THE KOREA KRONICLES, PART V: Behold, a Red Horse (and his Children)

The Red HorseIt doesn’t take too many years of living on Earth for a person to learn how wildly unpredictable it can be. Aside from all the quirky things the planet does, like earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes and sink holes and such, there’s humanity to deal with. Homo sapiens are peculiar creatures. We treat the earth of which we are made as a consumable resource that exists simply for that purpose. We race to toxify the only planet we yet know of that can sustain us. We take up arms when we can’t solve our disputes like the civilized, advanced, and rational beings we like to consider ourselves to be. We plant bombs in airplanes, subways, parked cars, schoolrooms, and marathon finish lines and kill scores of randomly unfortunate people because someone offended our religion, or killed our dads, or maybe just because our lives suck. Everyone seems to have their own “reason” for doing shitty things to other people. There is so much beauty to be seen in the face of humanity, yet so much grotesque ugliness to behold as well.

WAR AND PEACE

Anyway, at present, I am living in South Korea. If you’ve been a regular reader of my blog, you know this already. If you’re also a regular consumer of Western media, you’re also probably aware that our neighbors to the North have been making a lot of noise of late. If I had a nickel for every time North Korea swore to turn Seoul and Washington, D.C., into “seas of fire,” I’d have a lot of nickels (but still probably wouldn’t be rich). I’m obviously not in the U.S. and I don’t watch American news here; to be honest, it’s nice to be away from it. I still stay abreast of the worldly goings-on, but not having to sift through the mountain of media hype to get at the meat is a nice change. North Korea is, of course, the communist hell-hole a mere two-hour train ride from where I live. At some point in my visit, I hope to make a visit to the DMZ, although you may rest assured that I will not be taking a tour of North Korea. I know many of my fellow expatriates will disagree with this opinion, but by paying money to take a tour of North Korea, a person is, in however small a way, supporting and legitimizing its murderous ruling regime. Whatever money visitors spend to have a frolic and an interesting story will eventually be used to pay for bullets, nuclear material, and mortar shells while the people in the North continue to suffer from hunger and oppression. That’s something I can’t justify to my conscience.

Kim Jong-Un clapping

My move to South Korea at the end of February coincided with some weighty geopolitical happenings in this part of the world. Just over a year ago, the long-time dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, died. This left his son, the 29-year-old Kim Jong-un, to take the wheel. In that time, the DPRK’s record of human rights atrocities has continued and there has also apparently been a great deal of turmoil within. He’s allegedly been the target of at least one assassination attempt and is struggling to maintain control of his government. As he attempts to shore up support among the North Korean people, Kim Jong-un has resorted to increasingly incendiary threats against the U.S. and South Korea. North Korea conducted a nuclear test earlier this year that resulted in additional and crippling sanctions being imposed on the country by the United Nations Security Council. Unlike in times past, China didn’t put up much resistance to their imposition, which some have said is a sign that China is growing fed up with North Korea. Keep in mind, this was all happening as I was preparing to cross the Pacific. The day I arrived was the day Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a former South Korean dictator-president, was inaugurated as South Korea’s first female chief executive.

Park Geun-hye

Since my arrival, North Korea has only intensified its rancor. There was some speculation that it might test-fire a missile on April 15, the day it commemorates the birth of the country’s first dictator, Kim Il-sung. As of yet, no such test has been conducted to my knowledge. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, which was founded to herald the eventual reunification of the peninsula, has been mothballed on the North’s orders and the few small channels of cooperation that had been hammered out between the two Koreas have all either been shut down or substantially reduced.

All that said, it’s important to remember one very crucial truth: despite how they may sound, the leaders of the North Korean government are neither crazy nor stupid. They fully understand that starting a war with the United States and South Korea would be ridiculously foolish and I’m quite confident they have no intentions of doing so. Kim Jong-un and his influencers may be a great many things, but suicidal isn’t one of them. I should also point out that this is pretty much the general consensus among almost everyone, even including the flashy, entertainment-driven American news media. In fact, a bigger concern at this point is something happening by accident. It’s a well-known fact that virtually all North Korean technology is shoddy at best and shitty at worst. Their missiles are absurdly inaccurate and the most pressing concern is if they test fire one and it happens to accidentally fall somewhere it wasn’t intended to fall, like, say, downtown Seoul or one of South Korea’s other major cities. If war does break out, it’ll be because of an accident or a miscalculation on the part of North Korea or by the U.S. and South Korea.

LIFE OF THE VILLAGE PEOPLE

The VillageIn other news, life at the English village continues unabated. I’m now approaching my two month mile-marker and I’m still loving the job. At this point, my only worry is that this is just a Honeymoon period. But, c’mon, let’s be real: I’m a teacher who doesn’t have to do grading, or deal with parents (yet, and, even when I do, not much), or put up with bad kids for more than five days, or pay for his living quarters, or buy and cook his own food, or pay much at all for transportation, etc., etc. I live in a well-developed, First World country with outstanding and cheap medical care, excellent public transportation, and where nothing I’d want to see is more than 2-3 hours away. I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned that’s pretty posh, especially compared to the alternatives I had in the U.S. I don’t intend to stay here forever, but I’d be stupid to not appreciate this opportunity while it’s available.

In addition to several situational classes, I’m also currently teaching two “academic” lessons, which are loads of fun. The first is called “Law,” and most of my fellow teachers upon hearing the name of the class, roughly respond, “How are you teaching them Law? They’re only in the fifth grade.” Just stay calm: I’m not teaching torts and class-actions or anything like that. Remember that Schoolhouse Rock! video “I’m Just a Bill”? I basically teach them that video. They learn six key vocabulary words (law, bill, debate, president, veto, and legislature) and then we play games, do a worksheet, watch videos, and finish off with a role play where the class becomes a legislature and they make their own law (usually that they get 10 points for my class). At this point, I’ve taught it upwards of twenty-five to thirty times and only one or two groups haven’t responded to it positively. I don’t know about you, but that smells like success to my nostrils.

The Transportation RoomMy other academic is “Poetry,” which, for my students, I define as “art that uses words.” The poem I use is the chorus from the Gym Class Heroes song “Stereo Hearts.” The song is catchy and also is full of lots of concrete imagery that I can act out for the kids. Granted, it’s not Chaucer or Shakespeare, but I never read those guys anyway and, let’s be real, we’re talking about elementary school kids; “Stereo Hearts” works beautifully. The key vocabulary words I teach them are “poetry,” “poem,” “stanza,” and “rhyme.” In practice, rhyme is pretty much the focus of the class. I show them words and ask if they rhyme, or “have the same sound.” Then we look in the poem to see which lines rhyme and, finally, we play Rhyming Charades. For the game, I write a word on the whiteboard and then give the students cards that have words and pictures that tell them what the words mean. They play in groups and one person at a time from each group comes to the front of the class and acts out the word on their card while the other groups try to guess. The jury is still out on which class is my favorite to teach, but I’m leaning toward this one.

Daegu is also a pretty cool city and I’m gradually getting more familiar with it. I took the train from Waegwan into the city this past weekend and loved that it dropped me off literally right in the middle of downtown. The free college shuttle does the same thing, but the point is that I have options. Options are good. In addition to my new favorite haunt at Buy the Book, I found a cafe where patrons order coffee and then make friends with lots of cats and dogs. Yes, you read that right. It’s beyond awesome. At some point, I intend to visit Busan (a city on the coast that everyone says is just the bees knees), particularly because that’s where the nearest Orthodox Church is. I’m debating attending Pascha there and, if I do go, that’ll be a bloggable experience for sure.

WAR, POLITICS, AND TEACHING CHILDREN: IS THERE REALLY A DIFFERENCE?

To answer my question, no: only a semantic one. Since I began this post with a discussion on war and similar bullshit, I think it’s appropriate at this point to point out that teaching is a lot like war, particularly in the sense that nothing ever goes according to plan. Sometimes, even teaching involves bullshitting. Can I get an “amen,” teachers?

The clearest example of this truth was when I was assigned to organize a Night Activity for a group of 70+ Korean middle school kids and then discovered upon arrival at the auditorium that the media projector cables had been gnawed through by a rat. As a result, my first activity failed dismally and I decided on the fly that I’d try musical chairs. Long story short, it worked! The kids loved it and I kept them entertained for an hour. +1000 points to my life score. Kids don’t know if nothing works out the way you wanted, nor do they care. If there’s anything I’ve learned so far in my brief time teaching, it’s this: always have a plan, but always be ready to scrap it and come up with an entirely new one on the spot. Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s surprising how it easy it becomes.

In any case, life goes on. The weeks fly by and I’m increasingly shocked at how comfortable I’ve grown working with kids. Unbelievable, I know. When life throws you a curve ball, throw one back and my motto has quite aptly become, “Just drink lots of coffee and don’t be afraid to look stupid.” It’s served and is serving me well. Keep it real, peeps.

Cat & Dog Cafe

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