Tuesday, August 28, 2012

안녕 - In Peace

Well, the frequency of my posts clearly faded alongside my enthusiasm for living in Korea and the sense of unfamiliarity and curiosity that used to come with everyday life here. Still, as I ride a train through the tail end of Typhoon Bolaven up to Seoul where I'll stay with friends before flying home tomorrow, I feel like I should take advantage of the free wireless to write one last post.

So, after two years, what is the lasting impact that Korea has made on me? I suspect I won't really know until many more years down the road, but I can speculate. It's left me with a slow and grudgingly formed fondness for Korean food, a daring sense of culinary bravery, and about 10 more pounds than I arrived with. It's made me much more comfortable with being naked around large numbers of strangers. It's given me an amount of confidence (or perhaps just removed any cares I once had for what others think of me) that only living in a place where you will always, always stand out and be thought strange, no matter what you do, can give you. Living in Korea gave me the motivation to become fully literate in another writing system, and to learn how to speak (a shamefully small amount of) the corresponding language. The low price of Korean medical care has given me perfect vision the moment I open my eyes in the morning. And living here has given me a healthy understanding of just how little I truly understand Asian culture, and Korean culture in particular. As Socrates pointed out, the more we learn, the more we understand that we know absolutely nothing.

My eyes have been opened to the vastness of the world, to the fact that, even if I spent every single day of my life traveling, I would never get to experience (or, in all likelihood, even know of the existence of) all of the countless cultures of the countless people who populate the earth. And yet, on nearly the exact the opposite side of the world from the place I call home, I experienced so many of what I like to call "small world moments" and found so many unexpected connections spanning the globe that I never felt very far away from home.

I feel humbled and comforted by the sameness of people all over the world, yet it was the small differences that began to wear on me day to day. It's one thing to travel within a different culture and another entirely to live within one. I may have said this before, but as an expat, no matter how much you try to go with the flow and accept the differences of your host culture, some things will just never be ok. You'll find things that, given your upbringing and cultural background, will always be unacceptable to you. I found quite a few of those things in Korean culture, as I'm sure I would have found in any culture so different from my own. Is it possible that living in abroad has actually made me less tolerant and, perhaps, more prejudiced? I'm hoping it's just a symptom of the fact that it's time to go home, and perhaps it's been time for a while now.

So now what? Well, thanks to the best thing that I found (or that found me) while living in Korea, I'm off to Ireland! Not for as long as I'd hoped, but long enough to at least start getting to know Paul's family, friends, and culture better than I could through stories and Skype chats. Then, fingers crossed, I'll be settling back in DC with an excellent job to await the start of Paul's grad school courses (more crossed fingers).

The other blessing I am leaving Korea with is the set of friends I would never have met if I had not come here. They have been my second family, and I know that, no matter where I travel, I am likely to run into a familiar face. The Korean greetings that are roughly translated as "hello" and "goodbye" have deeper meaning. They are, more literally, "Are you peaceful?" and "Go/stay in peace." So that's what I wish for the friends I've met in Korea - that you have peace in your hearts, and that you stay safe until we meet again. Notice I didn't say, "I hope we meet again" – I had best be seeing every last one of you again!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Common Octopus

I've been here for a long time. Just three months shy of two full years. So long that nothing seems weird any more. Or if it does, it's the normal, everyday kind of weird that I've come to expect, and I don't give it a second thought. There is one exception, though: The Common Octopus.

Now I have no idea whether what I'm seeing is actually the species of octopus called the common octopus - in fact, I suspect it's several different species that ooze around the tanks and giant buckets along the streets of Gwangju - but they are nothing if not commonly found in this country. Octopus is about as ubiquitous in the Korean diet as chicken is on Western dinner tables. It's certainly more appealing than some of the less identifiable seafood alternatives (멍게 or 개불, for example), but it still doesn't quite sit right with me.

Let me clarify. It's not the eating of octopus that doesn't sit right. I was initiated into the Club of Grilled Octopus Lovers when I was in Greece. It's the casual way they're housed and flung around. If they could all predict the outcome of important soccer matches like Paul the Octopus, I'd understand wanting to have one nearby at all times. As it is, they just kind of freak me out.

They're creepy. The way their bodies transform from slippery solid to oozy liquid when an ajusshi grabs them by the head and yanks them from the water. The way their suckers stick to the plate as if to save their lives, even after they've been chopped up and dressed with sesame oil in a handsome 산낙지. The way I just know their scheming, super-smart, squishy little brains are planning to take over the whole of Jeollanam-do if they could just get far enough down the street before the ajumma catches them and shoves them back in her bucket. And don't even get me started on that octopi vs. octopuses debate.

But living in Korea, neither live nor cooked (or prepared, I should say, for they are commonly eaten raw) octopus can be easily avoided. They reside in street-side tanks outside the seafood restaurants on every block. They show up regularly in my school lunches. An experienced Korean market-goer knows to keep an eye out to avoid stepping on one that's attempting a grand escape. There are even octopus trucks - like ice cream trucks back home, but a whole lot ickier.

So, for all the normalcy that has settled into my bizarrely run-of-the-mill life here, I can thank the common octopus for keeping it real(ly weird) for me. Please remember I said that, octopuses, when you're building your World Domination Headquarters.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Graduation at ShinGwang

I'm sorry. We all know what for. Now let's move on.

Today was graduation day at my main school. Since high school isn't mandatory in Korea, middle school graduation is a much bigger deal here than it is back home. The parents come with bouquets of flowers whose blooms are difficult to see under all the colored lace and fabric (because the flowers themselves aren't pretty enough already?), sappy music is played as the principal hands out diplomas, some of the students cry, and others are just thrilled to get the hell out of there.

Graduation didn't mean much to me last year. I'd only been teaching for six months, and was still struggling to adapt to the culture, let alone connect with my students. My attention was still frantically focused on not doing anything wrong or stupid-looking. I obediently stood in the line of teachers while graduating 3rd graders filed past after crossing the stage, and I did exactly what the teacher in front of me did: smile, shake hands and wonder how many more students could possibly be left to congratulate. Please God, don't let me catch whatever creeping crud is going around, since I'm being required to squeeze the clammy hand of every student who walks by. Add that to the fact that I'd just gotten back to frigid Korea from a gorgeous vacation in balmy Thailand and Malaysia, and I was just not a happy camper.

Today was much different. Having taught these kids for a year and a half, I was surprised to find that I've actually grown quite fond of them. That's really saying something for a person who's never liked children (i.e. anyone under 16, including adults who act like they're under 16). I was also somewhat dismayed to realize that most of my favorite students are leaving. It was touching, though, as many of them wanted a hug rather than a handshake, looking pleasantly surprised that I was actually there to see them off. A few came into the office for pictures before they left the school. I was certainly feeling much more emotional than I'd expected to, current time of the month notwithstanding.

One more semester left before I leave my students to the next native Englishee teacher. Rising 2nd and 3rd graders, you have big shoes to fill!