Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Student Tears

One of my smaller students trudged up the slippery granite stairs this afternoon sobbing as if his heart would break, and immediately collapsed into his chair with his head in his arms and continued to weep in abject despair.

I was at a loss. What had happened?

His Korean teacher came up when my next door colleague phoned her, and she was able to discover the roots of his sadness. The little guy was ravenously hungry, and he’s completely stressed out. He’d missed both breakfast and lunch, as his schedule is so full of extracurricular activities (piano, math, English, and possibly other things) he hadn’t had time to eat.

He told her, “I hate my life.” I asked her if she’d called his mother and told her, and she said she had.

No seven year old should be pushed so hard. When does he have time to play!?

We made sure that he had a snack, and then when he was calmer he returned to class, where he quickly completed the day’s assignment. Perfectly, as usual. He’s a really smart fellow, and from my observation he puts a lot of pressure on himself. He’s in second grade at school but in an academy class with third graders because he’s so sharp.

I am quite concerned about him. I would really have liked to give him a big hug and tell him it will all be OK, but of course that’s not proper, so I lightly patted the shoulder of his puffy coat and admonished him to tell me if he feels tired or stressed. He’s a sweet little guy.

I really want all my students to be healthy, happy, and as chill as possible for primary schoolers, but that’s a tall order in the South Korean educational environment, despite our physical distance from the competitive cooker that is Seoul. I pray that God will use me to encourage them and not to burden them. They have such heavy burdens already.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Preach It, Sister

The upper band of the portable electric heater beneath my desk is the bright orange of a live coal, and has been toasting my shins for some two hours, while the rest of me sits chilled in the cool common room and occasionally attends to the subject of seventeenth century sermonizer and devotional writer Lancelot Andrewes.

Despite his romantic given name, Andrewes was a lifelong bachelor, scholar, and devoted churchman who survived from the Elizabethan era into the reign of Stuart kings James I and Charles I. He was greatly admired by T. S. Eliot, who celebrated him as one of the best prose writers of any era. However, at present I am not reading any of Andrewes’s own works, just derivative materials about his theology and his effects on other writers and preachers. This is mostly yawn-inducing stuff.

I am 850 pages into Les Miserables, which is hard to put by for the drudgery of lucrative employment. It’s a wonderful yarn, although I gather that Hugo didn’t think of women as human. He loved some, scorned others, and pitied them all, poor dears, but his female characters are generally in two categories: angelic (often victimized) creatures, or dull (sometimes demonic) cyphers. The one exception to this broad rule is the character of Eponine, a literate slattern dressed in rags who is redeemed in large part by her self-sacrificial love for the idealistic Marius (on whose behalf, and contrary to her evil father’s wishes, she acts independently). She also is able to express herself directly and articulately in ways no other woman does in the story. Otherwise, Hugo’s women are either beautiful, innocent, and unwary; plain, prudish and pious; or ugly, stupid, and evil.

Women in Les Miserables (but for a convent head, desperate to talk, who lectures an uncomprehanding gardener about history for two or three pages) are sensual and silly, or if more practical also wholly devoid of attraction. There are ranks of elderly maidservants silently attending to many of the men’s housekeeping needs, no matter how reduced their circumstances. One is described as follows: “She passed her leisure hours after Sunday Mass counting the linen in her trunk and spreading out on her bed the dress materials which she bought but never had made into dresses.“ It’s a picture of an unrealized life. After all, elsewhere the writer opines, “A little girl without a doll is nearly as deprived and quite as unnatural as a woman without a child.” A wife who has the presumption to suggest that her husband remain faithful is diverted from the subject by his giving her control of the household finances. She proceeds to ruin his finances through mismanagement.

Women aren’t even in control of their own faculties at times. At the end of one chapter, Hugo concludes: “A woman’s gaze is like a mechanical contrivance of a kind that seems harmless but in fact is deadly. We encounter it daily and give no thought to it—to the point, indeed, of ignoring its existence. We live untroubled lives until suddenly we find that we are caught. The machinery, the gaze, has laid hold of us, snatching at a loose end of thought, a momentary absence of mind, and we are lost. The machine swallows us up. We are in the grip of forces against which we struggle in vain, drawn from cog-wheel to cog-wheel, from agony to agony and torment to torment, our mind and spirit, fortune and future, our whole being; and according to whether we have fallen into the clutches of a base creature or a gentle heart we shall be disfigured by shame or transformed by worship.” There are only the poles of heaven and hell in Hugo, no ordinary human females between them. Hugo doubtless would consider me, and most of my girlfriends, odd indeed. Or would he inevitably lump me in the group of featureless and faithful old virgins, quietly awaiting death while performing the rote rituals of daily existence, neither transformed by faith or ravaged by indulgence? [Note: Quotations are from Norman Denny's 1976 translation of Les Miserables, republished in 2013 by Penguin]

Friday, January 12, 2018

Dining Out, Reading People

Thanks to leaving aside my usual list of restaurants this evening, I was subjected to multiple episodes of what can be politely described as sudden, severe, spasmodic weight loss. The food was lousy; neither my tongue nor my intestines were impressed. I amply repent my disloyal dining, and vow to stick to the tried and true henceforth.

I am a creature of habit: if I find something or someone I like, I stay with it or them unless or until I am forced to reconsider. In the last year, I have determined that I like two meat restaurants here. There are two shabu shabu places I have tried (one is better, but more expensive). I frequent one Chinese restaurant, prefer one bibimbap franchise (although I have eaten that dish in several mom and pop spots with Albert and my other students), and I know a couple of cafes that serve good samgyetang. I get my tuna gimbap from a lady who anticipates my order when I walk in the door. Likewise, the lady who cooks my biweekly pork cutlets knows without saying I don’t take kimchi with it, just soup, shredded cabbage and rice. But I thought I would go off the beaten gastronomic path tonight and try something new on Food Street, where I had never eaten. This was a bad idea. Anthony Bourdain I am not. Remaining in a rut can be good for the gut, I think.

Thursday was a snow day—which we have to make up Saturday—and I walked carefully through the ice and slush to Maxwell’s coffee shop, where I always get a strawberry yogurt smoothie (recently accompanied by avocado toast, which looks and tastes like a work of art, and takes that long to construct). Eduard inspected my notebook, then sat on it and started licking the pages. I removed him and he went to sleep on a nearby chair, one gold furred front leg thrown over his orange eyes, looking for all the world like a fluffy circular seat cushion.

A couple came into the shop—an attractive young Korean woman and a remarkably handsome young Spaniard with naturally blonde hair and extremely dark eyelashes. Maxwell asked if they were dating, and she denied it flatly at the same time he firmly asserted they were. They met in Australia, where both were working and studying English. They’ve only just come to Korea, and will soon be meeting her parents on the mainland. She seemed less than thrilled at the prospect. He seemed thoroughly European in a way that stood out starkly from the local background, talking in  stiff, clipped phrases and with a mechanical affect. She sat down to talk to me—only just avoiding Edouard, who was deeply asleep and curled into the aforementioned pillow shape—and mentioned that she had been considering going abroad again, but was so attracted by Jeju that she wondered about settling here for a while. The Spanish dude pulled a chair close next to her, sat down awkwardly, and didn’t participate in the conversation. They were a peculiar pair. 

Maxwell himself told me that he’d almost gotten married a while back, and that his current girlfriend and he were constantly having to look up words when they talked to one another. I think that would drive me insane. I know international relationships can work, but communication is challenging even when both people allegedly speak the same language from birth, and exponentially more so when you’re lacking common vocabulary.

Speaking of lacking common elementary school storytelling class is going better—I began with selections that were too basic, but today the children seemed really engaged (we read two books today, one from the Clifford the Big Red Dog series and the other by Maurice Sendak). I love children’s literature. Yesterday, I sent copies of the cat stories I wrote to Paxifist, in hopes that she’ll want to illustrate them. I want to see them into print by the end of the year. Anita and a friend of hers did this very thing recently—they collaborated on a board book story and pictures, then contracted with a Chinese printer through Alibaba, and are now selling copies alongside other children’s items at DC-area crafts fairs. I have really inspiring and talented friends. I need to follow their proactive example and quit being such a lazy bum.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

I Plan To Return To Taipei

My first impression on being back in Korea is: everybody really does dress alike here. It’s similar to when I was in Chicago 10 or 15 years ago—unrelenting black outerwear—but all of the same general shape, too. And essentially no foreigners. There are foreigners all over the place in Taiwan, and many many people speak English, at least in a limited form. They know the English associated with their profession, and they use it without hesitation. Here, no. And Taiwanese as a whole dress comfortably, and not all from the same catalog. They seem more at ease with imperfection.

Taipei looks and feels a lot like my hometown, only ten to twenty times bigger, and with tens of thousands of motor scooters, whose riders, even in pouring rain (wearing helmets and plastic slickers) hunch determined toward their handlebars, boldly zipping along the streets alongside the taxis and other four wheeled traffic. And there are many more security grills over the windows in Taipei than Augusta. Almost every window, al least for the first three or four stories (and many residences aren’t more than that in Taipei City—its tallest structure is shorter than the average in Hong Kong, by my estimation), are barred, barricaded with heavy steel doors and fenced in with metal like prison cells. Yet many of these have potted plants and flowers interwoven through their passive defense systems, which are rusted or engrimed, softening the aspect a bit. Is the crime rate worse than I observed, or was the place constructed under a now-vanished mentality where each family home was its respective fortress? The concrete walls along the damp narrow alleyways are crumbling in spots, and barbed wire atop those walls could be half a century old, judging from the bends in it, if not the rust, which might have developed overnight in such a moist environment. In the alley near the building where we stayed, the forbidding entry doors were permanently propped open to the stairs. Although the suburbs have plenty of tall buildings, the downtown doesn’t. I like the place. It felt comfortable, if somewhat delapidated

I noticed three dramatic exceptions to the sophisticated look of the Taipei 101 mall, all of which implied that the management of the item’s respective outlet wasn’t keeping close tabs. There was a terminally dusty duck (it’s supposed to be a swan, but it was so drab from not being cleaned that it looks at best like the ugliest duckling) constructed of faceted crystal balls suspended on nylon fishing line between the floor and ceiling of the Swarovski store. There was visible dirt not only on the crystals themselves, but also an accumulation of debris on the ground between the ends of the lines. It formed an unattractive contrast to the glittering baubles in the sales cases. It was nasty. On the top floor, in the main window of Christian Dior, was a gown that had clear damage to the edge of the embroidery, where it had apparently been yanked roughly off the mannequin, and or thoughtlessly pulled on, or both. You see a dress in a shop window that costs thousands, it’s supposed to look runway-ready, not secondhand. And lastly, in a case outside one of the three floors leased by the jeweler Cartier, there was a beautiful pair of blue sapphire and white diamond fringe earrings surmounted by tiny panther heads. The earrings themselves were exquisite, but the fact that the long fringe featured white diamond briollette drops was obscured by their being crumpled on the felt at the bottom —the hanging display on which they were mounted was at least a centimeter too short. Again, if I were in the market for a $30-40,000 pair of earrings, or if I were marketing them, wouldn’t it be to everyone’s best advantage to see that they were displayed properly?

We visited a different kind of mall, where dust isn’t considered a marketing flaw, on Tuesday. It was an antiques mall, chockablock with rough and delicate pottery, primitive and fine furniture of various ages. There were huge chests and inlaid shelves, paintings and sculpture—a Catholic carving of a peaceable pale cloak-clutching Jesus was directly opposite a figure of a blue-green Buddhist demon grimacing and holding a spear—old wood and bronze and silver, garden stools and dressing cases and bamboo tools. They had both a resident dog (who was wearing a red Taiwan-USA sports jersey) and a tabby cat, neither of whom evidenced willingness to approach customers.

 Lunch was at a hole-in-the-wall local eatery, where the proprietors were friendly but didn’t speak a word of English, and since my Chinese is limited to “Hello,” “Thank you,” “That’s fine,” and “Sorry,” we made use of the point and smile method to order. For two, it totaled less than 9 USD, or less than a third of one entree without a drink at the nearby TGI Friday’s. We each had some boiled corn on the cob, potatoes, rice, vegetables, a large breaded meat cutlet, and broth. I need to carry my own Korean-style chopsticks—again, those thick Chinese ones were a challenge to handle.

We had lunched at a nice Western style local restaurant on Monday, where the cheesecake wassuperb, the pasta was good, and the salad unimpressive. Iceberg lettuce and a sprinkle of walnuts does not a salad make. And the meal was $845 (New Taiwan Dollars), about 30 USD, which seemed high for what we got. This really was the cheapest international trip I have ever taken. Round trip air tickets were 300 USD, the AirBnb apartment was $135 (each person) for four nights, and I spent less than $350 on all my food, in-country transport (metro, bus, and taxi), and other purchases. I had changed more money into NTD, and I am keeping it—they next time we have a holiday, and it is forecast to be sunny in the city—getting wet to the knees every day, avoiding drips from awnings and other people’s umbrellas and splashing into deep puddles lost its charm pretty quickly—I plan to go back on my own.

We went to three of the famous Taipei night markets: Shilin (which was great—we found some lovely headbands, June bought an umbrella, and I got a traditional style reversible quilted cotton coat), Ningxia (meh), and Raohe. At the last, what was most interesting to me was not how many restaurants and food carts there were (those were at every market), but how the usual setup of preparation area and dining area were reversed. There, the kitchens were out under awnings on the streets, the workers prepping and cooking in the open, and the eaters were inside, at tables in the buildings. There were delicious smells and dreadful ones, or rather, a single repulsive odor that we ran into on several occasions which nauseated June and which I blamed on the local version of chitterlings. I can’t imagine what else it might have been. We got fresh fruit from a fruit stand that was as naturally sweet as if it had been soaked in sugar: mango and atemoya. We had fruit juice and pastry and fresh grilled chicken skewers. With all that I ate, my stomach wasn’t upset. June didn’t like going into the nearby temples, where incense was burning in front of dark statues, but the colors and carvings and bas relief tiles were lovely. Some of the votary items, not so much: fetuses, skulls, and other odd objects, particularly for a market area. The Taiwanese, if the twenty some odd miles of Taipei we walked can be considered exemplary, are much less superstitious than Hong Kong folks. Aside from the occasional old temple, there were few statues of gods or altars with incense sticks smoking in front of them. Most shops didn’t have emblems referring to fortune or luck or what not in evidence, just helpful proprietors. Churches were relatively common, including one just half a block away from that elaborate temple. Incidentally, the church I attend in Seogwipo is next door to a Buddhist temple. On the grounds of the naval base nearby, the church and the temple are not only neighbors, they share a parking lot. Presumably they don’t have simultaneous services.

We saw two other temple-like structures in Taipei, one a monument to scientific advancement (we visited the gift shop, since that was the only part open on Monday), and the other to the performing arts. The second, the National Theater, was also closed on Monday, but lit up inside, where they were filming a drama. There was a big group of extras indoors wearing tuxedos around a red carpet, and a Rolls Royce parked outside, where the carpet would have ended if it weren’t rolled up thanks to the pouring rain. The huge chandeliers inside were Chinese palace lantern style interpolated with Western style crystal prisms. They looked awesomely heavy and were suspended from golden chains. I would love to go to a performance there someday—to me, beautiful theaters aren’t just to be visited, but experienced. Across the road were a bunch of bridal photo shops, displaying examples of the gowns in which you could take your pre-wedding pictures. All were strapless and low-cut. It’d been so long that I had looked at wedding dresses that I was really surprised—is it the fashion to show that much skin?—but a late-night perusal (thanks, insomnia! I had three nights of not falling asleep until after 6 AM and then, finally, one happy night of dropping right off at midnight and resting until 8:30.) of popular websites confirmed that this is the trend nowadays. Not a fan. My figure is an hourglass that’s dropped more than half its sand, and my chest-waist-hip dimensions read like a locker combination.

This morning, as we were packing to leave, the sun came out for the first time. We had endured unrelenting rain for the full three days we were in the city. The clothes June washed on the second night didn’t dry, but were stuffed moist into our suitcases. It was colder, though, than it had been, and I dressed in layers knowing it would be more cold in Korea. And, boy, is it colder in Korea!When we landed in Jeju it was 0°C, and the whole island was covered in a thin but undeniable layer of snow. Whereas the mainland expects snow and has the means to deal with it, Jeju doesn’t, and our bus was late in coming and later still slowly crossing the island on the slippery roads. June says she doesn’t think we’ll have a day off tomorrow, but that there will be fewer students. I would like to stay home tucked in to my warm bed and finish reading Les Miserables.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Taipei 101

June’s luggage clocked in at three different weights on the scales of the same airline yesterday. When we checked in in Jeju, it was 6.5 kg. At the domestic counter (where we went by mistake) in Busan, it was 7 kg. At the international counter at the same airport, it was 6 kg. June joked that the paper tag they had added in Jeju must have been really heavy, and that walking between two terminals is clearly good for weight loss, but that baggage seems to shed pounds much more readily than we humans do.

You could still purchase duty-free booze at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport at midnight when June and I rolled our cases towards immigration. The booths outside customs that sold short-term unlimited data SIM cards, however, had closed hours earlier or were out of unreserved product. We avoided several dubious men offering taxi rides in the airport (what gives?! That’s one of the fundamentals of travel anywhere—you don’t accept rides from people who approach you in the airport, but particularly if you’re female, it’s after midnight, and you are in a country where you can’t read or speak the language!) to get the last bus to the Taipei City main terminal.

From the moment the plane touched down the dismal weather was obvious: raindrops speckled the windows and the runways glistened blackly. Outside it was warm enough to shed the coat I’d worn in Korea—that which had been such a necessity in Busan, where we were stuck on the tarmac for a bit waiting for a bus after deplaning, breathing out white steam and shifting on the metal steps. In Jeju and Busan it was dry, but I had checked the local forecast—rain was due in Taipei for the duration of our stay. During the bus ride, I looked out on ye typical developed world normal boring city in the dark and rain, lighted in the usual orange and white fluorescence, late night traffic and concrete buildings and expressways. If not for the fact that the road signs were in Chinese and English, we could have been in Portland. Downtown, though, there were hundreds of motor scooters parked neatly on each block of wet sidewalk, and even in the downpour there was a small fleet of hardy riders, of all ages, waiting on their scooters ahead of the four-wheeled traffic at each light.

At the otherwise deserted terminal there were at least 15 taxis in a long rank expecting us bus passengers, and we got a good driver who not only took us (GPS that can read hand-scrawled Chinese characters is such a blessing) directly to our AirBnb, he also waited (without our asking) to make sure we got to the right building in the dark and wet. It was almost 3 AM Korean time (2 local) when we stumbled into the eighth-floor apartment (the elevator only stopped at odd floors) and our two bedrooms. We cranked open the windows to release the overwhelming odor of air fresheners and in the rattle of the rain cascading down the porch roofs in the alley explored our home away from homes, which had a large common space and less than six inches to spare between the mattress sides and the walls in the bedrooms. I had a hot shower and my mattress is lovely, but I had my—what has come to be usual—dreadful time falling asleep. June woke me up after three hours so that we could make it to my 11 AM appointment with the Apple people to get my battery replaced.

The mall where the Apple store is located, at the foot of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the city, is a multistory cathedral in Art Deco style to the god of luxury retail. Harry Winston is on the third floor. Every luxury watchmaker from the common cheap Rolex to the genuinely expensive Piaget was represented, every clothing and handbag designer coveted by the aspirational classes, and many Western jewelry retailers were ensconced, all with elegant minimalist window displays behind heavy beveled glass. I went to Zara and bought three shirts for a grand total of 40 USD. They were on sale.

June and I, neither of us normally fans of shopping, had a wonderful time walking each level of the cream marble galleries, snarking at and admiring the things in the windows with the frankness shared by people with good taste and no money. June loathed the snake motif prevalent at Bulgari and we both wondered at the “attacked by a rainbow rabbit” mules at Ferragamo. I scorned Van Cleef and Arpel’s spotty diamond creations (only pave will do!) and sneered at the matronly Tod’s moccasins.

True to my expectations of large multinational corporations, the Apple store didn’t have a record of my carefully premade appointment, but a succession of bilingual red-shirted staff members kindly worked me in for battery diagnostic test after regretfully informing me that “due to the worldwide rollout” of the battery replacement, they were on back order for two-three weeks. I already knew (since it’s not keeping a charge for more than a couple of hours) and they happily recognized that my battery needed replacement, and I got a testing number that I will have to share with an authorized retailer in Korea in order for them to order the battery I need.

There aren’t any Apple stores in Korea, just a handful of these authorized retailers, and they are all on the mainland. I am going to have to fly to Daegu to get my battery replaced. I don’t mind having an excuse to explore more of the country, but I do rely on my phone, and I dearly hope it won’t take more than one trip to get it fixed. Gallivanting all over Southeast Asia trying to get a new battery is a tad ridiculous. And I had better get the $29 deal.

We ate lunch in the basement food court. There were thousands of people there by that time, and getting a seat to enjoy our good Indian meal took tactical finesse and outright luck. I was dead on my feet by four, so we returned to the beautifully clean metro, where everyone carefully queues to board, and went back toward home.

God had huge mercy on me today. I had unzipped my backpack on the top floor of the mall to fish out my ailing phone to take my first photos of the trip, and in my fatigue and absentmindedneess had forgotten to zip up the compartment...which had my passport in it, among other things. Not until we’d wandered around indoors for another half hour, and were out on the soaking streets, did things start falling out, and this was immediately brought to my notice by a passerby, and another girl helped me pick up my belongings. Nothing was missing.

I misdirected us on the train (G10 is known on this side of the transfer as R8, and I kept us on the train until R10), which slowed our return. We stopped briefly at the Hakka Cultural Center, too. The Hakka are one of the people groups on the island. Unforunately it was closing within half an hour and isn’t open Monday, so our visit was short; we hope to go back Tuesday. At the apartment I immediately took a shower and went to bed. And went right to sleep!

And woke up...two hours later, fresh. And now I have been awake for five hours and I am jittery. The skin under my eyes is beginning to resemble a pair of old IKEA bags. I am surely not going to live to see fifty, because my body just can’t take this over the long haul. As I told my mom the other day, I have caught myself on the verge of doing truly addled things—like taking off my shoe and tossing it out the window—because of my sleep deprivation, and every nerve in my body feels like I have stuck a metal chopstick into a light socket (they have round outlet holes in Korea, perfect for toddlers to use the local eating utensils to electrocute themselves). I walked more than six miles today, and ate healthy food. I am not obsessing over anything. I just can’t sleep, and it’s driving me mad.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Singing, Bowing In The New Year

When I returned to church last night for the watch night concert and service, I spotted an elderly gentleman dressed in brown hanbok, the traditional loose pantaloons and overlapping robe that was everyday wear for Joseon dynasty Korean aristocracy. He was only lacking the tall black conical horsehair hat, and had tucked a modern red silk kerchief at this throat. Ladies (usually elderly) occasionally wear hanbok gown to church, but I believe this was the first time seeing a man so clad there.

The pews gradually filled as the concert hour passed—there was a men’s quartet with two guitars, and three delightful soprano ladies, a disheartened contra bassist and a string ensemble accompanied by an enormous saxaphone. And a true music prodigy, a ten year old boy who played a complicated and lengthy classical violin piece from memory. He was extraordinarily gifted, already Juilliard worthy.

Then the pastor stood up, and he was also wearing hanbok—his pastoral vestments might have been cut a little differently from the academic robes I am used to, but they were reassuringly formal, Presbyterian black. The shorter, older gentleman joined him on the platform (they don slippers when mounting the dias, which is both reverent and comfortable—with the hanbok, stocking feet and soft shoes they looked like they were welcoming us into a home). After several prayers, we all sang hymns, and then went forward to present a special offering and our personal prayer requests for the year (my three, which an English speaking member of our small group translated to Korean as a help for the prayer team, are best summarized as: marriage, language, and publication); and pick up change banks to be filled for the needy. The pastor gave a short sermon about Isaiah, and then a short video of scenes of church activities from the last year counted down to midnight. We wished each other Happy New Year in the pews, and then everyone rose and we exchanged deep bows with the pastors and the elders.

Outside the sanctuary, children were playing in the vestibule and eating what remained of the many sweet snacks the adults hadn’t carried into the sanctuary. One older lady insisted on filling a plate for me and June—I stuffed most of the cookies into my purse for later nibbles.

I gave Maxwell and Roxanne small plates of baklava on Saturday afternoon. I had sent Jeff a message telling him we would be there at the coffee shop, and not only did he come, but so did my other student, Bill. Happily I had already ordered and paid for my avocado toast and strawberry smoothie before they arrived. It was a lovely chance to chat with everyone, although poor Maxwell was forced to share his baklava with the other guys—since I didn’t know whether they’d show, I hadn’t brought extra. I told them that I was going to a free classical music concert, and they decided to come too on the spur of the moment, which worked out perfectly, since the cafe owner had saved front-row seats for me and my companions—and my other friends got confused as to the time and were late. Maxwell joked that he was going to shut down his shop and come with as we all precipitately abandoned him and Eduard, who has become a lap cat in this period of colder weather.

Several of the door prizes at the concert were Jeju United soccer balls, signed by (or printed with the signatures of) the team members. What was the peculiar connection between classical music, a shoreside coffeehouse, and a professional sports team? The maestro, the coffeehouse owner, and the Jeju United coach were all high school classmates. School connections last until death here, and are essential not only for business but also for marriage. That’s how most people meet their spouse—a friend of a friend, a coworker of a classmate. There’s a social network in place that weaves everyone together, assuring a certain level of mutual accountability.

I was supposed to go on a short hike with my coworkers to see the first sunrise of the year, but insomnia knocked down that intention. I was still awake when my alarm went off, and for hours thereafter. I was so cold, twitchy and mentally overwound that my body clock continued to strike thirteen until mid morning. I dozed unrestfully for a couple of hours while dreaming of my crush starring in a beer commercial. I did get up and do some editing work, only to soon be pulled into the Wikipedia wormhole reading about the profoundly screwed up members of the Fabian society, at least some of whom were on the list of people to be arrested that the Nazis had preemptively prepared as a part of their unexecuted plan to invade Great Britain.

Then I watched Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on Netflix and followed the fluff with a weighty French-produced documentary on Hitler’s special train (first named Amerika because he liked the notion of the genocide of the North American natives by European settlers; then named Brandenburg once German declared war on the US in late 1941). They’d cobbled together film of Hilter’s meetings and traveling entourage. The men who were directly responsible for tens of millions of soldier and civilian deaths look increasingly ordinary to me as I get older. Minus the epaulets and the microphone crushing speeches, they could be anyone. That’s an important factor to consider in history teaching—not only the banality of evil but its often personally unexceptional practicioners, people who entwine their hatreds into nets to snare the innocent and who sell their own souls to Satan. Neither beauty nor extreme ugliness has to identify them. And the documentary was also a good reminder that no matter how technically sophisticated evil might be, it does eventually implode, and the next generation repurposes the relics so that their original associations are quickly lost and covered over with the healing proximity of ordinary human life. One of my coworkers told me that South Korea land speculators are buying up property at key points along the DMZ, betting that in the next twenty years the nasty, brutish and short Kim will no longer be rolled around on the northern side and that their land values will skyrocket as the peninsula attempts to put itself back together again.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Year In Review 2017 / 2018 Year In Preview

Dreams realized and unrealized this past year:

1) I don’t know how good a job I did teaching this past year, but I was asked to stay on… Or at least not denied when I said I planned to re-up my contract!

2) Still haven’t met that good and Godly guy...or, if I have, it hasn’t occurred to either of us yet! 

3) Currently waiting to hear back about the market viability of the book translation...patience is a virtue, patience is a virtue, patience is a virtue! Argh.

4) I visited just one other country besides Korea this past year. I am scheduled to go to Taiwan this coming Saturday. I need to get a new iPhone battery at the store in Taipei 101, though that’s not the sole reason I am going...

5) One friend did indeed visit me here in 2017! No family members yet, but perhaps this year...

6) I definitely hiked dozens of miles on local trails (I don’t know if I broke the century mark), and I hiked on Hallasan, though I haven’t made it to the top yet!

7) I got more than five essays published (most co-authored academic reference works, but hey!) and was paid for them.

8) Do I have a real Korean friend? Roxanne is well on her way to that position, and has certainly acted as a true support, emotionally and logistically, this past year. My coworkers, too, have been particularly kind. Kristen introduced me to a good church and has translated portions of many sermons for me. Maxwell is a gem, but I don’t know if he considers me a friend yet, or merely a regular customer, and besides, he’s an American (albeit of Korean ancestry). Albert continues to flirt with me and actually back-hugged me the other evening while I was shivering outside waiting for a taxi (I hope he doesn't get the wrong idea because I permitted this--I was really cold!). I still don’t really know any local artists, though I have met several.

9) Faithful Bible reading...hah! Praying...daily, but mostly panicked, "Please, Lord, don't let me make these children miserable or let me do anything profoundly stupid," ones.

10) No novel have I written, just a fair number of blog posts.

For 2018, here are my dreams:

1) Learn at least enough Korean to carry on an ordinary conversation comfortably.

2) Round umpteen of: Meet a good and Godly guy and be happily married. (As if! But I am perpetually hopeful.) Incidentally, one of the ladies at church told me today that insomnia is a sign of the early stages of menopause. Oh, joy.

3) Year 8: Get the book translation published! It’s still under consideration by that publisher. I really would like to be able to send a copy to the Georgetown History Department for their “faculty and graduate publications” bookshelf. Thereafter, I can start drafting the Pirogov biography.

4) Visit a minimum of three other countries. I should be a third of the way to this goal soon!

5) Have family member(s) come visit me here on Jeju.

6) Hike at least 100 more miles of local trails, including to the top of Hallasan.

7) Get at least 10 essays/articles/stories published and get paid for them!

8) Establish several deep friendships with kindred spirits, wherever they hail from.

9) Be faithful with my Bible reading and pray regularly for myself and others.

10) Save enough money to afford a significant down payment on my house.