Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Meeting

I’m at a meeting two hours before work starts. Pockets of teachers form around the room like conspirators in a bar in a Russian novel. Each academy--private English academy that is, an after school program--huddles together as if to prepare for a barrage. We become factions in the room--each one whispering at a level appropriate to their fear. Our little group--RTG--talks as if we’re having mimosas at a Sunday brunch. It’s no secret that our academy is the only one gaining and keeping students. The rest are gashed for students and their phones ring constantly with complaints.
            A Korean woman, Elaine is her English name, smiles as she walks in. Her catfish smile and tornado style of speaking are much larger than her small height. She’s elastic and constantly moving as if she could die if she stopped. She sits down at a desk and the tips of her toes touch the linoleum floor.
            “Good morning, teachers,” our boss, Mr. Kim, smiles as he enters the room and steps onto the raised platform at the front of the room. He glitters in his silver suit, and his jacket comes to a diamond point at his belt buckle from his angled shoulders as if it was still on a hanger. A grumbled greeting runs through he room like a growl.
            “Anyeong hasayeo,” Mr. Kim says. He moves into a 1-2 blast beat of Korean, as if he was trying to talk out a Ramones’ song. The language itself is often disjointedly musical like a free jazz song, Miles Davis playing the saxophone out of tune and accompanied by a sitar.
            “Ahh,” Elaine says preparing to translate, “he says, ‘What are the three most important things in life?’”
            Everyone looks at each other. Usually there are notes like scripts giving the answers to all of his questions, the notes are usually sent out in memos and emails that are given to us by the head teachers. Everyone is trying to find the script.
            “He says, ‘The three most important things in life are long term goals, short term goals, and how to achieve them,’” Elaine translates. From here Mr. Kim moves onto our mission: giving Korean children a brighter future.
            There are framed pictures of Barrack Obama and Bill Gates on the wall. They look strange with Hangul scrawled next to them like embroidered graffiti, a code no one can crack.  Mr. Kim continues describing our core values, “Innovation and student success.” He claims students success and progress are our goals and not money. But he begins each meeting by talking about how we can increase our student numbers--education is a business. He gives the example of a banquet made for one hundred people where only fifty show up.
            “What do we do with the remaining food?” he asks.
            “Sell it at half price,” I joke. He laughs and slaps his knee. Everyone from my academy--RTG--laughs. Some of the teachers from the other academies grumble in the corners. Mr. Kim writes numbers in the collected grime of a thousand lessons. Smudged shadows of black marker run across the white board like smog covering snow. He writes the number 91 and circles it and then points at the RTG teachers.
            “They kept ninety one percent of their students,” Elaine translates.
            Mr. Kim begins explaining the importance of the parent surveys that ask the parents what they like about the academies. He paces while he explains that these surveys tell us what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing well.  “RTG was the best,” Elaine says. “They were the only academy to get more students and keep them.”
            “We’re number one,” I shout and pump my fist. The other teachers shoot sniper’s glances at me and Mr. Kim laughs at the front of the room. His eyes peak out like two assholes from gossamers of wrinkles as he chuckles.
             “He says, ‘We have to look at the parent feedback, the feedback is important…’” Elaine translates twirling her hands as if she was reeling in the words from some great lake out in front of her. I think about the stacks of books on my desk that I can never finish grading, and the constant conversation in my classroom while he talks about our success.
            A revolt erupts from a large, effeminate Mexican-American named Jay.
            “It’s no fair that we’re judged by the parents when most of our students hate us and they don’t pay attention and…” he says conjoining his complaints with a sighing, gasping and. His girlfriend sighs and rolls her eyes a lot and probably considers most Democrats to be too far too the right. She has a mop of red hair and a friend of mine says she looks like Miss Moppet who sat on a tuffet; maybe she’s grumpy because she forgot her curds and whey.
            Mr. Kim nods holding his pointed chin; his face is always wrinkled in the cheeks from smiling as if he just heard a joke. Most people call him a crook or a thief or a maniac, but I just think he genuinely cares about teaching Korean children English. I often see him putting books away, conducting meetings or staying late. He probably, in the Korean fashion, expects all the Americans and foreigners to believe they’re just as much a part of the company as he is.
            “But it’s…it’s not fair,” Jay’s voice quivers through his giant frame. His black-framed glasses twitter on his nose.
            “Man, he sounds like he’s going to cry,” Carlos whispers to me.
            Mr. Kim continues talking about feedback, and the surveys that the parents filled out showing how much they liked the school. He holds the marker like a microphone as he begins pacing the stage. He brings up national hero, and champion figure skater Kim Yuna.
            “After she won the championship and spoke so well, all Korean parents wanted their children to give presentations. Now, it is important that all Korean children learn to debate,” he explains. I imagine my students debating the Berenstein Bears. Chairs groan, vitriol runs like breaths through the room, and Mr. Kim returns to the board to draw a diagram of values in the formation of a T. “All students must debate and present,” Mr. Kim says.
            “Yeah, but, we can’t do all these things they do, and we have to give tests, and the other campuses downstairs have younger students and, and, and…” Jay cuts in and the room shakes with nods from the Athens campuses upstairs. They all sit at students’ desks now, crying and moaning the way the students do when they have too much homework or have to work with someone that annoys them.
            “Yeah, I mean, we bust our asses…” Elton, the American head teacher of Learning Village, jumps in. He goes on to talk about late nights, deadlines, troublesome kids, and the lack of any hindrances at my campus. I lean back in my chair and listen to the dissention trailing through the other side of the room. The students were fleeing for some reason. Maybe it was the constant influx of new teachers--most signed a one-year contract and didn’t resign. Maybe, it was the constant change or the new students with new mothers and new ideas about what their children should learn. Maybe it was the academy’s flexibility and inability to have any solid philosophy, any mission statement: if one mother claimed the class was too hard, the curriculum was changed for all of the students; if another mother claimed it was too easy, the class was again changed. From week to week a class that began as a history class might become a journalism class or a presentation class, or it might have tests everyday and or tests once a month. The fulcrum, the hinge of it all, is English, and those of us that understand this spent most of our days reclined and jotting down notes and jokes and activities to get the students to talk. Those of us that do not understand this spent their days rushing through the office, typing and reading and printing and photocopying and stuffing abandoned projects in the trash and asking anyone for an idea about what they should do to teach Ancient Egypt to children who had never heard of King Tut.
            Mr. Kim begins asking more questions. “What is the key to innovation?”
            “Creativity,” someone calls out.
            “No, speed,” he says as if it was a math problem.
            He begins scrawling numbers through the shadows of ancient lessons on the grimed whiteboard. He writes and erases, and then rewrites. He draws diagrams of edification and writes philosophies with no plan--no way to connect the divine with the earthly.
            “How can we get better?” Elaine translates. The jokes and catcalls have diluted into silence; everyone twists and looks for someone to answer the questions, to finish the meeting. I have drawn mazes inside of mazes, and Carlos draws pictures and graffiti tags in his notebook. I watch the clock and grow angry thinking about the lack of pay that we’ll receive for showing up early.
            “Now, you will all give presentations,” Elaine says. I’d heard about this, our head teacher at RTG Mike had told us we’d be giving presentations. My response was quick, “Fuck that.”
            Mike said it was about team building, and we all need to talk about something that we do at our campus. The academies huddle together and talk in whispers and spurts. We talk about our weekends, Shelly’s new shoes, a movie I want to see, and then we decide to talk about homework or test scores or something else. As the meeting ends, Mr. Kim tells us his dream for all the Korean children we teach. I am only half listening at first until I hear, “I wish, one day, that our students are in the Korean government, and hopefully, they can become senators and congressman in America, England and Canada.”
            I sit up and look around the room. I need to check if this is possible. I’m not up to date on the rules and regulations to become a senator or a congressman.
            With the meeting adjourned, Elton charges at Mr. Kim. His slight pouch of a stomach pushed back by his bull-like rush towards the CEO. He looks like a midnight manager at Radioshack more than an English teacher. I descend the stairs back to the office wondering if the students I teach might one day beat my own children in an election.  

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Glorious Leader of the PRK, The Death of Kim Jong Il

On Arirang, the English speaking South Korean station, they are showing a newscast of a North Korean anchorwoman in black Han-boke sniffling and shaking as she announces the Great Comrade’s death. Behind her is a mural of cascading pine trees that poke up like missiles, and she floats like a limestone mist on the grainy video, as if the video were recorded before modern video cameras, something submitted to America’s Funniest Home Videos.

                “Hello, this is your host Choi Kang,” says the host Choi Kang. He holds a large blue card like a child giving a speech at the front of the class. He blinks behind his large, headlight glasses, trying to keep back a smile from his leather face; he looks like a mole trying to hold back a laugh.

                “Today we will talk inconveniences of death of Kim Jong Il,” he says smiling to mark a period. “The news of Kim Jong Il’s death has become hot topic for news not just for Koreans, but for all world. Let’s find out more about information, about North Korean leadership after Kim Jong Il’s death,” Choi Kang says, his cheeks hanging like a basset-hound that was given plastic surgery, his hair is gray and white blended together like slate rock. The country exploded on Monday when it was revealed that Kim Jong Il had died. Every Korean I worked with stopped me in the hall to tell me the news.

                “Are you happy?” I asked a bubbly young Christian woman who often puts chocolate bars on all the teachers’ desks and has a cross, and small poster of a prayer to love all of God’s creatures wrapping like a banner around a dove on her office wall.

                “Yes, he was bad man, I think,” she said smiling and then hopping to the water cooler to pour herself some hot water for her tea.

                Arirang shows videos of massive marches, red, shimmering cards shake in an undulating wave of enthusiasm for Kim Jong Il’s birthday. They detail his possible birth in Russia in 1941, and North Korea’s claim that he was born in 1942.

                “They claimed he was born in 1942, because his father was born in 1912.”

                He hid in China during the Korean conflict, and came back to join the People’s party after the war. He was made the heir to the presidency in 1974. The woman speaking has a monotone voice that would be perfect for a subway intercom. They shoot back to Choi who is preparing to interview a Ph.d doctor. He is more composed this time, his cheeks latched down to his jaw to make sure a ripple of a smile doesn’t roll across his lips.

                The expert repeats over and over that the new Kim is too young and unprepared to rule. I think about the woman in the Han-boke, crying and shaking in her black robes. Their leader was like their father, an omnipotent, benevolent ruler who controlled every part of their lives. The woman has a good job in the party; she’s not standing on a street corner directing traffic on at an intersection that has no electricity in Pyongyang.

                I had a discussion with a young Korean man a week ago about Kim Jong Il. We were drinking in a bar that counts up your empty bottles after you’ve finished drinking for the evening.

                “He is crazy man, they are all brainwash,” he said snarling after showing me a picture of his pregnant wife who works in Seoul. A friend of mine showed up, and began asking more questions about Kim Jong Il, but the young man, snarling with bulky-Elvis Costello glasses and a mushroom top of fire-red hair only repeated his psychological evaluation of the glorious leader and showed us pictures of his wife’s stomach.

                Arirang plays staccato, heart attack inducing music while clips of newscasters reporting Kim Jong Il’s death flash across the screen. I wonder if they’ll make his death a national holiday in South Korea and celebrate it the same way they celebrate the fifth of November in England. Maybe they’ll burn effigies of him in the streets and giggle making Kim Jong Il jokes. But for now, Arirang is content with reminding us how young the new ruler is, the fact that any news or information about his mother is top secret, and having medical professionals to list all the maladies and mental problems of the Glorious Leader and his family.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Mid-Speed Train

Carlos and I were on a train bound for Seoul to meet a friend of mine visiting from America. A man lost his wallet in Daejeon, and according to the porter who was standing over us, he was sitting in our seats. The porter smiled and adjusted his shoulders in the too large suit; he looked like a wrinkle child wearing his father’s tailored pilot uniform. The neck protruded at an angle like a vulture and the cap sat awkwardly on his egg shaped, balding skull.

                The first time he came in the car his eyes came straight to us. Carlos sat up like a pitbull noticing a stranger at the fence of his yard. “If he asks us for our tickets…” he growled glaring at the bent, square shouldered wire man as he passed. The electronic card machine in his hand looked too large and hard for him to carry, but he soldered on through the slow moving car. I’d told Carlos for months if you want to see South Korea’s countryside you need to take the mid-speed train, the Saemeul. The KTX shoots across the country through gun-barrels of gray, dimpled metal that slice through mountains and blur the nation as if it were spinning by while you were on an acid trip. On the Saemeul everything floats passed like a moving pastoral landscape of beetle-shell metal hoods in the junkyard and cornrows of crops braided into the earth like dew covered green hairs. The man stopping the second time and leaning forward to ask for our tickets caused Carlos to miss a hillside memorial site glittering with a marble headstone.

                “See, this is fucking bullshit, he’s not asking…” Carlos growled. I pulled out my wallet and Carlos grumbled and did the same. We handed the small man our tickets. He had appeared for a third time in the car and after looking from side to side had come straight to us. He looked at the tickets and then began chewing some words in Korean. He had spoken the word, “Tickets,” like a square gumball that was cutting up his mouth. But the Korean was a finely minced meat that slid in out of his papyrus, ancient lips.

                “Chee ank…” it was all ch blends and ks to me as he waved his wallet around and pointed at our seats. I looked out in front of me at the large amount of leg room, and I pulled out my passport wondering if he thought that we hadn’t only snuck onto the train but somehow we had snuck into the country. He waved his head no and shuffled off.

                “This is fucking bullshit, man. This is that racist shit,” Carlos said rising in his seat and twisting backwards. The porter returned with a young woman in a glittering white dress and riding boots, she looked like a really expensive hooker or a really easy date.

                “He wants to know where you got on?” she asked looking bored and annoyed as if she had been talking to her boyfriend and playing video games at the same time.

                “Daejeon, he looked at our tickets,” I said. Carlos balled his fist and sat like a half stick of dynamite waiting to be lit.

                She shot a few sentences at the porter who smiled and chewed a few back.

                “He says someone lost their wallet in Daejeon, have you seen a wallet?” she asked.

                “We’ve been here an hour and I didn’t see anything,” I said. We twisted and looked around the floor in our seats and finally shrugged.

                “Okay,” she said. They both left and Carlos slid back into his seat.

                “Didn’t ask anyone else on the train,” he said.

                “True, but it’s usually foreigners that sneak on these trains and then pretend to not understand any Korean to get a free ride,” I said. The porter bowed at the doorway, and I watched a small town pass by the window. The scenery is what makes the Saemeul so wonderful, and with the extra forty-five minutes the porters have to find new ways to entertain themselves, and come up with new ways to catch lazy foreigners.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Saturday Night

This past Saturday I saw two young men dancing in the trunk of a car. I was seated at a red light, bored and waiting for the night to end. After heckling several pedestrians, and telling one man in a spandex shirt “Your brother’s going to be pissed that you stretched out his favorite shirt,” Tony and I turned our attention to a thumping car in a long line of traffic.
 They were stopped at a red light trying to push their way into the fortress of lights and bars that is Timeworld when the entire car began shaking. The car looked like a human bouquet with arms and legs and fingers flopping out of the windows. It was some macabre psycho’s dream driving down the street.
                “I bet there are people in the trunk,” Tony chuckled. As if he had said some magic words, some incantation reserved only for films and fairy tales, the trunk popped open at a break in the thumping techno and two young men with died hair began flopping and gyrating on the floor of the Kia. I say it was their car, but clearly they were only passengers. And we were grateful spectators as they danced towards the bars and the nightclubs where they would finally stand on two feet.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Attack of the Personal Trainers

People are working out everywhere these days. In Daejeon, South Korea the corner outside the Dunkin Donuts is a popular place for a few local Personal Trainers to convince people that they know all about fitness. They ambush the street corner while I sip my coffee and leaf through a book of poetry. They caught me unaware. They hang a banner over the plane tree and small diamond of grass outside of the window. One man in a track suit and tank top points and marks where the weights will go, who will stand where, and where the small step platforms will be placed. He is clearly the leader.
                Inside no one notices the beginnings of this live work out video. This is the first work out video shot with no cameras and to come with a free flyer. The workout begins. They march in a phalanx taking their positions at the handicap dip in the sidewalk. They move like a small scouting party wading into the enemy’s river. They erupt into lunges, clogging the sidewalk like a blood clot. The businessmen and shawled old women weave around them like blood cells trying to make their way back to the heart. But they’re lunges are too far and too sturdy to allow anyone to pass. They move to squats, and a man smoking a cigarette hands a bundle of rolled flyers to a woman standing next to him at the banner. At first I thought this was some Asian advertising ploy that I didn’t understand, but judging by the laughter and the slowed traffic moving through the lights, it’s just as strange here as it would be in America. The kickboxing coach steps forward. He has a Flock of Seagulls haircut and his shorts are nothing more than baggy speedoes. His punches look as if his wrists are broken and he is trying to twist his arm into a noodle. The two men and women behind him follow along in perfect unison. Each movement is synchronized, except, in the back, the woman in the white hoodie becomes confused and misses a right hook and instead throws a right leg kick that almost causes everyone to lose their place. The head Trainer turns to her, he has the tight Fu Manchu of an evil ruler in a kung fu movie. He contorts his face into that of a viper and curses her, I assume, for the practice that she missed. The boxing ends and it’s the woman in the white hoodie’s chance to redeem herself. She has thick, runner’s thighs and a plump ass and I watch it float back and forth as she gyrates and points her fingers to her dance routine. They step and bounce and blend a disco style with some bad moonwalking.
The kickboxing coach seems to enjoy it more than her as he thrusts his pelvis humping the air around him and almost shoving his cock in an old woman’s face that is passing with her shopping cart. They finish and fall into each other in a rugby huddle. I can see the head Trainer drawing out a new game plan on the concrete. They break and pack everything up, and in a blitzkrieg they’re gone squeaking down the sidewalk. The swooshing of nylon and polyester moving to attack another street corner in hopes that they can fill their six o’clock tae bo class, and get a few people to come to the seven o’clock weightlifting seminar.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Bastard Son of the Dragon King

It’s Saturday October 1, 2011, and yesterday I learned how Korea was founded. The Korean creation myth begins with a bastard Dragon Prince, a bear and the want of two animals of the Korean peninsula to become human.
                Nate began by telling us what he had heard from our Korean managers.
                “They claim the son of the Dragon king came down and found a bear and a tiger,” he began.
                “Okay, I’m with you,” I said taking off both of my headphones and turning away from my worksheets and game of Bubble Spinner.
                “All the animals had heard about people…”
                “So, the animals could talk?” I asked cutting in.
                “And there were no people in the world?”
                “No, there were people, just no people in Korea,” Nate said putting down his iPhone and turning towards me. “The Dragon king and his illegitimate son are like Zeus and the Greek gods, they come down to Earth and turn into humans and what not.”
                “That makes sense,” I said.
                “The Dragon king’s bastard son found a bear and a tiger that wanted to be human and they went to a cave together. The bastard prince waited for one of them to turn into a woman, and the tiger gave up. So, he had sex with the bear and that’s where the Korean people come from.”
                “That’s awesome,” I said. The rest of the office began asking questions, such as, “Koreans believe they are the progeny of a bastard?” and “Was the bear a woman before it changed, or did it become a woman after it changed?” and “How could the animals talk?” We all began asking students who either smiled at our interest in their history, or just shrugged at our questions. After piecing together what I found on the internet with what I could learn at work, this is what I came up with:
                In ancient Korea there were five family names and if you were born without one of these names you were considered a bastard because you had no legitimate ties to any of the ruling and aristocratic families. As a bastard you were unable to hold any government office, you couldn’t hold land; you couldn’t inherit money or have any power. Only the nobility of Korean society had these names, which meant large masses were bastards. The masses argument against the ruling class claiming they were all bastards was that the country was founded by the bastard son of the Dragon King. The Dragon Prince’s son became the first ruler of Korea, and his kingdom was near modern Pyongyang. This story’s importance can be found in the fact that Kim Jong Il claims that Tan’gun’s (the Dragon Prince’s son) bones were found in a cave near his father’s village. The myth became a source of pride and was central to the Korean shamanistic religion.  The importance of the masses is remembered each year on Foundation Day, October 3rd.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

See These Rocks

I’m watching a video of a black man, with dread locks and a fitted argyle and turquoise baseball cap, argue with a Korean man on a bus in Seoul. This week in Korea, in the foreign teacher community, this video has been the topic of much discussion and conversation.
                The man puffs out his chest and begins laughing and stabbing a finger into the face of the elderly Korean man who looks like a bamboo pole that sprouted arms and a crumbling skull with seaweed black hair. The large black man pushes the elderly man’s wife and holds out his fist calling them rocks. He yells with no fear. As he steps forward the crowd around him steps back as if they were a moving circle around him.
 I imagine that back in America this dreadlocked man would never think of doing this on the bus. He would keep quiet if someone had something to say to him, probably slink off the bus at the next stop to avoid confrontation. He wouldn’t point his finger into the chest of man with boulder arms and Thug Life tattooed across his stomach in Detroit. But he is certain that he can do it to an obsequious Korean man who bows and asks him politely to sit down while he yells and compares his hands to stone, or concrete, or iron.
But because he lives in Korea, and the only other people that live in Korea are English teachers, he feels like the toughest man in a pre-school. Then, of course, there are Koreans. Koreans who make it a point of national pride to give you the best impression of their country. They will walk you five blocks to find the restaurant you are looking for. They’ll allow you to leave the dry cleaners with your clothes, and return later to pay them for their service. They’ll invite you to their house for dinner and then take out for a drink afterwards, clawing at your hands and growling when you reach for your wallet.
 While some racism does exist, and you could even say it is prevalent, this man is a perfect example of what many of us call a Loser Back Home.
                These are people, for whatever reason, who never fit in to American society or even understood anything about it or themselves. I’m not talking about nerds, or science lovers, or that awkward musician who hangs around other awkward musicians in black make up. All of those people found a group that understands them, and they learned to understand and like themselves. I’m talking about people who try on personalities like hats. They wake up and keep trying out a new lie until they find one that gets someone, anyone to listen to them for a moment. In America their back stories are known, and they drift from city to city like a barge of trash trying to find a dump to rest in. But in Korea they are perfectly free from any of the cultural clues that allow other Americans to realize how lame they are. Here, surrounded by other actors and actresses, they can reinvent themselves.
They talk to women freely here, because they know that the story about them hiding in their ex-girlfriend’s bushes while she’s on a date, or them buying gifts for the happy hour bartender who filed a restraining order against them, are far, far away.
I listen to them in the bars trying on different accents and hometowns. They talk out of the bottom of their mouths, or they stretch out their a’s to sound like they’re from Boston. Maybe they play the wounded loner, or even the tough guy. The tough guy is the most common pantomime by these pod people. One man, a graphic designer from the richest town in New Zealand where the people are different shades of ivory and everyone mows their Kentucky bluegrass on Saturday, had Thug Life tattooed across his stomach. He buys two pitchers of beers and says hello by cocking his thumb back and shooting his finger at people he knows.
                A friend of a friend, we’ll call him Jim, once told me that to get laid in Southern California he told women he was Leonardo DiCaprio’s cousin. This was after a diatribe about how he hated any guy that lied to get laid. “I never did…except that one time.”
                The Greeks had a great little saying, “Know thyself.” These people could benefit from ruminating for an hour over which personality they want, and then learn to stay in character all of the time. Either that or they could just accept the fact that they’re awkward, weird and crazy and move on with their lives. I hope they never do either and continue to entertain me with their attempts to resemble a caricature of a human being.