Friday, April 19, 2013

The Foreign Becomes Familiar

Now that we're comfortably settling into our lives in Korea, there are quite a lot of things I've learned - at least, as much as you can learn in nearly 3 months. Korea is a beautiful country with exquisite palaces, breathtaking mountains, and endless opportunities in urban discovery; every weekend is filled with as much exploration as we can pack in. As with everything, there is a balance of good and not-so-good, and some lessons weigh heavier in my mind than others. Through it all - and it is all so much - sometimes it is enough to just keep my head above water and finally make time to write. To complement my often-fragmented thoughts of late, here is a fragmented list of 10 things I've learned, through teaching, traveling, or just living:

1. The Seoul subway is simultaneously my favorite and least favorite form of transportation. Depending on the time of day, it is either a smooth, quick, and efficient way from here to there or a harried, nauseating meat-packing facility on rails straight out of a claustrophobic's nightmare.

2. Skype is made of magic.

3. I will never be able to speak Korean nearly as well as my 6-year-old students can speak English. It is mind-blowing to think that my classroom of Kindergartners are speaking and writing complete sentences in a second language when Kindergartners in the U.S. are barely writing their own names in their native tongue. This speaks volumes about America's educational deficit on a global scale. However, American students have a childhood in which they can play outside after school and spend time just being a kid. Creativity is fostered there, but here, creativity is frowned upon as frivolous. Korean children are instead shuttled from school to school, from academy to activity, from the time they are old enough to hold a pencil, and play is a luxury. As far advanced as my kiddos may be academically, their adult-like schedules rarely allow unadulterated time for childhood. Both systems sacrifice something, but in my eyes, I'd rather my child have the ability to balance academics with getting to be a child.

4. To force myself past the Ick. While the majority of my Kindergartners are heart-wrenchingly adorable and achingly sweet, it doesn't make up for the fact that their bodily fluids occur at times and in places you wouldn't expect, and this is made worse by the kids' inability to keep their hands (and mouths) to themselves. I even concocted "Touchy" the Alligator, a visually-reminding friend I drew on the board with a big toothy grin. Each time I saw/received inappropriate touching, I erased one of Touchy's teeth. This character has evolved into a tiger who loses his stripes, mostly because I got tired of drawing an alligator and I prefer the alliterative aspect. Now, if the touch is accidental (like a kiddo wanting a hug and his or her hand inadvertently lands on a boob), I'm not going to promote body shame; I simply move the hand away without a reaction. However, when a kid grabs my hand and puts it in his mouth, or a girl comes up behind me to squeeze my ass, giggling, or a particularly snotty child wipes her nose before grabbing my hair for a yank, I calmly explain why we don't touch that way while gagging or screaming "Why?!" inside. This system has lessened the amount of snot and saliva I encounter on a daily basis, but that still hasn't stopped the putrid parade in its tracks. I'm still figuring out the best self-therapy to deal with the most recent incident in which I thought one of my Kindergarten boys was approaching me to sit on my lap, only to start rubbing his junk on my knee. I am coming to terms with the fact that I may never recover and will just physically recoil whenever the memory resurfaces.

5. When you eat nearly all of your meals with chopsticks, a fork can feel surprisingly heavy and unwieldy. How quickly the foreign becomes familiar.

6. Not to compare myself to the typical Korean woman. While I am by no means overweight, I do not have legs like a deer stretched on the rack, nor a waist appearing to be sucked in by forces akin to a black hole, nor wrists delicate enough to snap under the pressure of a firm handshake. As much as the American social conscious is preoccupied with image and struggles to deal with the omnipresent, media-fueled pressure to attain an idealized, packaged beauty, Korea seems to transcend such consciousness into virtual obsession. It's inescapable: I can't go one subway stop without seeing an advertisement for plastic surgery in which the (perfectly lovely) Before is transformed into an altogether unrecognizable After with features verging on the cartoonish - any "flaws" have been molded into an acceptably narrow jawline, exaggeratedly rounded eye shape, or tucked-away ear placement deemed pretty by social standards. All personality and traces of real life are erased and and replaced by blank, uniform "beauty." Worse, it starts  young - I have been told by more than one 6-year-old that she is not pretty because her eyes are small and that she doesn't like sweets because they will make her fat. Six years old. My heart breaks when a child can't enjoy a piece of candy because it has been laced with fear and shame. It devastates me even further when they tell me I am beautiful or have pretty hair, because in race toward "pretty," they see Western traits as something to achieve rather than celebrating themselves as they are. Why are these 6-year-olds even aware of this pressure to be thin and have uniform faces to be... successful? Attractive? Worth love? In a related vein, the fact that I even have an ass at all is probably going to be a problem when it comes time to shop for pants.

7. I am not and probably never will be okay with the smell of silkworm chrysalis sizzling away on a street vendor's griddle. I love so much about experiencing new cultures and the accompanying foods, and I never want to be that person who gags at another culture's common snack, but the clouds of steam billowing from cooking worm pupa just reek of death and dishwater. I'm really sorry, guys. Gross.

8. Cherry blossoms. I get it now. The yearly frenzy over the trees is totally justified, and I will do my best to explain in a post next week.

9. If I start thinking about space, I can and will spiral into an existential depression. (Okay, this one isn't entirely new, but I relearned it.) The parameters of the human brain can only handle so much, and my mind especially cannot emotionally handle such functions like entertaining ideas about the universe, real or theoretical, because: What lies beyond the edge of the universe? There has to be something, right? How can nothingness exist? Oh my god, what is really going on inside that nebula the size of 15 Earths stacked on top of each other and black holes are what?! I can barely handle philosophies about existence on THIS planet, much less a whole universe, because I will never stop thinking about them and will eventually lose my mind when answers run out. Case in point: Adam recently showed me the Planck mission's map of the universe, charting the lights and limits of space, and I nearly imploded.

10. A job can be both stressful and satisfying. My days are long, requiring diligence and mindful dedication. You cannot mindlessly pass your workday when you are helming consecutive classroom hours of Kindergartners, second-graders, and third-graders until 7:30pm three days of the week, then grading and developing lesson plans until 5pm after morning Kindergarten on my 2 "short" days. You must be vigilantly adaptable, always engaged, and constantly thinking ahead.


I see the difference I and my fellow teachers make every day. I work with people who genuinely care about what they do and about each other. My students actually WANT to learn, and (for the most part) like to listen to what I have to teach them - even when my sarcasm takes over. I was tapped to provide sketches for a new grammar textbook developing in Adam's research and development department, and when it is printed, I will have a credit as a published illustrator. For all my teaching, I am always learning. I have access to free Korean food for lunch and dinner if I want it. My demanding schedule and extraneous duties are compensated for with a rent-free apartment and a generous paycheck, and I'm watching my savings steadily swell. And when I am crying with co-workers over devastating news from home displaying the worst depths of humanity and have no idea how I am going to smile for my Kindergartners, I can walk into a classroom that evil has left untouched and all it takes is a hug from one of my kiddos as I sing them their favorite Muppets song to remind me of the overwhelming goodness that exists to mend shattered hearts.


  1. #9. YEP. Horrifying and all-consuming; thoughts of the universe make my brain start to seep through my eye sockets. It's absolutely mind-blowing, all the more so because of the amount of things we will NEVER (as humans) know or understand. Scary and exhilarating. Life is just... wow.

    I am so, so happy for you. Your life excites me, and I cannot wait to see how your experiences develop and shift and grow. Keep the updates coming, girl!

  2. Thanks for your perspective on the school system. I am always appalled by how horrible it is in the US, but I am thankful for the creativity and change for play here. As my friend put it, they just have to make it through Kindergarten here, and then they can go to the advanced class and start learning things on a quicker and more appropriate scale.

    #4 - creepy.