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Big Bang

Big Bang

One year is a long time.  Three hundred and sixty-five is a large number, especially when meted out in days.  No matter how fast time might seem to have flown, one year, taken incrementally, hour-by-hour, takes a long time to pass.

We are now over ten months in Korea and both Colleen and I are finding ourselves yearning, more and more, for home.  A significant proportion of our current malaise is simply that the sheen of this adventure has long rubbed off.  Except for occasional forays out of the city, we hardly feel like tourists anymore.  We have settled, you could say.  We have so normalized our routines of living in Korea that we are slightly offended by the oft-voiced surprise from our Korean acquaintances that we a) eat spicy food, b) can read basic Korean (note: reading Korean script is not synonymous with understanding written Korean), or c) know the words of the latest K-Pop song (or the previous one, or even the one before that).  “What?” we wonder silently and vent about later, “do they think we’ve been hiding under a giant piece of kimchi this whole time?”  Our students, too, can’t believe we deal in Korean Won and manage even to make purchases at the grocery store.

But this doesn’t explain our malaise, except that in feeling “settled” we also feel “anxious;” anxious to move on from here, anxious to take in, however briefly, a few more corners of Asia (before influenza of the piglet closes borders, before North Korea detonates another nuke, before the markets take another suicidal nose-dive), and finally, anxious to simply come home.

Okay, so that does explain some of our malaise.  But there are a number of other contributing factors, each worth mentioning here:

Yellow Dust

Yellow Dust Storm - Seoul, April 2007 (image by Joongang Ilbo)

First, healthiness has proven to be virtually impossible, for us anyway.  Between bouts of food poisoning, numerous cold and flu symptoms, and recurring near-chronic bronchitis, we hold our breath, pop vitamin-C, and wonder when the next round will hit.  It seems as though our best option, in the springtime anyway, is simply to stop breathing, seeing as how Asian yellow sand wafts incessantly into our apartment and classrooms.  On the plus-side, we’re on a first-name basis with our friendly neighbourhood doctor.  He laughs each new week we walk through his door.  Fortunately, too, the drug cocktails they dispense here only cost about $3.00 CDN.  Now, if only we can kick this prescription drug habit….

Secondly, a goodly number of Korean Mothers have proven to be virtually intolerable.  Each passing week at our academy adds further incriminating evidence against this lot, the kind of stories that solidify cliches.  Mothers, for instance, who freak out that our academy took a one-day holiday in May, the first such non-national holiday since October;  mothers, for example, who finish their child’s homework in neat, undisguised print and then resolutely deny they are doing so;  mothers, por ejemplo, who jerk their head sideways in disgust after I tell them that their child is “a wonderful student to teach,” because, from their perspective, that child is  ‘most certainly not wonderful’, since they ‘lack work ethic’ and ‘their printing is lazy’.   “But they’re eight years old!” I find myself screaming within the cavernous space between my ears, made all the more vacuous by encounters of this kind.

Thirdly, there is the epidemic of foreigners here in Korea, a group we are admittedly a part of.  The problem is that the lure of good pay and ridiculously cheap alcohol brings a host of shady characters through the turnstiles at Incheon Airport.  When in small groups and with similar interests, there is hardly a problem (provided you can dive beneath the surface pleasantries before the year is up).  But couple some aggressive types

1 bottle of Soju = $1.00 CDN

1 bottle of Soju = $1.00 CDN

together, letting them roam through the fermented night, and in fairly short order flat screen TVs will be thrown from hotel windows or shirtless, machismo brawls will end with concussed bodies and bleeding head wounds.  In a country where the racial lines are so neatly divided between “han-guk-in” (Korean) and “wei-guk-in” (foreigner), the actions of a subset of either group immediately stand-in for the larger.  As such, the actions of other ‘foreigners’ can be rather embarrassing, since I’m associated to them by our shared continent of birth.

Interestingly enough, as I typed that last paragraph at 3:00am, a group of sojued Korean businessmen escalated a verbal dispute into a brief fist-fight below my window.  I contemplated throwing eggs.  It’s a reminder, at least, that embarrassing people belong to no one group– they transcend them all.

All this is to say that our time of departure is nigh, and can’t come soon enough (July 14).  The year, of course, has hardly been all bad.  It’s just that, in contrast to the first six months, the last few have creeped by so slowly! The result is a greater general fidgitiness  (that ticking sound of wasted time adding to our anxiety) and an ample amount of escapist travel planning to keep our minds off certain inanities of the job.  All told, we’ve got 61 920 minutes remaining, which is really only 1043 hours, which is then a paltry 43 days. And 43 days, happily, is a measly six weeks.  Really, it’s all a matter of perspective– this, we keep telling ourselves.

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Since I’m rather busy right now, I’m restricting myself to a quick post. 

 

I bring to you, then, two examples of questionable pedagogy from within the intense, bizarre, and big-business world of English language education in South Korea. 

 

The first is a tale of Soviet-style indoctrination. Before class each day, I am required to lead my students in an embarrassing group pledge.  My students hate it has much as I do; it goes like this (repeat after me):Indoctrination Center

 

My Promise,

 

One, I am doing my best.

One, I am speaking English everywhere.

One, I am having fun,

Because I am learning English everyday.

 

You might be wondering why “one” is repeated three times?  Good, so am I.

 

The second example comes from a listening manual that seems to sell itself as “hip”.  Five characters lend their voice and graffiti-like appearance to the CD and textbook respectively.  Yesterday, on track 38 of CD B, cool-dude #1 leaned into cool-dude #2 and said: “Look at her.  She’s very fat.  She’s ordering some food.”  The underlined words were filled in by my students– ever the good listeners.  Unfortunately, the example was expanded in the review chapter, only this time a female voice joined the boorish boys.  When cool-dude #1 said, “She’s very fat, I think she can eat 5 hamburgers,” the girl countered with, “I don’t think so, I think she can eat 3 hamburgers!”

 

Soak it in, children.  Soak it in.

 

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You usually hear him before you see him; his voice, like a fisherman’s net, is thrown well-wide of his immediate listening audience.  He casts out upon any and all in his vicinity and then, with a slight of hand, hauls the hapless multitude in towards his incessant monologue.  Unfortunately, the monologue is usually not immediately obvious as such.  Instead, he regales his captives with spectacular “life stories,” including, but not limited to, daring feats, money made, acts of justice, trials overcome, insignificant minutiae that extrapolate into a poignant moral– all this and more form the brickwork of his pathway. He is self-made, self-reliant and self-righteous.  If Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman had procreated together, this man would be their offspring.

 

This man is a type.  He is, first and foremost, American.  And, of course, he is male.  He is always over fifty years old, hovers about 5’8’’ tall and is, invariably bearded.  He is also an expat– an American living overseas.  He is the American Renaissance Man.

 

I have met three so far.  Admittedly, I have a rather small pool of data, but the fact that I have met each American Renaissance Man in three different regions of the world, leads me to deduce their universality.

 

My first was, as the grade school ditty goes, the worst.  I met him in the Dominican Republic at an orphanage where I was volunteering.  He claimed to be an Old Testament scholar, having made his name by uncovering a hidden library of ancient texts in modern-day Syria.  He spoke 14 languages, was the only non-Greek to have ever been ordained a minister in the Greek Orthodox Church, and had been tortured by Islamist militants.  He had also served tea to the Dalai Lama and just happened to be in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house the night Mandela was released from prison.  He was also lying (at least in part), as I found out later.

 

Of course, the discovery of his falsity was somewhat humiliating for me, considering the degree to which I admired him.  Without context, the above list does seem preposterous, but he told his stories damn well; I’ll give him that much.  Naturally, I’m more wary of the type now.

 

My second was a millionaire (or so he loudly broadcasted) whom I met in a backpacker hostel in Central America.  Though he could have stayed anywhere else in town, he felt that by bunking down with the rabble he was having a far more “real” experience.  Since, of course, the rest of us were there because we couldn’t stay anywhere else in town, he deemed us to be in need of wisdom from the other end of life’s trajectory. And he dispensed liberally.  His monologue filled the lounge space and weaved in and out of his varied decades, of which the 60s was the most offensive.  As he talked of his peripheral role in the civil rights movement (did I mention he was white?), he began to passionately claim that he had always ridden at the back of the bus. His monologue, here, hit its crescendo when he roundly declared, “I WAS FUCKING ROSA PARKS!”  At first I thought he was alluding to an improbable sexual tryst with the famous black resister but no, as he repeated himself three more times, I grasped that he was drawing a ludicrous, associative equality between the roles he and Ms. Parks had played in the black liberation struggle.

 

At this point, Colleen and I decided to escape his mad clutches, whereupon the man handed us his business card.  I don’t remember the name, but the card did list “Life Coach” and “Judo Master” as his profession, along with the (unexplained) letters, “PhD”.

 

Finally, my third.  He greeted Colleen and I from the shadows of a bus stop in Daejeon, South Korea.  He showed us to our place and then took us out for dinner.  Over the course of our meal, we learned a great deal about him and he learned almost nothing about us.  He is an investor of sorts; he solves people’s problems; he owns a house on the Virgin Islands; he’s a free lance photographer, on the side, and a writer of books, on the side; oh, and he has stepped out of retirement to develop the ESL market in Korea.  My questions pertaining to his interest in photography and writing, which were attempts to generate conversation out from some of our mutual interests, served only to fuel his monologue.

 

The monologue continued ad nauseam this week when he took Colleen & I and our fellow Korean teachers out for lunch in order to call us on board to some significant changes taking place at our school.  He took the opportunity of a captive audience, like the previous two American Renaissance Men, to mete out story upon story.  Most infuriating, however, was the moral morsel he wrung from each minute aspect of every tale; they were pearls of wisdom and he offered them generously through the yellowed, smoky hairs of his white beard.  He talked of carrying invalids up staircases and hauling watermelons home for Korean housewives; he also told stories of splendid financial success (at which point he leaned in towards my Korean counterparts and defined it more narrowly– “that means I’m rich” — in case something had been lost in translation).  And throughout it all, he continually repeated the refrain, “if you have a problem, on the job or off, I will solve it for you.” Great. Much appreciated. Except that he forgot to even ask the very simple question, “do you have any problems?”  The whole purpose of our lunch meeting, which was to open a space for communication just as changes are to be implemented, was utterly lost in the American Renaissance Man’s complete inability to interrupt his monologue with one honest, open-ended question.

 

They’re a suffocating lot, these Men.  Their self-mythologizing, which is meant to inspire the more humdrum lives of others, serves only to insult or depress.  Also, drunk on their own wisdom, they forget to actually stop speaking and listen for a change; were they to do so, they might actually begin to relate rather than simply relay.  Maybe then they might begin to truly connect to people (their stated goal), and possibly transform their experiences into the stuff of wisdom.

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In my opinion parking officers are the tax collectors of our modern time; they are inescapable, remorseless, and almost universally self-profiting. I feel that if Jesus were to walk the length and breadth of Spadina Ave., he would very quickly overturn the card-slot meters and send this brood of vipers slithering, venom-less, back to their hovels in Etobicoke or wherever such beasts dwell at night– so great would be his righteous indignation.

I say this because, yet again, I am leaving Canada indebted to the city of Toronto. It seems I cannot drive into that city and emerge unscathed, without a flapping, yellow ticket tucked beneath my windshield wiper. The frustrating thing is that I actually try to obey the signage and pay all necessary fees. I really do!
For instance, last week, Colleen and I were scheduled for a 3:00pm interview at the Korean Consulate. We parked around the corner on St. Clair Ave. and paid for 45 minutes– a generous amount considering we were expecting a 2-5 minute interview. Unbeknownst to us, the consulate scheduled all thirty visa applicant interviews for the top of the hour, so we were stuck watching Korean tourism propaganda while the minutes on our meter ticked away. At 3:35 I decided to risk missing my interview in order to drop more money on my parking space; however, after running up the street, I discovered I could only purchase another 15min. I paid anyway, stuck the stub on the dash, and dashed back to the consulate.

Within minutes, Colleen and I were ushered behind an immensely heavy curtain before an immensely heavy dignitarian. I answered “yes’ to his question, “so…you want to got to Korea with your wife?” and was promptly declared fit enough to teach Korean children. Do you think diplomats are aware of just how inconvenient and utterly useless such procedures are? Mostly, I suppose, they are too awash in the self-importance of their red license plates and diplomatic immunity to care much about our ‘inconvenience’.

But anyway, I’m scaping the wrong goat. We walked out of the consulate at 3:57pm and headed for our car. Ahead of us, a parking attendant pulled up to our car and withdrew his electronic gadget of (in)justice. We picked up our pace and, within a minute, I was calling out from the trolley tracks, “excuse me, sir; we’re leaving!”

He heard us but simply shook his head. With a break in traffic, we rushed across the street and again I repeated, “please sir, we’re here now and we’re leaving.”

“Too late,” was all he muttered, while continuing to enter information.

“No!” I shouted, throwing open my car door and waving both parking stubs at him. “We were interviewing at the consulate,” I exclaimed in desperation, “I risked it and ran out to put more money in. I’ve already paid for two (insert expletive) parking stubs.” My blood was, as they say, already boiling by this point and I didn’t really intend to swear. But I did, frustrated by such indifference on the part of the officer. My swear word, falling as it did upon virginal ears of the most pure kind, jarred him into responsiveness. He snapped his head up and looked genuinely shocked, as if surprised to realize that people actually don’t like receiving parking tickets.

“What?” he asked, brows furrowed in incomprehension.

I re-explained the context of our two minute tardiness, but he cut me off with a shrug and another, more definitive, “too late” comment tossed dismissively across the roof of my car.  Had he bothered to extend a single, “sorry,”– an olive branch of sympathy–I may have been sufficiently diffused; a brief explanation even: “listen, I’m sorry, but I started before you arrived and I can’t erase the ticket.” But no. Just “too late” and he turned back to the meter.

So, I screamed. I screamed at him and at the city while slamming my door so hard I am quite surprised nothing broke. I turned the key and called for Colleen to step into the car; I wanted to escape before giving him the pleasure of actually pinning the ticket to my windshield.

Colleen, for her part, was trying to marshal a more reasoned, less reactive argument than I had mustered. But, of course, when you’re upholding the by-law with such resolve and commitment, you have no time for explanations. As he snapped the wiper back in place, Colleen scrunched the ticket up and jumped into the car. I threw a few more curses at thieving Hogtown and peeled out of my parking spot.

And it’s a good thing too. Had I learned of the $60 nature of the yellow slip half a block earlier, I may very well have murdered the man. As it was, my steering wheel stood in for his head and I beat it mercilessly.

But there is, in all this, a small vindication.

A few minutes up the road, Colleen let out a little laugh and said, “well, if it makes you feel any better, the guy’s name is A. Ho!”  It did feel better, actually. Such a name is just as denotative of character as that of Abraham or Hitler. In fact, A. Ho was destined, from the day his mother expulsed him from her womb, for a profession in Parking “Services”. An A. Ho’s life trajectory can yield nothing better, no matter how hard he tries.

So, perhaps, I am just as much at fault for expecting a slice of sympathy from so great an A. Ho.

Clearly I have much to learn.

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