Thursday, September 14, 2017

Prescription Chocolate

Several years ago, when I was having heart palpitations due to stress, I went to see a cardiologist, who (after doing a full checkup, including a sonogram--it was really neat watching my heart beat on the screen) told me the next time I had similar symptoms I should have a cup of hot chocolate and just chill. (I should have gotten him to write it down as a prescription,  so I could laminate it and take it around with me at all times, or have it framed.)

Wednesday was most assuredly a prescription chocolate sort of day. My first two classes were awful.

I really do not enjoy teaching phonics to very small children (second graders and younger). I run out of energy shockingly fast, and I am not full of original ideas for clever and engaging games. Too, in my new class I have one little girl who has the attitude of a fourteen-year-old. She makes snide remarks, gets into arguments with the one little boy (who is painfully slow and needs special help to get through the lessons), and finishes all the assignments and projects (coloring pages, etc.) as quickly as she can, as if she's sitting on frying pan, and the minute she finishes she can get off the fire.  And then she sighs that that there is nothing to do. And meanwhile the little boy is himself sighing, plodding through the material she finished long before, and the other little girl is quietly, painstakingly shaping perfect letters in her workbook.

My second class, was the one that put me near tears. My third-graders are usually pretty well-behaved. There are a couple of bouncy ones, but as a general rule they focus well. I had even planned a game for them – I thought we would get through the required material quick enough to allow for this. But it was utter bedlam from start to finish. All four of the girls helped themselves to markers and started drawing on the board. They ignored my commands to sit down. When one girl wasn't crawling around on the floor looking for a missing eraser, she was scribbling directly on her desktop with her pencil. At one point, she and the little boy behind her engaged in a fierce Cold War staring standoff, both of them looking furious. I still don't know what had happened, but the boy eventually muttered an apology after I threatened outside intervention. Then my golden child – the boy who aces every test and knows all the answers when I call on him, though he's a year younger than everyone else – began flipping people off (he was using the wrong finger, but the intent was still there). Meantime, I was trying to fight my way through the grammar lesson, but five of the seven children continued talking nonstop, ignoring my efforts to get them to pipe down and pay attention to the material. Everything was just spinning out of control. I've never had this happen before – or felt that horrible drowning sensation of being sucked into a whirlpool. I've always been able to bring things back to a semblance of order, but it was as if the children had all been chewing pre-adolescent catnip or something, as they were deaf to discipline. Finally, I went next door and asked Kristen to come over and talk to them in Korean. She gave them an earful for a good five minutes. And so for the final five minutes of class, I could at least go around between the desks and look at what they had written – and all but one had major errors. I'm going to have to reteach the entire lesson. And, of course we didn't have time to play the game! I was so disgusted.

After five minutes back in the teachers' office rooms, feeling like doom had settled on me and despair was adding weight, I betook me to the nearby coffee shop for the hot chocolate, which I sipped for 45 minutes before returning to campus. The next two classes went fine.

Today, a fourth grader was terrified of the speckled pattern on my trousers.  She couldn't even look at me. I told her to focus on my face, but she was still viscerally unsettled by the print, and when will she wasn't diligently working, she was staring sideways at the wall to avoid seeing my clothes. I have bad reactions to some patterns myself, so I understood.

My new cappuccino ring has attracted a lot of comments and compliments.

Tomorrow, I'm sending the full book manuscript of the former Two Motherlands, Two Fatherlands off to an American publisher who has said he is interested in looking at the whole. A couple of months ago I sent him a short sample along with a cover letter, and he said he was intrigued, but would be traveling in Russia for weeks, and I should send him the manuscript after September 15. We shall see whether the ides of September are happier than those of March. It has been a long wait.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rings, Swimming, & Invisible Spouses

Park Yoo-chun's body and face are now bloated by carnal excess, a far cry from the attractive character that he played in several of my favorite kdramas. His is not one of the many recognizable smiles one sees on posters advertising soju and beer; here, almost all celebrities do highly visible endorsements, from alcohol to health food, their images are on all sorts of products, product lines, and businesses. Famous faces are emblazoned on buildings and up and down the aisles at groceries and convenience stores.

Roxanne, Albert, and two other men and I went to lunch together Tuesday afternoon, then to coffee (tea for me). Then they asked me to come swimming with them Saturday morning. I cheerfully accepted, not knowing that this would interfere with my long-arranged afternoon plans and leave two colleagues wondering where I was!

People around here generally don't talk about their spouses. In fact, it's difficult for me to find out who single and who is married – though I suppose the default setting is to suppose most people are married – because few people discuss wives or husbands. It's strange – I'm used to an occasional mention of "my wife and I" or "my husband and I" in recollections, but for the most part Koreans are silent on the subject (there are exceptions, of course: there's one married pair who are taking my English class together, and they interact sweetly). One one fellow about my age joined my class several months ago, and whereas I recently learned that in the month after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – five years ago: he's one of the 1% of patients that has survived so long since diagnosis – he lost 40 kg, and that he spent the first six months unable to eat and unable to sleep from pain, it was not until yesterday when he was scrolling through photographs on his phone that I saw a picture of him with a pretty, petite woman, and I asked him who she was. "My wife," he answered. I asked if she were around, and why she hadn't come swimming with our group, if so. It turns out she doesn't like strangers to see her in a swimsuit. I commiserate. But all this time I've been operating under the presumption that he, like another fellow that was in our snorkeling group yesterday, were single. Are spouses part of the furniture, always doing their own thing? They seem to kind of be taken for granted. It's not that I expect someone to talk about their husband or wife all the time, but I think I'm used to them being spoken of with more frequency than many people do here. And so many married people don't wear rings!

The one single guy (not Albert, the divorced fellow, but Pat, a roundish man with a ponytail who is often hungover) in our group gave me a ring yesterday. There was much hilarity over the jokingly presumed proposal. I pointed out that it WAS actually a diamond...with an "S" in it (it was a metal Superman logo ring that he found while snorkeling in the swimming hole). Somebody else, thank God, found the goggles he'd lent me, which had popped off my head while I was floating comfortably, and gave them back. It's bad enough to lose your own things, but worse to lose other people's!

I had a wonderful time snorkeling (my first time – it took a while to get used to not being able to breathe through my nose) and then just paddling around in the clear ocean water. It's so much easier to swim in salt water than in a lake or chlorine pool! I didn't have to worry about sinking, as I bobbed like a cork and pushed quickly through the shallows using a pair of borrowed fins. For the most part, I stayed out of the surf, swimming in protected coves. The roped off swimming hole was delightful for the first several hours, as it wasn't crowded, but in the afternoon it gradually filled up with swimmers, snorkelers, and little kids and teenagers on floats until it was almost elbow to elbow, like the country club pool where we were members when I was a kid.

We had only planned to stay for two hours – I had scheduled to meet my colleague at 2 PM – but as I wasn't wearing a watch, nor was anyone else in the group, the time got away from us. It was almost two when I found out the time, and I quickly sent a message to my colleague, but I have no idea if she got it in time. I fear she didn't. Everyone wanted to keep playing in the water – the men went out into the waves to look for shells – and I was happy to, only I forgot that my 70 SPF sunscreen was probably wearing off. As a result, I crisped. My face is the color of a pomegranate, as are big splotches on my shoulders and back, delineating where my swimsuit was. That's something I never have to worry about normally, what with always wearing long sleeves and carrying a parasol. I feel like an idiot for forgetting about it at the beach, but I so seldom swim! 

I had wondered why my curriculum director kept commenting on my use of red ink when grading papers. I thought she was alluding to some presumed psychological damage it would inflict on small children to see their errors identified in red, but it turns out that there's a deeper cultural reason for avoiding the color. Koreans are highly superstitious about having their name written in red – they see it as a curse, that someone wants them to die. June actually had a small girl quit her class after another little boy wrote her name on the board in red marker. I do not doubt that I have cheerfully written children's names in red many times over, unaware of this cultural no-no. And, of course, immediately after hearing about the superstition, I felt it incumbent upon me to pull out my notebook and write my own name in crimson. 

June introduced me to a new coffee shop today, where there's a little art studio abutting on the same court yard. Inside, two jewelers were working at benches not unlike my own at home. I found the cutest silver ring – a miniature tea cup and saucer with a wee spoon mounted on an open shank band bearing the word "cappuccino" in all capitals. The tea cup is filled with coffee colored epoxy (it apparently has real grounds mixed in)--I didn't have the heart to point out that it looks nothing like cappuccino, since cappuccino contains milk and has a creamy froth on top. But it is a beautiful ring, and the closest I will get to enjoying coffee. This is the first real art I've been able to acquire here on Jeju.

June and I went to an art show Monday morning, and I loved the work. It was entirely comprised of paintings of Seogwipo, most if not all painted en plein air in the garden of the Lee Jung Seob museum, looking down on the harbor. Some of my favorites were about 18 cm x 22 cm – small enough to transport home after a year or more's display in my local apartment. Excited, I asked about prices, as it seemed they were 100,000 KRW  (about $100) from the notations on the tags--I really wanted to get more than one, and was wondering how many I could consider. I was wrong in my tag reading. It turned out that the pictures I was interested in were 700,000 KRW apiece--the "10" was some sort of size designation. The artist was willing to go down to 600,000 KRW each. That is absolutely obscene. I could have talked myself into spending a maximum of 250,000 KRW (they really were beautiful--almost a Gauguin impressionist style), but she wasn't budging. Korean art buyers must be filthy rich. My house is full of original art, but I have never spent more than $150 on a piece, and I usually average closer to $50. I do want to support living artists, but these were small works, not giant canvases. I just couldn't rationalize the cost. It was too bad. Heck, if Korean artists can command these prices, there ought to be painters everywhere. But I have yet to find them!

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Ants, Cafes & (Possible Romantic) Connections

I can't sleep. I have been awake all night. I know that my sweet Grandmommy has had problems with insomnia for a long time, and I have dreaded the approach of old age as it probably promises the same misery for me. But I didn't think that sleeplessness would hit me so hard, so frequently, so early in my life. I always wondered why insomniacs weren't more efficient – if you can't sleep, get up and do something else, I reasoned – but now I know that you're always hoping that somehow the next breath will drop you into unconsciousness, and you don't want to begin a project that involves a lot of mental energy when you have to report for duty at a workplace at a particular time, and you know you must get a modicum of rest before then. I suppose you could be madly productive in a creative way if you didn't have to worry about such things as a  regular paycheck and communal responsibilities, but in the meantime I fritter away my unwanted conscious hours and have nothing to show for them in terms of rest, relaxation, or accomplishment.

June is thinking about launching economic warfare against the fire ant colonies in her parents' yard. Various stratagems have been floated (like the ants themselves, which drift on floodwaters linked in indestructible living rafts) for getting rid of this perniciously persistent invasive species that leaves hillocks dotting pastures and lawns all across the American Southeast. Boiling water. Vinegar. Gasoline. Dynamite. Digging up a shovelful of one colony and dumping it on another, so that they wipe each other out in intra-species warfare. And of course, professional grade poison. But, as my mother has observed, all even poison seems to do is cause the colony to move; it never really eradicates the ants. In a postprandial conversation on a park bench yesterday (some inoffensive black ants were roaming around our feet) June mulled attacking the fire ants' economic livelihood. Since they raise and milk aphids, focus on these creatures. Ruin their cattle industry, in other words. Starve them out. The problem with the strategy is the other, less nasty ants also use aphids, and it is important to keep these other, milder insects happy. I fear employing the insecticide equivalent of weaponized corn smut. I am also leery of schemes that involve the introduction of new competing species – there are always unforeseen negative consequences with these ideas.

Yesterday, cab drivers had no interest in accepting me as a fare – on the way to my morning massage, I was waived off by one man, refused after I was actually in the taxi by another, and finally accepted by a Catholic gentleman on my third and final attempt. On the way back, I had planned to take a taxi either to my home or to Home Plus. However, summons on the Kakao app for either of these destinations resulted in no takers. So I walked back, taking a circuitous route along the seacliffs and up an oreum (more than 470 steps – I counted!) that eventually covered almost six miles. I needed the exercise, but I was ravenous afterward, so I met June at a cafe for a late lunch.

While the food is delicious,  this particular place is run singlehandedly by a stocky man who obviously resents our patronage. He practically flings the menus at us, and always stomps up to the table with our meals and drinks, delivering them with silent begrudging looks, as if he's appalled that such persons as we should dare to order in his establishment. I don't know if this is because we are foreigners, or because a few weeks ago I had the temerity to ask him to leave the sun-dried tomatoes off a cheese sandwich, which omission, he intimated, would ruin the flavor (it didn't).

Contrast this to the weekly welcome we get from the lean edges-and-elbows ex-bartender who manages the coffee shop where Kristen and I and our church group assemble for refreshments on Sunday afternoon. I've met several successful bartenders over the years (always outside their workplaces!), and they invariably have the gift of gab and a shrewd eye, able to access a character in a glance. And they also know everything. If you are lacking in local scuttlebutt, ask a hairdresser or a bartender. Of the two, I would think bartenders often know more, as their clients are more numerous, business is often discussed over drinks (whereas hair salons rarely cater to deliberate conversations), and they have chemical assistance in the promotion of gut-spilling.

Last week, our group was sitting out on the veranda overlooking the sea. One lady's great niece is visiting her for the summer. She's a lovely trilingual Korean Malaysian, who's working her first part time job as a hostess in a restaurant at a local hotel. (She was telling us about the practical enslavement of the Chinese staff there – they haven't been paid in months, but if they complain to the government, they will be deported without any hope of getting recompense–their visas are tied to this particular place of employment. So they keep working in hopes that they will eventually get paid. It's a horrible situation, but not one that she can do much other than listen sympathetically to the workers' miseries.)

The café manager came out and sat down with us – he never speaks English, but I know he understands some, as he was instantly able to peg me as an American Southerner – and asked the young lady how old she was. He has a nephew, a very handsome young nephew (he showed us a photo on his phone), that he would like her to meet. At this point, stirred by the sea breeze, I told him that in his past role as a bartender and in his present position as "a coffee impresario," he ought to be not only looking to match up the young and beautiful, but also the middle-aged and opinionated, such as me. Although Kristen allowed that there were only single men on Jeju in the 50+ range – I may have reconciled myself to being over 40, yet 50 seems to me like the realm of grandfathers! – the manager thought a bit, and then said he might know someone. A Yale-educated Christian businessman. He was going to see if he might come to the coffee shop this Sunday. He cautioned that I should approach this contact as a new member of my social network, not a romantic partner (which is what I was intending to do anyway). But this is promising!

And then, I couldn't sleep a wink last night. So, unless I walk to the coffee shop (it's about six miles) I'll miss today's potential setup. I missed church. I dozed on and off for a couple of hours this morning, after I sent a message to Kristen telling her I would not be needing a ride to the service, but still haven't really slept. And my general expression of peace, patience, kindness and other Spiritual fruits has been mediocre lately. Crumbs.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Improvement, Raw Meat, & Flesh Tones

Sunday evening June and I got dinner (I had hot bibimbap again—it’s delicious) and then descended to the waterfall, which we can visit free thanks to our resident cards. There were hundreds of people in the park. I had been told the place was lit up at night, and I had expected it to be as lovely as it is during the day, but I was severely disappointed, since the pathways were efficiently but inartistically illuminated, and the waterfall itself was spotlighted a dreadful rancid orange, rather than backlit with a pretty rainbow of colors which would have been so much more attractive. However, I will remain hopeful that they will correct this, as the motto of the area seems to be “continuous improvement.” Since I arrived, the snarls of telephone and electrical wires between the poles on my street have been sorted into neat bundles, and the bright and shiny new city hall has been completed and the landscaping installed. Even the trash and recycling area has been bettered, moved onto a new concrete pad made to fit the bins. Every few days in the mornings, a pair of women wearing long vinyl butcher aprons spray down the food recycling area with disinfectant, to curb proliferation of insects.

June and I stopped at her favorite coffee shop after our waterfall excursion. The appeal of the place is not only in the coffee itself (or the yogurt smoothies, in my case), but in the attractive face of the long-haired owner, either in person or emblazoned in cartoon form on the bags of selectly roasted beans on the crowded counter, or in the psychedelic silver sleeves that encase the to-go cups. A constant crowd of customers pushes into the narrow spaces between the mismatched chairs, oddly shaped tables, and the counter, the front of which bears the illegible Sharpie signature of a famous actor who once visited. The complicated machinery of coffeemaking makes the preparation area like the cockpit of a spacecraft, or the laboratory of a mad scientist. Everywhere are mysterious knobs and shiny valves and twisting tubes and glass carafes and dials and gauges, steam spitting up and hissing, and bubbling potions being mixed. Three or four busy baristas move nonstop, shaking cubes and coffee together into caffeinated cocktails, fiddling with the machines, and calling out orders. Steel dungeon chains hang down behind the slim digital screens displaying the menu. Behind the chains, a laptop plays interviews of the owner with famous Korean foodies. The only paintings on the forest green wall in the seating area are a small acrylic portrait of the owner in Andy Warhol style and a canvas Che Guevera print. There’s also an elderly black rubber gas mask and a California high school bomber jacket pinned up. Count yourself lucky if you can snag a seat, since “Face Coffee” (June’s name for it) is always jammed.

We went our separate ways from the coffee shop. It was well dark, but still fairly early. Plentiful streetlamps sprayed light downward. I could hear crickets and cicadas, and catch conversations through the open windows. On the way back home, I spotted what I thought was a group of drunken men celebrating on the street, but as they got closer it turned out to be four or five families with young children; the fathers were whooping cheerfully they swung giggling smiling children up in the air. Silent letters scrolled across neon sign boards, and security cameras turn in my direction upon detecting movement.

Although most single-family houses are shielded from the traffic and passersby by tall concrete walls and metal gates (here, these are not always closed, and you can see laundry drying on the racks on the porches, garden implements, potted plants, bicycles and children’s toys cluttering the paths to the front doors), other houses open directly onto the street, and occasionally their sliding doors are slightly ajar, and passersby can glimpse tiny entryways crowded with an assortment of shoes.

There are so many restaurants here that advertise with pictures of raw meat! All of these feature tables fitted with charcoal grills where you cook platefuls of beef, pork or lamb. I never thought that the sight of red slabs of flesh would come to be mouth-watering, but the notion of roasting sirloin appeals to my carnivorous side. I am still not tempted by photographs of pink-striped fat. It’s also fascinating to watch the fish gulping silently and the silvery eels circling slowly in the saltwater tanks in front of seafood restaurants. I do wonder, though, are American eateries so limited in their mealtime beverage choices? Here, it’s usually five options: water, Coke, Sprite, beer – only one brand – and soju – only one brand. Jeju folks do like iced tea, but it’s never to be found on regular restaurant menus.

I (again!) haven’t been sleeping well lately. I have absolutely no memory of Tuesday morning. I must have taught an English class to almost 30 adult students, because I found my signature testifying to this in the roll book today, but I do not know what I said or did. I could have spoken English, or Russian, or Klingon. There isn’t a shred of data in my brain to remind me. I do remember what I did afterwards—beg off from the weekly teachers’ meeting to go home to crash into bed for a nap—but the morning is a complete blank. Presumably even in my incoherent state I was entertaining, because the classroom was packed again this morning. Unfortunately, one of my students told me that a few parts of the material I included in today’s lesson I’d already covered the day before yesterday. I apologized to him and told the class at large we’d review a bit. At least I didn’t give the exact same lesson, verbatim, twice in a row—having a different title for successive PPTs assured me of that. As of tomorrow, my afternoon teaching schedule changes again—I’m getting a new phonics class of second-graders and two different fifth-grade classes. Just when I had learned everyone’s (English) names (it only took me half a year)!

Today, for the first time in two months, I was able to turn off my air conditioning. At the same time, the humidity has broken, and it's actually pleasant to walk outdoors. It’s been sunny, but without the oppressive glare that makes unfurling my parasol needful—I had observed that this is a required accessory for all adjummas, and I’ve used mine almost daily for the summer. Several of my students have tanned to a deep coffee brown, which they (sadly) compare unfavorably to my sickly pallor. I wish that I could convey to them that white is not de facto beautiful! If I could tan, instead of turning a painful scarlet and blistering, I would love to do so.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Rice Wine & Curved Unfortune Cookies

I really like makgeoli, the traditional rice wine here. It has about the alcohol content of beer – which I don't drink – and a slight fizz, since it has active cultures like yogurt which allow for only a two-week freshness period. It's sold in opaque white bottles because the rice sediment doesn't present a visually appealing picture (you shake it before serving); the milky slurry is traditionally poured out of brass kettles into drinking bowls.

At the same corner grocery where I found the makgeoli (the CU where I stopped had loads of soju and beer, but none of what was once the most popular adult beverage in Korea), I found a large package of curved pastry, which looked and tasted for all the world like unfolded fortune cookies, except for the addition of seaweed flecks. The sweetness is offset by the mild salty tang of the seaweed. They are odd, but good. The pastry and the makgeoli together cost 2400 KRW.

My sixth graders won third place in the bimonthly national speech contest! I was quite pleased. Because they passed this first round, they have the opportunity to memorize, film and submit a second skit sometime in the next several months in order to be invited to go to Seoul for the annual live competition. I hope that they will be interested in trying to do this. They worked very hard, and I would love to see them triumph on stage. Of course, this means that I have to compose another mini play (or a handful of speeches, if the kids want to compete individually). The annual academy wide writing contest (held last Friday) also went well – at least three of my students (including one of the aforementioned team of sixth graders) placed in their respective categories.

After much fatigue and procrastination, I submitted another book review to the DC area journal – this one on a Russia-related history monograph – and for the SC publisher I struggled through the editing of an entry on a filmmaker whose work sounds entirely unappealing (NC-17 rated material at the worst, peculiar postmodernist aesthetics at the best). Talk about flat and stale prose; it took every ounce of sense-of-duty to finish these assignments, and I am not sure that the respective establishments to which I presented the work will be breaking down my door anytime soon.

The party a week ago went well. Four other foreign teachers and three of our Korean colleagues came, and everyone stuffed themselves. Of course, there were loads of leftovers. I froze four double portions of bean soup and half the vegetable-beef casserole, and turned the rice into a sweet pudding. I've been snacking on the baklava (which tore up and looked terrible, but certainly tastes delicious) for a week – the salad took me four days to finish, while I managed to devour the pesto pasta bowties in three.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Manikins, Food, & Music

There is a traditional Korean medicine shop a couple of doors down from the McDonald’s near my house that has four ginseng roots in glass vials in the window. They look like little shrunken men. They remind me of the wizened, formaldehyde-preserved fetuses representing each month of prenatal human development which used to be on display in the old Richmond County Museum. We’d go to that old grey stucco building on elementary school trips in the early 1980s, and the eclectic mix of everything from Native American artifacts to prehistoric bones, from unfortunate butterflies to Civil War relics, and other odds and ends fascinated me at first, although the unchanging exhibits got a little tiresome after a while. The two-story building was topped with a crenelated parapet, so it looked like a miniature castle, or a folly from the Victorian era when it was constructed. The floors were wood planks, and they creaked irregularly as throngs of children trailed from room to room, peeking in the ancient glass cases and reading the fading type on the yellowed cards next to each item. The rooms had a peculiar pungent order of decay which I have always associated with old relics, antique shops, and poor memories.

My children have their academy essay contest today. The younger grades are making little booklets about themselves, and the older ones are writing and illustrating manhwa-like stories derived in part from examples in their textbooks. My seventh graders are creating posters about their recent reading assignments. I’m having a party for my fellow teachers this evening. I made brownies and baklava, but singed the latter badly this afternoon when I switched on the overhead heating element in my oven and went off to clean out the drain in the bathroom. The next thing I know, there’s a burnt smell coming from the kitchen, and the top of the filo in the pan is the color of the brownies I’d just baked. I was sick. It’s still edible, but nowhere near as pretty as originally intended. The whole cloves securing the top layer of pastry are all charred. All that work and money!

I had to order the filo at great expense through Gmarket. There are no glass baking dishes to be had anywhere, so I had to improvise with a shallow metal pan. The nuts (walnuts, pecans, and almonds) and butter also cost a fortune. I already had plenty of honey and sugar and orange juice to make the syrup. I made black bean soup last night, and assembled a vegetable-beef casserole, for which I had to concoct cream of chicken soup from scratch. Thank God for internet recipes! I also plan to bake chicken tikka masala and pesto pasta. And I need to make rice, and a salad. One of my guests is a vegetarian. The leftovers should last me for a while.

I’m still undecided about what to do for Chuseok holiday. It’s six weeks away, and I learned recently that June is taking off a few extra days to go home for the first time in a year and a half. I can’t get extra days and I have no desire to go home for such a short stay—I would barely be recovered from the jetlag going over when I would have to return and suffer it again. Plus, with all the vitriol that is being reported stateside, I think it’s almost more restful on the other side of the planet. I’ve thought about visiting Vietnam, China, and Hong Kong. I’ve even (the horror!) considered package tours. It’s just a short hop to Japan. I need to make some arrangements this weekend.

This past Tuesday was Korean Independence (from Japanese occupation) Day, one of the few federal holidays here. I stayed indoors most of the day and then went to a free classical music concert in the evening. I felt like a celebrity walking in, as a group of people started calling out my name excitedly—it was a quartet of ladies from my adult English class. June and I sat on a bench next to the manager of the Jeju United soccer team. The director of the chamber orchestra was a funny and dynamic fellow who established an instant rapport with the audience. He also noticed a couple of us Westerners in the audience and effortlessly inserted English phrases here and there in his introductory monologues so that we knew basically what was going on. He also gave me one of the door prizes—I think merely because I was foreign and he wanted me to be happy, as the trivia question he asked me to win it was easy—which was a box full of fresh pastry from the seaside café where the concert was being held. The musicians were excellent; most had doctorates in the performance of their instrument, and they played everything from eighteenth to twentieth-century pieces. There were two encores from the packed house. I love classical music. And getting gaze out through floor-to-ceiling windows at a ship slowly sailing along the horizon and darkness falling over the ocean while listening to such well-made music was one of the lovelier experiences of my life.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Lunatics & Fools

There were 31 students in my adult English class yesterday morning. One of them asked me whether I was proud to be an American. I said I was. I said that I think my country has done many good things, but that I thought our great weakness was not being willing to listen to other people. I also said that I didn't think my pride in my country excluded anyone else's being proud of theirs. God made us all different, and each culture should have some strength that it can point to and say, "You know, I'm really proud of being ___ because of that."

Our American founding documents are superb, and many of our founders were admirable people. Some, however, notoriously did not practice the ideals they preached. And anyone who knows the stories of history can numerous examples of American hubris over the centuries, and intentional and unintentional exploitation and abuse on the federal, state, and local levels. Of course, these sorts of instances and behaviors are certainly not limited to Americans. And one would wonder whether (if not already know that) many other countries were guilty of worse at the time. But the very fact that we had documents that expressed such good and right ideals, and that we failed to live up to them makes us the more guilty. Where there is no law, there is no recognition of sin. But where there are high standards, their selective application or pervasive violation becomes more starkly apparent. I think that a proper sense of national satisfaction and pride ought always to be tempered with a realistic understanding of past personal and collective failings, and an equally strong present determination to stand up for the weak against all doctrines of death at home and abroad. 

I spoke with a publishing coworker this evening who said that folks around in her area on the other side of the globe were anticipating imminent nuclear holocaust. I told her that people here were more concerned with whether or not the government was going to give us an extra day for Thanksgiving  holiday. It's so weird to be just an hour's flight from the border of North Korea, whence missiles (at least on days when the weather is fine) are launched, and yet so far removed from paying serious mind to potential mayhem. I pray that leaders who pursue dangerous ends will be soon removed from office. For all the military buildup of China and Russia worldwide over the last decade, and their respective beliefs in their own international manifest destinies, I would think it highly disadvantageous to everyone to have a penny-ante potentate like Kim Jun Un push large actors into positions of confrontation. It's a pity that just as these sleeping giants are awakening, and the United States is in intense need of wisdom at all levels of its leadership, that we should be helmed by someone whose obvious lack of tact seems to evidence profound underlying ignorance. 

On a certain level, the American president is calling a spade a spade, which has not been done in similarly blunt language by his predecessors (of both parties) who have fruitlessly sanctioned the PRK. On the other hand, one should try to calm a suicidal hostage-taker, not encourage him to begin pressing explosive buttons, just because you can and will ultimately defeat him. The goal is to remove the threat to civilians, promise the bad guy pizza and a getaway car, and then gradually move in so the subject can be neutralized, cuffed, and carted away without incident. Sanctions clearly haven't done this, as Kim has been unswervingly dedicated to his atom-splitting ambitions, whatever the cost to his people otherwise. And now instead of a tense but progressing negotiation we have a Nord-Ost theater standoff, a Beslan school siege; although the terrorists may ultimately be killed, it is possible that many innocents will die in the meantime. Yet, just as a confirmed China opponent like Nixon made vital steps towards normalizing diplomatic relations with the PRC, maybe it'll take someone as unabashedly bombastic as Mr. Trump to call North Korea's long-range bluff. 

In the meantime, one of my fifth-grade students told me today that if his sister does well in her classes, the whole family will be going to Europe in the winter break as her reward. She's already been to France and the U.K., so this trip may be to Germany. Another of my students, in the same class, just got back from a week in Paris. Others speak fondly of past and future vacations in Japan and Cambodia, or their recent "space camp" in Seoul (an experience which seems to have consisted almost entirely of going to amusement parks). Many of my adult students are also widely travelled, and several were shocked that I haven't been to Hawaii (they have), and recommended Australia and New Zealand. Maybe I should spend Chuseok in China proper, instead of just Hong Kong. If I will have nine days, I could go on an extensive package tour [for even though I loathe such tours, my Chinese is wholly limited to 謝謝 and 對不起 (thank you and I'm sorry), and GoogleTranslate doesn't work there!]