Culture Shock 101

Today’s guest blogger is Jaclyn Nelson.

As we entered a little hipster restaurant in Colorado Springs, I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Something was wrong. Heather was not her usual self.

“I’m so excited about this trip!” I word-vomited as soon as we sat down. Her eyes darted past mine. She made a passing comment, one that was clearly avoiding my comment. We made small talk for a bit before she finally got down to business.

“What if I told you we might not be going to Seattle?” she asked. My heart sank. I knew it. I knew it was too good to be true. Friends traveling together rarely works out.

“I have another idea. Would you…”

The suspense was building. My head was flooded, still adjusting, preparing for disappointment. Her voice was serious. In the dimly lit café, it felt like a proposal of sorts.

“…Go to Vietnam with me?”

“Vietnam? Like…Viet-freaking-nam?” My heart was racing. I had so many questions.

“Why Vietnam?’
“Is it safe?”
“Is it expensive?”
“How long will we be there for?”
“Do people go to Vietnam?”

Before I said any of those things, I immediately said, “Of course I will. Yes. Yes!

It was that easy. Heather and I had begun to save for traveling endeavors. We had talked about perhaps going to Seattle over the summer, when it had dawned on her that she liked to travel. And I liked to travel. She wanted to go out of the country and so did I. Why not go together?

How do you begin traveling with someone? You must ask someone. Make it happen. People always say they want to travel, but rarely do they make it a priority. You have to start somewhere.

She had done her research. Southeast Asia is one of the least expensive places to travel in and she stumbled upon it when she had Googled “Safest places for women to travel.”  Vietnam was safe, inexpensive, and beautiful. What could possibly go wrong?

Over the next few months, Heather and I would meet up to solidify our travels plans and it didn’t feel like it was actually happening. We’d research hostels and try to decide which ones were safe and how far in advance we should plan on reserving nights. Most websites recommended to just “go with the flow” and figure it out when you get there. That idea terrified me. What if we couldn’t find a place? We booked the first few nights just in case.

The day we bought the plane ticket, my heart was explosive. Still, somehow, I felt doubtful that this was actually going to happen. Something must go wrong. People do not just up and go to Vietnam without consequences—that’s absurd.

The week before the trip, we got an email from the airlines informing us that our two-hour layover in China suddenly turned into a two-day layover in China.

I knew this would happen. All of our plans moving from city to city would now be delayed. The hostel we had booked would no longer work. I knew this was a bad idea.

I said none of this. I went with the flow.

The flight was when it got really real. We were one of possibly four white people on the plane, and Air China was not kind to ignorant Americans who did not speak a lick of Chinese. I suppose it was our fault, but we hadn’t intended on leaving the airport in China until the week prior.

Side note: Air China was cheaper than most flights by a couple hundred dollars, but 100% not worth the hassle. They changed our flights last minute. The flight attendants were extremely rude. It was not worth it. It’s tolerable, but not worth the couple hundred dollars it saved us, even if that money could buy you weeks of travel in Vietnam.

We arrived in China very, very late. We were told the airline should cover our costs for the layover, considering they changed the flights last minute, but despite our pleading, they sent us out with nothing. Heather had booked a hostel in Beijing, just in case, but now the tricky part was trying to figure out how to get there.

We started asking questions about the cab fare. We quickly realized the expensive cabs were lined up first, and as you moved down the row of cabs, they got cheaper and cheaper. We had a round-about idea as to how much the cab should cost to our hostel and kept repeating it to the drivers. Eventually one of the drivers signaled over another driver and we got into the cab.

We showed the driver where we were heading. We had written the name of the place in English. That was our first mistake. The driver is Chinese—he doesn’t read English—he reads Mandarin.

Heather and I just looked at each other, trying to hide our panic. After spending a few minutes fretting, trying to figure out exactly what we were going to do, she remembered she had written down the telephone number of the hostel. She gave it to the driver. Looking back, it was very kind of him to call that hostel. That’s not in his job description—we didn’t know what else to do.

We began the drive in absolute silence. The nerves were settling in. We had researched areas in Vietnam, but we hadn’t China. Heather had booked a place that had high reviews on Lonely Planet, and we had just went with it.

Looking around us, I began to feel sicker and sicker. Graffiti everywhere. People walking in the streets late at night. The closer we got to the hostel, the more unsafe I felt. It didn’t help that the driver was going in circles around this square. Was he trying to rake up the miles and charge us or was he really that lost? I was unsure. All I knew is I could barely breathe and Heather wasn’t mumbling a word.

Finally, the driver motioned us to get out. He pointed down a dark alley. “Go,” he said, using whatever English he could muster. We refused. He drove around the block again, then motioned us down the same alley.  He pointed down the alley and to the left.

I don’t know how or when we mustered up the courage to trust him, against all instinct, but we began making our way down the alley. There were lots of people (what we would later find out to be primarily tourists) walking down this street. For now, we were just jet lagged, hungry, and desperate to find the hostel.

“There it is! There it is!” Heather exclaimed. I would never have seen it, cleverly hidden between other businesses.

We made our way inside, still barely speaking. We were starving, so we walked back outside to find food. Still uncomfortable, we decided to go back in almost immediately and travel by daylight. We ate granola and listened to the noises of our anxious stomachs.

I knew this would happen. I knew it.

The next day, we were still riddled with culture shock. The hostel was beautiful, covered with plants and flowers and connected to an adorable little restaurant. It was pricier than Vietnam would be, but at least there was food.

We spent the morning taking in deep breaths of relief—finally revealing how scared we both were the night before. We were not in a bad part of town at all; the “graffiti-covered walls” were the doors to stores, opening as a garage door would.  We were in a nice district, close to many tourist attractions, such as Tiananmen Square, a large city square in the center of Beijing. The people were incredibly kind.

The first night Heather and I were at the hostel, I sat at a community table and wrote in my journal. One girl from the hostel, Miko, asked if she could join me. I immediately confessed that I knew little to no Chinese and told her a little about the culture shock Heather and I experienced. She taught me a couple key Chinese phrases such as “Wo Chi Su” or “I eat vegetables,” the closest phrase to saying “I am a vegetarian” (this was of course after I accidently ordered an omelet with ham in it and had no way to explain that I didn’t want it).  

Miko was staying in the hostel in Beijing with her family as she waited to go to school to play the harp. Her mother showed me pictures of her playing a harp that was bigger than she! Though her mother spoke no English, we spent an evening connecting through smiles and hand gestures.

Soon others joined us. A traveler from Amsterdam saw us laughing and enjoying ourselves. He, too, began opening up and telling his stories of how far he’d traveled and how long he’d been away from home. At the time, I was amazed. Now, after meeting so many travelers, I cannot recall where he had been, only that he had dedicated years to self-discovery, something I desperately wanted to do.

And this is how I started. No, it wasn’t for months or years at a time, but everyone’s journey is different—and mine, for now, would take me to Vietnam.

Culture shock wouldn’t get me twice.

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El Nido, The Nest

In Palawan, the province in the southwest of the Philippines, a small town called El Nido rests on the coast of the South China sea. The ramshackle buildings crouch in the sun, surrounded by a dense jungle of palm trees and lowland evergreens. The ocean spends all day gathering the strength to kiss the sand at the feet of restaurants, bars, and guest houses facing the shore.

Tourists–French, Danish, Dutch, American–shuffle through the streets, taking in the sights through sunglasses. Their skin is sunscreen, sea water, and sweat.

The local Filipinos stand on the sides of the narrow streets and call out destinations to tourists, advertising their transportation services. They drive tricycles: a motorbike attached to a carriage, which whole Filipino families will cram themselves inside or a tourist or two will sit in cautiously. The tricycle drivers compete for the road with motorbikes, people, and dogs.

The roads are paved, but rough and frayed. On the right and left, restaurants serve fresh fruit shakes, stores sell brightly-colored clothing, dive shops promise an introduction to a hidden world, and boat tour offices offer island-hopping adventures, and if you walk far enough out of the town to the east, when the road turns into dirt, you can see children pretending to be monkeys in the palm trees and dogs trotting like they have business of their own and homes behind fences shaded by sky-soaring palm trees. Behind the fences, the Filipinos know they’re on display, but they watch you, too, like the strange, sunburnt creature that you are.

El Nido swarms with tourists, but if you walk far enough away from the town, you’re bound to find a beach where the water stretches out with a soft, sandy floor and the waves toss gently and there is maybe no one else around. If you’re lucky, you can find fresh coconuts and a Filipino man with a machete who will slice open its deep green shell. And you can sip the coconut juice and gnaw it into sweet, white shavings with your teeth, like the strange, out-of-place foreigner you are.

Eventually you’ll make your way back into town, and you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with other foreigners on a boat tour. The boats for island hopping are called bangkas, or pump-boats. Long and narrow, they have bamboo outriggers on each side for balance. They tote you from island to island, the motor humming through your skin. When the boat stops, there is snorkeling in crystal-clear water, fish flitting back and forth. Nemo hides in his anemone, a Surgeon nips calves and ankles to protect her nest, a pastel rainbow fish swims carefree.

There are beaches with resorts where people paid more than you ever could to stay, only to have you stomp through the sand and hog their cozy, sun-warmed hammock for a half hour. And there are beaches where you would be happy to spend your life, eating fish you caught in a hut you built from dried palm leaves. And beaches where you can buy ice cream cones for 50 pesos and play with the sand between your toes and fingers. Feeling like flour or cookie dough, the sand molds together like crisp snow.

There are lagoons, where the water is turquoise and milky and still. When you break the surface, you can hear your own sighs of wonder echo off the walls of rock that rise up like a cathedral on either side.

Sometimes the ocean shows you everything, an open book of fish and coral reefs, and other times it covers everything in shadow, hiding the life it protects beneath you and your embarrassing life jacket.

When the sun begins to fall towards the edge of the sea, the water turns from teal to navy blue.

El Nido. Where the young Filipino men lay shirtless and barefoot at the helm of the boat, soaking sun into their dark skin as the boat takes them home. Where the older men sit in the shade with their shirts pulled up to their chests, stomachs relaxing toward the ground. Where the young FIlipino women sit behind counters and give smiles that reach their eyes when they greet you. Where the older women offer open cases of handmade jewelry and squint into the sun. Where children sing “Feliz Navidad” for a tip and climb and play on boats beached on the shore. Where dogs keep watch outside of businesses and lean into your hand when you pet their ears.

El Nido. A town whose people are like a big, extended family, and the tourists are tolerated and necessary house guests. “Nido” means “nest”, and you are blessed to be welcomed, as a traveler, to the place these Filipinos call home.

Seoul: Part One

Traveling to Seoul was like leaving the U.S. for Korea, minus the dramatic goodbyes, 100 pounds of luggage, and about 20 less hours of travel time. So, basically, it was nothing like leaving the U.S. However, that feeling of sweet independence and anxiety returned as I navigated my way from Taejon Station, where the English Village shuttle dropped me off, to Dongdaegu Station, where I took the train for the first time to Seoul.

I like traveling on my own, but I don’t relax easily because it doesn’t happen very often. I set my backpack on the floor by my feet, plugged in my headphones, and tried to sleep while the train raced down the tracks, passing the city I was getting to know and rushing towards snow-sprinkled landscapes of cities I have yet to encounter.

*

I met my friend and Seoul tour guide/translator/photographer, Yongseok, at my graduation party a few months after I accepted the position to teach in Korea. He was a foreign exchange student at my best friend Kate’s university. They made me a chocolate cake, and Yongseok decorated it with words in Hangul. He also gave me a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge and wrote on the back: “See you in Korea.”

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I think God puts people in our lives for a reason. I was both terrified and beyond excited to go on my own to South Korea for a year, but I felt more at ease when I knew I’d have a friend to visit when I got there. Someone who, you know, understood Korea. So meeting Yongseok before I left for Korea was one of those things God planned to reassure me that everything was going to be a-okay.

*

You know how sometimes when you go to an art museum, you’re like, “This stuff is pretty cool. What does it mean? Oh, crap, I’m going to have to use critical thinking to interpret the mind of the artist”? Well, try experiencing this in a museum of a foreign culture. I’m saying a lot, I’m sure, went over my head.

The first place we went after Yongseok helped me get a phone plan*** was an art exhibit in the old Seoul Station, which hasn’t been used for transportation since 2004. As we walked around the building, we typed words that were printed on the floor (like “crossing”, “technology”, and “shopping”) into an app on my phone, and it asked us survey questions that would, at the end of the exhibit, tell us about how we identify with the city we live in. It was an interesting concept, although we only answered about 20% of the questions while we explored, so the results, that I really, really love shopping, were not super accurate.

The exhibit displayed pieces from the physical structure of the original station, but mainly there were a variety of projects created by artists. It focused on typography, which was interesting given the knowledge I gained from a print design class I took in college. The exhibit had sections that explained the font styles that have been used on street signs and on businesses, displaying the unique personalities of different parts of Seoul. There were also books hanging from the ceiling on string and little sculptures one artist had created to represent each Hangul character. 

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IMG_3208***If you don’t speak Korean, you’re going to have a bad time attempting to get a phone plan. Tip: Find a Korean buddy and have them do the talking. Then you can just sit there with your dumb, foreign face and nod as if you totally understand what’s going on. You can nervously peel the rubber from your “LifeProof” case. You can hope when the guy behind the desk laughs, he’s not laughing at your dumbness. You can get excited because you’re finally going to be able to connect to wifi reliably and have data. Oh, technological-dependence, you fickle mistress.

*

“I think you like Korean food?” Yongseok told me as we ate mandoo, which was spicy dumplings, noodles, and mushrooms in a red broth. Based on our friend Kate’s previous reaction to Korean foods, I think he was expecting me to dislike the degree of spiciness in the food. However, the soups we had in Seoul were so good that I’m hoping to be able to find restaurants in Daegu with similar dishes.

So I tried a lot of traditional Korean soup, which was fitting for how cold the weather was.

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Seolleongtang (stock soup of bone and stew meat)

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Mandoo

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Soup with a whole chicken in the broth!

So, yeah, Yongseok. Korean food is delicious.

*

The palaces are sites I’d like to see again the next time I’m in Seoul. They were really beautiful, but we didn’t get to see as much of them as we would have liked due to the timing of my visit. We walked a short distance from the old Seoul Station to Gyeongbokgung Palace, on the way grabbing some traditional Korean candy called yeot from a man who was chopping it into little bits on his cart. The candy is rock-hard at first, but it softens into a taffy-like consistency as you chew it.

Gyeongbukgung Palace is especially beautiful because the mountains loom in the background. It’s majestic, an iconic part of Korea standing its ground while a modern city grows up around it. Such a stark contrast between architectural styles and hundreds of years of progress.

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This palace was closed for tours, unfortunately, but we were able to see inside the National Palace Museum of Korea. There was a lot to take in at the museum. Even though most of the explanatory text on each exhibit label was in Korean, most had English titles and Yongseok was able to interpret the rest for me. Some of my favorite parts of the museum were…

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The Screen of the Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks

This screen was always positioned behind the throne of the Joseon king (see final picture). Fun fact: “Joseon” was actually what Korea was called during this dynasty, instead of the current name, Hanguk. The nature imagery symbolizes the universe and the cycle of life.

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A Self-Striking Water Clock

This is a restored version of the original water clock created by King Sejong. Based on the flow of water through a basin and pipe system, the clock will chime at certain intervals to note the time of day or night. We were lucky to be looking at this part of the exhibit just a few minutes before it was supposed to chime, so were able to see one of the figures at the top beat a drum, sort of like a cuckoo clock.

*

I saw Deoksu Palace at night. It was built during the 16th century, and it’s the place where King Seonjo lived after returning to the capital in 1593. The Japanese forces had just withdrawn, leaving all the main palace compounds burnt to the ground.

Imagine entering through the front gate, heavy with the end of a war. You spent a year and a half in hiding in Uiju (long before it belonged to North Korea, of course), all the while knowing that your enemies are destroying your city. Peace finally comes, and so you arrive at your relatives’ home to live there temporarily.

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Deoksu means “virtue and long life.”

We walked the palace grounds in the dark with layers of leaves beneath our feet, the trees creating a canopy above us. We peered inside a silent, shadowed throne room, and a dining room exposed to the outdoors. Many of the tourists were already gone, so the palace grounds were still and peaceful, despite the loudness of life that bursts through the city which has rebuilt itself over hundreds of years, taking on modernity like a warrior.

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.
“Brave.”
I laugh because I am not this.
I laugh because I never have been brave
before.

“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?
Maybe
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

CAST OF CHARACTERS
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

SCENE I
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.

SCENE 2
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!

THE END

A Spirit of Quietness at St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery

Today’s guest blogger is John Parker.

High up in the tree-covered hills of Platina, California sits a string of buildings and huts strewn throughout the woods. From morning until sunset, men in black robes, young and old, can be seen walking or working on various tasks: adding new rows to the cobblestone path, tending to the gardens, or most commonly of all—prayer. Dogs wander aimlessly, happily, between the buildings, looking for pinecones to chew. And at the appointed times, a resonating hum of bells sounds across the hillside, beckoning listeners. This is the brotherhood of St. Herman of Alaska’s Monastery.

Orthodox Christian Monasteries have been in existence for well over a thousand years. The monastic life is a removal from the chaos of society, a sort of self-imposed exodus into the wilderness—a place where many throughout history have encountered the spiritual life in God. St. Herman’s began out of the desire to return to the spiritual heart of ancient Christian truth and praxis. Father Seraphim Rose, a prolific writer of Orthodox books, helped bring this vision to fruition at this monastery. Since then, this brotherhood has lived in simplicity and humility living out the Orthodox Christian Faith, occupying themselves with devoted prayer and worship, hard work, and hospitality toward the many frequent visitors (ourselves included) who come to see Father Seraphim’s grave. We were there to stay a day in the life of the monastics.

I came on this pilgrimage as the culmination of a year of “returning” to my inner self. I had been running for years from God and from anything resembling church, and had only recently been drawn back into that life. I felt as though God was slowly softening my heart and leading me back, so that by the time I visited St. Herman’s, the noise of the life I was coming out of had diminished enough for me to be able to listen and at least catch a small measure of the stillness of prayer.

After two full days of nearly non-stop driving from Colorado to the west coast, crammed in a van with four other young adults I’d only recently met, I wasn’t sure of what to expect when we arrived. I only knew that I felt something when we walked through the gates—stillness, a quietness returning to and settling on the earth.

Brother Cassian, a man in his early twenties and the most recent addition to the brotherhood, showed me and fellow traveler Jeremiah to our rooms—cells, as they’re called. Like most of the other monks, Brother Cassian was very quiet. Not standoffish or rude, just quietly engaged in a deliberate, contemplative silence. Beyond showing us our rooms and amenities and asking if we needed anything, there was very little conversation. This was the consistent theme throughout the stay: we were given a tour of the monastery, ate meals with the monks, attended services, and were treated with every kindness—nevertheless, a spirit of quietness infused all of these things.

One encounter my friend had with a monk is a fairly good representation of the whole trip’s experience. When we had free time to explore the grounds, this friend of mine was walking and singing to himself. Unknown to him, an elder monk named Brother Theophil was sitting nearby, praying in solitude. My friend thought he was alone, and was singing rather loudly, no doubt distracting Brother Theophil. As soon as my friend noticed the monk, he quickly stopped singing and began apologizing: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you from your prayer, I’ll leave now.”

Brother Theophil, a man who I would have otherwise thought seemed strict and austere, cracked a warm smile and turned to my friend saying, “It is alright. We must learn to pray, especially in the midst of distraction.”

Even though we only stayed a day at St. Herman’s, this truth has stayed with me. In the midst of a work filled with noise, chaos, pain, and suffering—there is a stillness that is waiting to be encountered. There is a life of prayer and inner quietness that I believe not only helps one endure the outside world, but actually helps sustain the world. These small, humble spaces where people strive to overcome the noise and seek a full life of faith help give breath and life to the surrounding world, even if it can’t perceive it.

Be Nice, Listen, Speak English, No Sleeping: Teaching English to Korean Children

12065617_907615582642412_6275626084768841933_nTomorrow morning, the start of my third week teaching Korean elementary and middle school students, the children will arrive in semi-straight lines, boys keeping each other in friendly choke holds and girls hanging on each other’s elbows. “Hello! Welcome!” we call out, standing on either side of them as they walk to the gym, dragging their suitcases along. They wave back, sometimes with both hands, and abandon “Anyang-haseyo” for “Hello” for the next five days.

The students give us gentle high fives and some teachers tease them by stealing their hats or greeting them in a high-pitched, falsetto voice. Every Monday morning the same jokes, different kids.

When I’m told that my group is ready, I go to the gym, taking with me the students’ passports (an imitation passport that they use to take notes and record their English nickname) and a folder that teachers use for learning background on the group (names, what school they’re from, etc.) and making comments. I then lead my group to a classroom for a quick pretest. I ask them, “Where are you from?” Most often they reply with “Korea,” sometimes adding their city name. Other times they just blink at me, look back at their friends who are watching, and laugh nervously. Sometimes, if the student is more advanced, we can ask things like “What’s your favorite animal?” And they’ll say, “My favorite animal is a cat.” We’ll ask, “Why do you like cats?” They’ll reply, “Because they are cute.” That amount of dialogue is not very common, though. This is why it’s a challenge teaching kids when they only understand a small percentage of what we’re saying.

People asked me when I was preparing to leave for Korea, “How are you going to teach kids if you don’t know Korean?” The answer to this is something I’m still learning. First, I’ve had to accept that they just aren’t going to understand most of what I say. Because that’s not the point. The benefit of immersing students fully in a foreign language is that they’re obligated to really pay attention or be completely lost, which does, unfortunately, happen. But even if they don’t understand everything, they learn to pick up on signals, like tone of voice and gestures. We use a lot of gestures. I’m probably going to come back to the U.S. and open and close my hand anytime I use the word “talk” or “speak.” I also use a lot of thumbs up, because the sound we make when we say “good” is similar to the word that means “finished” for Korean speakers. Basically, speaking slowly and simply, using gestures, and employing lots of repetition is what guides these kids through our classes.

Orientation is their next class and follows a short opening ceremony in the gym where the kids get pumped up and discuss general rules for the week–Do your best! Speak English! Ask questions! Orientation is where we get to pick the students’ names if they don’t already have a name in mind, which is often the case.

Me: We’re going to pick your English nickname. English nickname. *pointing at the words “English nickname” in their passport* You can pick one of these. *Circling motion around a list of English names* English nickname. Do you know which one you want? Do you want me to pick one? *Pointing to myself* What English name? Like, “Sally”, “Kathryn”, “Jessica”…Nickname? I will pick one for you?
Korean child: ???????

As difficult as it is for the student to understand what’s going on, especially on the first day, it’s fun to pick their names for them. There’s a certain power in coming up with these names if the student can’t decide. If I want to name the kids after my family and friends, I can do that. If I want to name them after all the characters on Arrested Development or Firefly, I can, and will, do that. The administration has had to remind teachers in the past, though, to stick to the names on the list because it can get out of hand sometimes. I was told that one student insisted on being called “Lucifer” (presumably after a video game he liked) and when asked where he was headed in the airport situational, he replied, “TO HELL!” Funny, but not so funny to his parents when they found out we called him Lucifer all week.

Also, we’re never supposed to call them “Johnson” or “Daisy”, because the kids are aware (even though I wasn’t???) that “Johnson” means “dick” and “Daisy” sounds like “dwae-ji”, Korean for “pig.” But it really doesn’t matter how normal of a name you give them because they will probably laugh at it, anyway, just like they laugh at the way you mispronounce their Korean names. You know you effed something up when they repeat the way you said their friend’s Korean name and giggle. A teacher I observed my first week gave a kid the name “Clive” and he dropped his jaw dramatically to pronounce the “ive” like the word was too big for his mouth. The kids busted up from how hilarious that word sounded to them.

At some point, you have to reign the kids back in so that you can set expectations. At the beginning of each class, we’re supposed to go over the rules.

  1. Be nice [Because the kids wail on each other as a part of their friendship. The boys will tackle or choke each other and the girls will slap the boys with all their strength–but, most of the time, they’re not doing it maliciously. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between “play” fighting and bullying…mostly I just intervene when it becomes a distraction or someone starts crying. *Teacher of the Year!*]
  2. Listen carefully [Even though you don’t understand almost everything I’m saying.]
  3. Speak English [This is America. We speak English here…wait…?]
  4. No sleeping [Because the kids stay up late talking to their friends and about mid-week start sprawling on benches and openly napping in the middle of class. They’re all set for college.]

The classes I’ve taught at this point are Video Store and my academic class, Music Genres. It takes a lot of lesson plan-adjusting as I learn more about what works and what doesn’t work for students of different English levels. For instance, when we played musical chairs in the first few Music Genres classes I taught, it went pretty well overall. And then I got a class that didn’t understood half my instructions, so when I played the music they just stood next to their chairs and kind of danced around to “Sugar” by Maroon 5, which they love here. (I can’t escape it. I just can’t.) No matter how many times I made a circle motion with my arm and tried to show them how to walk in a circle, they just ignored me and it became a matter of who was too into their dancing at the time the music stopped that they didn’t grab a seat. It was chaos, but I was laughing really hard at them when the DGEV photographer came in and wanted an action shot. So I’m pretty sure those pictures were of me dying of laughter while the kids formed a mosh pit to music that had out of control volume. *Quality education brought to you by Sarah Teacher*

Anyways, I might need to pick a different game for the kids who are more clueless and the middle schoolers who think they’re too cool for musical chairs and basically fought over who was free to stop playing the game and who was forced to march in a circle.

The kids craziness and unpredictability is what makes teaching fun here, though. They have a sweetly naive way of making sense of us foreigners, too. I’ve had many a Korean student stare into my heterochromatic eyes and ask, “Teacher, contact lens?” I’ve been asked a few times if I was married to the teachers I was observing the first week, and then asked if I was the teacher’s younger sister because of our age difference. The children ask “Same same?” and point at YouTube videos with white girls in them and then point at us, because, yes, all white girls look the same. Any female teacher with blonde hair and a braid will be called “Elsa” and there’s always a boy who stops the class at some point to sing, “Teacher…Do you wanna build a snowmaaaaaaaan?” Thanks, Frozen.

When class ends, I shout above the throng, “Sign passports! Sign passports!” And suddenly there are fifteen suspiciously-stained passports thrusted into my face and I circle how many points each student earned for participation and content and sign my initials. And then I release them to their Village Guide and wait for the next group to appear, waving “Hello, Teacher!”

So this is my life now.

Integration Field Trips

I sit in the back seat, middle. In both Korea and the U.S., I am considered short, so I don’t need leg room. Wedged in between two other teachers, bracing to avoid sitting in someone’s lap. First Korean car trip. Saccharine Kpop plays from a mix on the stereo. Our supervisor is driving us. One teacher asks me, what do I think of the mountains here, being from Colorado? The mountains of Chilgokgun are beautiful, but in a different way–like moss, the smooth roundness that the treetops form as they rise in soft angles in the foggy air. The rich, dark green. Colorado pines are brittle and triangular like the mountains themselves, reaching up sharply to the sky.

In the car, we tell stupid jokes and our supervisor is silent. Traffic is like a crowded, toothy smile, cars packed in tightly together on the street. Side roads have barely enough room for traffic. No parking tickets. Please, don’t let us crash. Oh no, we’re going to hit somebody. And then, we neatly back up into a parking space. And our supervisor is silent, smoking cigarettes when we leave the car. Outside, we walk past patients wandering in hospital gowns, their IVS following next to them like loyal pets. There’s a coffee shop inside and stations for every ailment, disease, condition. We travel up an elevator. I try to sound out the Korean hangul that I see all around me. Nah…Nah…Ri…? We arrive at a desk with a young woman shuffling papers. “She’s new.” A small, elderly nun smiles behind me in line. Paperwork in my hands that I can’t read. Did I bring my passport? Won? 30,000 won? Passport photos?

We wait on a brown leather couch. A nurse gluesticks my photo–my painful portrait, my wincing smile–to paperwork. They measure my weight, my height, my chest size? My hearing, my color-sight, my blood pressure. I sit on a couch, watch the three other teachers be examined. Our supervisor translates. Our white faces are dumb.

New station. A small child barely walking. “Annyeong haseyo! Annyeong! Aw, so cute!” The child stares intently at my eyes. I wave. The mother waves the child’s hand back at us. And then hand-holding, moral-supporting, breath-taking, blood-drawing. My turn. The nurse wears no gloves. The pinching of the needle–it pinches. I blush from the pain and two teachers and one supervisor looking over my shoulder as the nurse, bare-handed, empties my arm of a vial of blood.

Dixie cup. Bathroom–squatty potties. Yes! Squatty potties! Pants down, urine collecting, awkward walk, carrying my own pee across the hall to place it on a tray in the fridge, like, “It’s cool. Just putting a cup of my own piss in this display case for all the see.” My sample is healthy; someone else’s is tomato juice-orange. I marvel at my sore arm. Wash hands. A nurse runs into me with a tray of dixie piss cups. Splash. Not on my clothes, thank goodness. That was almost the worst day ever. That was a close one. I hope whoever owns that orange pee gets well soon. Back to the elevator. Time for Xrays. First, “crazy test.” Fold in your fingers from thumb to pinky to prove your mental stability. “Do you have any disorders?” “No.” The doctor’s smile is huge. Goodbye, I guess? “Kamsamnida!” And then…waiting. Extra long wait. I practice Korean. Try sounding out the syllables. I suck at this. Play “Pop Popping Korean” on a phone. Netflix. Fifteen minutes of Portlandia. People-watch. I wonder what was up with that orange urine. Tap my feet.

Xray. What did she say? I take off my shirt, my bra, put on a purple hospital scrub. Hug a plastic machine. My lungs are healthy. No TB here. Changing room again. Finished. Finally.

We go out to lunch. “Chicken is not real Korean food.” “Barbeque is rare for lunch.” The city rises upwards. Tall apartment buildings, tall shops, short me. Motor bikes shoot past us. Hangul everywhere. You don’t notice so many words around you until you can’t read them. Try to sound out the syllables. Do…Re…Mi…Fa…Fried rice with an egg on top. “Just use the spoon.” “That’s what it’s there for.”

Next day. Immigration. Back to the middle seat. I’m the fresh meat in a foreign teacher sandwich. Supervisor’s ecigarettes smell so good. Like cotton candy? No. Like the best smell ever? We try to walk casually behind him. A competition to see who can breathe in the most second-hand smoke. Delicious lung cancer. The smell is “My Wife.” Supervisor driver is tired, so we stop at a rest station. Squatty potties! Yay, squatty potties. And the next best thing, ice cream in a bag. A bag of ice cream that tastes kind of like my mom’s homemade recipe. My fingers burn red from the cold.

Immigration. Signatures on paper. More paperwork. I sit down and wait for the clerk to stop typing and ask for money. I can’t count the wons with the man and my supervisor watching. What is math? I fumble with the money. Passport photos? Of course. Of course I have them but can’t find them in my purse or in my folder of paperwork. Are you kidding me? I paid ten dollars back home for those! The passport photos are not with me. I thought I had them with me. “Choesong hamnida. Yes, copy my passport page.”

Finished? That’s it? We’re legal! Back in the car, back to the school we pass on the highway, the English Village standing its ground in the hills, protected by trees.

A week later, the bank. Another Korean staff member. “Nice to meet you.” Crawl to the back of the van. I’m the smallest and I don’t need leg room. Rumble up through the hills to the Daegu Bank. The staff member, she drives us down a tight entrance to a small place to park below ground. Deep breaths, the van barely fitting, tires grinding the wall. Screech, teeth grinding, no place to park. Park anyways and leave a note. Inside the bank, the clerk speaks English well. I hand her money, passport, no ARC as of yet. Wait. And wait. “Korean language. Korean language. Korean language.” Signatures, signatures. My ATM card offered to me on a little tray. I take it. Done. Next. Small talk. Bank talk. Then the van barely makes it up the exit ramp. Accelerate. Accelerate. Accelerate. ATM card, empty bank account. Busy city. Here I am.

A Tour of the English Village

The foreign teachers are very privileged at the Daegu Gyeongbuk English Village (DGEV), from the beauty of our surroundings to the general ease of our jobs. As I’ve been undergoing training and starting to teach the past two weeks, I’ve been able to explore the campus in my free time both inside and out.

The campus is relatively large and the architecture is unsurprisingly Western. The main building looks like a government building with tall pillars in the front and marble-patterned tiles. There are many windows and glass doors in every building, allowing for a profusion of natural light. On weeknights, lights glow from the gazebo and lampposts that stand along the walkway from the fountain in front of the main building to the fountain by the stationary airplane (forever stationed at the airport situational gate) on the other end of campus. A pebbled, man-made river runs through the middle of campus, though its usually dry.

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In the situationals, the impersonation of a Manhattan street can be noisy from the traffic of students following their Village Guides to their next class. They might go to a grocery store, a bank, a police station, a hospital, an airline terminal, a video store, a gift shop, a zoo–all rooms where teachers use these themes and any corresponding props/sets to teach English vocabulary. It’s kind of like a children’s museum.

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I’ve learned that the Village is full of quirks. It caters not only to students, but also to flight attendant trainees. They have a room specifically for instructing young women who fit their strict physical requirements. This explains everything. The room is equipped with vanity mirrors in rows that at first look like computer screens. The floor is marked with two lines to form a catwalk so that flight attendants can practice the proper way to walk down cramped aisles and ease past grumpy travelers. It also has a station where you can weigh yourself and measure your height. I’m fairly certain I would meet zero of the qualities they look for (the fact that I’m not even Korean aside).

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There is also a combat room, which some of us interpreted as a laser tag arena when we were told about it. After shimmying through a gap between two walls (because the room was locked and I was curious), walking through some dark rooms, and exploring them with a flashlight, to my dismay I discovered there was no arena, and rather I found myself in a room with a bunch of rifles pointing at me, which sounds like a scene in a thriller, but really the guns were just stationed on the floor to target practice on a screen on the opposite wall. I think I heard that the military sometimes uses this room for training, because if there’s a class on gun-wielding, I have yet to hear about it.

Another quirk of the Village, in the most comical of senses, is that the Korean administration of the school feels children’s nursery rhymes must boom from the speakers during transitions between classes, which, to the foreign teachers’ chagrin, is every 45 minutes. Right when silence seems normal, a woman’s voice busts out (to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round”), “Dad is taking us to the zoo tomorrow! Zoo tomorrow! Zoo tomorrow!” and it echoes inside the buildings and across every parking lot, sidewalk, or hole in the ground you try to bury your head in to get away from that music. Some of the lyrics to the three or four songs they play are up to interpretation. Some people hear “sausage in a bag” while others hear “toss it in a bag,” when, apparently, the lyrics are really, “sausage in a pan.” Either way, I don’t know what it has to do with “sweeties in a jar” or “jelly on a plate.” Didn’t the U.S. once use the repetition of the Barney “I Love You” song as a method of torture?

One thing, which I guess you could call a quirk, is the lack of interaction the foreign teachers have with the Korean staff. They have separate offices that we’re not allowed inside and a segregated cafeteria, as well. Our supervisor told us it was because Koreans have loud, frequent conversations on the phone, and we would find it distracting. While this may be true, this concern about distraction probably goes both ways. It would be a fun experience getting to know the Korean staff and learning from each other, but I’m trying to be understanding. Two languages clashing with each other in the same office might prove to be more of a hassle, at least for the Koreans, than a benefit to their fast, hyper-productive culture. Additionally, we don’t really have reason to collaborate with the Korean staff on much, so the chain of command also ensures this separation.

As I expected, there’s a lot I’m learning and trying to figure out about Korea, but I’m happy to be teaching in such an interesting school with beautiful surroundings.