Friday, May 28, 2004

May 2004.

My jacket smells like saltwater.

A long long time ago (for those who don't already know), my ancestors (on my father's side) were fishermen; many Ouwehand fishermen still live in the village Katwijk (the home of the original Ouwehand) even now. My uncle owns a boat, my dad wishes he did, and I'm never happier than standing on the deck of a boat, or piddling around a lake somewhere in a canoe. Lacking these, even wet grass on bare feet at least pleases me a little.

But last weekend I went on a ferry tour of Baekdo a remote island off the southern coast of Korea, with a group of forty other foreigners. This was WONDERFUL. It was a quiet town of 1200, suddenly filled up with a bunch of foreigners eager to have fun and excited to be on vacation (it was a three day weekend). So our excitement was reflected by their excitement and curiosity at having us, and basically, we spent the whole weekend feeling like celebrities or something. Kids followed me to the pier where I went fishing, asking me questions I couldn't understand, much less answer (though I made funny faces, and that seemed to suit them fine). I think they thought my name was Canada, until my friend called me crazy for making funny faces, and then they thought my name was crazy.

(No jokes about that later, please.)

So along with the language guesswork and funny communication attempts by some cute kids (who may have never seen a foreigner before; whitey doesn't often visit Gumundo or Baekdo), I had a gorgeous weekend in the fresh air. Korea's ocean is really beautiful -- the cold early mornings and ocean air make you feel alive, and the islands off the south of Korea, because of whatever geological quirk formed them, are often smoothed, as if they are very old, but very tall -- like the long canine teeth of a dog sticking up out of the ocean. They would be visitable, but only if you could put rock climbing gear on over your scuba gear. And there at the top are those grey-green scrub plants that sprout in such grey and green places, and the water sprays up on your face, causing what I can only call the ocean squint -- I don't think I squint quite the same way in any other place -- and later in the evening I lick the corner of my lip and taste salt from the seawater that dried onto my face.

I love the sea. If I liked seafood as much as I love the sea, I might end up in some port village, or as a fisherman myself. (Unfortunately, I don't have the patience for picking out bones.)

During the weekend, I met a girl who is, as JD Salinger once said, "A verbal stunt pilot" -- the kind of person who rewrites song lyrics to fit inside jokes. Her name was Edisa, and she was the first black woman I've spent time with in Korea (I've seen some, but there aren't many here; Korea remains surprisingly racist toward Africans and their descendants. Korea's a very appearance-oriented culture, and employers ask you to include a photo with your application is so they can avoid people who are ugly, overweight, overage, or coloured "wrong" (too dark). Sometimes schools won't even hire people with Asian background because it's not as "other" as having white teachers.) She was good with a comeback, and willing to let me talk out my random thoughts (of which I've been having many). Together, we came up with the dumbest idea for a restaurant ever. Worse than "so I can say I have", a place that sells all those foods you'd only eat on a dare, like prairie oysters, haggis and blood pancakes. How about this (isn't this ghastly?) -- "Poachers" - a restaurant specializing in dishes made from endangered species. The slogan (of course) is "Good to the last one!"

But before I can really set into this story, we need a bit of cultural background.

The older folks in Korea are called Ajumma (mature woman) and Ajashi (mature man). Ajumma can apply to any Korean woman over 30, and any man over 20, depending on who's addressing him/her. By the mid-fifties, because they've "paid their dues," I guess, some behave a little less politely than most other Koreans, and care a little less about the general courtesies that are either the grease that keeps the wheels of society turning, or the B-S- that keeps people from acting out who they really are.

Ajumma, especially, is also a personality type, and the personality connotations are not too positive. Unlike older ladies (50 and up) in North America (pardon my generalizations here), ajumma is the one most likely to shove you as she dives for a seat on the subway; she's the one most likely to be rude to you in a restaurant, to touch your white skin, poke your curly hair, grab your love handles (out of sheer curiousity -- look at how big those cheese-smelling foreigners get!), comment that you're writing in your journal with the wrong hand (I'm a lefty), and you'll sometimes do what they say, however unnecessary, just so they'll leave you alone. This is the impression many foreigners get of Korean ajummas. Some of us carry a downright bitterness and resentment of the mature set.

Here's a video showing how the mature set is often viewed here in Korea. Pay attention to the music style, and the over-the-top rudeness of the older folks.

Ajashis have a similar reputation; they, and young men, can be the harshest judges toward foreigners. The most negative image of an ajushi is a drunken, middle-aged man swearing at the top of his lungs, possibly starting fights with his belligerent talk, hacking up loogies and spitting in the street, ogling girls, and maybe propositioning blonde westerners by asking them if they're Russian (blonde Russians are often recruited to work in the profitable prostitution industry here). Here's a reflection on that kind of ajashi, from someone who's writes about Korea much better than me: just to show I'm not just blindly generalizing or being unfair.

Yeah, this is the most negative stereotype, but (I've discovered) it becomes really easy to judge people when you can't communicate with them and, by communicating, prove such judgements wrong. Judging goes both ways, let's not forget; once a group of ajashi ruined my day (and most of my week) by arguing over who had to sit next to the big-nose (me) on the subway car; one ultimately chose the other end of the car, away from his friends, over sitting by the stinky honky. That hurt, so I can understand how easy it would be to dismiss ajashis in return.

Anyway, that's the background; sorry for so much explanation. Now the tour group was on a ferry, heading out to Baekdo, the scenic islands, and foreigners were scattered around the rear section of the ferry, so that a few ajumma and ajashi had to sit beside foreigners. One ajumma took it upon herself to propose a series of seat trades that would clump all the foreigners together in the middle section of the seats. (I also noticed that one of the LEAST desirable seats was next to the African-American woman I mentioned earlier;) I started to wonder whether this wasn't a racially motivated attempt at micro-segregation. Then, just as she was getting more emphatic (she put her hand on my arm and rocked me sideways, as if to roll me out of my seat), and I was getting quite annoyed, this music came on over the speakers. It was ajumma music; I can't even describe it to you except that if you took the sample music on an average three keyboards/synthesizers, played them at the same time as a karaoke song track, faster, to a disco beat, and then added shrill Korean vocals with echo effects, you might have something a little quieter. It haunts the foreigners; we just can't understand it, verbally, musically, OR culturally, but somehow the mature folks in Korea LOVE it.

Here's an (inexplicable) sample.

So that kind of music comes on, and suddenly, this same Ajumma who was starting to annoy most of us is in the aisle, DANCING! Not only that, she pulls her neighbour up to dance with her, and then, gets one of the foreigners up there with her, too! The rest of the ferry ride was one long dance party, with fifty and sixtysomething Korean men and women doing silly dances (point your fingers and shake your shoulders and knees kind of stuff) with a bunch of twenty and thirtysomething North American (and Irish) English teachers dancing along. Add into this the hilarity of the bad music and the fact we're boogieing with people our parents' or grandparents' ages, and the TERRIBLE dancing ('cause there's no other way to dance to music like that except badly), and mix in the excitement of the fact NOBODY in the room had EVER seen anything even remotely as odd and unexpected as white kids dancing with old Asians to terrible music on a scenic boat tour, and it was enough to make me smile for a week.

And wow, those ajumma are energetic! The lady who started it all hauled just about every single foreigner out of their seat for at least a little while. My friend took a lot of photos with her digital camera; I hope I can send a few along to you.

And the best part is this: now, next time a drunken ajashi sits next to me smelling of Korean alcohol and dried squid snacks, and brays about George Bush and growls, "Yankee go home", or an ajumma behind me in line pushes, even though I have nowhere to go and can't get HER on the bus any faster by pushing the people ahead of ME (happens), or butts ahead in line (ALL the time), instead of silently resenting them, I can smile, because hey, I've seen the other side of that coin, and it's pretty fun.

So it was a perspective I think I needed.

(ever notice how if you look at the cut on one five-year-old's hand, suddenly everyone has a scrape to show you? Or if you wake one up with a short tickle, suddenly you have seven sleeping kids? Kindergarten's so much fun. It's really fascinating dealing with kids that age.)

There's this funny quirk in speaking Korean to Koreans; when one gets into a taxi or in most other situations, one says a few Korean phrases (most often something like "how much is it?" "I'll have two, please, to go" or "take me to the Hongdai district, please" and then, the Korean will answer. Conversations with Koreans always involve a lot of context guessing, body-language reading and general "usually they say this next" experience, but after a foreigner shows that they speak a little Korean, Koreans always answer with one of two things:

"Do you speak Korean."
"Your Korean is very good."

Both phrases involve the phrase "hangug-mal" (literally, Korea speak), but it's difficult (other than by learning more of the language) to read which of the two phrases the Korean is saying, so one invariably guesses wrong, and the conversation either goes

"Do you speak Korean?"
"Thank you."


"Your Korean is very good."
"Only a very little bit."

Anyway, I'm enjoying my school, mostly; a few people are a little more curt and blunt than I'm used to dealing with (which requires more sensitivity and grace than I sometimes have to spare after telling a class to shush a hundred times in forty minutes.) I've been tired lately, so I think my students are getting to me more than they normally do. My patience reserves are low, as is my annoyance threshhold. I'll be OK once I kick this long-running, low-grade cold, and sleep some, I'm sure.

I had a student ask if, at the end of the month, if all the students in the class did all their homework, we could do something special -- I said "What kind of special thing?" "Go into the playroom" (Our school has play room equipment like in a MacDonalds for the preschool kids). "You can't do that," I say, "you're too big to play on that."

"Teacher, not to play on it -- just to break stuff." I howled. Absolutely howled.

Seen on the spelling section of a multiple choice test:

"Canada's national sport is _______"
A: ********* B: **********
C: ********* D: Hokey.

The preschool students also laugh hysterically every time they see me blink. I'm enjoying work, though I find myself staying late a little more often than I think I'd prefer. (though that's as much my choice as anyone else's; I didn't realize how long I was staying at school until I commented to my boss, who looked exhausted, "It's been a long day for you -- you've been at school almost since I got here this morning!")

Yesterday I went out with my friend Colleen (the one I met in the snowstorm of my last e-mail). She really surprised me by asking me what I was angling for in our friendship. After nearly choking on an apple slice, I took about a full minute to compose my thoughts (I realize how unfair such long silences are to my friends when they ask such loaded questions -- a sixty second pause allows people who ask me important questions just enough time to imagine I'm about to give the worst possible answer, but that's how I am, so deal with it. I like to choose my words on touchy topics.)

But fortunately what could have been a can of worms (had we had different ideas about the friendship) was instead a simple, "I enjoy being your friend and I'm very content to leave it at that."

Such topics, even when they are cleanly defused, are still risky, and feelings can be hurt accidentally by wording something wrong, or seeming too relieved (or not relieved enough) that the other isn't interested.

Take care, all.

Much love and ocean sprays on all your faces (hopefully the real thing, and not just the aftershave flavour). Thanks for reading this whole long thing; I hope it was worth the time for you, and worth the typing for me.


Saturday, May 22, 2004

Knock-Down, Drag-Out (May 22nd 2004)

It's been a miserable, white-knuckled fight with a
cold for me these last two months (that's the
knock-down, drag-out in the subject line). So bad
that I've even taken Buckley's Mixture to poison the
cold out of my body. I'm in the midst of another one
now, one that features sinus congestion, a rasping
cough, and a ridiculous rate of tissue consumption
(tissue meaning kleenex, not any other kind of tissue
. . . I'm not THAT sick yet). (How odd that I can now
list cold features the way my students can list
features on their mp3 players.)

Last night I tried to write an e-mail to everyone, but
the computer managed to swallow the thing due to an
internet explorer/search engine glitch. This annoyed
me a lot -- I wonder what happens to all those e-mails
eaten by computers. Does some computer somewhere
store them? And why do computers only eat the
subtlest, wittiest, most brilliant, long (especially
long) e-mails? What do they want with the tastiest
bits of correspondence that makes them steal all the
best ones? I don't know, but last night in my
frustration, I sat there pondering what a
understanding computer could gain about humanity just
from the gleanings of the e-mails it eats.

On Friday morning we went to a zoo with our
kindergarten and preschool kids. This reminded me of
what a zoo should not be. (So far, most Korean zoos
I've seen have depressed me -- my jury's out on the
idea of zoos in general [Yann Martel had some
interesting insights about zoos in "Life of Pi" that
are worth turning over in one's head], but I fairly
roundly dislike Korean zoos -- too small,
uncomfortable, unnatural, crowded, and altogether
depressing.) The elephant was in a space that I could
have walked around in about four minutes, and she was
backed into a corner (where the only shade could be
had). It was obvious all she wanted to do was shrink
or be invisible. Meanwhile kids were lining up along
the fence and shouting -- screaming for it to come
out. Sad. Remind me to avoid Korean zoos if I get
another chance to see one. At least when Koreans live
in houses so small that they shove their mattress in a
closet in order to unfold the breakfast table, it's
their choice, and they could leave if the city or
emigrate if they've had it with living on the 16th
floor of a filing cabinet. The elephant didn't have
much choice about whether she wanted to be a country
elephant or a city elephant.

I'm doing mostly well. My students remain brilliant,
though I can't think, offhand, of some moment of utter
cuteness that I simply MUST share with you (sorry
about that). My brother got a good episode in an
e-mail a while ago, but I can't retell it without
losing the freshness. Recently I smirked when my
loudest student, upon my second loudest student
blurting out an incorrect answer, admonished him to
"think before you speak". Only through great
restraint did I avoid teaching them the word irony.
Nothing recently has quite reached the heights of the
boy who accidentally quoted Monty Python's Search for
the Holy Grail when he tried to sound out the bumper
sticker "I [heart] NY".

Things have been changing in my life. Recently, near
the beginning of lent, I realized that my love for
music was interfering with my progress on some of the
other passions and goals in my life. Some of you
don't know yet that I put myself on an indefinite
(until it's finished) music hiatus, as I sort out what
parts of my life I want as my top priorities. Since
then, I've been really encouraged with the way my
relationships have taken shape, and I've managed to
even meet some English speaking Christians who live in
my area. (This was something I never had last year,
but something I'm really enjoying -- I went to a bible
study on Thursday night without riding a subway for 40
minutes to get there!)

I'm also reading more, and reading the important stuff
more, and growing in my faith. So to those of you
who've been praying for me, thanks, and be assured
that there have been some encouraging results so far.
(We'll just wait to see what the next step will be.)

Other than hanging out with friends, reading, spending
time alone in thought (my journals and diaries are
filling up at about twice their usual rate), and
spending ridiculous amounts of time at school to get
all my marking done, and being amazed at how much
Korean pop one overhears in an average day, and how
much that singer/song sounds EXACTLY like Madonna's
single from last fall (except the vocals aren't as
strong . . . shudder), I'm wishing it were easy to
find NHL Playoff hockey on TV here (by the way,
congratulations, all my Albertan, and Canadian hockey
fan friends), and wishing I knew a place to find
certain favourite Korean dishes near my house.

And something else.

A pair of mondays ago (not long ago, really -- it
feels like longer) I got a call at 6:45 AM from Mom
and Dad. When the phone rings before 7 am, it's
usually not because somebody in their home church got

They'd spoken to my sister and brother-in-law
(currently living in Germany). My nephew has always
been small, slow and a little uncoordinated for his
age: instead of playing fighting games like most 4
year olds, he would sit on the floor and play with a
train set; he preferred putting things together over
running places and climbing things. He was slow to
walk, and never really crawled. We suspected this was
because he was born 6 weeks premature.

********** if you're one of the relatives/friends who
has already heard this, and don't feel like getting
depressed by reading it again, you can skip reading
until the next bunch of asterisks.


He'd been to a doctor, and they discovered an enzyme
in his blood that's usually found in patients whose
muscles are breaking down. The diagnosis:

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

This means his muscles will continually weaken until
his heart or lung muscles fail, somewhere in his late
teens or early 20s, barring an act of God. Duchenne
Muscular Dystrophy usually appears in young boys, and
there's no cure other than minimizing discomfort and
using various tricks to maximize mobility.

This is surprising and disappointing. It's difficult
to know how to grieve a situation that's going to be
difficult for the whole family, but currently isn't
too bad. It's hard to consider that for the next
twelve or fifteen years, this emotional process will
sort itself out, but it will take that long to unwind
itself. It hasn't, and maybe it won't, sink in, just
what the next twelve years will involve in that
aspect. I don't know how I'm going to have to support
my family, or when I'm going to need support. It's
just really . . . detatched so far.


What I DO know now, is that my nephew is a really
loving kid, and he's surrounded with love from his
family and community, and that will lead him through a
life with more blessings than a lot of people with a
lot more longevity experience.

I don't know exactly how these things work in God's
plan, except to reflect in sadness that we live in a
hurting world, and that all things are not right on
this planet. (I'll say, though, it's difficult to
consider one's own nephew as a symbol of the whole
world's malaise. It isn't that impersonal. It's
impossible to be that impersonal with someone you
love. That's always the risk of loving someone --
that something will hit you right in the soft spot you
have for that person.) Right now my prayer is that
our family will have peace, and that however God does
these things, and whatever happens, that we trust Him,
and that His name will be glorified.

So those are a few of the things buzzing through my
head these days. I'm doing OK -- I think this whole
family thing is really hard on my Mom and Dad, who
feel really far away (it's all happenning in Germany,
where Rebecca and Frank are surrounded by support from
their church community.) So keep my parents in mind
too, if you're the praying kind.

Today I went to an amusement park with my co-workers,
and talked a few people into going on rides they
actually shouldn't have taken (not for health reasons
-- just for wooziness purposes). I forget that other
people have a very different feeling about rides than
I do. Roller coasters are like tickling: it's all in
your head, and its YOUR tension that makes the ride
scary, and the tickling tickle. If you can relax
through either, it won't bother you anymore, and (for
the rides) you can enjoy them, or (for the tickling),
you can say "stop it, that's annoying" with a really
dry, drop-dead voice. Speaking of which, I've learned
how to be a wet blanket for my students when they're
being too funny and not paying attention. It's weird
having to deflate jokes, when I spent so much time
learning how to make and enjoy them.

Today I was at a major intersection, and the green
"walk" sign had started flashing, so I had to run to
catch the light. I jogged along, when I nearly
stopped in my tracks, in the middle of the road, at
the sight of an old, toothless man who was running
hilariously (chest out, fists pumping up by his chest,
legs taking small, old-man steps very quickly, head
leaning backwards as if he were being pulled by a rope
stuck to the front of his shirt) across the
intersection in the other direction, even later than
myself. He had this delightful smile as silly and
excited as the grins of little boys running away from
the girl's bathroom at school, where they just soaked
all the toilet paper in the sink.

Six minutes later, I looked over my shoulder at a
group of five friends lined up to pose for a picture.
The photographer was counting down to take the picture
when the light turned and the "walk" sign came on, and
the five friends turned around and started crossing,
in unison, totally stranding the photographer with
nothing in her view lens. The image of the five girls
turning around without hesitation, and the lone girl
up the creek without a paddle, cracked me up for a
good five minutes more.

So life goes on. Again, I must weather a family . . .
I hesitate to use the word crisis, because it's a
crisis in slow motion . . . whilst eight time zones
away (for now) from anyone else in the family (as I
did when my father had a bout with cancer last year --
now that feels almost like family situation training
to prepare for this one). I wrote in an e-mail to my
brother last year, at Dad's cancer diagnosis, that
these kinds of things are exactly the stuff of growing
up. Maturing is borne of a million things happening,
some big, some small, some controllable, some
uncontrollable, some forgotten the next day, some
indelible. We define ourselves by how we react to
these million things that happen, and by finding peace
(or not finding peace) with the things we can and
can't change. Sometimes we're thrown into a
situation, and other times, we throw ourselves into
one. However those million things happen, hopefully
we're paying enough attention to notice them, and we
never stop listening, and never stop learning.

Bless you all.