Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bus Stop, Wet Day, Car Comes, I Say

I want to tell you all about this city that I live in, Chuncheon, but time is short settling in here, and lesson planning is hard for someone new to the game and teaching 700 students in three different grades and 22 different classes.  So I will share this short story with you instead of anything too involved.

I ride the bus to work.  After bundling up to brave the 20-degree mornings, I walk out of my 15-storied apartment building, weave between the half dozen other ones just like it, cross the road, and then wait for the bus.  But today, I didn’t ride the bus.

Waiting under the bus stop covering, I looked up at the screen and saw bus 64-2, my bus, was 12 minutes away.  On my right was a woman I see there often.  On my left were two boys standing on the curb, seemingly waiting for the bus, and playing with one of their smartphones.  But after a minute of waiting, a little red sedan pulled in next to them and they hopped in the back. No bus for them today, I thought.

But after they were in, the red car rolled a little forward to directly in front of the bus stop. The man behind the wheel, as the car inched forward, seemed to be looking right at me. I was sitting on a bench, so we were right at eye level.  There was no doubting it; this man was staring at me.

He rolled down his window, kids in the back, and started calling out to me in Korean. I can speak some Korean, but I didn’t understand a word he said. I didn’t need to - most of human communication is nonverbal – he made his meaning clear: he wanted me to get in the car.  What?! This man was offering to give me a ride. With that upward inflexion, which (Thank God) is also the signal of a question in Korean, I asked, “Chuncheon Jung?” (Jung means middle school).  He spoke some more Korean. “Huh?” I repeated my question. He nodded and said “Ne.” So I got up, right in front of the woman who’d been watching  the whole exchange and probably understood it better than me, and got into his car.

I said thank you as I sat down in the passenger’s seat, laying my bag in my lap.  I felt I should at least give my name, since this guy, who turned out to be one of the boys’ father, was giving me a lift and didn’t even know me. If he knew my name, I wouldn’t be a stranger anymore. So I told him my name. I thought he might tell me his name, too, but he just said “Ne” again and drove on.

The boys were students at my school, I learned after he dropped us off. But in the first grade – I only teach second and third.  I think the boy's father picks them up near that bus stop every day. He must have been seeing me, and heard from the boys that I teach at their school.

So I learned that in Korea, people don’t mind picking strangers up at the bus stop.

Have you ever given a complete stranger a ride? 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Orientation in Daejeon-Si

Instead of arriving in Korea and going to an apartment to settle in, I, along with hundreds of other EPIK (English Program in Korea) teachers went to KT’s human resources campus for orientation. KT is a Korean tech company.  From here we existed in limbo, knowing only the province we were going to, and not the city (or town, OR village) or the school.

Tuesday morning, I woke up completely rested at 3:30am (thank you, jetlag) and at 4:00 decided to embrace the inevitable by showering and preparing for the day.  We had a medical exam that morning, and were not permitted to eat anything until we finished it.  A rumor circulated that we shouldn’t drink anything before our exam, which didn’t make sense, as the first part involved a vial and going to the restroom.

Unfortunately, EPIK has not always been selective with the caliber of applicants it accepts, so the exam thoroughly tested everything: vision, height, weight, hearing, medical history, blood pressure, blood.  We also had a chest X-ray, which was on a bus – similar to a blood bus, which I’d heard of, but an X-ray bus, which I hadn’t.  Luckily, we found out later that week that everyone passed. No druggies here.

My orientation roommate, Ikeji, came from Sacramento.  His father was of Nigerian descent, even though the name may sound Asian.  Fast friends, we stuck together for meals, were assigned seats side by side in lectures, and jointly presented our lesson demonstration at the end of the week.

Resigning from his job as an auditor, he decided to come teach in Korea as well, having already visited Japan, but never having gone further east than Las Vegas.  He is easy to laugh and give conversation.  He likes his shoes – he brought five pairs, three of them sneakers.  He knows how to dress well and polished his black shoes before our presentation.  We shared an adventurous spirit, and often roamed the campus, getting the run of the place, and finding shortcuts to the cafeteria and lecture hall from our dormitory.

Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday we attended lectures. Each lecture 90 minutes, the topics included ‘Edutaining’ Activities, secondary school, class management, after school programs, lesson planning, co-teaching, taekwondo, and Korean customs and etiquette.  In the evenings we either had “Survival Korean Lessons” or workshop for our lesson presentations.  We had 12-hour days and no time to settle or do anything else.  We felt no culture shock – how could we? Surrounded by hundred of other English speakers, it felt more like traveling to England, South Africa, or Australia, for everyone had an accent from somewhere.  (Interestingly, some folks from the UK said they could almost distinguish between the American and South African accents.  What? I thought. Americans should be saying that about the British and South Africans.)

The first forepangs of culture shock came from the doubled edged sword of venturing from KT into the middle of Daejeon city, in the middle of Korea with dozens of “waygooks” (foreigners) whose only intention was to find a bar, drink, and smoke, as if all the frustrations of learning to use chopsticks, read Korean, or understand your washing machine controls, and your ignorance of where in this hyper-populated country you’re going to spend the next year of your existence could be cured by a few bottles of beer and some shots of soju (the Korean drink of choice).

Ikeji put it well when explaining this tendency to go out every night to a bar. He said, “Right now, nothing in our lives is in our control – where we are going, what grade we’ll teach – we’re all just tossed into the mix and spat out in one place or another.  Going out with each other for a drink at night is the only thing that we control right now.”  It feels good to entertain that illusion, I’ll admit.

But it is an illusion.  Walking down the streets, the neon-lit signs all depict characters beyond our comprehension.  We can barely get taxis to take us where we want to go.  Ironically, in the bars, the symbol of illusory control, many play a drinking game with cards, in where the dealer secretly learns the top card, and lets each player guess twice, hinting only higher or lower.  If they guess correctly, the dealer takes a shot of soju.  If they three players in a row guess wrongly, the dealer position passes to the next player.  It’s all randomness and chance, except for the occasional card-counter (me).

Though we might not have control, we can see we are in a beautiful country with a bustling culture of its own.  The streets could be regular streets at night if they didn’t all have as many lights as Time’s Square.  Pub, stacked on restaurant, stacked on beauty salon, stacked on clothing shop – “Look up” is the key, because if you don’t you’ll miss the giant bowling pin atop that building signaling an alley on the ninth floor.  Even what is familiar to you is different: Macdonald’s spelled in Hangul (maek-do-nal-duh).

You’ll spend most of your time being lost, physically if not mentally.  More on that later, when I write about this city I now call home: Chuncheon-si.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How to Avoid Monday Morning

Wake up Sunday morning and hop on a plane at 6am EST, fly to San Francisco, hop on another plane at 11am PST and cruise West for twelve hours at 550mph, racing against the sun 35,000ft above the earth.  If you look out your right-side window you will observe the Alaskan tundra, arctic ice floes, and the snowcapped mountains of Gangwon-do before you descend over Seoul’s Han river and land at Incheon International Airport at 4:20pm Korean Standard Time Monday afternoon.

At least, that’s how I avoided Monday morning.  The flight from San Francisco said “overnight,” but the sun never went down.  Everything is new, but I’ll try to give you some flashes of what has happened on my travel day.

These are the floes we flew over.
Thank you, Ted, for your photo talents from the window seat.

Two plane rides and I was here - six hours, then twelve. But amidst boarding and unloading and traversing the airport, I couldn’t help but notice other 20-somethings and wondering if they were going where I am.  Across the aisle on my first flight a young woman had three seats to herself.  When we were getting off, I gestured for her to go ahead of me, but she insisted on me going first, saying, “I have more luggage: you go.” She didn’t have more, and nothing to rival my 50lbs of carry-ons.

I stopped for lunch in San Francisco and sat in the deli as other travelers queued to get their breakfasts. The woman from the plane crossed in front of me, and five or six others just like us did the same.  I nearly asked the woman to join me, thinking she must be a Korea-bound teacher, too.  It was eerie seeing all my counterparts gathering from all over the States to get on the same 747 to Korea.  It was an unspoken camaraderie.

On the plane, we were the minority. I sat next to a Korean high school student and introduced myself.  With a think accent and a bit too loudly he said, “Hello, my name is Ted. What are you going to Korea for?”
“I am going for a job, to teach English”
“Do you know where you are going?”
“Gangwon,” I said. Him not understanding, I repeated myself, “Gangwon, Gangwon-do”
“Oh, Kangwon?”
“Yes.” He’s not the only one with an accent.
“Lots of mountains there,” he said

At this point the girl in front of Ted popped her head above the seat and said, “Oh, are you going with EPIK?”
“Me too. I’m Katie.”
 “I’m Drew. Nice to me you” I said.
“Nice to meet you”
And then we settled into our airplane daze of naps, meals, and in-flight movies.

This cross is one of the many in Taejeon visible from the training center.

Once we were over Korea, Ted started looking out the window at familiar territory, pointing to the mountains and telling me, “That’s Kangwon.”  A little bit later, he drew my attention again to a huge a city, saying, “That is Seoul, capital of Korea.”  I asked him the name of the river.  “The Han river,” he said.  We flew further and over the Yellow Sea, turning around to land.   Ted pointed to an island I couldn’t see and said, “That is the island that North Korea bombed two years ago.”  The island – mountainous, narrow, and sparsely populated – slowly came into view. It didn’t seem all that worthy a target.

Immigration and customs was a cinch.  I exchanged my dollars for won, becoming a millionaire, and emerged into the main terminal.  Started right, but a random Korean man told me to go the other way.  Then I saw and followed the trickling of English speakers to the far end of the terminal where we checked in and were told what bus to get on: bus 9.

All the bus 9 teachers went out and loaded our luggage and ourselves onto the bus. But after 5 minutes, Eugenia, our EPIK Korean leader, told us we all had boarded the wrong bus.  So we all unloaded and recollected our belongings, and got on the bus just in front of the one we got off.

When we finally left, most of us closed our eyes to rest for the three hours to Taejeon, where we would have our training.  But I couldn’t help but look outside and see the lights.  The city skylines here are brilliantly and colorfully lit.  In America, cities are usually illuminated with white or yellow light, but Koreans light their cities with every color imaginable.  What’s more, it seems you can’t go two miles in the city without looking up and seeing a neon-lit Church cross.

After 30 hours of travel, at 10pm my bus pulled into the KT training center and parked in front of our dormitory.  Checked-in, keys in hand, each of us went off to find our rooms. I was 221, but my room was nowhere.  The arrow showing rooms 211~31 directed me down a hall where my room was conspicuously absent.  The fellow in 222 had the same problem.  Returning to the front-desk, the staff rechecked the roster then apologized for the confusion.  My room was there, but across the nonexistent bridge at the end of the hall. I needed to go to level 3, and cross to the other side of the building, then go down to my floor where I would find my room. This place was a maze.

I didn’t bother unpacking.  I went straight to bed.  Dazed, I heard a faint buzzing chime. Again, a little louder.  The third time made me stumble out of bed to the door and open it. My roommate had arrived.
“Hey man, my name’s Ikeju. Sorry, did I wake you?”
“It’s okay. I’m Drew. Welcome.”
Both exhausted, we went to bed.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Engrish Ranguage

So these days I’m preparing as best I can to go to Korea. A huge part of that includes grinding my nose in the books, the Korean books, that is.  I don’t want to be some helpless, hopelessly illiterate, foreigner when I get over there (I leave in 17 days!)  I know that plenty of Koreans speak English, so I shouldn’t worry – there will almost always be someone around who speaks English, which is the reason I am going there in the first place.  But it just seems polite if I am staying in a foreign country for a year to at least learn their language, even if I’ll never be fluent.

But of course, I want to be fluent. Yet that dream now meets the rocky crags of reality.  Korean is hard, really hard.  In fact, I learned the other day that for a native English speaker, Korean is on par with Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic as far as difficulty, requiring roughly 2,200 class hours, some 88 weeks, to become proficient, which, if you are counting is 1.69 years, 0.69 years longer than my contract.  Oookay.

I realize now that I suffer language lust. I like the idea of speaking a foreign language, of speaking many, actually.  I like the idea so much I have jumped from one language to the next since high school: German, Greek, Hebrew, French, and now Korean.  Yet I’m still a monoglot. Besides English, I’ve never advanced beyond a rudimentary understanding of any one language, which is helpful if I find myself in a jam in a place that speaks that language, but tedious if I want to read a book or really talk to someone.  I like the idea of being bilingual, but I’ve never pressed the studying hard enough, or hounded a language such that I know it fluently.  But Korean will be different. Why? Immersion.

Immersion’s the magic word. If you want to learn a language, you have to go where it’s spoken.  And while I go to Korea ultimately to teach and speak English for others, I will make the most of my time by asking people to teach me in return.  But here’s something odd: I said immersion is the magic word, but thousands of English teachers go into Korea each year and come out knowing nothing more of Korean than when they arrived. What gives?

The expat culture, I hear, is hopping in Korea. Scads of English teachers all hang out with each other, surround themselves with each other.  And this is good, I think, to have people to share a similar experience, but bad if it substitutes the expat sub-culture for the Korean culture at large.  That explains not learning the language in part, but maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe Korean is just too hard, requires too much time, is too uncomfortable, making you feel too much like a little child.

There’s a website entitled “engrish.”  The point of the site is to capture and post the funny errors Asian people make when trying to translate their language to English.  The site receives its title from the common error of confusing Ls and Rs, for Korean, like many Asian tongues, has one character which functions as both. Hence, Engrish instead of English.  But I didn’t know that the phenomena could have the same effect on an English speaker learning Korean.  I’ll be sounding out a word in Korean like, “bang-ra-de-su” and grow more and more frustrated until I switch my R to an L and see the clouds part: “Bangladesh,” of course!  The same thing happened with Rondon (you know, Big Ben?) and “my good fliend Rinda.”  Every time I make the mistake I have to laugh at myself for how silly I sound.

(This is the lousy character which gives me so much trouble: , called “riuel”) 

Maybe sounding silly or stupid is what they want to avoid.  Nobody wants to look like a fool or be wrong, and the quickest way to do both is to try learning another language.  But the advantage is stepping down from the teacher position and taking the role of the learner, the role where we can put away our cool jackets and humbly learn what we don’t know and receive what we need but don’t have.  By that, we show others that they matter and have value, because we think it’s worth our time to learn from them.

Perhaps in doing this, wearing the garb of humility, listening like a cross-legged child at the foot of the teacher, we will learn a deeper truth, that “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Each step I take toward Korea, I want to make it a child’s step to the Kingdom.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Doubts and Delusions

 My friend Paul asked me jokingly after the New Year, “What are you going to do with your last year before the world ends?”  Without a pause I answered, “I’m going to leave all of my friends and family and fly to a distant country to live out my last days.”  Truly, if the Mayan prophesies are right, why in the world am I going 8,000 miles away?  I sincerely hope they are wrong about 2012.

Over the Christmas season I found that someone I love and care about is reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and in my desire to understand him I checked it out of the library to my Kindle to give it a go.  I read it, even enjoyed it at times, but throughout I couldn’t get out of my head the knowledge that the man I was reading considered me to be a fool.  It’s hard to win people over that way.

Yet, the book renewed my lament of how terrible people can be to each other, Christians and non-Christians alike.  The subtitle of a similar book (but which would have fit this one as well) is “How religion poisons everything.”  I think the poison is there to begin with, religion or not.  People will always be flawed and broken in this world; “It is the blight man was born for.”  But some people know it, while the others walk around in a delusion of wholeness.

Even while I hold tightly to my Father, reading a book like that inevitably causes doubts, winnowing doubts that bring me to the foundation of life.  I tried to imagine myself without the hope I have in Christ, and I couldn’t hold the thought for more than a second.  Whether because I feel less close to God lately or because of overwhelming electronic stimuli that drowns out that which really matters, when I couldn’t imagine life outside of Christ, it was not an image of God or Christ that blocked the thought, but the faces of my friends.  My friendships with them would be lost outside Christ, I thought.

I offended myself at my selfishness.  Do I remain in Christ simply because I don’t want to lose my friends?  But then I remembered reading somewhere that the Church is the plausibility structure of Christian faith.  A worldview can only be sustained by a social structure that embodies it.  What makes my faith real to me is the fellowship I have in the body of Christ.  It is not selfish, but holy, for in fearing the loss of the Church, I fear the loss of Christ himself, because we are his body.  Christ appears to us in the features of men’s faces.  When we love each other, we act as Christ, embodying him to one another.

I will never lose that fellowship, and as I leave for Korea, I will find Christ’s body alive there, making real to me his presence.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tanning Beds, Bonfires, and Jesus

The whole summer my camp work engulfed me and kept me from going to a church.  But now that the pace of life has slowed down, I can now be active in a church.

I go to Christ Church in Chattanooga, a United Methodist church, of which I never thought I would be a part, having been confirmed a Lutheran and ingested my fill of reformed theology in college.  Despite my inherited disassociation with Methodism, they preach the Gospel, and that’s what counts.

Last Sunday’s message demonstrated the pastor’s acute awareness of our culture and the plight of man.  Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” This is truly remarkable. Jesus is the light, and he gives that light to us, so that we don’t have to walk in darkness.

Unfortunately, the pastor says, we people like to take that light and, instead of letting it shine before men, lighting their darkness, we turn it into our very own tanning bed, basking in the glow like a lizard under a sunlamp.

I have to admit, this made me laugh, because it is completely true.  Selfishness and self-absorption plagues us, even in the church.  It's the biggest problem we humans face.  But the gospel should turn us outward, not only inward.  We must fight to make our lights shine before men not like a tanning bed, but more like a bonfire.

Bonfires draw people together in fellowship.  In the flickering light we share our stories and ourselves, while we all keep warm from the cold and the darkness.  Some of my favorite memories as a child were bonfires we stacked fifteen feet high – when lit I could not come within twenty-five feet without growing too hot.  In college on clear nights, we would go down to the old ferry landing, and burn driftwood beside the river, talking and singing until two in the morning.

I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything, but those fires are long extinguished.  The light of the world isn’t a tanning bed, sunlamp, or bonfire.

The light of the world is Jesus, and that light is eternal.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Vagabond? No Thanks.

I seem made to settle down, to grow in familiarity, but I keep undercutting this pull on my life.

When I drive hours down the interstate, I catch myself making friends with the cars next to me.  I call them appropriately by their names – Maryland, Honda, or Prius – and pretend that we're great friends.  I pass a Dart Semi, stop for lunch or fuel, and pass Mr. Dart an hour later, saying, “So good to see you again!” as I cruise past him a second time. I know the cars don’t know me and I don’t know them, but it helps me be a polite driver, and the playing keeps me from going crazy halfway into a nine hour drive alone.

Since May, I haven’t stopped to breathe.  I moved to Chattanooga and began Camp Ocoee two weeks later.  Almost every week I would work with one cabin of campers, then depart for a weekend wedding: June 11, Raleigh, NC; June 18, Dayton, TN; June 25, Abbeville, SC; July 16, Ooltewah, TN; August 6, Decatur, IL.  And the weekends I didn’t go to a wedding, I returned to Chattanooga for a 22-hour turnover for another week of camp. I learned to pack lightly.

If I thought camp would be an anchor of constant amidst the perpetual change, I was wrong.  Each week I moved to a new cabin with new campers as ephemeral as the beds I slept in. The longing for prolonged relationships, for a shared experience beyond a week, I had in part from other counselors, but they too were shuffled from cabin to cabin, paired with a new co-counselor every week.

When camp ended, I expected rest from travels, and I received it, but soon continued the same place-to-place existence.  I drove to Boone, NC to visit the lovely girl I had been writing all summer, then returned to Ocoee to lifeguard for a weekend. When I finished there I turned southward to go home (if anywhere could rightfully be called “home” now) to visit my family in Orlando.  Two and a half weeks later, I was back in Boone.  Right now, I have just returned to Chattanooga from camp, will housesit Monday and Tuesday, go to camp again this Wednesday and Thursday, and continue housesitting Friday and Saturday.

I don’t regret any of these past or future travels. I embrace them. The frustration I have is how short a time I spend with the people I meet along the way, the people who are the reason I went in the first place.  I want to nurture those relationships, and be the blossoming friendships. And if I stayed I’m sure this would happen, but the roots hardly taste the groundwater before I’m uprooted again.

I love traveling, but at another level, I want routine. I want to wake up each morning and see the same people, and work the same job. I want a life with rhythm and syncopation, not all this mixed-up jumble.  That’s not to say what I do right now is meaningless, but rather that the best music – the music I want my life to be – always has a noticeable beat and cadence.  Right now I’m having trouble catching the beat, if indeed there is one to catch.

I don’t want to be a vagabond anymore.