Sunday, November 18, 2007


You're Only as Old as Who You Compare Yourself To

Textbooks in each of the SDA Language Institute’s classes provide Korean students with practice questions they can ask each other. In the lowest level, it starts simply, with queries like “What is your name?” and “How are you this morning?”

At the highest level students are ready to discuss more advanced topics, which they sometimes have no familiarity with. In one of these cases, they like to hear how an answer should sound, so they direct the question at someone whom they are sure is able to understand it, namely, the teacher.

“Have you ever experienced one-sided love?” my student Anastasia asked me one evening during class last year in Chuncheon.

After a brief definition of the term, I said that, well, yes, I had experienced it, but not yet on that particular day, at least as of 7:30 p.m.

“I never have,” she replied.

“Well, you’re young,” I said.

“I’m older than you,” she pointed out.

And indeed she is. She was born in the same year as me but in a month preceding September. I know that many of my students are older than me; it’s just that it’s easy for me to forget that while I stand firmly on the “teacher” side of the classroom.

Also, many Korean students are encouraged by their parents to postpone getting a full-time job during high school/college years, and are instead encouraged to go to after-school institutes all day.

Therefore, I’ve often found myself listening to people who are older than me express their hopes of finding that first significant other or full-time job. Many young women in this country have no greater concern than maintaining their state of quasi-anorexia, and the young men have taken up English in the hopes of meeting foreigners to play online video games with.

Chuncheon was full of experiences just like these, and not just because of the students. The second-youngest of the foreign teachers was nine years my senior, and the oldest had two decades on me. It was easy for me to compare myself favorably to each of them and cheerfully imagined what heights I’d have achieved when I reached their age.

Then, suddenly, I was given a job at SDA’s central office writing and editing the textbooks. I had been “kicked upstairs,” as my Chuncheon co-workers put it, and I was going places at a relatively young age.

Actually, I was going to place where I’d feel as though I was aging rapidly. The other foreigners in the office are younger than me. Some of those who work in the administration office playfully refer to me with the words heung (if they are male) and opa (if they aren’t), both of which are words Koreans use to refer to their “older brother.”

Then, in an event that I had never anticipated, I reached the age of 28 in the ninth month of this year. This is the age at which many professional athletes begin their career downturn. This is a year older than Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones and several other notable drug users were when they died.

Though they achieved a kind of recognition I have not and saw things I probably never will, they probably never got to experience the realizations I am now partaking of. These insights include: “Wow, those things I wanted to do before I turned 30 have to be done, like, next year!”; “Hey, if I eat a whole pizza every week, my pants may not fit like they used to!”; and “If I’m not careful during exercise, I won’t be able to walk properly tomorrow!”

Many of you may, right now, may want to tell me to count my blessings, wishing that you could trade ages with me. Well, even those of you who are now much more advanced in age than I have got to admit that 28 is one of the least interesting times in a person’s life.

“When I was 16, I saw my first concert,” many of you are probably recalling. “When I was 32, my first child was born.”

“When I was 28,” you’re probably thinking, “I once confused my dental insurance card with my car insurance card, because one was sky blue and the other was azure.”

The only real conflicts of this age are internal: on my right shoulder I can sense a little man with neatly-combed hair and a business suit telling me save more of my money, go to sleep earlier at night and actually start reading the labels on my food before I buy it. On the other shoulder is a little young adult with Bermuda shorts and hair he hasn’t fixed yet because he got of his little bed about four minutes earlier.

“Dude!” he says. “I know it sounds reasonable when they tell you to eat something besides cereal for supper, but don’t listen! Next thing you know, they’ll be telling you to drive a station wagon and make snap judgments about the kind of music your children listen to!”

Perhaps he has a point. Korean society may cause young people to grow up later than we do in the West, but maybe that means they start worrying about being too old at a later age than we do.

Also, since I’ve come to Korea, I have seen almost no one driving a station wagon.

Maybe that’s not a coincidence.

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