Palestinians don’t matter to us…

Nor do peoples of any marginalized far flung and seemingly “backwards” place matter to us.  Our bias is strong as ever. When a Malaysian airline flight disappeared, we were captivated by the mystery, but not by the tragedy. When a Malaysian airline flight was shot down over Ukraine with mostly Europeans on board, the New York Times published a photo series of the people on board with their short life stories. The first flight was mainly Chinese. Where are their life stories? For that matter, is anyone talking about the scores of civilians being killed in Ukraine? Wedged between the government and separatists, they really don’t have anywhere to go. Alas, Ukraine is a Eastern country on the periphery of Europe. 

When Buddhist killed mainly innocent Muslims in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar (Burma), no one really cared..

No one seems to really care about the people of Gaza either. Not even the Arab countries in the region seem to do much in support of them. They simply ended up on the wrong side of history. If you do care about the Gazans be prepared to labeled a supporter of terrorism because somehow these people have been conflated with terrorism. Simply being a resident in an area controlled by Hamas, makes you a terrorist. The children and women who are dying are viewed the same as terrorists.

Lastly, there are quite a few people angry (as they should be) at the US for using drones in Pakistan that kills hundreds of children on occasion and yet some of those same people don’t seem to care about the hundreds of dead kids in Gaza…both are tragedies. 

Our bias is strong. It’s hard for us to be sympathetic towards certain kinds of people in this world. Somehow being part of a group entitles you to being killed indiscriminately in the name of defense. Being a part of other groups entitles you to protection and sympathy from the world. 

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Choosing Choice

I recently wrote an article for my High School’s English language newspaper. I was asked to write my reflections on Korea, however, I found that a little tedious and uninspired. Instead, I attempted to write write about choice and how choices often define our lives. Perhaps not the most original idea, Sartre has said as much and more. Though, given the fact that we are presented with endless choices, we often don’t take responsibility and I suppose that’s the most important aspect of choice and living life. We can’t blame others.


 

“Farewell to a great choice”

As you may know, I’m leaving Korea at the end of August. I’m sad to be leaving but I’m also excited to start a new chapter of my life. If I could carry KNU High School on my back with the students and teachers to the next place I go, I would. KNU HS has been a wonderful place to work and I will miss the students. It was a great choice applying for this position. It was a good choice coming to Korea as well. This is what I want to talk about with the reader: my choice in coming to Korea and how that choice has impacted my life as well as life choices in general.
It was around this time, some three years ago, I was sitting on a patio in Houma, Louisiana, drinking a beer. The Louisiana air was hot and humid. I just had chili gumbo, an extremely spicy dish, and my mouth was on fire. Despite the temperature and the poor choice of meal, it was the stress of my application for Korea that made me sweat buckets that night. My friend told me not to fret because I would be accepted. Ultimately, she was right. When I was offered the teaching job in August 2011, for Gangwon-do, I was both relieved and anxious. All I really knew about Korea was the Korean War and that the food was good. Going to Korea was a choice filled with fear and trepidation. I was doing something unusual: leaving my home and a good career for a foreign land doing something I had little experience in doing.
The best choices are the ones that fill us with fear. If it’s scary, maybe it’s worth doing. Korea was the right choice. I could be back at home sitting behind a desk, bored. Instead, I get to see Asia first hand and learn to adapt to a culture vastly different from my own. In the last few years I became a more patient and understanding person as I navigated the waters of a different culture and its world view. I have met many kind and wonderful Koreans and others from many different countries. Most importantly, I get to make a positive impact on the lives of many students. As a person, I am defined by the choices I made and the follow through of those choices. I like who I am today because of the choice I made in coming here.
Choices are how one lives for oneself. Individuals are defined by the choices made and the choices to be made. Who you are is the collection of choices you made and will make. Some choices are scary, like moving to a new country on your own. Some are comfortable, like staying in your home town. Sometimes, we let others choose for us, because it’s easy (usually when others choose for us, we aren’t very happy). Every morning, you wake up and choose to get dressed and go to school. You really don’t have to, if you don’t want to. If you’re a good student, it’s because you chose to study. If you’re not, it’s because you chose not to put in the effort. As you approach adulthood you’ll be presented with many choices. Large life choices such as: Should I take this job? Should I go to this university? Even small choices that could change your lives: Should I drive this car after drinking so much? Should I meet this person for a coffee date?
The choice is always yours. Some choices don’t seem like they’re yours to make, but don’t be fooled, every choice is yours and will affect you. Be bold in your choices and choose to be the person you want to be. I’m happy to have made the choice in coming to Korea and for staying as long as I did. My time here was memorable and amazing. Alas, it’s on to the next choice.

10…

The shock of the heated apartment hits hard after trudging through the bitter cold of a winter night. Stripping off the layers of coat and shirt I rest in the chair by the window to watch the feather like floating of the snow. The wind howls asking for relief from some unknown pain. She walks into the room in only a tee  and white panties. She rubs my shoulder and leans in to kiss my forehead. I wrap my arm around her waist and squeeze her lightly. No words are spoken by us, but somehow we say I love you to each other. I can feel her fingers in my hair. I slip my fingers under the bottom of shirt to the skin around her waist, it brings me  warmth on this cold night more than the oil running through the ancient pipes of this old apartment.  I rest my head on her side as though her womanly shape was made just for this moment. She grips my shoulder and I begin to fall asleep.

1…2…

The shattering noise of glass on hard wood wakens me.  Everything is blurry, the heat has retreated, I can see my breath in thick clouds with each exhalation. The sharp smell of strong whiskey pierces my senses. I look down to see a brilliant display of glass spread in pieces and a pool of brown liquid illuminated by the light of a distant street lamp peering in through the window. I look up towards window now covered in beads of rain. She’s not here. I call her name. It sounds like a muffled echo in my head each time I call it. My vision slowly clears piece by delicate piece. My coat is still on, a wool cap sits snug on my head. I walk around listening to the crunch of glass beneath my leather work boots. The bedroom light is on. I walk in. The bed is empty, the hum of the florescent lights above clashes with the clattering noise of rain on the roof. I fall into my bed. The world begins to darken as my eye lids close. Sleep comes quickly.

9…8…

A passing car illuminates the room for a moment forcing my eyes to open. It must be early in the morning. The darkness of night still consumes the outside. I’m sweaty from the heat. I look out the window and watch the snow fall. I can hear her rhythmic breathing as she lies in that unconscious state. The blanket conforms to the shape of her body. Her nose moves ever so with each exhalation. Looking out the window, I see the streets covered in snow.  The black of the asphalt is revealed  by two trails dug into the snow from that passing car. The moon tries to break through the overcast skies in an attempt to wash everything in it’s pale green light. The clouds and street lamps do their best to resist. I realize my work boots are still on. I thought I took those off. I pull them off and start walking towards to the front door to place them under my hanging coat. Walking through the living room I am met with the most violent sensation. It feels as though a knife is being dug into my foot. I look down and see bits of broken glass scattered across the floor. I set my boots down, listening to the crackling of the glass beneath them and sit in the chair. I pull the glass out from my foot.

3…4…

I must have fallen asleep in the chair again. The cold bites at me. I pull my collar up and hug myself to keep warm, but I realize my feet are freezing. My boots sit by the front door. Weird. I look down to see a bloody bandage that I hardly remember wrapping around my foot.  The glass is gone, the whiskey wiped up. I walk through the cold, dark apartment to the spare room. The sound of heavy rain beating against the few windows echoes through out. I pull a pair of wool socks from the dresser in the spare room. My foot is tender, I take my time pulling the sock over the bandage. I walk into the small kitchen. Old bills piled on the table. The thermostat’s red light blinks at me, mocking me. I press the “ON” button repeatedly. Nothing happens other than the clicking sound of plastic. Her picture stares at me from its spot on the fridge. The slight smile and her deep eyes penetrating me through the darkness. A feeling of loneliness washes over me, knowing she’s no longer here. I look at the calender. December 15th, such and such year. I hear a noise. I hear a muffled voice. The bathroom light turns on. Impossible. I walk towards it and slowly open the door. The light is on. I can hear muffled sounds, however, there’s no one. I turn off the switch. As the lights turns out, the sounds dissipate. A dark silence returns to the bathroom punctuated by the rain wrapping on the windows. I walk back into the kitchen, pour a small whiskey and sit at the table. My head feels heavy. I rest it on my arm.

7…6…

I feel a hand rubbing my back. My eyes open. An empty glass of water sits across from me. The distinct taste of alcohol rests on my breath. My arm is numb from the weight of my head. I look up to see her standing over me. She motions for me to go back to sleep. We’re both too tired to talk. She walks back to the bedroom. I admire her slender legs and the way her hair sits on her shoulders. She disappears behind the bedroom wall. She turns the dresser lamp on. I watch as the light turns the window a solid black hiding the falling snow. It’s dim and gives the room a nice warm ambiance. I listen to her settle into bed and fall back asleep. The thermostat’s red light starts blinking. I walk over and tap the “ON” button. Nothing. I walk over to the calender on the fridge to write a reminder to ask the super to check it out. Today is…December 15th, such and such year. Her picture sits above the calender. I look into those eyes. Her photo beckons me to rejoin her in bed. Okay, I whisper. The bathroom light flickers. I’m too tired to care. I walk into the bedroom. Despite the lamp being on, the wall length mirror opposite the bed seems to be reflecting, nothing. It’s dark. I look harder. From a few feet away there seems to be a shadow, a man standing in it.

…ϛ…

It’s me but it’s not me. An image of me distorted in darkness and time. She’s behind me, in the bed. She’s asleep. I look over my shoulder to look at the bed. Nothing. I start tapping the glass of the mirror.

Thoughts on Living in Korea: The American Teacher & The Korean Teacher

Coming to Korea to teach English was an attempt to do two things: One, to live abroad and two, to see what teaching was like. I’ve always been interested in teaching. It’s an idea that has been floating around my head for sometime.  In the last two years I have found that I enjoy teaching…a lot. (However, I hate teaching ESL. Oh GOD! I rather be teaching history or social studies.). For me, if I were to be a teacher in the US, I could teach History and get paid for being pedantic instead of boring my friends on long lectures about this or that thing that happened oh so many years ago. The amount of time off one gets is also appealing. Two months in the summer, another month in the winter. I can pursue a lifestyle that I would enjoy (i.e. travelling & trekking) and it would give me the free time to pursue and develop my other passions (i.e. writing). There’s a draw back, however. To be a teacher in America is seen as giving up and becoming a pauper. The American public’s view of teachers (in my opinion) is quite negative. People are seen to have chosen a career with low pay because they can’t do anything else. Essentially, teaching in grade schools is looked down upon.

I think the educational system (in some US states, not all) is wonderful when compared to the Korean system, in that in the US there’s an encouragement of diversity, creativity, and pursuing your dreams, whatever they may be.The Korean system only serves to create conformity.  Now Obama may have praised the Korean educational system (he also praised a vocational high school that keeps kids in school for six years) but one can’t put too much stock in a system that is geared mainly for a test. For the last two months, the entire senior class in my school has had NO CLASS. All they do from 8:20 am to 11:00 pm at night is study for a college entrance exam, the KSAT. I’m not embellishing. This aspect of education in Korea is starting to become a real problem. The Economist  has a liken education in Korea to an arms race in which families attempt to out spend others to get their kids in a better place than their neighbor’s kids. And the individual students are more focused on out competing one another. I hope that the US will not follow this path. There’s no critical thinking or creativity in such a system. However, education in Korea is highly prized and being a teacher is viewed as respectable, much like a doctor or lawyer.

Becoming a teacher in Korea requires years of hard work. Teachers must attend specialized programs which is not easy to be accepted into. Even after a person is accepted into a college of education, there’s still a weeding out process. Many are still dropped as the program progresses, much like the first year of law school or medical school. When they graduate, they still have to take an emoruously difficult test to become certified, which is not easy, and not everyone passes. Once someone does become a teacher, he or she finds a job with a competitive salary, good job security and good working conditions (aside from general problems with the society, i.e. sexism, racism, classism etc.). Korean society views the teaching profession with esteem. They are valued and considered to be an important member of Korean society. If the US truly wants a better system, it could do well by adopting this aspect of the Korean system: respect for teachers and respect for education. (Another positive note on the Korean system: There seems to be a real push to create more inclusive schools to prevent the rich from always over taking the less well off. )

I retain a small but growing hope that I can return to the United States and pursue a Masters degree  to teach full time. However, it saddens me to know that being a teacher in America will never garner the respect and recognition that it does here. That’s okay. I’ll be willing to put up with the stereotypes and lack of respect. I suppose when one becomes a teacher, it really shouldn’t be about the praise but about providing the adults of tomorrow with the best means of thinking. Though, respect and recognition never hurts.

Thoughts on Living in Korea: Self-Study

I’m standing at the front. Before me are 40 students in the 3rd grade girls’ high school class. There is no lesson today. My class is not important in the face of  impending exams . Today’s class is Self-Study. Fifty minutes devoted to memorization. The girls are sitting at their respective desks with text books and test books. Some are sound asleep with small cute pillows under their heavy heads and colorful small blankets draped over their legs. Still, there are plenty awake. Some of them are studying while others are “studying”. One particular girl is reading the newspaper in detail. She hasn’t said a word the whole time. She’s probably the most intelligent one in this class, but she’ll never go as far the hardest working girl in class who is now diligently reading her text book. Newspaper Girl won’t go far in Korea, because being a smart girl isn’t what is expected nor wanted. Spending long hours “working-hard” is what is expected and wanted. From this outside observer’s perspective, it’s not learning that is encouraged in the Korean education system but long hours of memorization so these girls can pass a test to get into a University where they’ll take more tests that will get them into a chaebol, like Samsung or LG, where they will spend 12 hours a day completing 3 hours of work followed by long week-day drinking sessions with the old men supervising their respective departments. It seems to be a system focused on creating a uniform citizenry of tax paying, baby-making, consumers to support the society (the collective), the culture, the country and the economy. Creative critical thinkers who serve their individual selves and the families they may have along the way are not welcomed.

The girls in this class will become hard working women serving society in the role of careerist. They will be expected to complete 40+ hours of work a week in the office. At home, they’ll be expected to give birth, be the sole care givers and perform another 30  hours of house work a week as their husbands gallivant with co-workers, drinking in excess at noraebangs and business rooms. The American system has it’s own problems too…of course. However, I haven’t been teaching in America, I’ve been “teaching” in Korea and this is all I can report on at the moment.  I feel bad for some of these students as they will spend a life time working for what others told them to work for. Some will escape the system, fleeing to where they want to go in life. Many others will be confined, women especially; they will be confined to their parents’ home throughout high school, college and the post college years until they get married at which point they’ll be confined to their small but expensive apartment-homes left to raise the children (because a marriage without children would be profane) so the cycle can repeat itself. They will pick a good paying job and be confined to that small cubicle at work for 8-12 hours a day. It seems utterly meaningless. As if the individuals in this school are preparing them selves for a lifetime of being a cog. I’m thinking now of the life offered to me in the United States after 16 years of schooling, 4 of which remain a financial burden, eating away at my income. Did I break free from that system? Or did I simply place myself in a modified version?

Desolation

Walking down the City sidewalk. Black specks of gum, like poorly made polka dots, decorates the old concrete. People rushing to and fro, fro and to. Buildings stand tall, lifeless and menacing. A breeze cuts through the stale summer air, flowing like a stream in the canyon of sky scrapers. I forget where I’m going. I stop. Stand. Frozen. A rock in a rushing current. About me are  the sounds of cars stopping, going, stopping, going. A train somewhere beneath my feet calls out through a nearby vent. The murmur of people walking, talking, chewing, spitting surrounds me. The putrid stench of melting asphalt and the stink of raw garbage cooking under the sun dances in the air.

A sense of desolation washes over me. At first it’s a succession of waves. They rise, crest and fall. However, the waves settle and become a current, a constant flow. It empties me. My being, my me, a void. My insides are hollow. What’s left inside me, this empty vessel that I call me, is an echo. It’s faint. It’s an echo of something I lost a long time ago, something I can hardly recall. The city becomes silent. The smells dissipate. The air cools. The people, the sidewalk, the buildings blur into nothingness. When one is empty, the whole world becomes empty.

I’m on the ground looking up at the sky beyond the canopy of buildings. My ass hurts and my back is in pain. My head is ringing as if I were knocked. I realize, I was knocked in the head. All at once the sounds, the smells and the summer heat hits me. The emptiness retreats. The echo ceases. I am full, my being is returned to me. I see an old man starring at me. He waves his hand in annoyance and continues his hurried trek.

Gods Perish: The Kapitän’s Tale VI

They come for him in the predawn hour. They find him awake atop his palm bed. The stink of alcohol and grotesqueness that often surrounds him is not present. He seems sober, even mirthful. In his time, the Kapitän had grown fat, his beard thick, his hair long, grey, and greasy from days of sweating under the Pacific sun. He had not been pious in his time on the island. He was no God of love. He was no creator, save for a daughter. He was a destroyer. A God of destruction. The men of the Island strip their God naked and burn his clothes in his hut. They paint his body. His groan blue, stomach and thighs red, his chest and shins yellow, his face white. They walk him to the beach where the woman with the blue eyes waits with his boatswain’s knife in hand. The sun is peaking just above the horizon of the placid blue ocean. Streaks of yellow and red shoot out into the sky painting the lazy clouds. A salt laced breeze sweeps over the beach and the Kapitän’s naked body. He listens to the rustle of palms nearby. For the first time, he feels alive. He feels the weight and pressure of a dreary life being lifted piece by piece. The sun rises in silence, its light creeping up the beach towards the two figures standing face to face. He looks into her soul clutching blue eyes encased by her delicate brown skin. He scans her tanned naked body, her brown hand clutching the knife, that knife. An ivory handle with a delicately carved Poseidon atop a sea serpent, a whale just below. His mind wanders back to decades ago where he stood on a dock as a young sailor fresh from schooling. Only nineteen then. Grey winter clouds hang low over the old port of Hamburg. He can almost smell the North Sea and the smell of those wooden ships mingling with the scent of rotting fish. It was cold that day. The wind blew hard. The canvas sails of the ships flapping hard. His father standing before him, no words spoken between them, simply gripping his shoulder. A grip of a man expressing something in a time when emotions were hidden behind deep facades. In his right hand was the knife. He recalls his father silently handing the knife to him, how cold the ivory felt in his bare palm. How hard and how sharp the blade looked. Its dulled with time. A gift from a proud father, a gift the woman with the blue eyes was now handling it as if she handled it her entire life.

Foot steps crunching dead palms emanates from somewhere nearby. Ignoring it, the woman keeps her eyes fixated on the Kapitän. For his part, he looks over to his young daughter standing near the tree line. Fourteen, thirteen? He had lost track of all time. Was it yesterday he arrived here? was it decades ago? more than ten years at least.  The young daughter gazes with trepidation. (or is it interest?) The morning sun begins to envelop her, turning her skin gold as the light grows. Her father looks into her eyes, eyes much liker her mother’s. A deep blueness that echoes emptiness . The Kapitän smiles before returning his gaze to the ocean’s horizon just past the woman’s shoulder. She raises the knife above her head. Two hands overlapping, gripping the ivory. The Kapitän smiles as the sun’s warmth touches his face. The woman says something in her native tongue. He can’t quite understand, though he doesn’t much care. The daughter translates anyway, saying a single word, “Tote…” The word lingers in the air before dancing softly, slowly absorbing itself into the Kapitän’s ear. The woman plunges the knife deep into his skull. Blood flows down over his face into his beard, it drips from his beard onto the sand. She holds onto the knife, his body going limp. Releasing the knife from her grip, his body slumps onto the sand. Blood fills the small valleys and rifts of the undulating sand. She bends down, grips the knife and pulls it from his skull. She gazes a while at the dead man’s face to see if any life is left. A lingering smile is all that remains.

DISCLAIMER: This a part of a much larger story I’m working on. My hopes are to publish another part every other week.