Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hyperbole and the Korean way

While I was excitedly rifling through the Christmas care package that arrived from home this afternoon and my co-teachers were merrily munching on praline pecans that Mom made, rockets were landing on a small island in the disputed maritime border region of North and South Korea.

I’ve not been the news hound here that I was at home, so my first heads-up came when a group of students stampeded into my office, trying to explain what had happened in their broken English. “Teacher! North Korea, South Korea! Canons! BOOM! War! Let’s go to America!” Ok, what’s this about? The usual middle school student exaggerations, or should I be getting on a plane because Seoul is on fire?

Of course, there was a lag in English-language coverage. I refreshed Google news frantically, waiting for someone to give me more than the sketchy outline of breaking news articles. Perhaps some context, please? I know the officials are keeping their cards close to the chest for now, but where are the Asia political experts to put this in perspective for me when I need them? Not being in DC, and it being the middle of the night back home, I can’t just pick up the phone and call my friendly neighborhood analyst. At the moment the AP and BBC are gradually catching up, and some context is being provided, if not much more detail.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few months about Korean culture, it’s that Koreans love to exaggerate. If there will be an extra hour of traffic around Chuseok holiday, Koreans say it will be four hours extra. If you ask directions to a place that’s more than a few blocks from where you’re standing, you are told that your destination is “very far” and you should take a bus. Even if it’s only five blocks away. I have no doubt that this penchant for hyperbole extends to their reactions to international happenings, particularly when they’re so close to home. And since the rest of the world is currently getting all of its info from Korean news sources, the situation’s bound to sound a bit scarier than it really is. It’s the waiting game for more reliable, researched coverage that’s making me a bit skittish.

My family will be waking up soon. I’ll be calling them after Korean class in my own kind of preemptive strike. Yes, I’ve updated all of my info with the State Department and the embassy in Seoul. Yes, you are my emergency contacts. It’s going to be ok.

Let’s not all make mountains out of our molehills. At least not until we know how big the mole is.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Zen and the Art of Early Awakening

About 23% of South Koreans are Buddhists, which is slightly less than the number of Christians. Outside Confucianism, Buddhism has had the strongest influence on Korea’s historical culture, and many of the Koreans I’ve met here have urged me to do a temple stay as an important part of getting the full cultural experience of Korea. I chose Seonunsa for my first experience. Mainly because it has a website in English.

Seonunsa is a 6th century temple located in Gochang County, about an hour and a half bus ride from Gwangju. It focuses on Korean Seon (Zen) practice. While most of the temple structures were burned during a 16th century Japanese invasion, some of the original beams are still incorporated into the main temple, or Golden Hall. I felt a sense of awe standing in the courtyard, contemplating the temple history, much like what I experienced standing among the 2,500-year-old ruins in Greece. The historical sites that we visit in the U.S. are over 2,000 years younger than some of the buildings still preserved in the rest of the world – a fact that really puts our own brief history into perspective.

Due to a reservation mix-up/schedule change at the temple (dyamic Korea!), there was no formal Temple Stay program this past weekend. Instead, a huge celebration was being held for the re-dedication of one of the temple buildings. Someone important was coming to pray some important prayer that would make the temple building super-important. At least, that’s as good an understanding as I got of the situation. Meaning that, aside from meals and prayer services, we were free to do whatever we liked within the temple grounds.

We arrived a bit late (another mix-up, this time with buses), changed into our “training uniforms” (orange jumpsuits similar to those of prison inmates in the US) and received a hurried tour of the temple grounds. Meals are all vegetarian (I’m sure this has something to do with a belief in reincarnation), and not a grain of food is wasted. After dinner came what was, in my music-loving opinion, the highlight of our stay. A set of enormous instruments, suspended inside a brightly painted shelter, awaits the prelude of the morning and evening prayer services. They are meant to call out to all of the souls of the universe, in whatever form they currently dwell, to follow the way of Buddha. First, the dharma drum is played to save all living beings on land, including human beings. The pounding takes such force that several monks swap out during the call to relieve each other. Next, the hollow inside of the wooden fish is played by a monk with two sticks, meant to save all living creatures in the sea. The clacking sound of the fish and the metallic sound of the next instrument, a cloud-shaped gong, are more akin to sounds that a percussionist might elicit from items on a construction site than in a temple complex, but fortunately these two instruments are played for the least amount of time. Finally, the brahma bell – most impressive of all of these instruments – is struck with what looks like a large log strung up with rope on both ends. Anna and I were invited to help ring the bell, which calls out to souls in hell. Standing so close, the sound vibrated in the very core of my being, and the reverberations seemed to block out all other sounds on Earth. I can easily see why it is said that the sound of the brahma bell can release hell-bound souls from their suffering. It was an effort to pull myself away before the 33 chimes were finished, but we had to move to evening prayers in the Golden Hall.

Prayers consist of the chiming of yet another bell (though much smaller and less impressive), chanting a prescribed set of Buddha’s teachings, and bowing and prostrations. Fortunately, everyone gets a large red cushion to kneel on, or my knees wouldn’t have made it on the ancient wooden floor. Offerings of beautifully arranged fruits and flowers adorn the temple, and incense thickens the air. We followed the lead of the monks and other worshipers in the temple, not comprehending much intellectually, but understanding enough of the spirit of the ceremony: I am equal with all beings of the universe. What I cultivate in my mind and heart, I will become. I want to follow the way of compassion and veneration for all life, and to help all beings on Earth.

Lights out was at 9pm, in anticipation of the pre-dawn wakeup call to morning prayers. We slept on layers of blankets on an ondol in a guesthouse, so my unaccustomed body was more ready than usual to get up when some sort of wooden drum began to beat at about 4:15am. (I know I’ve said that my bed is as hard as sleeping on the floor. Turns out this isn’t quite true.) Morning prayers followed the same format as the evening service, then we returned to our warm floor for “self practice” (a.k.a. another hour of sleep before breakfast).

When the sun finally joined us for the day, visitors began pouring onto the temple grounds for the re-dedication ceremony. As if the orange pajamas didn’t make us stand out enough (everyone else is dwelling in the temple complex dresses in gray), we were the only waygooks at the temple. This made us the immediate subject of interest of no less than four Koreans laden with fancy photographic equipment, eager to get the perfect temple shot. Apparently having a couple of mildly confused foreigners in your frame fits the bill. We even got some roasted chestnuts out of the deal, along with the standard “Beautiful!” compliments. Not understanding much of the ceremony, we went for a walk in the surrounding forest amid the striking fall colors of the maples and ginkgos (where our orange blended in quite nicely). Upon returning to the temple, we took some green tea (grown at the temple, no less!) with a monk. Sadly, it was a rather silent few cups of tea, as the monk spoke no English and our fledgling Korean doesn’t include enlightenment vocabulary. Much to our surprise, while we were sitting there, we saw another monk walk by wearing toe socks, while yet another whipped out a cell phone. What does a monk send text messages about? Feeling enlightened 2day. MayB its just the spicy tofu frm brkfast? Apparently monks shun beds but not modern technology.

Having completed this, shall we say cursory, temple stay, I see far more of the Confucian influence in modern-day Korea than Buddhist influence. I suppose there aren’t any Confucian temples that I could visit, though, and the Buddhist temples throughout the country are living museums preserving an important and beautiful part of Korean history. I have a slightly better understanding of Buddhism in Korea than I had after seeing Keumsan, but there are still many, many more questions to be answered. I plan to return to Seonunsa for a proper temple stay program, hopefully sometime soon.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

ShinGwang School Festival: A Photo/Video Essay

Back home, we have field day and science fairs. We hop around in sacks and throw water balloons; show off large models of molecules and frothing volcanoes. Given the American stereotype of Asians, you'd think they'd be all into the science fair thing, displaying their Ph.D.-level projects on long, neat tables, waiting with their spectacles and clipboards, ready to explain their Latest Stroke of Genius (patent pending) to the know-nothing waygook English teacher. But you'd be wrong, my friends. Very, very wrong.

Yes, the ShinGwang Middle School festival did have an area displaying some of the students' projects. But these projects had absolutely nothing to do with science, and it was a very small display. My students are into art - particularly performance art - and they don't give a rat's ass about anything academic if they can possibly find a way to avoid it. They are pushed so hard for 6 days a week, up to 14 hours a day, that when given the choice, they run from their schoolwork like woodland creatures from a forest fire. So when the school festival rolls around, they are not budding Einsteins. They are singers; they are dancers; they are artists. They are divas.

The day before the festival, as I was tripping merrily home at 4:30, the students were still excitedly running around the school with their craft supplies, hanging out the windows and singing songs. They had been as horrid all week as the little girl with the curl, but their vibes of excitement and anticipation even put me in a good mood. Large groups of students had been running up to me all day, yelling "Advertisement!" (the previous week's grade 3 lesson topic) and making me pinky promise that I would come to their class's room to participate in whatever they were cooking up. Being the wonderful teacher that I am, I carried through with my promises.

This turned out to be both a good and a bad thing. While I was happy to partake of the pizza in the Halloween cafe (not sure how Halloween and pizza go together, but that's ok), I was quite glad that I didn't ask exactly what sundae is until after I ate it.

Students slicing up sundae for my valiant consumption
Free hugs were distributed in the hallways.
Not a very good businessman.....

....but a very nice student (most of the time).
I shot balloons with a toy bow & arrow in one classroom, got a shoulder massage in another, and went shopping in the little second-hand market on the grade 1 hall. There was even a beauty parlor, where I got my nails and the back of my hand painted. Yes, it was supposed to be face paint, but when the cat-shaped stain finally wore off my hand 3 days later, I was happy I opted out of the facial adornment. I also chose not to get my hair done, mainly because crimping and perms are still en vogue here. (Many things about Korean fashion just scream 1980s in the USA.)

Then came the performance part of the festival. Around lunch time, everyone headed to a brand new building downtown with a huge, tricked-out performance space. There was a flurry of costume changes and students transformed from neatly uniformed children into people I could have easily mistaken for Asian adults. (Mind you, it's damn near impossible to tell the age of a Korean between 15 and 65 by anything outside of their clothes.) The music teacher/concert director/stage manager rehearsed each group until each eye was crossed and each ㅜ was dotted.

Performances included dancing and singing; solos, duets, and group performances; comedy and instrumental performances.
This is a traditional Korean percussion ensemble whose loud banging rehearsals I had to was privileged to listen to every day after school for months.

Okarina ensemble playing "My Heart Will Go On" (Koreans love sappy songs). The Okarina is the Korean equivalent of the recorder, which we all learned to play in elementary school, much to the dismay of any musical ear around.

And here we see a full-on performance of what I see in the hallways every day. Shut up, boy!

This first-grader is approximately half my height. Makes his singing somehow better.

And yes, they made me sing, too. It hardly needs to be said that this was not my idea, and it somehow evolved from Caity Teacher teaching an American pop song to the kids (I was not happy), to Caity Teacher singing in a chorus of students directed by Music Teacher (I was slightly less unhappy), to Caity Teacher singing in a trio with two other teachers (I was not at all happy). Of course the trio part was sprung upon me the previous morning, so at least I had little time to dread it. It seemed the other two teachers were more worried than I was, but then again, they aren't native English speakers and we sang in English (the only part of the original plan that was preserved).
"You Raise Me Up". Not quite gospel when sung with a collective Korean accent.
Naturally we did not stick to the published performance order, and my little ShinGwang Chorus of Englishee Singers somehow ended up performing immediately after a dance number by some leather-studded high school boys that basically brought down the house. The first grade girls in my chorus screamed like, well, middle school girls as the high school boys came past us through the wings, reaching out to touch them like they were rock stars and screaming even louder when the boys obliged. The audience was still in the throes of OMGHOTBOYS and screamed through most of our first song, including our little trio. There's no way they heard a note we sang, which is probably why most of the students told me the next day that I "sing pretty."

They did calm down towards the end of the first song and showed great support for their fellow students in the second song, clapping along and cheering loudly at the end. That was probably the most touching part -- even the mediocre performances received rousing applause and great, encouraging cheers from the other students. It's illustrative of one of the main differences I notice between the students here and what I remember from middle school. My students beat the living crap out of each other every day and play many of the same tricks and jokes on each other as we did in middle school, but it's never malicious or done to hurt other students' feelings. The kids here are genuinely kind to each other (as middle schoolers go). This goes hand-in-hand, I think, with the fact that people are far more trusting here (and presumably more trustworthy?), even in the cities. What is it that Koreans are doing that results in what seems to be a kinder, safer society? And do the ends justify whatever those means may be?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The few reasons I'm not really homesick yet

This has been one superbly shitty week. And it’s only Wednesday. Record-setting unruliness in my classes, an indescribably frustrating inability to effectively communicate with my co-teacher, a 2-day fight with Nonghyup’s online banking system, insomnia, and the midterm election results (I am sorely disappointed in you, US voters) have collectively resulted in one very surly Caitlin. On the bright side, it’s hard to feel homesick when I’m just as annoyed with my home country as I am with this one. Perhaps I should have been knocking on doors back home instead of having my selfish little international adventure. But we’ll never know for sure, now will we?

Let me expound upon the harrowing experience that is dealing with online banking in Korea, as it is the only thing I can bitch about and still have my bitching be somewhat informative for you, dear readers. After the aforementioned inability to get my co-teacher to understand the nature of an automatic remittance account, I finally gave up and just asked if I could transfer money overseas through online banking. This way I won’t have to trek down to the bank during the rather restrictive Korean banking hours, armed to the hilt with passport and papers, every time I need to make a transfer. I filled out the forms, signed in the tiny spaces meant for signatures a third the size of most Western ones, received a few mysterious carbon copies and password cards, and 2 hours later, I was on my way to online banking convenience, just like I had back home, right?? Not so much. I knew that many Korean websites require the use of Internet Explorer – on a Windows machine only – in order to work properly. What I did not know is that the most recent version of IE has something troublesome about it that required me to downgrade my browser to use the online banking site. It took a while for me to figure this out, since the error message that kept appearing was in – you guessed it – Korean. When I finally got that sorted out, I had to jump through 50 bajillion hoops in order to log in for the first time. Now, about half of those hoops will be eliminated in the subsequent times that I log in, but that’s still 25 bajillion hoops every time I want to access my account online (and then again to pay a bill, or make a transfer, or check my balance….). These hoops are supposedly for security purposes, but Korea still insists on relying on ActiveX controls (the reason for the Windows IE requirement), which have widely known security flaws. Go figure. Some day I hope that Korea will cease its hostile campaign against any and all non-Windows users, but I doubt that day will come while I’m still here. In the mean time, I thank God for Parallels. Oh, and I’m sure you’re wondering if I ever actually got my money to my US account. It seemed that I finally figured everything out correctly on this end, but the answer remains to be seen during EST banking hours, which have not yet started for today.

So, in summary,
Points for Korean banks: awesome optical bill-scanner thingies on the ATMs, which make paying bills super fast and easy even though I can’t read them; on-demand printed bank statements rather than monthly ones in the mail; ease of making domestic deposits/payments/transfers via bank account numbers instead of checks or credit cards.
Points for American banks: reasonable hours; tellers who share my native tongue; online banking that doesn’t make me want to pull my hair out.

Fortunately, the happenings of last week were considerably cheerier. The fireworks festival in Busan was a blast (pun intended). I saw some fireworks like none I’ve ever seen before – cubes and flowers and strings of slowly floating lantern-like lights – and I also experienced crowds like I’ve never seen before. Even the 2008 inauguration was no comparison for the oppressive masses of the fireworks festival. The shoving was literally constant, and while I had no idea that so many tall Koreans even existed, they were all there at the festival, standing in front of me. Happily, fireworks are mostly in the sky, so I only had to stand on tiptoe and do some of my own shoving when the Gwangan bridge started raining sparkly fire. (Yes, raining fire. I’m trying to get a video to post in the photo collection.)

Friday was my official birthday celebration, since it’s never a good idea to drink on Mondays (at least not too much). I spent the afternoon looking after a student’s kitten that was rather unceremoniously dumped on me while the student was in class. I was quite happy to watch it, though my afternoon of lesson planning had to be scrapped and was replaced by gaggles of squealing ‘tweens (girls and boys), drawn by the siren song of cute that was climbing over my desk. I was unable to extract myself from the hordes, for fear that the kitten would be squashed or torn to bits by their eager hands. I then escaped to my apartment for a rousing yet all-too-short session of reliving college in the USA (a.k.a. beer pong), followed by a party at a bar in the nearby nightlife district. I was spoiled by all of my friends, sung to, fed cheesecake, and given the always en-vogue gifts of Engrish. Oh, and there was the Death in a Glass. I’m not sure if it’s common to feed the birthday girl a blue-flaming tumbler full of something akin to anise-flavored gasoline, but that’s what the bartender gave me, and demanded “One shot!” Ha! Who was he kidding? I had to share that thing with 5 other people before it was gone. Rough stuff, I tell you.

Apparently my birthday was such the occasion for everyone that some people even considered staying in on Saturday despite numerous Halloween parties being thrown by waygooks all over the city. Fortunately, they rallied and made it out. The party I attended featured a Mad Hatter with a very impressive homemade hat, a bust, a flasher, and FAN DEATH. I went as a Shot in the Dark – dressed all in black with a shot glass around my neck. Yes, it’s lame, but I must be allowed my occasional linguistic indulgences. Koreans don’t understand Halloween any better than they understand “a shot in the dark,” so what’s the difference?

School festival tomorrow. I currently have students running around me with tape, box cutters and giant roles of colored paper preparing for the circus that I’m sure it will be. They're all quite eager to have me visit their particular stations -- eager enough to come talk to me about it in English! I’ve also been roped into the performance part of the afternoon, and though we’ve been rehearsing our two songs for a month now, I was just informed this morning that I will be singing one of the verses as a duet with one of my co-teachers. That’s sure to clear the house in a hurry.