Tuesday, 27 April 2004

Mountain, Sauna, Matt, Church, Funny Students

OK. Fully aware that the last e-mail was a downer (so
much so that I've received about a third of the normal
number of responses to my updates, and most of those
much later, and from different people, than usually
respond to them, I'll try to balance it with a little
bit of wonder and joy.

And, storyteller that I am, I'll do it episodically.

On the night of the last full moon, one of my
coworkers invited me to climb Buram mountain (the
mountain five minutes from my house,) after work.
Just in time for the mosquitoes to get moving, we
headed for the forested mountain, and climbed, using
trails and occasionally pulling ropes, to make our way
upwards for about half an hour as the sun went down.

The moon was orange, and the patterns of streets and
apartment buildings in the valley between the
mountains was stunning -- there was just so much city.
For the southern Ontarians, imagine stopping at a
lookout point driving down Mount Hope on Hamilton, but
instead of looking down on Hamilton, looking down on a
city five times the size of Toronto (and visibility
was good enough that we could see a good quarter of
it). Lights all the way to the horizon. The photos
turned out beautifully, and they're on Jon's digital
camera.

We have two new co-workers: Matthew, who's really
energetic, positive, and fun, as well as being a
writer himself. He's a good, smart guy, and so far
we've really enjoyed each other's company. I've kind
of taken it upon myself to try and show him and the
other, brand-new teacher (Amanda, who looks a little
like Uma Thurman, and whose boyfriend is arriving in
two more weeks), around this area. Matthew already
knows a lot about Korea and Seoul, but Amanda's brand
new, and from a small town, so this afternoon I'm
going to give her a taste of the subway system.
Matthew is also a huge fan of the saunas here --
Korean bath houses are incredible, and they're one of
the best de-stressing experiences I've found -- and it
looks like I've found my first sauna partner since old
roommate Dave left. This makes me very happy. He's
also an avid traveller, which means I might have some
company to actually accomplish some travelling around
Asia this year: travelling alone just doesn't appeal
to me (said the guy who headed out for Korea
unaccompanied). I'm thrilled to have him around.

One of my Kindergarten classes, when I take
attendance, started playing the "say no when Rob asks
if I'm here" game, so I answered them with "well then
where ARE you?" They've been regularly insisting that
either A: one of their classmates has eaten them (to
which I shake my finger at the accused classmate and
say, in a funny angry voice, "No more eating Kevin,
Owen", or B: they're at my house in Canada. I tell
them to say hello and give a hug to my Mom and Dad.
One day, I asked them, "Well it's supper time in
Canada right now. What are you having for supper with
my mother and father?" So Mom, head for the grocery
store, because you'll need to have ingredients ready
for pancakes, cake, cookies, pizza, donuts, rice and
soup next time I take attendance and my kids all turn
up in your house.

There is a coffee shop in one of the busier districts
on Seoul called "Canada Coffee Shop"; it's funny,
because in Korea, there's a coffee shop with Canada's
name and flag, employing Koreans, selling Italian
drinks that were popularized by an American coffee
shop franchise (Starbucks). Then it occurred to me
that really, nothing's MORE Canadian than such a
combination -- Canada, the country where you'll find
an Italian restaurant owned by Chinese Canadians in
the Punjab district of Vancouver, where ability in
Chinese, Japanese, Punjabi, English, Korean, and
Italian are all useful to better serve the clientele,
and where when I ask a new friend what her ethnic
background she says "Heinz 57: a secret combination of
herbs and spices." My Korean kids have trouble with
understanding the short history of Canada and the way
people here are from so many places -- you can be
Irish Hungarian Iranian Haida French and Taiwanese --
over here, I had one student whose family genealogy
stretched back twenty-eight generations -- and that
we're PROUD that such mixing can occur in our
increasingly (though not yet perfectly) diverse and
accepting society.

More in the lines of heritage and history:

I finally read the book my maternal grandfather wrote
about his family history, chronicling his family's
beginnings in Holland, the trial of the Second World
War, their immigration to Canada and the family's new
life there. When I was about sixteen, he sent me this
book he'd written after talking to all his father's
friends and relatives. At the time it was a bunch of
Dutch places and names without faces, and I got about
one chapter in before giving up. This time, after
conversations with my grandfather about our family and
heritage last January, and after being far enough away
from my roots to understand and treasure how deep they
are, reading it was a moving experience. The book
read, to me, as a tribute to my great grandfather, and
I imagined my Opa using research for his book as a
chance to get to know his own father in a new way, now
that he's gone, and realized that by writing down his
own discoveries as he tried to get to know his father,
he also gave me the chance to get to know HIM in the
same way. So thank you for that, Opa. Thanks for
writing down your journey, so that I could share it
with you, and get to know my own roots because you
recorded yours.

More recently, I was struck near the bone again by an
experience I had in my local, in-my-area church. It's
a small church, and it meets in a large classroom in a
Christian English school. The leader of the church is
a guy named Steve, and he has some contacts with the
underground church in China, and some missionaries
there. In China, church meetings are illegal, and
missionaries there have to be extremely careful,
becuase they're carefully watched. Instead of the
loud, exuberant, free singing found in a North
American or Korean church, a Chinese or North Korean
underground church can't risk being overheard, so they
will have one guitar playing lightly (if that), and
one person singing aloud (in a quiet voice) while all
the other worshippers mouth the words or hum quietly
along. The song leader in our church asked us to sing
a song in the style of the underground church. The
style of singing the song, whose words went, "He is
our peace, He has broken down every wall. . . Cast all
your cares on him, for he cares for you, He is our
peace. . . " was both a praise song, and a prayer for
those who can't worship freely -- who still live
behind walls. For about three days I couldn't get
that picture out of my head. I've been reminded.

I think prospects here in Korea are looking up: this
new potential travel/hangout friend in Matthew is a
really encouraging sign: I've been lonely and homesick
for the last month or so. Both the new co-workers are
pretty good friendship prospects, and if Amanda's
boyfriend (coming in July) is as cool as she is, we'll
be in for some good times. I'm reading good stuff --
Dune by Frank Herbert, and the Iliad by Homer have
both carried me away recently -- and writing has been
progressing (slowly . . . but progressing) as well.
As always, my students are brilliant and wonderful
even when nothing else is -- Cindy (the most verbose
student I have -- funny, but really chatty, and who
regularly, ironically, scolds Willy for talking too
much) was asking me about the homework I gave her: "Do
we really have to do this part?"

"Everything from page 56-59"

"What about on page 57?"

"Cindy, what part of "Everything" don't you
understand?"

"Everything."

I howled -- I don't think she realized on how many
levels her comment worked, but it was perfect. She's
the one who used "It's a travesty" instead of "It's a
tragedy".

In another class (another favourite class), we were
reading about Benjamin Banneker, a black intellectual
who challenged Thomas Jefferson in a letter about
their allowing of black slaves in America. During a
review class, I asked my students, "What famous
document did Thomas Jefferson help write?"

(the constitution)

"I don't know."

"It starts with a C."

"I don't know."

"The conn n n nn "

"glish."

Konglish is the Korean slang word for English words
that sneak into the Korean language -- words like
guitar, barbeque, piano, hamburger, and words that
didn't quite make the jump intact, like "handphone"
and "air con" for "air conditioner".

Showing Amanda (who's never been overseas before)
around the area, and around Seoul, has been a good
reason to revisit a lot of places I hadn't been to in
a long time. New people in one's life often causes
one to revisit old, familiar places, both in
conversation and in location. That's one of the best
things about having visitors to BC: an excuse to see
canyons and mountains and theatres that one doesn't
otherwise visit.

Today I went to one of Korea's traditional markets --
it's mostly touristy now, but still loaded with old
Korean goods like jewelry boxes, carry bags, and other
wonderful artifacts of Koreanity. I'd forgotten how
quaint and lovely the area is with its cobblestone
road and bamboo building exteriors and a funny blend
of modern destination and ancient Korean market.


In follow-up to what I said last time about my nephew,
I'll just share a verse in the Bible I found that
reflects my view about the whole thing.

John 9:1-3:

1As he [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from
birth. 2His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned,
this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
3"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said
Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God
might be displayed in his life.

-- My prayer now is that "the work of God might be
displayed in [Matthias'] life". In the case of the
man born blind, that meant Christ would (shortly
thereafter) heal him; in my nephew's life, that might
be the work of God in his life; it might be something
that I can't see or imagine now, but that will totally
surprise and amaze everyone when it happens. I'm
finding peace about the situation; I mostly just want
to see him again.

I was walking through a shopping center in Seoul and
accidentally stumbled upon some kind of program -- a
group of 11-15 year old boys were playing in a drum
arrangement with large and small drums and cymbals.
For a long time, they played, varying the beat and
somehow managing to continually increase the intensity
of their rhythms. Heads bobbed in unison; it seemed
like even the sweat crawling down their faces ought to
be synchronized, and I realized that each of these
boys had, for a little while, ceased existing: they
were only the rhythm, nothing except the same as their
teammates, and I, too, disappeared for a while (I
can't tell exactly how long: clocks seem to stop
working properly when you're carried away like that).
What an invigorating experience! Somehow getting away
from myself for a little while makes me feel so much
more comfortable once I'm back in my own skin, but not
many things can do that. Old friends can, and chances
to really show a person love or compassion can.
Sometimes worship can (that's where the word ecstasy
originally comes from -- the heightened state of
excitement old Greeks observed during certain
religious rituals), or art -- creating or engaging
with it. Regardless of where it occurs (I imagine
intense exercise or competition would do the same),
it's quite an experience, and certainly makes
returning to onesself a lot easier, sort of the way
travelling can make your hometown feel that much more
comfortable. I once read a note a Japanese ESL
student had written to a penpal, and she had signed
off with the phrase "Have a vivid day" -- I loved
that: not just a nice day, or a happy day, but a vivid
day. May your experiences today be intense and
interesting, and may your mind be aware enough to
notice things as they happen to you, and may you
relish them. Sometimes I'm walking down the street
and suddenly, inexplicably, it's as if somebody
flipped a "senses on" switch in me somewhere, and I
can see every leaf on every tree, taste the sunlight,
and feel the air sliding between my fingers. I wish I
knew how to bring such an experience on whenever I
wanted, but until then,

Have a vivid day.

All my love.

Rob