Sunday, November 27, 2005
The Second Man
A row of men in dark suits—
the second watches the first
give away his hand
and get a smaller one in return.
The second man thinks—
as do many others—
that this is the denouement
but it’s actually In Medias Res.
The second man watches—
as the hands start joining,
as the plans start forming,
and he nods approvingly.
The second man, once named best—
sees the hands stop joining,
sees the plans start breaking,
and wonders if he deserves the name.
Sunday, November 13, 2005
The Importance of Doing English
I was, after all, a professional journalist, as well as a graduate English student. I had an annual salary that any number of housewives might envy, and with my regular yearly raises my intake was due to catch up with the entry level earnings of a high school teacher sometime before they say Social Security will go bankrupt.
However, it was never about the money, or the groupies. It wasn’t even about the respect that you can hear in people’s voices when they referred to our profession — the tone of voice they would use when they gave my field the credit for everything from Iraq and same-sex unions to Jennifer Aniston’s marital woes.
No, I enjoyed my job because I was a professional wordsmith, proudly carrying the banner for suitable sentence structures in an era where many view catchphrases by Larry the Cable Guy as articulate thoughts.
I began to think that perhaps my vaunted vernacular would veer from its narrow path early in my term as a missionary teacher when I first told my class, “There will be a pronunciation test tomorrow” and was met with puzzled looks.
This required a more delicate approach: “Uhm, test … tomorrow … please, uh, come.”
The trick to speaking a language fluently is the same as with many other disciplines: find those who can challenge you and those you can learn from. In that regard, the institute environment is ideal for the Korean students, academics and businessmen who comprise our classes. For one such as myself who sought to perpetually grow his grammar, the situation has been closer to attempting to engage a second-grade class in a debate over the works of Plato, or practicing a standup routine at a state funeral.
Case in point, the institute where I work pays a woman to clean the apartments where the teachers live. This woman and another lady from the institute took me to lunch one afternoon in my second week here, because apparently something in my living conditions inspired them to feed me.
We went to an Italian-style restaurant and shared a pizza and a bowl of pasta. We had discussed several topics, like the weather, the social life in our city and various bad spells emanating from my refrigerator. I am proud to say that I kept my head when we had a philosophical disagreement, namely, over whether the word English is, in fact, a verb.
“I can’t English,” one of the ladies said to the other.
“She can’t English,” this lady said to me.
The verdict: she can’t English, folks. I think that says it all.
I only share this to exorcise a few of my frustrations I’ve encountered during my adjustment. I want to assure you that I don’t look down on them; they have made a valiant effort to learn an entirely different system of words. My attempts at speaking Korean would be far more laughable, if I were to make such an effort. I occasionally pick up words and phrases that my students tell me to use, which I take on faith. So, it’s entirely possible that I’m attempting to say things like “Hello” or “I love you” and I’m actually telling a friend or member of my extended family that I am an elephant’s toenail.
There have been many interesting relationships formed during this time, and it’s worth it every time a student feels they can open up to my and say, “I don’t English.”
I Can See for Miles
This weekend I took a trip to the top of a mountain near where I teach in Suncheon. I don't remember the mountain's name, but I came to the conclusion that it's name must translate into "mountain where lots of Koreans go to hang out." Anyway, here are some pictures. In most of them you can see myself, my roommate Larry, and our Korean friends Andy, Lily and Christine. In the photo where Andy and I reclining you can also Daniel, who is part of the support staff at the institute, and Deacon Lee, who holds some sort of church office here, probably one that no one else can fit into, 'cause, you know, he's really short.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
Pics of my classes
My first term teaching in Suncheon is over now. Here are pictures taken of myself and my classes before term break when we got together to eat and have some fun. The top photo is my morning level 1 class at Suncheon Bay, while the bottom is with my level 2 class at the Sonham Temple that afternoon and the middle is with my evening level 1 class outside the singing room.
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
I don’t know how our game will end.
It’s dark and sometimes I can’t see the cards.
But how these next few hands go should determine
Whether I have you to play with
Or go back to solitaire for a few years more.
But stay at the table for now
Because I think this game is good for us.
I’m sure you’ll have a king in your deck someday,
But I’m kind of hoping it’s now.
The time will come when I’ll bet the house,
But if I win you can still live in it.
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Reach Out and Traumatize Someone
I haven’t written home as often as I thought I would. Part of the reason is that there is simply so much happening here in South Korea and so quickly that I can’t think of what to tell you next. Another part of the problem is that where myself and my keyboard used to be the closest of companions, I have discovered the greatest threat to a humor columnist’s career: a girl my age.
This is devastating on two counts: 1) I find myself spending what could be valuable time pounding the word processor calling her or, even more extreme, seeing her, and 2) she has deprived me of one of my greatest source’s of material, meaning my natural awkwardness. Self-deprecation is, after all, a critical weapon in any humorist’s arsenal.
However, the last is not really a valid excuse; the actual people of Korea have given me no shortage of good substance to draw upon. Today I want to talk about gender roles, and the differences you would find here.
Virtually my entire life has been spent in the South, where there are very clear rules for contact between members of the same gender. In particular, men have very clear rules. They shake hands if there is real respect or camaraderie between the two, slap shoulders after accomplishments and hug if a relative dies or their favorite (insert sport) team wins the (insert name of dead coach) Cup. All touch between men I have known is applied forcefully, in such a way to convey strength and show the other man that you are absolutely, positively in no way interest in sharing feelings.
Men in the South do not ever touch each other below the waist. And I mean ever.
Okay, maybe, perhaps there would be some unavoidable touch if, say, one man’s leg had been cut off with a circular saw and another man had to tie a tourniquet on to keep him from bleeding to death. Even in this instance, the man tying the tourniquet would still be required to deliver the post-touch “I didn’t mean it that way” declaration.
It occurred to me that things were different here during my first week in Seoul, when I saw many women, and even some men holding hands as they walked down the street. There appeared to be nothing amorous about it; just people identifying themselves as friends or possibly giving directions.
It became very clear to me when I arrived in Suncheon and met one of the other teachers. He is the only other male teacher at the Suncheon Institute where I am assigned, a 30-something Korean man who selected “Brian” as his English nickname.
Once while asking Brian’s advice on a textbook, I grabbed him by the wrist, using the usual Southern-approved amount of force and lead him across the length of our staff room. He responded by taking hold of my hand for the duration of our walk.
I believe this was only a cultural misunderstanding; a normal thing in Korea that might result in a loss of trust and an imaginary barrier of personal space in the South.
Later in the term, while I was walking between classrooms I happened to see Brian, who was singing a song by 70’s classic rock-icons Queen to himself. He asked me if I knew it, then proceeded to sing me the chorus as he grabbed me by the belt for emphasis. The image of the late Freddie Mercury is perhaps the last thing a Southern-born male wants to think of if another man touches his waist.
However, I believe this was only a cultural misunderstanding; a normal thing in Korea that would, in the South, likely result in a right hook to the jaw and maybe a broken bottle of beer over the head.
But one example stands skull and shoulders above the rest. One weekend, after taking my girlfriend to the bus terminal in Suncheon so she could return to her place of employment in Seoul, I got in a taxi cab to return home. To an extent, this incident was my fault; I was wearing shorts, and my legs have enough hair on them to keep an average-sized Grizzly warm in winter. Naturally, this will draw attention in a region of the world where people grow less extra-cranial hair in a lifetime than a Southern man does during his lunch break.
The cab driver asked me where I was from, and I told him America. The preliminary introductions over with, he proceeded to turn around and run his left hand through the hair on my left knee. I don’t believe this was an advance on his part; his next move was to raise the right pant leg of his slack show me how hairless he was.
To at least a degree this was a cultural misunderstanding; a somewhat-less-than-normal in Korea that would, in the South, result in some rope-related abrasions to the area where the neck meets the jaw.
If you know what I mean.
I have since talked to Brian, who said the cab driver was “rude.” We have also talked about the important disparities in our cultures and how certain things are handled.
“(Contact between men) is normal in Korea,” he said.
“It’s not in my neighborhood,” I said. “It’ll get you shot.”
But, I suppose the people of our nations have much they can learn from each other. For us Americans, we can learn from the people of South Korea how to not be ashamed of showing warmth to others without being branded less manly.
South Koreans, on the other hand, can learn from us how to solve their misunderstandings with the use of physical violence.
And that’s multiculturalism.
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