Saturday, April 21, 2012

Looking Back

After spending a year in Korea, and spending a week back home in America, I can't help but look back, and this passage from the post, Preparing for Korea, definitely stands out:

What will my place look like?  What kind of students will I teach?  How will my coworkers and superiors act towards me? How will I make friends?  What kind of food will be available?  Where will I attend church?  How difficult will the language barrier be?  Each of these mentioned uncertainties, among others, are enough to invoke fear in those who are afraid of the unknown, but I seem to always embrace it with excitement.  What if I taste the best thing that I have ever eaten?  What if I make several life long friends?  What if I fall in love?  What if I come to a greater understanding of who I am as an American of Korean Descent? 

I will start with the question, "What will my place look like?"  My apartment is a shoebox.  It is smaller than those of most of my friends, but I have made the most of it, and have made it comfortable.  I live in a beautiful area of Gwangju, called Pungam Dong, and a lake is around 200 yards from my house, as is a large mountain.  The Gwangju landscape is marked with countless high rise apartments.  The buildings themselves are not that beautiful, but the combination of them, and a sea of mountains make for a breathtakingly gorgeous landscape.

At night, on the lake that is near my apartment, the wind always seems to cease, and the water becomes as smooth as glass.  When the windows on the apartments light up, the countless neon signs that mark the businesses nearby are lit, and when the headlights are activated on the cars that drive on the busy road that runs along the shore of the lake, they all reflect on the smooth water.  The reflection of the impressive mountains compliment that of the lights and the buildings, and it is an incredible thing to see.  I don't have any pictures, because I am not a great photographer, and none of the pictures that I could ever take would ever do it justice.  I love taking walks at nights along the lake.  It's one of my favorite things about Gwangju.  It was along the banks of that lake that I fell in love with Tae Hee.

Regarding the question, "What if I fall in love?"  It happened.  Tae Hee was the prettiest girl that I had ever been with, and I still say that every moment that I spent with her was among the best moments of my life, and I know that at the time, she felt the same way.  Regarding her, someone wiser than me told me, "It was definitely love, but it wasn't perfect love, which is why it didn't last."  Too many factors came between us, and "the stars didn't align."  I was left broken hearted, because it was nothing more than a fling.  I learned numerous lessons from being with her that will serve me well for the rest of my life, and I could write another post about that, but I would like to keep those to myself.  I had two flings, both being with Korean women, while in Korea.  They were both incredible, and I regret neither of them.

Regarding the question, "What kind of children will I teach?"  My students have been incredible, and I find that I miss them after being away from work for only a week.  While researching Korea when I first started looking for jobs, I read about how spoiled and pampered some Korean children can be.  In my case, I have never experienced that.  They are significantly less spoiled than American children, as they take pleasure in simpler things.  On their birthdays, many of them merely receive new school supplies, and they always seem ecstatic to receive them.  Many of them don't receive Christmas gifts.  The reason they aren't as spoiled is not because they expect less in terms of material things, and it's also not because their parents draw less of an income.  The students at my school come from fairly affluent families.  They are less spoiled because they have a stronger work ethic, and more is expected of them.

On the other hand, I feel bad for them, because many of them have less of an opportunity to be children, and simply play.  Even the elementary students do hours of homework, and have to go to school on Saturdays.  While American parents are paying for their children to go to baseball practice, and dance class, Korean parents pay for their children to go to English academy, and Math academy, which most of the time, have a more intense curriculum than their regular schools.

Nevertheless, my students are extremely clever, as even my lower level students are able to speak and coherently express intelligent thoughts in English.  My upper level students are, for the most part, fluent.  Korean children are enthusiastic, fun, and are generally respectful to authority.  As a whole, they are extremely funny, as they always seem to provide me with something to laugh at everyday, and they are always able to have a way to make my day better.  If fatherhood is similar to teaching these wonderful children, it's definitely something that I am looking forward to.

Regarding, "How will I make friends?"  My friends, both Korean and foreign, are another thing that has made my experience so incredible.  I was blessed to have such wonderful coworkers.  When I first started at my school, I was the only American on staff.  Kirk was Australian, Tal was Canadian, and Maggie was from England.  Tal left suddenly, then Mae was her temporary replacement, and Kelsey replaced Mae.  It didn't seem like a long time before it was time for Maggie and Kirk to return to their respective countries in the beginning of March.  The goodbyes were definitely tearful, but I am blessed that wonderful people were hired to replace them.  Currently, the foreign staff at my school is all American, and consists of Kelsey, Phil, Kezzia, and I.

In Korea being that people work in one-year increments, unfortunately, good people come and go.  I've seen it happen at my workplace, and at my church.  That can be difficult.  I was blessed to see two wonderful friends, Sara (pronounced Sahra) and Carolyn, off at the bus station, as I was the last person to say goodbye to them at Gwangju.  Both were emotional experiences.  We've had numerous tearful goodbyes at my church, and that doesn't surprise me, because both Koreans and foreigners here have been incredibly welcoming and inclusive.

As my coworker, Kelsey, explained, I now know what it's like to be a minority, and as such, it is essential to have a community of people that you can turn to for support.  And if the people that are a part of our community were all a part of a majority, we may not have enough in common to be friends, but as a minority, sometimes nationality is enough to bring people together.  I've certainly made some wonderful friendships that will definitely last a lifetime.  I now know how my mother feels as a Korean living in America, as she is definitely a part of a network of Korean friends here in New Orleans.

Regarding, "What if I come to a greater understanding of who I am as a Korean American?"  That's difficult to explain.  On the contrary, I have become a more self-aware American, and I am proud to be one, but throughout my time in Korea, I felt strangely at home.  I've said numerous times that I've never experienced the culture shock that my other western friends have experienced, because I've experienced Korean culture throughout my life in my home.  I have come to a greater understanding of my mother, and her emphasis on education, which was a source of resentment growing up.  I now understand why she was so adamant about me working so hard, because that seems to be an emphasis of all Korean parents.  I am now grateful for how hard she pushed me.

Have I come to a greater understanding of who I am as a Korean American?  I would say definitely, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how.  Whenever I tell Korean ladies that I meet, "Omhaga Hanguk saram (My mother is Korean)," their opinion of me always seems to favorably increase.  In my first year in Korea, I've definitely developed a stronger pride in being of Korean descent.  I've definitely developed more of an understanding about what makes Koreans who they are, and unfortunately western culture has had such a large influence on their society.  Some of my students tell me that they don't like kimchi, and that their favorite foods are hamburgers, and pizza.  Many Korean women get plastic surgery to enlarge their eyes and noses in order to look more western.  It annoys me when Mcdonald's and Pizza Hut take over all that is local, and that which provides variety.

Obviously, I am not completely satisfied with my understanding, because if I were, I would not be returning for another year.  With that being said, my time in Korea has been amazing, and it has thus far been among the best years of my life.  I tell people all the time that, in Korea,  time has gone by so fast, and I've had so much fun, so why not stay for another year?

I look forward to seeing more of Korea, and understanding the culture more.  I look forward to becoming a better teacher and leader.  I look forward to trying new foods.  I look forward to touring other parts of Asia.  I look forward to making more Korean friends, and becoming closer to the ones that I have already befriended.  I look forward to meeting new western friends that I otherwise would have never met had I not come here.  I look forward to more meaningful relationships.  I look forward to coming to yet an even greater understanding of who I am as a Korean American.  I am excited about what this next year holds.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Upon Landing in America

Being that I have been in Korea for the past year, overhearing a conversation in English has been an extreme rarity, so I have been rather "in tune" to my surroundings since landing in the US today.   I've heard numerous other people who have lived abroad speak of this particular phenomenon.  One thing that I've learned is that Americans can have such shallow conversations sometimes (lol).  Koreans probably have similar ones, so I am glad that I am ignorant to that possibility.  Here is a conversation that I overheard while sitting in the airport in San Francisco:

Male:  "Oh my God!!  Look at all those DVD's!!  Did you buy all those?!?!"

Female:  "Yeah. I just LOVE three ninety-nine DVD's at Target!!"

Male:  "Isn't it the greatest??!!  I bought Bring it On's 1 and 2 last week!"

Female:  "Aren't those such good movies??!!"

This one was a phone conversation:

"I just, like, totally love my new spin class.  You should totally come...  It's SO fun!!  ...  Aren't our husbands watching UFC next weekend??  ...  Isn't there one, like, next weekend??  ...   If there is, we should SO skip out, and do spin class together."

I laughed out loud when I heard this one:

"Whoa!  You're sitting in first class??  You have SO much class!!"

"Stop.  What row are you sitting in?  I'll walk back, and bring you guys some cookies."

"I don't want to tell you.  I feel like such a loser."

I'll be in the States for the next three weeks.  I am currently between contracts.  I signed for another year with the same school in Gwangju, so I will be back in Korea on May 1.

I have always strived to be truthful in my opinions and observations, both positive and negative, correct and incorrect.  I may be ignorant regarding some issues, but I certainly am not stupid, and I never want to be foolish, so when I am incorrect, I welcome correction.  I welcome your thoughts, and input, but when leaving a strong dissenting opinion under the comments section, don't expect to do so without expecting me to defend mine.

I was previously in sales before teaching English in Korea, and rule #1 in sales is to love the product that you are selling.  Rule #2 is to defend the product when somebody speaks negatively about it.  If a client speaks negatively about a product without a response from the salesman, the salesman is validating that the potential buyer is correct in his/her negative opinion.  These two principles can be applied to numerous other things, even writing.  Much like a salesman with a product or service, as a writer, I've learned to love and embrace my true feelings and insights regarding my observations and opinions, regardless of whether or not they are politically correct, or even if they offend some people.  I've heard it said before that you can't please everybody, and if you do, you are doing something wrong.  I have learned that, like those of most other people, most of my opinions and observations are reasonable, not baseless, and they matter.  I have learned to write about things that I love, and am passionate about.  The truth, my passions, and my honest opinions and observations are always more interesting to write about, and are certainly easier to defend.      

Upon landing in America, I immediately noticed two things.  The first thing that I noticed is that a large number of Americans are extremely overweight.  Although there certainly are obese Koreans, it is significantly less common there.

It doesn't take a nutritionist to figure out the reasons behind the weight problem in America, and the lack thereof in Korea.  In Korea, when eating out, the side dishes are usually a variation of kimchi (heavily seasoned cabbage), bean sprouts, spinach, seaweed, and radish.  In America, the side dish is almost always a form of potato, and they are usually fried.  When they are not fried, they are usually saturated with butter.  On the rare occasion that steamed vegetables are served, they are almost always doused with butter as well.  When having a salad, the primary ingredient in most dressings is usually some sort of oil.

I realize that I am being rather critical of an aspect of American food and society, as Korean food is not without fault.  It is extremely heavy in sodium, but the truth is evident.  A large number of Americans struggle with weight issues, and most Koreans don't.  And that truth has become apparent during my particular experience.  During my first year in Korea, my diet consisted primarily of Korean food, and I ate out almost every day.  I lost a total of 26 lbs (11.79 kg).  I don't want to even think of what I would look like if I ate out almost every day in America.

I am not saying that it is horrible to indulge in a hamburger with fries, and/or a pizza, and I am certainly not an advocate of government regulation of the fast food industry.  I love fattening food just as much, or more, than most people, but like everything, it is something that must be enjoyed in moderation.

The second thing that I quickly noticed upon landing is that a large number of American children can be rather disrespectful when addressing their parents.  I realize that I am now able to overhear a lot more conversations, especially words, but the truth is more evident in the tone than in the words.  Upon landing, I heard, "Mo-om!!  I already told you!!  I don't want that!!  I want this!!"

I also heard, "Mo-om!!  Where are my Nintendo DS games?!!  I want to play my Nintendo DS!!"  On a few separate occasions, in the San Francisco airport, I heard American children talking to their parents as if they were stupid, and below them.  I realize that I don't understand most of the language, but tone is unmistakeable, and I never hear that agitated borderline angry tone, that is unfortunately too common in older American children, from Korean children when addressing their parents.  Although Korean children can sometimes be rather disrespectful towards us foreign teachers, as they are not ignorant to the cultural differences, I have never seen them speak that way to a parental figure, or even to a sibling, in public.

Despite that, I am extremely happy and excited to be home.  I am excited about spending time with my family, relaxing, mowing my grass, eating delicious food, and seeing friends.  It will be fun.