Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pro's and con's

Researchers, educational professionals and whacked out high school guidance counsellors tell you that on a test, your first selection is more times than not, the correct selection. While I don't think I jumped the gun on coming home earlier (I have my reasons), I slept on it for a solid two days and then changed my ticket to come home. Nevertheless, all the reasons in the world still make it hard to look back and think, "Am I doing the right thing?" I had two instances within the last week or so that reaffirmed my decision to pull the fuck out and five words that just had me shaking my head.

"Con" one:
Imagine you are me. It's Saturday and I was lying it bed half asleep. I think it was 8 am, and since my window was open all night, I could feel that that day would be particularly sticky. Aside from that, out of the middle of nowhere, a siren began to blare. Keep in mind this siren comes less than 2 weeks after North Korea detonated an underground nuclear bomb on May 25th. The siren blares and a man begins speaking in Korean. I started to think about airports, highways and ferry terminals shutting down. Yeah, I've got enough food for a couple of weeks but that means nothing as I might as well stick my head in a microwave before the other radiation gets to me. Luckily, the siren stopped and I would later be told at school several days later that the siren was a remembrance for the national memorial day.

"Con" two:
Imagine you are me. Half way through one of your classes a siren goes off, someone starts speaking an incomprehensible tongue over the intercom. Five words into the message your students start screaming, they hit the ground and scurry under their desks. A few students hurry to the windows and doors locking them in position before they slide under their desks. You spot your best English speaking student from across the room and ask the 11-year-old, "Um, what's going on?" Through the stress and confusing, he battles to find the English words, "Umm. six point five ... earthquake!" At this point you think, well I didn't feel anything but perhaps there was an earthquake elsewhere triggering a tidal wave heading for your little coastal town. Another thirty seconds elapse and the intercom voice continues, the children stop screaming and the boy says to me through his heavy accent, "Teacher, six point five earthquake ... um ... practice!"

You're probably thinking, "Garrett, we have these drills all the time back home." It's true but I've come to the painful realization that while I'm landlocked here without family nor do I have possession of the native tongue, I'm very dependant on others for safety. With that said, if shit hits the proverbial fan, in Korea's eyes, how high on the list do you think English teachers are?

"Pro" one:

As my work weeks have quickly trickled into work days, and as we approach the final stretch here in the land of Oz, it's become movie showcase cinema in my class. Because I hold my co-worker brethren in high esteem here at the country school, beforehand I asked Jinsun if it be ok to show the kids "Wall-E" for my last two classes. You know, to take a breather from the blitzkrieg teaching pace I'd paved months previous. She obliged and according as such, the students are even more so excited for English class - no work. Since the students have known for about three weeks that I will be leaving, they have given me random hallway hugs and written me goodbye notes. A group of four boys went as far to try and physically restrain me from leaving the classroom. Perhaps what I was most caught off guard by were the prepared English statements, with help help from the Korean English teacher, said to me as a as I walked out the classroom door following our final class together. To this point I've heard, "We'll miss you!" and "Have a safe trip back!" but the one that I heard 10 minutes ago takes the rice cake.

In Korea, classes begin and end with "insa." The class captain will stand, say a couple of words in Korean, and then the class will bow silently as one. After Wall-E, and true to form, the class captain of my third grade boys class rose accordingly just like he has for the previous eight months. With the captain standing and the other 38 boys seated and quiet, a rouge student tried to steal the groups thunder by personally delivering me the message that they had rehearsed with the Korean teacher a few days previous. "Thank-you for TOUCHING me!" he said proud as a peacock. If you could have only been there. I roared with laughter and the Korean teacher smacked herself in the forehead with her palm as she chuckled. "We practiced that some many times! Thank-you for TEACHING me," Hyun Gung said as she then offered them an explanation to them in Korean as to my mania. As you could imagine, the 15 year old boys thought it was one of the funniest things they'd ever heard and I'm sure that student won't hear the end of it for quite some time.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Olivia Newton John?

As you know, I've been teaching adults English at Masan City Hall two times a week for the previous three months. What you might not know is that it has easily been the most rewarding professional experience I've ever had. So when our class captain, "George", asked me to partake in a performance in front of his constituents and other second language learners, I gladly obliged.

What you might not know, because I hadn't posted the blog labelled "Testicle Festival" (available, as are 4 other never yet seen blogs, in my soon-to-be released "Some call me Waegook: The E-book addition"), is that this wasn't the first festival I've been a part during my stay in Korea.

A few Tuesday's back, the class said that they wanted to have a fun sketch in which they were going to preform a song. They asked if I knew of any American songs that would be easy to sing. My brain raced and the first three that came to mind were "American Pie", "Friends in Low Places", and of course, "Family Tradition". Though I figured no one had heard any of these songs, I sent out Mp3's (for educational purposes RIAA, relax) to each student to perhaps jog an aging memory. I mean, Koreans know "MacGyver" surely they've heard "American Pie". Nope, not even close.

After my suggestions for a song to performed were quickly vetoed, the class mentioned, voted and confirmed that they would sing a song that I had never heard before. This literally all went down within 20 seconds. My question to you is this. What song better typifies the west and the English language than ... "Let Me Be There" by Olivia Newton John? I honestly associate this Britain-born, Australian-raised singer-actress with tight spandex and jumping jacks way before anything Americana.

The performance went very well. If you didn't pick up on the Korean dialogue the first act is me asking directions from the Koreans, who by my presence were absolutely petrified (this isn't far off). The second act showed the very same Koreans after they took an English speaking class. As far as the song is concerned, many of the men in the back are reading the lyrics taped to the necks of the women standing in front of them! Boyyoung flawlessly performed her part and the chuckle from the crowd as I stood speaking in front of the mayor of Masan was due, I presume, to the fact that he doesn't speak a lick of English. Or perhaps I commited some type of Korean faux pass.

Our post-concert celebration was held off sight at a Korean restaurant. The beer and soju flowed like, well beer and sujo and the speeches came fast and furious. It's apparently tradition when a group of colleagues go out, that when sufficient booze has been imbibed, and the situation is right, the each person will take a turn to give a short speech. I ended up giving three because, well, I had a lot of appreciation I needed to express.

Tuesdays and Thursdays just won't be the same. I'm going to miss them!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Rice or bread?

There are certain preferences, so staunchly ingrained in upbringing, that they become comical to defend. Boxers or briefs? Blonds or Brunettes? Top or bottom? Never in a million years did I ever think I'd be on trial for my love, of all things, bread.

Early in my tenure here, I tried my best to finish my rice as it is considered mandatory to do so for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack. Being the sole, never mind self-appointed, cultural ambassador to overseas class, I do my best to maintain international harmony. But sometime in February, and somewhere between the puffy belly and the post-lunch carb comas, someone dropped the kernel that broke the waegook's back.

Actually, I remember the incident vividly. I'd figured, since I had tried a variety of strictly Korean foods -- dog, live octopus, eel and rotten fish (which is just as terrible as it sounds), I thought I had procured enough leverage to introduce the Koreans to something from the West. I was sorely mistaken.

Korea has many "Western" products. Perhaps, more accurately, Korea has many products it has severely bastardized from the West. Relying on smell, touch and taste to deduce what it is exactly you are sampling, will leave you shaking your head. The bread here is sugared beyond belief. Coffee, or "copy" as pronounced proudly by the locals, is about a 2 ounce shot of chocolate milk (think 4 parts sugar, 1 part bean). Calling Korean beer "piss" would be quite the compliment. I had a store brand pasta sauce by the name of "Tesco." Had I been blind-folded and asked to guess what the product was I would have guessed dog shit long before I chose the right answer of spaghetti sauce. Yes folks, it was that bad. Some of these products are recognizable by name only.

On one of my many days off, I brought in some of my fresh, hand-crafted olive bread to share with my fellow teachers. "They probably won't like it," I told myself. (Being born a Hohn, close cousin of the fictitious and family name equivalent "Munson," I've become used to rejection and ostracization and have used various forms of self-talk to ease potentially crushing blows to my esteem. This isn't pertinent to "this story" but moreso to my "life's story".) Fresh out of the oven, I brought the bread to school with some of my home-made hummus. Mr. Kim, along with two of his 50 year old lapdogs, tried the bread but then didn't go back for seconds, thirds, or fifteenths as everyone else I have introduced it to. I didn't think too much off it until Monk, another teacher at the school, came in, looked at my bread and said something to Mr. Kim in Korean. Mr. Kim translated to me that he said, "that stuff will make you weak."

That stuff will make you weak? THAT STUFF WILL MAKE ME WEAK?!?! Really?! Last time I checked, white rice wasn't the Mt. Everest of nutritional composition. In fact, it is so nutritionally devoid that it is illegal to sell white rice in the United States without vitamin B1 and B3 fortification. Take this, however, with a grain of salt as I've heard it's now illegal to take a dump in the US with your wiener tucked between your legs on Tuesdays. Just what I heard. The irony about white rice is that it's refined to remove the germ, husk and bran. This process essentially removes all nutritional components. For many years, white rice was considered the rich man's food because the refined product was fiscally inaccessible to the common man. In addition, like raccoons and eagles, it turns out that humans like shiny things. White rice is then polished givin it its glorious luster at the expense of life saving nutrition. Brown rice, however, was for the credence. It's interesting that this bass ackwards engineering wasn't recognized by the people, however ill-informed. To be fair, experts say General Motors has been guilty of this crippled engineering for decades.

Without fail, and seemingly without hesitation, every week a fellow teacher will ask me through translation why I'm not eating my white rice at lunch. Because it's generally Yuna that gets asked this question, I feel a small obligation to spice it up a bit with a creative answer. The first couple were my more canned diplomatic responses and the latter few - snide retorts:

"I'm not hungry."
"I'm not hungry because I had too much delicious kimchee."
"It makes me sleepy after lunch."
"I prefer brown rice."
"I like bread much more."
"White rice is only calories. There aren't any nutrients, only calories."
"I look good with my shirt off. I intend to keep it that way."

I'm not sure anyone sees the humor in the last two, nor should they as it, the previous two statements, are indeed the truth. But, at least at this point, I really don't care. As much as Koreans think Americans are all fat (most are), I do see a fair share of dark-haired people running around with little pot bellies.

Now for the clincher. A couple of months past, after the "bread will make you weak" comment, Monk walked by me at the cafeteria, stopped and began talking to me in Korean in a visibly agitated state. I didn't necessarily need translation at this point to understand where he was going but I wanted to know exactly what he said. "What did Monk say?" I asked Hyun Mi. "He said eat your rice!" she replied. I looked at him and then went back to my lunch tray picking at the vegetables and meat, completely ignoring the heaping portion of untouched white rice. Monk walked away in a huff.

Call it 'East vs West' propaganda. Call it 'cultural pride.' I find the whole thing interesting because I've never really had to justify what I eat or what I don't eat (save for maybe when you were four years old and you were told to eat your cauliflower "just because." Though the satire of the situation is your parents didn't much care for cauliflower either. It just happened to be that they were stoned out of their skulls for most days out of the week and cauliflower quelled their munchie urge without breaking the piggy bank). Don't get me wrong. I've got absolutely nothing against the shiny little death kernel. In fact, for a majority of my life I've been horrifically ambivalent and apparently startlingly myopic about the issue until recently spurned to make an an action by initiating inaction. Truth be told, I still won't be attending any "anti white-rice" rallies fanatically waving about a sign that emphatically exclaims "death to rice" all the while looking to exterminate the life of a rice practitioner who is looking to cleave husks from hulls. "Just doing my job!" says the little man in the little white surgical coat. Quite simply, there are bigger fish to fry and the "White v Brown" one ain't one of them.

I don't much care for McDonald's either but I'm not going to back-seat quarterback someone as they jam a Big Mac down their throat. As I type this, I realize that my sister, mother and I are all guilty of shaming my father while he commits the aforementioned act. I suppose the only thing we are guilty of is caring. My father is convinced that he will die wrastlin' a bear much like the way Tristain did at the end of the movie "Legends of the Fall." We imagine a much different scenario in which we discover him two steps outside of his Ford 250, crippled face down from a heart attack in a lukewarm pile of "two all beef patties, special sauce, letuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun". While alarming, vile and generally repulsive, the act isn't mine to govern. Here is an interesting find that may best sum up the situation altogether. While doing research to write this blog, two of the first four entries I tried to look at when I searched "white rice beriberi" (disease caused by diets based nearly exclusively on white rice consumption) were blocked by the Korean Public school's Internet filter. Coincidence?