Still Flashing (Forward, that is...)

Jan 30, 2009

What it Means to be a Failed Koreanist, Part 3 (final chapter. for now...).

There on the kitchen window sill next to 집사람's Nike watch sits a piece of Korean traditional art. What makes it art? What distinguishes it from the cheap-o ones just like it that you can get anywhere in Land of the Morning Calm? I don't know. But I paid more money than I care to admit for this (and another one just like it) in Insa-dong many years ago. I gave one to a friend as a gift. The first thing he did was cut the string, open it, and look inside. I, on the other hand, have never opened mine. Ever. I think it looks cool like that. Sometimes I do wonder if there isn't some treasure inside (the Lottery numbers per chance?). But to quote JuJu Club lyrics completely out of context: "견뎌야 하겠지."

I've been to Jeju Island four times in three decades. Long ago I picked up this stone grandfather. He protects my house from his perch next to some old books I've read. He looks like he had a cigarette put out on his face, but that isn't what happened. I found him that way. He had a partner at one point, but I "lent" that one to a friend when she moved into a new apartment. I haven't seen that one in over 10 years. Perhaps I never will.

I used to think I was a mask collector. The wife doesn't think so. She thinks I am a guy with a few masks on the floor of a room that has a bunch of Korean books I never read. But I like books. And masks. The smaller four masks on the left side of the photo are hand made. One day in the future of this story, I'll eventually catch up to 1997 when I helped make these. A few culture-minded Korean fellows and myself would pile dried rice stalks in a big cauldron of water and burn the fire under it. After days of repeated boilings, the concoction would turn into a kind of sludge. We would pack the rice stalk sludge into molds to give them the mask shapes seen below. Dry. Paint. Sell. Repeat. Makes me nostalgic for Soju and persimmons (more on all that later. Much later).

I keep the drawer on my nighstand tied shut with a rope. I don't want the offspring or the woman to go poking around in the 짬뽕 of trinkets I keep ratholed in there. Here's a few highlights pictured:
-Tourist Map of BukHanSan on a bandana.
-Wooden Buddha wrist beads.
-Incheon Airport Ball Pen on a lanyard.
-School pin from somewhere called "금옥."
-Matchbox from Denny's in Seoul.
-An envelope of medicine from the corner 약국. I presented with diarrhea and vomiting. The first question they asked was, "Did you eat spicy food"? I said, "What do you think"?
-A box of "Fantasy" condoms I bought from a vending machine in a "여관" in Jinju city when I was there for my second 개천예술제.
-Hand carved mini mask on a hand dyed and hand sewn bolo--gifted to me by aforementioned culture-minded Korean fellow.
That is one deep drawer (figuratively speaking...)

That's all I have to say about that for now. This Failed Koreanist series had a good run, but now back to 1987 where this whole thing started.

Still in the Present Day

Jan 28, 2009

What it means to be a Failed Koreanist, Part 2

In addition to the stacks of read and unread books on Korea, I've got random mementos and souvenirs hanging out in all corners of my house. I've got a room upstairs where I occasionally "work from home." Nobody is allowed in there but me. In the closet next to baby sister's Halloween Mouse costume hangs the beloved 태극기 :

Peacefully dangling from the doorknob in my son's room is this bolo. Sometimes number 1 puts it on and parades around with it. Daddy so happy:

My grandmother was confined to a wheelchair most of her adult life. When my grandfather finally got too weak to take care of her, they moved in with my aunt. My father and I went down to sunny Arizona and packed up their condo and drove it to Oregon. My payment for that effort included this small china hutch. I filled it with little bowls and mini kimchi pots I bought in 인사동 at one point. (I can never remember what they call the pots they put the kimchi in, and that really bugs me. Especially because of all the other useless trash in my brain that I can't forget):

Like a middle school girl, my backpack is festooned with all manner of hangy-thingys. For Korea travel info dial 1330. And use the soft backside to wipe the screen on your mobile. A colleague gifted me the money bag mobile 꼬리. The Soju bottle broke off leaving only the opener. The poker chip is not legal tender in any country, but it bears the label of 중문 resort on Jeju island. I bought in Seoul:

I took this picture at 경복궁 and printed it out. For a while it hung in my cubicle at work but I got tired of answering questions about it. One time when I was leaving Korea, I gave a phone card that had several thousand left on it to a worker girl at the Ginseng counter at the airport. In return, she gave me the cup with the 한복-clad girls on the swing:

Who else would really hang on to all this crap?

Flash Forward to Present Day...

Jan 26, 2009.

What it Means to be a Failed Koreanist.

Without giving too much of the past 20 years away too soon, I can say that at one point I had every intention of pursuing a career as a Korean Scholar of some sort. I earned a 3.9/4.0 GPA, and was well-respected in the department when I finished my Korean degree. I toyed with proceeding straight to grad school to study more Korean. I also interviewed for a couple of jobs where I could use my Korean and break from the cash-poor student lifestyle. I just couldn't pull the trigger on either one.

I then made a terrible decision and turned down a month-long, all-expense-paid study trip to Korea that I had applied for and been selected to. I snowballed that blunder by agreeing to work for US $150/day in the Art Department on a TV commercial for a local grocery store. That commercial was followed by another, it was followed by a TV mini-series, next came a movie of the week, then a 13-episode series...

The next three years and two summers of working in the film industry are a subject for another time. The net effect result was, however, that I lost any and all momentum and contacts necessary to pursue Korean studies or a career thereto related.

Many years later I found out that I fell into a category called "failed Koreanists." All it means is that I was educated and trained in Korean or Korean Studies and I ended up not putting it to any practical use. Not even remotely. However, on top of the obvious, and other oft-discussed aspects of us such failures, here are a couple more to think about.

Being a failed Koreanist means that at any given time, mixed in with the other trinkets, trash, and light reading on my bed table, you'll find several Korea-related books I have either started and paused, or intend to read:
(I'm presently nine pages into that fat novel by Min Jin Lee.)
It also means that in a room in my house where nobody but me is allowed, I've got this:
And this:

Oh, and this:

I've read the vast majority. And yep, there's more on other shelves and in boxes...

Strictly Verboten

May 13, 1987 KHI Institute. Pusan, South Korea

It really bugged me that a student had decided it was OK to erase what I had written on the board. I felt it was my personal conversation with myself. It wasn't for their use. It wasn't part of a lesson. And it was written small enough so that one needed to be right up close to even read what it said. So I doubted they found the subject matter offensive. It just continued to fester overnight to the point that I decided to confront the class the next day.

Instead of jumping right into the scheduled lesson about Mr. Bascomb and his lorry, I asked the class at large why someone would erase what I had written on the blackboard. Silence. I encouraged them to speak out and practice their English. Silence.

At long last one female college student opened up. She was a little cutie who had chosen the Western name of "Maggie" for herself. Go figure on that choice. At any rate, instead of answering my question, she asked me if I knew the band "Pet Shop Boys." Secretly, it was a bit lucky she didn't ask me about Modern Talking or Murray Head (two of the most oft played bands in Korea at the time). I might not have been able to answer politely.

I told her I knew the Pet Shop Boys. She wanted to know if I knew their song called "West End Girls."

"Of course," I said.

"That song is banned in Korea," she said.

At first I wasn't sure if I understood her correctly. Her English was not strong, and I couldn't process the fact that a government would ban a song. Nothing better to do? I tried to run through the lyrics in my head and figure what could be so objectionable. Maybe it was the idea of East end boys and West end girls together in the same sentence. Who knows? I still don't know. All I know is the song was banned.

At least somebody learned something in class that day.

And Then There Was One...

May 12, 1987 Pusan, South Korea

I came to work today to find out that the other whitey teaching here (Pat) couldn't hang. He bailed. Just never showed up for work today. Who knows where he is. Probably on a plane back to the States. Shin is freaking out, running around barking at people. All worked up.

It looks like I will have to pick up a couple of Pat's classes. But that means more cash in my pocket so it's cool. It also means the door is open for my buddy back home to come join me. Shin already has his transcript so hopefully it won't take too long before I am not alone here.

Being alone isn't so bad. Mostly I find that I use myself as the person to have my most meaningful English language conversations with.

Between classes today I wrote some Vitamin Z lyrics on the chalkboard in very tiny letters:

Up high in the sky I could not see the stormy weather
Rumors all around but my ears don't hear their sound
Uptown people sigh, the traffic flows to build confusion
Still the world goes by, just a fool to hear his cry...
Ooooh, is there something we can do?

At the end of class, a student went up and erased it.

First Day of Class

May 1, 1987. KHI Institute. Pusan, South Korea.

I was more than a tad nervous walking into a classroom for the first time as a teacher. I certainly didn't feel like one (I didn't feel like a lecturer either, but that is what Mr. 신 insisted on calling me). Under my arm I clutched the textbook that I would come to despise before too long. Mr. 신 advised me to plan to cover one lesson each day. Each lesson started out with a dialog. I picked on a few students and asked them each to read a part. I would help or correct them if they stumbled. Then we would all go through the comprehension portion together. After that, I had them go through the exercises with a partner. And I ended the hour with with some general question and answer time.

All in all it was not a terrible day; just a bit awkward to say the least. But when the text uses a word that the instructor (lecturer) has never heard before, some credibility is lost. It's unavoidable.

So many details of that day are forgotten. So many details not recorded in my brain or in my journal. Somehow I distinctly recall seeing the word "lorry" in the textbook and panicking. I had no clue what it meant and I couldn't figure it out from the context of the lesson. None of the students knew the word either, and I feebly tried to pass it off as legit that I didn't know it because it was a British English word. I'm not sure which lie they believed less; that one, or the story that I was really 28 years old by American age.

Gettin' My Preparation On

April 23, 1987

The "work" Visa stamp in my passport was proof enough that I was approved and sanctioned by the South Korean government to teach English. That stamp was all that I thought I needed. Admittedly, I had no degree (yet), I had no formal training in teaching or English conversation, no TESOL/TEFL experience, and I hadn't even taken any college courses on teaching. At the time it never even occurred to me that one might need, or even want those things, in order to teach English in Korea. Mr. 신 never mentioned any of that either. But I did have the government stamp:
However, relative to the college kids who were paying to learn from me, I certainly was an SME (subject matter expert). And generally speaking that is enough to warrant getting paid. At least in corporate America. I have worked with many highly paid folks who never even made it to university. But by today's standards for English teachers in Korea I probably would have been considered "unqualified."

The week before I was to start teaching by myself, I shadowed Shin as it would be the only form of training I got. I wasn't getting paid yet but it was a good way to meet most of the students and to see first-hand how to run a class. Basic itinerary went like this:

Shin picks me up at the apartment and drives to the 학원 for first class at 7:40 a.m. 18 PNU Students.
Second class at 8:50 a.m. 18 PNU Students

Drive to home of 2 moms for private tutoring.

Drive out to burbs for private gig.

Drive further out to burbs for corporate gig at 삼천리호 Bicycle Company. 10 executives.

Back to apartment for a short rest.

2 more night classes at the 학원.

Stop at 우동 tent on the way home for a hot bowl of noodles.

Go ni-nite.

My Very Own Shortcut to Wellness

April 26, 1987

My first weekend in the Land of the Morning Calm was spent shopping for home necessities. Shin and his wife (the 학원 owners) took me to the local market. I bought some hangers, some towels, soap and shampoo (that was back when I had hair to wash). Shin’s wife chose the obligatory rubber gloves and plastic bowl for me (it wasn’t until later that I would learn their purpose was to wash the stairs outside my apartment once a week). Since I couldn’t yet afford a proper bed, I bought a 3단요 to sleep on, and told the Shins I at least needed a blanket. They walked me over to an area of the market where apparently identical bedding shops were lined next to each other without an end in sight. Each shop seemed to stock the exact same inventory and selection.

My hazel eyes were first drawn to a nice brown and orange, manly Mink blanket with a fierce Tiger on it. It seemed just the ticket for keeping me cozy on lonely nights so far from home. But Shin’s wife had other ideas. She was pushing me to buy something a tad more on the traditional side. After a bit of awkward “discussion,” I ended up with a cute pink 이불 with decorative flowers on it:

That’s right, I still have it.

집사람 gives me a hard time about it and can’t believe it is something I actually picked out and spent my own money on.

“It’s ugly,” she tells me.

She will admit it is the most comfortable blanket we own, she just won’t ever use it on our bed or let guests see it. But that precious pink comforter has been a constant companion to me and a cherished keepsake for more than 20 years now. And acting as a silent sage, it also taught me this one universal truth about a healthy lifestyle: Ahhh. Good comforter cotton…

Giddyup Pony and Take Me to Bed

April 21, 1987.

By the time I landed in Seoul, the last plane for Pusan was already gone. Not knowing what to do I called Shin. Looking back I have no idea what I could have expected him to do, with me in Seoul and him in Pusan. But at the time I could think of no better option. It would have cost me dearly if it had been The Amazing Race. (Apologies to Phil Keoghan for that blatant anachronism...)

Shin told me to get a bus or train down and call him when I got there. Humping my luggage I fumbled my way like a tourist over to the Seoul train station and caught an overnighter. Already tired from a trip over the International Date Line, I should have slept like a baby on the train, but I clearly remember not being able to catch any winks.

I arrived at the Pusan station in the early morning hours and called Shin again. It was like 5 a.m. and Shin, half asleep, told me to take a taxi to the main gate of Pusan National University and call him when I got there. The third time is the charm and after this call Shin pulled up in front of PNU in his pea green Hyundai Pony hatchback.

I must have looked a haggard and sorry spectacle standing there at the crack of dawn with two hard-sided suitcases, the only foreigner for miles.

Shin hurried me into the car with his wife (a true angel, I later learned) and u-turned the Pony to head up to my apartment. We pulled in to a giant colony of 45 or so identical high-rise apartment buildings, each with a number painted on the side followed by 동. My home for the next 3 months was on the ground floor of number 27. A small 2-bedroom place with a kitchen that had a hole in the ground for burning the 연탄 that would heat the floor in the bedrooms and living room. Luckily the weather was warm enough so that I never needed to fire up that charcoal brick of death.

The bathroom was much smaller than I was used to back in the States. There was a regular toilet (not a porcelain squatter) and a sink in a room about the size of a small hall closet. Over the sink was a removable handheld showerhead on the end of a hose. If I used that for a Western-style shower, the whole bathroom (toilet seat, toilet paper, sink, everything) would end up soaked. The weirdest thing is that the bathroom was so small it wasn’t really even suited for 세수. Go figure.

Shin didn’t leave me any time to get settled or nap. And even though my classes didn’t start for a few days, we went straight to KHI Institute to introduce me to his students as a means of advertising that he had a native speaker on staff for coming months. On the way he told me that if anyone asked my age I was to tell them I was 28. That would make me older than any of the students and make mo more respectable. Fine. 28 I was. I don’t think a single student ever bought that, but I continued to sell it the whole time I worked there.

By the time I got back to my 아파트, I was beyond exhausted. Even without bedding of any kind, I passed out right on the floor and slept the sleep of the dead.