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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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Lest you think my students are only capable of techno-brutalized Engrish sentences, I thought I should make mention of a few instances where the electronic translator, well, worked…kind of.

Ex #1

Usually, after working through a new reading passage with my students, I request that they create sentences using their newly acquired vocabulary.  Try as I might to get my students to actually invent new sentences, most simply copy the word’s usage directly from the story we read.

Last week, the word “chew” seemed to be particularly problematic.  Their homework, then, amongst other words, was to create a sentence using “chew.”  Statistically speaking, these were the results:
70% returned with a fully plagiarized sentence: “Little Billy chewed his food noisily.”
20%” handed in fairly simple (but commendable nonetheless) sentences of their own imagination:  “I chew food” or, it’s variant, “I chew gum.”
10% (ie. one student) submitted this delightful ‘creation’:  “He spent the whole night chewing it over.”

Ex #2

In a case very similar to that mentioned above, I asked for a sentence Rockhopper Penguincontaining the word “eyebrow.”  We were learning about penguins and had just read about the splendidly amusing features of the Rockhopper Penguin:

“The yellow feathers of the Rockhopper Penguin look like long eyebrows”

Again, most of my students simply copied this sentence as homework; thankfully, however, one student ventured out into the creative realm, writing, “my eyebrows are novel.”

I chuckled aloud at the idea of ‘novel eyebrows’ but my student was quick to come to the defense of his sentence.  He stated emphatically that, yes, his eyebrows were very novel indeed.  I looked up from his homework to see for myself.  And sure enough, his eyebrows, though wide enough to be bushy, were, in fact, rather sparse– the hairs receding up into his forehead sporadically, with no clear delineation of a single brow.  It was a wonder I had never noticed them before.

“You’re right!” I conceded, “your eyebrows are rather novel!”

Ex. #3

This has nothing to do with techno-translators, but everything to do with a good quote.

I have a student who, on any given day, would far rather be playing computer games than studying English (okay, I have more than a few of these types).  But no other student is like this one.  First of all, his name, Luigi RunsLuigi, is derived from the (in?)famous Nintendo character.  Luigi is quite big for his age, consistently lumbers into class late, and never, absolutely never, has a pencil with him.  But I really enjoy working with him; the more difficult it is to interest a student, the more rewarding it can be when you (finally) have them focused and learning.

Yesterday, unfortunately, Luigi was less than interested.  He squirmed all class, tuning in only insofar as his needing to answer the occasional question.  Near the close of class, he interrupted the lesson with lazy waves of his hand and an equally tired, almost anguished, call:

Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher…I have question.
H’m, yes, Luigi.
Who made English?
Well, no one really.  It happened over 1500 years ago.
Well, I want to kill him.

The bell rings, leaving me feeling quite enamored with my profession.

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“Your late twenties are all about coming to terms with your own mediocrity.”  So said my minutely older friend a few months ago, before resigning his body to the lulling heat of the green-tea bath, sliding out of sight beneath the water’s shimmering, yellow-green surface.  I wanted to object, to muster a bold retort.  I wanted to marshal an argument based on the conceptual fruits of perseverance, discipline, and hard work.  I wanted to wrestle a smidgen of realistic truth out from a tired, idealistic cliche, like “all your dreams are within your reach,” or something like that.

There are few good pictures of Korean Jjimjilbangs.  This is the best I could find.

There are few good pictures of Korean Jjimjilbangs. This is the best I could find.

But of course, I didn’t (as my grammar makes abundantly clear).  I watched as my friend’s hair spread itself flat along the surface, as it danced cautiously, like seaweed, in the agitated waters of a Korean bathhouse (jjimjilbang).  I watched from my perch on the other end of the small pool; my arms spread wide, crucified to the tiled edge.  My lower torso bobbing weightlessly to the shooting time of two underwater jets.  My stomach exposed, naked.  The steam rising slowly through my sodden mass of chest hair.

I knew that any counter-argument would only amount to hot air and, in this case, quite literally.  Our education systems (both in the West and here in Korea) are structured so as to give off the plausibility of your being anything you want to be: combine hard work and perseverance with good grades and innate abilities and, presto (or is it abracadabra?), you’re halfway up the corporate ladder to a management position, or combing the ocean floor for new marine life, or blasting off to space, or what-have-you.  It’s not that this never happens.  Indeed, many of the people we idealize, whose biographies we keep repeating, seemed on-track for success at a very early age.  Lance Armstrong, for instance, was cycling far out to neighbouring towns at ten years of age and then calling home to be picked up, so of course he went on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.  Or a nineteen year old Steven Spielberg, who skipped out of a tour of Universal Studies, retrofitted a closet into his “office”, and worked away on his first film, unnoticed, for some time before being found out (and subsequently hired on for his tenacity).   Since teaching in Korea, I’ve felt this strategy of hero-making a bit more acutely.  The textbooks I teach from are full of short bios on famous people, designed to inspire young students– and depress their aging teachers.

With no such immediately obvious trajectory to famous success, I’ve been developing a bit of a neurosis.  There is, here, an anxiousness to aging that I have not hitherto recognized.  There is an acute, looming sense of coming-up-short, of  having underachieved and, hence, squandered what “could have been.”  This neurosis is relatively minor (or, at least not maniacal– rest assured dear family, friends, and concerned readers).  It mostly consists of constantly, and almost unconsciously, comparing myself to whomever wrote what I am reading, directed what I am seeing, or spoke what I am hearing.  And it’s not an outright comparison either; it is simply noting each person’s date of birth and recognizing that they were a member of parliament at 32, or a published author at 27, or a first round draft pick at 18…etcetera, ad infinitum.

Bathing for hours is hard work, so you might consider falling asleep for a few more in the communal hot rooms.  Photo by Jasonunbound

Bathing for hours is hard work, so you might consider falling asleep for a few more in the communal hot rooms. Photo by Jasonunbound

It was at this jjimjilbang and to my wizened and minutely older friend that I admitted to such unfair self-comparisons.  Incredibly, I found an ally (for misery loves company), someone with the same penchant for feelings of inadequacy before the cultural productions of the young and the brilliant.  It is fitting that our ensuing conversation occurred within numerous hot pools, saunas, and cold waterfalls, all of varying degrees of temperature; a body simply cannot help but feel old in a Korean jjimjilbang.   Perhaps it’s the rapidly pruning fingers and the absorption of so much water that makes one feel closer to death; or it’s the way in which six hours of bathing seems to call for a thousand years of sleep; or, at the very least, it’s the horrific amount of dead skin peeled off by scrubbing brushes at the sit-down shower stalls.

Whatever the case, it is the prospect of death, I think, which drives these ludicrous comparisons, which makes me horrified at the thought of ‘wasted time’.  I rarely read a book twice; I almost never see a movie a second time.  And it was nice to share a genuine laugh at our ridiculous notion of gazing out over the vast expanse of human artistic production and comparing ourselves to any one and all.  It was like an AA meeting for the washed up and old (yep, we’re almost 26 and 27 respectively)!  I know, intuitively, that such behaviour is destructively selfish.  For, what else is it but pure selfishness when you cannot see past the tip of your own nose to genuinely admire the accomplishments of another person?  Admittedly though, we did share a triumphant high-five, in the sea-salt sauna, I think, upon realizing that the quirky and brilliant Cohen Brothers, though youthful, are in fact in their early-fifties!

"Hey Geoffrey, come on! We need you!"

"Hey Geoffrey, come on! We need you!"

Anyway, I think this habit goes back a long way.  In elementary school, I used to envision the Ninja Turtles breaking through the cinderblock wall of my classroom and calling me away to an all-important battle against Shredder.  My dream never did pass beyond the gaping jaws of my classmates, who were clearly jealous that I was on the “in” with Donatello,  for that was all I wanted anyway, to be different and recognized and, well, cool.  Perhaps not much has changed.  I hope this all sounds rather more melodramatic than melancholic; it’s not that I’m an unhappy, dissatisfied person– much the opposite in fact.  It’s simply that in the face of others’ successes, I feel I must not waste anytime.  And this ticking clock (call it my biological clock) produces a measure of anxiety from time to time.   That’s all.  Besides, the comparisons are not all bad.  Two weeks ago, the Globe and Mail ran the headline “At 70, A Novelist Is Born, about Alan Bradley, a crime writer from Kelowna, B.C.;  though I will never be a crime writer, such stories do give me hope.  And maybe, too, I should stop reading Nietzsche (who, incidentally, was chair of philology at Basle University at twenty-four years of age).

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Clothes I'm Wearing... by englishbanana.com

Recently, I was teaching a lesson on clothing to beginner students.  We worked through the standard vocabulary and associated verb structures fairly quickly, so I pushed them to begin describing the clothes.  We reviewed the use of adjectives and I taught them more descriptive vocabulary words (ie.  plaid, striped, checkered); the results, in class, were quite pleasing.

For homework, then, I asked them to write a paragraph detailing their favourite item of clothing.  This they happily did, returning the next day with some rather extensive descriptions of their wardrobes.  One of my students, evidently at a loss for words at home,  had most definitely turned to her technological translator for help.  The result was a somewhat confusing paragraph,  perhaps best proved by the following abstracted sentence:

My white hoody and pink checkered skirt is each other compound is good and cute.

And while I’m on the subject of lessons on clothing, I thought I would include the following open letter to the people of Happy House Publishing:

Dear Happy House Publishing, Department of Curriculum Development

If you hope to guide students through a “delightfully imaginative learning environment,” as is your stated goal, might I suggest not including images of young girls in their undergarments?  What Is She Wearing?

It really causes unnecessary turmoil, what with nine year old boys clawing at their eyes, crawling under their desks, and screeching horrifically all the while.  The braver ones always venture to re-open their books, tentatively and by peripheral vision,  to page 54 only to slide it in front of the unsuspecting eyes of another boy, resulting in, quite obviously, a complete repetition of the aforementioned actions.

As you might intuit from the above description, the sum total of newly  acquired English verges on absolutely nil.  Granted some of the students are yelling, “ahh my gawd!” which does pass for spoken English, but I think you see my point.

Thank you for weighing my recommendations and I look forward to working with your revised editions.

Sincerely,
Geoff Martin

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White Pine Sentinel (photo by Geoff Martin)

White Pine Sentinel (photo by Geoff Martin)

Ever have those days when everyone about you screams forth your name and demands your undivided attention?  Ever have those days when you feel like no one speaks your language?  When the cacophony is so great you can’t hear yourself think?

There are a good many such days here in Korea.

Amidst all the noise (and I am, admittedly, often a contributor and/or instigator of it), there is an underlying awareness that silence will be all the sweeter when the noise has died, the children have fled, and I am alone in my classroom again.  Often, this is the only thing standing between my forced patience and my screaming “SHUT UP” in the faces of eight year olds.

To really know and value silence, to describe that splendid sense of relief when experienced, it is best to work from a negative definition.  Silence, then, is best described as not noise; it is the sheer absence of sound.  Much like John Milton’s assertion that what is Good is best defined against its opposite, Evil, so too are silence and noise co-dependents; two sides to the same coin, as the saying goes.  We depend on both to see our way and to strike a balance.  Without periods of near-deafening noise, silence would be stripped of its harbour-like quality.  In fact, silence, endured for too long, is its own kind of madness (think, Wilson, the volleyball).

A Veritable Wasteland (photo by an anonymous Haveman Brothers planter)

A Veritable Wasteland

One moment, in particular, stands out in my memory as the first time I experienced the tangible weight of silence.  To this day, four years on, that surreal moment remains my “safe place” (in psycho-speak); that place I imagine when I need to get away, to escape the chaos around me (ie. my classroom with twelve pairs of hands grasping at my shirt and an infinite number of vocal chords shouting out my name).

I spent the spring of 2005 working on a tree planting contract in Northern Ontario. We were flown into a veritable wasteland by helicopter and abandoned in an updraft of ash and dirt.  A forest fire had ravaged the landscape two years previous, churning on oxygen and engorging itself on combustible softwood and accumulated deadfall.  Our arrival, immediately following the spring thaw, meant that the natural color palate varied between off-yellow grasses and blackened soot.  It was lifeless in sight and post-apocalyptic in feel.  We pitched our tents against scattered outcroppings of Canadian Shield, beneath the wraith-like silhouettes of charred and limbless tree trunks– their exposed roots twisted about like fingers clawing from a grave.  A low, damp fog clung to the landscape, crawling up off the slender lake, cold as a corpse, and wrapping through the cleavage of two rounded hills in the distance.  The Dolly Partons, as the rock formations were affectionately called, dominated our view, poking up through the cloudy blanket, re-situating us whenever we were turned about.

This environment, dead to life below and blanketed in from above, would seem the best candidate for an uncanny, isolated silence.  And it would have been, had it not been for one small machine.

In the evenings, I was charged with maintaining the camp’s water system and electrical generator.  That generator, parked on a skid beneath a rotting, plywood A-frame, dominated camp-life.  It signaled our camp’s location while we were still two kilometers off; it pounded loud through our morning and evening meals; it threaded its way between every conversation, ceaselessly combating the rising decibels of our weary voices.  We lived under its full dominance of sound—because nothing was louder, we heard nothing else.  But as with all things constant, we grew somewhat accustomed to its grating, in that we ceased to really hear it– the irritation having shifted to our unconscious.

Andean Lamplight, Peru 2007 (photo by Geoff Martin)

Andean Lamplight, Peru 2007 (photo by Geoff Martin)

On the first night, I waited until the last voices floated through the darkness past the membrane of my tent, and then crawled out from my cocoon of fleece and goose-down.  I slipped through the door flap and stood beneath the full arch of a star-lit sky.  Casting my eyes down, I felt my way through the loose rock and dry twitch, laying out the beginnings of a worn pathway to the dining tent, the outhouse, and the still-hammering generator.

I stopped by the dining tent to see who might still be up.  A few toasted bodies were sitting in muffled silence about the woodstove, tilted bottles of Blue sticking up between their legs and resting against their gloved hands.

“I’m cutting power,” I called in to them.

They mumbled their acknowledgment through layers of wool. There was a slight shifting.  Their cigarettes flared red in the night, as they sucked in the evening’s last inhale and resigned themselves to abandoning the warmth of the fire for the cold of their tent.  The generator, ruling complete in the night against the lesser noises of a sleeping camp, now churned wildly, echoing loud off the rock face across the lake and resounding throughout the naked, treeless valley.

With the cold night air biting at my exposed hand, I hurried in a bundle to the A-frame and promptly flipped the switch, not wanting to delay my return to the pile of blankets within my tent.  The motor idled down, muttering as though beaten unfairly and too easily, before gasping out its last exhaustive breath and clanking, matter-of-factly, to its death.

In the sudden vacuum of noise, a deeper silence than any I had ever felt, washed in around me; thick, like corn syrup.  It caught me off guard.  I could hear nothing, as if my ears were stuffed tight with cotton balls; the usual noises of the night were ten kilometers off, at least. In the chambers of my ears there still echoed the pounding intensity of the generator’s whirling groan.  The sheer noise of it all, I began to worry, had permanently affected my ability to hear.

Though minutes seemed to have passed, sound finally began to creep forward with the slow lethargy of a sloth.  I heard the world infinitesimally; each strand of sound identifiable and unique: the sound of a single cricket beyond the A-frame; the scuff of my boot against cold dirt, as I stood back to look about; the crinkle of my jacket shell.

And gradually, each strand was overlaid by another equally unique sound.  Overlaid and cross-stitched, as if the world, though sundered, was now, piece by piece, being sutured back together: my sense of the aural universe expanding exponentially; concentric circles of noise and life pulsating out from the A-frame. The point of origin. The Absolute.  Like a rock tossed into a placid lake, the ripples of sound fanned out across the barren landscape, spilling forward through the undulations of terrain.  The single cricket’s call was now returned by a colossal wave of chirps.  Twitters of life, where none seemed to exist before, twisted out anew from the brittle charcoal and ash-strewn earth.  All appearances to the contrary, this place was very much alive– its root system stretching out, like the awakening of youth; its animal life microscopic but multiplying; its collective noise much louder than any mechanical roar.

Spruced Up (photo by Geoff Martin)

Spruced Up (photo by Geoff Martin)

I imagined myself the progenitor of it all; at the flip of the switch I could roll out sound like Aslan’s roar.  This pleasure in sound greatly outweighed the inconvenience of my nightly task.  In fact, I very quickly came to relish the act.  Each evening thereafter, I would rest my finger on the switch and then stop for a moment, filling the chamber of my head with the generator’s blaring rage, numbing myself so that the supreme absence of sound, and nature’s virtuoso chorus that followed after, might be all the greater, all the more incredible.  Although alone and without an audience, I would drop my finger with the showmanship and confidence of a magician with his wand.   Just as the generator sputtered through its final breath, I would suck in the cold air through my teeth, filling my lungs to capacity so that not even my breathing could disturb that saturated, soundless peace.  Silence, at last, would permeate the night.  Then, with my ears quickened to the pleasure of sound, I would stand straight and hear the wind off the lake, the sputtering hiss of gasoline in the funnel, the infinite chorus of insects.  I would drink in the palpable sound of a world created new.

The Creeping Advance of Green (photo by Geoff Martin)

Creeping Advance of Green (photo by Geoff Martin)

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While the following does not quite fit the criteria for my “word-for-word” (mis)translations, I thought it such vividly morbid stream-of-consciousness that I dug it up from the archives.

On the eve of Halloween, I asked my writing class to frighten me with a descriptive paragraph about a haunted house.  After reading out the submissions by flashlight in a darkened classroom, I couldn’t help but copy a portion of one of them.  To create the desired effect of spoken-word poetry, please read aloud, in rhythm, and in one long breath (maybe turn the lights out too):

The haunted house is empty and scary on top of the hill broken windows and screams and evil laughter and ghost and skeleton is die people.

(The lack of punctuation should not reflect negatively on my ability, or lack thereof, to instill basic grammatical rules in my students.)

An abandoned house in the foothills of Volcan Barva, Boquete, Panama

An abandoned house in the foothills of Volcán Barú, Boquete, Panama

- photo by Geoff Martin

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According to Aesop, there was once a The Goose with the Golden Egg
goose that laid golden eggs.  Of course, the farmer, who quite happily collected the droplets of pure gold, became rapidly rich and even more rapidly greedy.  Not content to wait through the gestation of gold, he decided to kill the goose in order to harvest, in full, its precious source.

After reading the above story in class one day, I asked my students to summarize it in their own words.  Their tendency, when “summarizing” is to either copy the entire story verbatim or to pick and choose random sentences to form a scattered, incomprehensible account.  Neither is preferable.

Fortunately, one of my students attempted to actually summarize the story.  Unfortunately, she relied on her techno-translator to supply the new vocabulary required.  As such, the final sentence of her summary ended up like this:

Then the farmer killed the goose and opened up the goose’s intention.

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