Blood and Guns

DSCN2294I’ve been teaching for five weeks at the English Village, and I’m adapting to the differences between Korean protocol and American protocol. When I first started teaching here, there were a few things that caught me off guard: the absence of fear when it comes to blood and guns.

The very first class I taught at this school was the Orientation class, where the kids pick their English nicknames and we review classroom rules. These are all the same as classroom rules in the U.S. (be nice to each other, no eating food in class, no running in the classroom, etc.) As I was working one-on-one with a student to help her choose an English name, the kids started motioning to me, “Teacher! Teacher!”

I walked over to a small group of boys and they all pointed at the drops of blood on the ground. One of the boys was clutching his nose as it dripped down his fingers. If one of the kids needs medical attention, you can get a Village Guide for help, I remembered from the week of training before. So, I went outside my classroom and said to one of the college students who herds the kids from class to class, “Um, one of the kids in my class has a bloody nose. Could you take care of him, and is there, like, someone who can clean the blood off the floor?”

Partly this was me being dumb, but from the two years I worked at a daycare center in the U.S., I remembered that touching blood is a no-no. And the kids were currently attempting to mop up the blood themselves with tissues, each coming into contact with someone else’s bodily fluid. So I thought to myself, They need to wash their hands, and we need to get somebody with gloves and bleach STAT! AIDS and stuff! So as the village guide left to help take care of the problem, I returned to the classroom and sent the kid to the bathroom to clean himself up. The Village Guide then came into the classroom and wiped up the blood with her bare hands and a wad of paper towels. She probably thought, Wow, this new teacher thinks she’s too good to wipe up a little blood. What a diva. But, really, all I was thinking was 23-19! We have a 23-19! RED ALERT. RED ALERT. RED ALERT.

Dear Village Guide (whose name is forever lost to me. Sorry about that, too.), I’m so sorry that I inadvertently treated you like a peasant and had you wipe up blood when I had two perfectly functioning hands. 

So, yeah, blood is just not that big a deal in Korea, as additionally evidenced by the nurse who took our blood in the hospital with nary a glove.

But the difference that caught me off guard the most hit me as I entered one of the many classrooms (actually, just about all of the classrooms) that face the outside hallway with floor to ceiling glass. We sometimes joke about how it feels like we’re in a zoo enclosure, and the kids are all pounding on the glass, trying to get us to look at them while they wait to be let in at the start of class. Hello, teacher! Teacher, hello! Come out from under that desk, teacher! We’ll toss you cracker! Dance for us, monkey!

All joking aside, though, I stood in that classroom, writing on the board and preparing for the next group of students, and I thought Oh, man. Where are we supposed to hide the students if a shooter comes in the building? With the floor to ceiling glass, there would be no faking that the classroom was empty, that no scared kids are hiding against the wall, their knees pulled up to their chins, silent, the lights off.

I think all of us from the U.S. have experienced this tension, whether or not we were so unfortunate enough to actually have a shooting happen at our schools. We had drills in my middle school and high school. We’d get a call from the office or the speaker system would issue an alert, and the teacher would hustle to the door, lock it, tape black paper to the window, turn off the lights, shush us. Maybe for Americans there have been bigger scares, too, like when everyone in my high school had to sit in the gym because of a bomb threat, the administration thinking a big open space would somehow save us.

And then other times, like when I was in 3rd grade, we didn’t lock doors, but everything got very still when we heard the news about the twin towers. Students went home early with their parents. We watched the news broadcasts and prayed. We continued class despite the heavy tension that weighed us down so that we wondered, Does this even matter right now? Why are we learning about how to divide fractions when cities are splitting in two?

But vulnerable classrooms? Koreans just don’t seem to worry about it. Precautions aren’t taken because there aren’t guns to worry about. There’s violence in school, yes, but you can’t ban children’s fists and you can’t ban students from suicidal thoughts, though you can instill values in their minds so that they see each other’s lives as precious. And that’s something we’re still working on in every culture, in every country everywhere.

So I’m noticing these differences. It struck me that if I was going to worry about the glass rooms, the only concern I need to have is that tours of parents and potential investors are going to pass by and the Korean staff is going to frown at me for showing a YouTube video for five minutes instead of molding minds through active learning. And I view that as a privilege–one that I hope and pray every student and teacher will be able to experience.


On Being Called “Brave”

A co-worker called me “brave”
when I shimmied through a foot-and-a-half wide gap
between walls to get inside a room.
Locked doors in basements are made to be entered.
Darkness at the end, long-legged spiders,
no light except my phone.
This school building in Chilgok, big and silent.
Fear smaller than curiosity.
I laugh because I am not this.
I laugh because I never have been brave

“You’re so brave,” a girl at church, my age, told me.
She came to Korea for the first time, too.
Out of the country for the first time,
but she has her husband.
“Brave” because I came alone.
I laugh because I have never been brave.
Just curious.
I cried often before Korea.
Packing, praying, surprise parties, goodbyes,
and tears.
You can cry and still be brave, I guess.
Sometimes it’s brave to even cry.

When they called me brave,
I peeked my head out from under insecurity blankets.
Say what?
it’s because my best friends
traveled alone to other countries
and shimmied through gaps between walls.
I have timidly followed them through
those gaps so many times
by now I can follow through on promises
I tell myself.
Sarah, you will travel.
Sarah, you can be alone.
Sarah, don’t sit on the sidelines and
watch life slip through the gaps
and leave you behind with no mystery
and still, sometimes, spiders.
Brave Sarah. Brave Sarah.
Like learning a new word from a new language.
Brave. “Yong-gamhan.”

I side-stepped through the gap in the walls,
wandered through dark rooms,
switched on lights.
I unlocked the door to let my friends inside.

No Country for Ajusshi: A Short Drama About My Naivete

Sarah: A naive, single woman in her early 20’s
Austin: A quick-witted man in his early 20’s
Dianna: A spunky woman in her early 30’s
Ajusshi: A middle-aged Korean man, single and ready to mingle

The ground floor of Home Plus in Chilgok, South Korea.

SARAH and DIANNA stand in a grocery aisle with a cart full of their purchases: bedding, tailored pants, winter coats, hangers, soju, chips, candy. They look tired from their afternoon of shopping. Austin is in a different aisle, pacing back and forth, wondering what soju to add to his spoils.

An older Korean man, the AJUSSHI, approaches SARAH.

Ajusshi: Where are you from? Americans?

Sarah: Yes, we’re from the United States.

Ajusshi: Which part?

Sarah: I’m from Colorado.

Ajusshi: I know Colorado! They have professional baseball team, yes?

Sarah: Uh…probably. I don’t really know sports. Baseball? They probably have professional baseball…I don’t really know.

Ajusshi: [guffaws] You don’t know!

Dianna: I’m from Wisconsin.

Ajusshi: Oh! Oh! Yes, yes. Wisconsin. I think I know Wisconsin, too.

[All smile and nod, like ya do.]

Ajusshi: [to Sarah] How long have you been in Korea?

Sarah: About three, four weeks now.

Ajusshi: Are you single or married?

Sarah: …Uh, um, single? [Looks at DIANNA uncertainly.]

DIANNA shakes her head “no.”

AUSTIN approaches the shopping cart.

Ajusshi: Do you have a boyfriend? [He looks at AUSTIN.]

SARAH blinks at AUSTIN.

AUSTIN blinks at SARAH.

SARAH blinks at DIANNA.

The AJUSSHI blinks at SARAH.

Sarah: Uh, yes. Yes, boyfriend. [She points at AUSTIN.]

Austin: I’m her boyfriend.

Ajusshi: Ah! Oh, yes. Wonderful! Wonderful. [Quickly exits stage left.]

Sarah: [to DIANNA and AUSTIN] I’m the worst at lying when I actually should.

Dianna: Yes, you are. [laughs] And you’re flushed.

On a bench at Gumi Station, shopping bags lined up at their feet.

Austin: Well, Sarah, I hate to say it, but I think I’m going to have to break it off.

Sarah: How could you do this! Our love only just began.

Austin: I just feel used, you know?

Sarah: But you were there. You were there! When I needed you most!

Dianna: [on the edge of her seat] I feel like I’m watching a K-drama!

Austin: You can go on without me. We just don’t need each other anymore.

Sarah: You’re right. But, Austin?

Austin: Yes, Sarah?

Sarah: Thank you. I’ve learned so much through this relationship. The next time an ajusshi tries to pick me up, I now know what to say.

Austin: What’s that?

Sarah: “Yes. Yes! I have a boyfriend. He’s in the military. We have couples’ outfits and everything, so it’s very serious.”

[Both gaze off into the sunset.]

Dianna: [clapping and wiping tears from her eyes] Atta’ girl! Atta’ girl!