THE KOREA KRONICLES, PART IV: Children, And Other Anomalies

Self-LoveI have a complicated relationship with kids. I mean, in the aggregate, it’s a very good one, but there are definitely a few sticking points. It might help if you understood a little about what I was like when I was a kid, so I’ll tell you. According to my mother, I was an exceptionally clean child. As I understand it, two cakes were bought for my first birthday in case I stuck my hands into the first upon blowing out the candle–in fact, I think this is what my family was hoping I’d do for the sake of cake-covered-baby pictures. It was all in vain, however, as I refused to touch the cake; as it turned out, I didn’t want to get my hands dirty. My mother has told me that she never had to make me take a bath as I always wanted to on my own. I actually can’t remember a time when I haven’t thought going to bed without bathing was gross. I knew even then that I wasn’t a typical child in that regard, as most children seem to take the absence of parents as a cue that bathing can be temporarily suspended. Ew, gross. Come summer, entry into my classroom might become contingent upon being hosed down with Febreze.

That’s not the only thing, though. I was also a quiet child and essentially an only-child, as I’ve never lived with my two half-brothers. I had to learn early how to keep myself entertained as a result. And, since there generally weren’t other large groups of kids around, I didn’t have anyone to go screaming and running wild with. I matured a lot quicker than most of my peers since I grew up around adults and I learned how to take care of myself early on.

Consequently, I don’t have a lot of patience with particular types of kids, mainly loud, obnoxious boys. They’re just as irritating to me now at 23 as they were when I was 8. Most Korean kids are delightful: very well-behaved, eager to learn, anxious to please, and fascinated by a hairy, bearded, white man with a funny accent from America. Those kids, which account for a good 95% of the kids I teach, make the job wonderful. But, occasionally, you have a group with two or three boys who, by my impression, have been spoiled and could really use a good slap across the mouth. While they tend to have the most to say, they also tend to be the least intelligent of the kids in their group (or, at the very least, have the lowest proficiency in English). When you have a group with that manner of male, the girls often seem to fade into the background, which really irks me. I’ve long believed that girls are much, much smarter than boys on the average I hate seeing girls intimidated to voice their opinions by one or two incorrigible boys.

Classroom where I taught my "Law" class for a week. Think Schoolhouse Rock's "I'm Just a Bill."

Classroom where I taught my “Law” class for a week. Think Schoolhouse Rock!’s “I’m Just a Bill.”

Kids really are great though, and even the turds have their redeeming qualities, however few and far between they may be. At any rate, I’ve now passed the one-month milestone from my arrival in Korea. It already seems I’ve been here so long, which for me is a good sign: it means I’ve found a good routine and made it a home. Since you’re reading this post, my assumption is that you’d like to hear a little more about my experience up to now, so the following are a few highlights of the things I’ve learned and first impressions I have about Korea…

1. Living in Korea has been a major boost to my ego.

I kid you not, I get told at least five times a day that I am “very handsome.” Koreans are fascinated by my green eyes and thick beard and often want to rub my arms so they can touch the hair. One of the vice presidents at Yeungjin College who’s also the head honcho at the English camp leaned back upon meeting me and told me how handsome I was. Now, granted, that’s a very Korean thing to do: appearance and complimenting each others’ appearances here is an important part of the culture, so, ultimately, they’re only being polite. Sort of like how we say, “Oh, it’s nothing,” when we have to wait on someone who’s forty minutes late. Even so, I’ll happily take the compliment.

2. Some things affect all cultures in virtually the same ways.

Capitalism in action.

My guess is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s Europe, Africa, America, or Asia, teenagers are rebellious creatures. That’s the time of life when human beings begin to assert their individuality and want to differentiate themselves from their families, no matter the culture. Even in collectivity-conscious East Asia, 15-year-olds can can be headaches to handle, especially if they’ve decided they don’t wish to learn from you or even be at the English village for that matter. I’ve taught a few groups of middle school kids since being here (7th to 8th grade) and, since that’s the time in Korean kids’ education when things start getting serious, some are going through a period of resistance and resentment. And, in all honesty, I can understand: a lot of Korean school kids are in class from 8 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night and understandably exhausted with school.

On another note, since South Korea is a well-developed First World country, it’s easy to see how capitalism dilutes culture in pretty much the same way wherever you are. Indeed, there are moments when I forget I’m not in America. Capitalism cheapens culture by virtue of its commoditization of it, in my view at least. South Koreans have done very, very well for themselves over the past sixty years, but then I don’t see capitalism as a moral or just or ethical system under which humans should operate so I’m rather ambivalent toward the whole thing. Capitalism assumes human ownership over all material matters and ultimately depends on continual growth, which isn’t physically possible. It’s obviously hard to argue against capitalism when South Korea is abutted by a communist hell-hole to the north, but successful implementation of capitalism isn’t even in the top ten criteria by which I think we ought to judge a nation’s success. But I digress…

3. There are family burial grounds everywhere.

It seems like anywhere you look, the hills are covered with little mounds that mark the graves of Korea’s ancestors. There are cemeteries here and there, but families will often have their own burial grounds where parents, grand-parents, and multiple other generations are interred and visited regularly throughout the year. I find this fascinating, as the way a culture treats its dead can tell you a lot about the way it views and values life. There are even grave sites on the hills around the school, which occasionally freaks the kids out and I’ve been told that they have nightmares sometimes about ghosts and stuff. Spooky, spooky.

4. The salty crunch is a snack food genre that doesn’t exist in Korea.

When I first got here, I was given a welcome package of Korean snack foods and a few other useful items. My first morning, I opened a bag of what I assumed would be a salty crunchy chip of some sort. Upon biting into it, however, I found it to be really sweet. Bummer. I’m not a huge fan of sweet snacks. As I’ve found over the past month, Koreans have a fascination with sugar, and a lot of their food is really sweet if it isn’t really hot (or both sometimes, which is a bit odd). Incidentally, the morning I found out those weren’t chips was also the morning I took a swig of what-I-thought-was-water-but-turned-out-to-be-soju. Oy.

5. The people concerned least about a Second Korean War are South Koreans.

It seems like I came over just as Kim Jong-un decided he wanted to start throwing verbal eggs across the border. As you probably know, this particular Kim is the third such Kim to rule the reclusive and bizarre communist country known officially as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or commonly as North Korea. The current hoopla began when Kim gave the order for another test of his military’s nuclear weapons, which culminated in an underground nuclear test near the Russian border. The UN quickly responded with sanctions, which came much faster than usual this time around since China is growing increasingly fed-up with the North’s antics and didn’t put up much resistance to their imposition on the Security Council. Add to the equation routine South Korean-U.S. military exercises currently underway and the North Korean leadership have managed to get their panties in such a twist that they’ve probably lost circulation to their legs. Ultimately, though, all this really amounts to is the North attempting to drum up national support for what many in the country’s military leadership see as a weak and unworthy leader and to attempt to force South Korea to take a softer line against them.

Personally, I can’t imagine anything more stressful than being a leader in the North Korean government. Trust me, they’re not stupid: they know if they start a war with South Korea and the U.S., they will lose, North Korea will collapse, and they will probably die at the end of a gun. Their power is entirely contingent on the North Korean people being in a perpetual state of crisis and feeling as though they must remain united behind their leaders in order to fend off foreign invaders. If they were to ever figure out just how bad they have it, it would be curtains for Mr. Kim. So, believe me, the last thing North Korea wants is a full-scale war with the United States. While there’s always the possibility that one side will miscalculate and the situation could spiral out of control, it’s very unlikely to happen.

Until next time…

My new favorite coffee house.

My new favorite coffee house.

So, one month down, at least eleven more to go. Time flies when you’re having fun! Seriously though, this job is the bees knees. It’s not perfect, sure, but no job is and all in all it’s a pretty sweet deal. Korea is a cool place and I’m glad they invited me here to teach their children. It’s ultimately a flattering thing. Here’s to hoping they learn something good from me, and me from them. Cheers!

Photo 2013-03-31 11.15.01 AM

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