last month) played for her school's team, and really did quite well (better than I have done so far, anyway). 

Then it was time for the men's games.  They played three games, and after Beopseong won 2, that meant there was a tie between the schools, 2 games to 2, because Hongnong had won the women's and Beopseong had won the men's.

The final game was quite suspenseful, and, honestly, some of the most entertaining volleyball I've ever watched.  I didn't resent not being allowed to play – I probably would have messed up.  The last game came down to 20 points vs 20 points.  There were a lot of amazing volleys, too.  And finally, Hongnong won, 22 to 20.  The pictures aren't that good, but here are a few.

First, the women's game – you can see my colleague Donna, who teaches at Beopseong, looking victorious after a winning a point.

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This is the last men's game, during a long volley after the game was tied 20-20.   That's my vice-principal looking appropriately dynamic in the white shirt in the foreground.

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This is a picture of the Beopseong campus.

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[this is a "back-post" added 2010-05-29]

Caveat: Foodie?

Here is a little-known secret fact about me.

There are not that many websites for which I am a "regular." Most you could probably deduce, simply by "reading between the lines" on my blog a little bit: huffingtonpost, theregister.co.uk, wikipedia, theatlantic.com. But there was one that surprised even myself, when I caught myself typing this address into my browser this morning: latimes.com/features/food/.

Hmm… jeez, am I a "foodie"?

Maybe. I sometimes fantasize about my "next career" being that of chef. Not that it will come true. Why, specifically, LA Times? Because it's a pretty good food section – there are so many interesting restaurants and food trends happening in LA. Also, at least so far, the LA Times is one of the few major US newspapers that hasn't taken to experimenting with throwing up "pay barriers" for their online content. Not to mention the fact that I lived in LA for almost 10 years, and that was one of the paper-pulp version's sections that I browsed pretty loyally – sitting in the Burbank Starbucks on Saturday mornings, and all that.

Caveat: it is what it is

monday. less negative than last week. mostly over whatever flu i had, and mostly reached equilibrium RE the housing mess (not to say it's resolved – only that "it is what it is" and life goes on). another good day with the kids – although those first graders are hard to control, sometimes, especially when my co-teacher, who seems to trust in my experience, wanders off to take care of other business and isn't around if a discipline issue might arise (um, which it did, but i managed a stand-off with the kid involved until the end of class, when i found the co-teacher so she could explain my issue to the willful child in question). and for all that, i feel fine about it. now i have to go back to my unloved, internetless and gloomy temporary apartment – it's raining but i might take a long walk regardless. or watch another episode of some korean drama that i downloaded over the weekend. or both.

Caveat: Horses?

I wonder what horses symbolize, for me. I awoke this mornng from a vivid dream that included horses.

I was leading a group of Hongnong kids along a street in Hongnong. This is not something I've done – my activities with the kids so far has been limited to inside the school – but it's easy to visualize, as I see kids that I'm teaching around town quite a bit. But I came to a field at the edge of the town, and there were horses. I was trying to get the kids to try riding the horses, but they were reluctant. I wasn't getting upset, but I was feeling frustrated. Some Korean adults of uncertain identity were looking on. The air smelled of wood-smoke, and it was cloudy, a bit blustery, but not damp.
The weather, these last few days, has reminded me of my winter/spring in Chile in 94, and everything is turning deeply green, as spring advances. I think the weather in the dream was based on that. And there are a lot of horses in Chile. Certainly, there are basically zero horses to be found in rural Korea – I think at the close of the war, in the 50's, they had eaten all their horses, and tractors, jeeps and trucks provided a better substitute than going out and finding a new stock of horses for the country.

But horses must mean something to me, personally. I had a period when horses were a pretty major part of my life, during those months I spent in rural Mexico in 87, when I actually had my own horse and rode every day. Why was I trying to get the kids to ride the horses, in the dream? Why were they refusing? I guess not very much was happening in the dream, but it was very, very vivid.

Caveat: 지난주말 일요일에 사진 많이 찍었어요

Here are some more pictures from last weekend’s hike over to Gamami.

First, of me – the town in the valley behind me is Happy, Harmonious Hongnong.

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Next, walking down the highway near Gamami.

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A little before that, looking down from the mountain, southward, over the Beopseong inlet.

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Last, the (in-)famous nuclear power plant – one of the largest nuclear power production facilities in the world, from what I understand.  “Springfield, Korea!”

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Caveat: Trying to brainstorm positivities

That sounds stupid.  But drifting through some old haunts, today, I was trying to think of ways that I could try to stay more positive about my new situation.  Actually, as I've said before, I'm not really that down on any aspect of it except for one:  the apartment mess.  But that's such a huge factor, it's influencing my mood too much.  So… one thing I can do, is simply avoid my apartment as much as possible – such as taking this trip, this weekend.  But that can be exhausting.

I need some "out of the house" hobbies, right?  I was jogging somewhat regularly, when I was living in Ilsan last year – that needs to start, again.  There're a lot of interesting places to walk around, in Hongnong – I have to get past the "after work momentum" and make more effort to hike around in the evenings.

Just some thoughts.

Caveat: More Alligators For All

Yesterday with some of the afterschool kids (I don’t have an afterschool class on Thursday, but my co-teacher and fellow foreign teacher Casi have one) were playing with the green plastic alligators.  They were having a lot of fun.  Here is a picture.

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Here is a picture of one of my first-graders, Haneul, who insisted I needed to take a picture of her.

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Today is Buddha’s Birthday, a national holiday.  Casi and I walked over to that Baekje Buddhism monument this morning (appropriate, right?).   Here is a picture of an unexpectedly ascetic-looking Buddha that we saw there – see his ribs, showing?

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Now I’m in Gwangju, where I found a place with FAST free internet wi-fi.  I’m fixing and updating my blog.

Caveat: “Please, I’m hungry.”

In the 3rd grade classes, we've been doing some very simple command forms, as part of the national curriculum. We had a little dialog for our current chapter's "role play" section. There's a little animated cartoon that goes along with it, that's played on the DVD. There is a prince and poor man, and they're having a little conversation. Note that although this is English class, the story being played out seems deeply Korean in character (in my humble opinion). I'm not sure if it's based on a Korean folktale, a European folktale, or is strictly a product of the authors' imaginations. Regardless, it could work in a medieval European setting or in a pre-modern Korean one (meaning… up to, well, just a few years ago). Here's the dialog:

Prince: Sit down, please.
Poor Man: Thank you. I'm hungry.
Prince: Oh no! Look at your hands. Wash your hands.
Poor Man: Oh, please! I'm hungry.
Prince: OK. Open your mouth. [Prince puts some food in the Poor Man's mouth]
Poor Man: Thank you.
Prince: You're welcome.

So we had the kids playing out this extremely simple little tale, in pairs, having memorized their lines. Most of the kids are pretty much playing it "by the book," with very little emoting or "acting." A few get into the role, with some begging gestures when the poor man says "Please," for example, or a supercilious glare from the prince when he remarks on the poor man's dirty hands. But one pair of kids played it over the top, and I was laughing hard when they finished.

The best part was when the boy, who was playing the prince, said "OK. Open your mouth." The girl who was playing the poor man opened her mouth, with an appropriately starving and pleading expression on her face, and the boy, with a great deal of flourish, reached under his desk and pulled out a little thermos. He proceeded to carefully and slowly unscrew the top, and poured out a measured portion of the liquid inside. This was totally unexpected for both me and my co-teacher – we just watched, surprised. The boy, as prince, then glanced, with an arched eyebrow, at the "poor man," and proceeded to… drink the juice himself!

The "poor man" was devastatedly disappointed. Her face showed it, too. The prince poured another small amount into the cup, and only THEN offered some to the poor man. At this point she took the drink – with a perfect expression mixing desperation and disgust – drank it slowly.

It was like watching a tea ceremony, but with the intentional rudeness of the server drinking for himself before serving his guest. Which, of course, captured perfectly the socioeconomic tensions lurking in the little play's subtext. All the students, the co-teacher and I all applauded and laughed together at this excellent performance.

Caveat: Metaphors for a Micromanaged Homelife

At the risk of annoying my loyal and not-so-loyal readers with my ongoing negativity RE my living situation, I'm going to rant some more.

I guess that's what there is to do, given the isolation I'm feeling, sitting in my gloomy, depressing, temporary apartment, internetless and out-of-control.

In order to cope with, specifically, that last element – the feeling of being out-of-control – I let my mind wander to past experiences and fantasies that capture my current experience. I have been obsessing on 4 metaphors.

1) The Army. I served in the US Army in 1990~92, including training in South Carolina and "permanent station" here in Korea (up by the DMZ). The feeling of having no control over where I'm staying, over what's going to happen next with where I'm sleeping, of having my personal life micromanaged – these feelings are something I haven't experienced with such intensity since my Army experience.

2) Prison. I have never been to prison. But I found myself sitting in my little apartment, and coping with my current feelings of frustration by thinking: "this could be prison. As prison, it's not so bad. I can go out and take a walk. I can cook something for myself. I can watch TV. If I'm feeling obsessive, I can kill time by scrubbing the vast quantities of mold in the shower, or by sweeping up the previous occupant's copious stray pubic hairs, to be found in every nook and cranny. Life isn't so bad."

3) Foucault's Panopticon. Related to the prison idea: the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, conceptualized a sort of "ultimate dystopian prison" wherein everyone was constantly being watched, monitored, disciplined. A glass prison. I think of this specifically because my current temporary space has a giant picture window facing the school itself, across a gap of maybe 10 meters. There are no drapes or curtains – and I don't really see how I could justify finding some, given this is, supposedly, temporary – it'll be over in a couple of weeks, right? My coworkers, if they're lurking in the school in the evening, can sit and watch the "foreigner" – what is he doing? Oh… he's watching TV. Oh… he's pacing. Oh… he's picking his nose. Oh… he's cooking something. Wow… he's eating kimchi. Weird foreigner.

4) The Zoo. All foreigners in Korea can sometimes feel like a zoo animal. The above-described "panopticon" feeling contributes to this further. I feel as if I'm constantly being watched, and sometimes it feels like it's strictly for the amusement of those around me. I realized that in actuality, most of these people aren't even aware of me. Koreans, typically (and I hate to stereotype too much), don't really pay attention to their surroundings much. Perhaps no one has even realized that the "foreigner show" is on, in the window across the way. But if they do realize, then surely their curiosity will get the better of them, and they'll be watching me. When I was much younger, I tried writing a short story, in the science fiction genre, about a man who had been kidnapped by aliens and was being kept simply because he was interesting to watch. The story was a bit Kafkaesque: no real point; just living as a zoo animal, for the aliens. I think others have written stories like this, too, although I can't recall any specifics.

These are my metaphors. This is my mental space.

And yet… as you can see from my previous post, if I set these things aside, the work itself is going fine. I'm teaching well, and competently, and it's fun, too. The classroom has become a refuge. This is very similar to my darkest times when teaching at LBridge (hagwon). There, the darkness was caused by feelings of being overwhelmed by the offhanded, randomized and unpredictable nature of life in the staff-room. Here, the darkness is being caused by feeling of being overwhelmed by the offhanded, randomized and unpredictable nature of my housing situation. Not so dissimilar, eh? I'm suddenly wishing I had a much "fatter" schedule – if I had 40 or 50 classes, I could just bury myself in my work and I'd have zero time to meditate on my barracks/prison/panopticon/zoo.

Caveat: Kindergarteners

I finally had my first time with the "kindergarteners." Actually, the Korean term that is translated as kindergarten is 유치원 (yu-chi-won) and it really means any schooling below first grade – so the age range is from "barely out of diapers" right up to 6 or so (western counting). Many public elementary schools don't have kindergartens, but this one that I'm working at, because of the same extra funding that allows them to have two amazing and underappreciated native English teachers, also has a kindergarten wing. And on Wednesday mornings, barring other events, I get to teach the little ones.

I spend 30 minutes with each group: oldest, middle, and youngest. They were great fun. Kids that age are easy to teach language to, because they just sit and soak it up, like sponges. Half-an-hour a week won't get them fluent, but at least it gets them exposed to it, a little – kind of like the Spanish that American kids get so often in lower grades.

I showed them one of my famous plastic finger-chomping alligators (actually, it was my co-teacher's new alligator, who had bought a few after seeing how I used them in class and liking the idea). They were very, very focused. And we did the 코코코 game (ko-ko-ko means nose-nose-nose): you touch parts of your face, and name them, and then at some point you make an intentional mistake, like pointing at your ear and saying "nose." The kids think this is hilarious, and it helps them learn the vocabulary. You can apply it to other things too, like piles of toys in the shapes of food, or whatever. It's a pretty informal game, but those work best.

Finally, we read a story (there are some pretty good Korean-developed curricular materials that include custom-written stories, that I was given to use). Reading picture books to kids is great, you can stop and talk about what's going on in the story much more smoothly than when watching a video or listening to a CD. It becomes more INTERACTIVE, and can work at any level: "Where's the dog?" "On roof!" "Why?" "Hide."

Caveat: Worse than a hagwon job?

I was lying awake last night, overwhelmed and frustrated. Why am I taking this so hard?

I think I always tend to view my "home" (wherever it is and such as it is) as a refuge from whatever frustrations I'm dealing with in life.  So having the "home" situation BE the frustrating situation that I have to cope with leaves me feeling exceptionally naked and vulnerable.

When they gave me my first apartment, and there were issues, I was angry for a little bit, but I told myself: "it looks like they had some BAD foreign teachers before me [meaning dirty, unreliable, etc.] and I can prove myself different, and earn their respect." But when, one month on, they pull that out from under me, shuffle me around like a dog to a kennel, and they put me into a temporary apartment that would make a Guatemalan Discount Hotel look hospitable, well… to put it mildly, I feel underappreciated. 

And never is there clear communication. That's the Korean Communication Taboo … I've written about that before. But when applied to my living situation, it's extra frustrating.  And it strikes me as deeply UNPROFESSIONAL. I'll rant more about professionalism later, in a separate post – Koreans have no monopoly on lack of professionalism in the world. 

I lay awake and found myself thinking: "Can it be that working in hagwon is actually better? Have I DOWNGRADED my career? Have I moved to a third-world country?" Hmmm…. that last point is relevant. I already knew this intellectually, and now I'm coming to grips with the "facts on the ground": Korea IS a third-world country, but Seoul is a first-world city, and so it appears that I'm going to have to reduce and alter expectations in a BIG WAY, to adapt to life in the provinces away from the capital.

But honestly… I have to ask, where's the "pride of place"? Or is this particular school just exceptionally messed up, in that respect?  Is it better at other schools?

Caveat: What am I? A Freakin’ Cleaning Service?

My first reaction to my new living space: "What am I? A Freakin' Cleaning Service?" They have me move into a new apartment, and, because I find living in filth unbearable, I will end up cleaning the hell out of it. And then… they move me to a new place? They could get a lot of apartments cleaned, over a 12 month contract.  I will post pictures. Later. I'm sorry… I keep meaning to stop complaining about this whole mess, but it keeps… staying mess-y.