Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Suburb of Korea

One of my favourite things about my extended family is that we take "extended" to a whole new level. I've heard many stories about larger families that eventually drift apart and splinter off over time. My family, on the other hand, takes immense joy in connecting and reconnecting. Our genealogy is well-documented, and we all take it seriously. Most people would consider second or third cousins as being too tenuous a relationship to bother with, but not us. Basically, if you're descended from my great-grandparents Josef and Ludwina, or married to someone who is, we're delighted to have you. Since they had eighteen children, that's a lot of descendants!

Last summer, I went with my mom, aunt, and grandmother to a celebration honouring my great aunt's fiftieth anniversary as a nun. There, we heard one of our distant relatives comment that she had no family in Ottawa. Well, we were quick to disabuse her of that! Soon Natalie was attending every barbeque, holiday dinner, and family function we had going. This Christmas, Natalie's parents came to visit, so we all went out for supper on Boxing Day.

Sometimes, explaining my international lifestyle to my extended extended family leads the conversation in amusing directions. At the Boxing Day supper, Natalie's mother leaned across a noisy table.

"So where you do live?" she called to me.

"Korea!" I called back.

She looked confused. "I don't know where that is!"

"The country!" my mom explained helpfully.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I thought that's what you said. I just didn't think I could have heard you right, so I convinced myself you were talking about one of the suburbs around here!"

We all had a good laugh about it.

Exchanges like this often make me think about how living abroad sometimes maneuvers you into a position where nobody can truly understand where you're coming from. Your colleagues and friends overseas have shared your experiences there, but they don't know what your home is like and have never met any of the people you've left behind. As for your home and the people you leave behind, you can tell them stories and show them pictures, but they'll never really know.

In either situation, there are things that don't translate, things that can never be adequately explained. I am still ambivalent about this. On one hand, you end up with a frame of reference that is ultimately quite unique. On the other hand, it can be lonely.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Enjoying a White Christmas

It's 4:23 AM and I am wide awake. No time for napping today, so I'm not sure exactly how I will function during my yoga class, hair appointment, and evening at my friend Vanessa's house. Hopefully the excellent conversations she and I always share will keep me semi-conscious.

Every night I've managed to sleep from ten until two thirty, at which point I wake up and am unable to get back to sleep again until about seven, when I manage about another three hours. Last night I made the mistake of staying up until eleven, thinking that pushing through the extra hour would tire my body out enough that I could sleep through the night. Instead, it upset the whole delicate balance, and I have not slept AT ALL. I am this strange combination of alertness and exhaustion.

Even with the jet lag, though, it's still been good to be home. I was lucky enough to make it into Ottawa before snowstorms shut all the airports down, so I have just been kicking back, eating my mom's cooking, and chatting to friends. Since the snow did not interfere with my travel in any way, I haven't had any qualms about enjoying it. The cold air here has made me realize that Canada is really in my blood. I get cranky if I don't get a dose of Canadian winter every year. My daily treks to the gym down the snowy street has been the highlight of each day, even if I haven't had the energy to do any more than that. I love rural Ontario, the old houses, the empty fields, the friendly people.

It's also good to have a chance to sit back and reflect on how the semester has gone. I feel like my life is on an excellent trajectory right now. I am doing a job where I have lots of opportunities to help others, and I am gaining a lot of experience that will serve me very well in my intended field of librarianship. There are still a few tough decisions to make about how long I plan to stay at GSIS, and how long I want to live overseas in general, but I don't have to decide that definitively until October. There is plenty of time. Overall, I am on track and heading exactly where I want to go.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2008 in Review

I tend to get pensive whenever the holiday season comes. Not so much because it's Christmas (although I LOVE Christmas) but because it's the end of the year, and I always find myself evaluating where I am, what I'm doing, and where I'd like to go next.
I think that I will probably always look back on 2008 as the year that led me out of the darkness. My students talk a lot about bullying and the negative effects that it has on them, but I always notice that they somehow assume that it is only a school thing, and someday it will be outgrown. The experience I had with a workplace bully, though, was a thousand times more devastating than anything I ever faced when I was in school. I still feel sick when I think about how isolated I was at the beginning of 2008, and how my amazing overseas experience had deteriorated into a nightmare so quickly. In January, after everything that had happened, I felt so broken and lost. All of my confidence was gone and I couldn't take a step in any direction. The decision to leave Korea in February so I could get away from the bully's sphere of influence, without knowing what I was going back to or what I would do next, was the most difficult decision I've ever made.
What was so good about the decision, though, was the realization that my heart always points me true. Within two weeks of being back home in Canada, I knew that I wasn't done with Korea. I also knew that thinking of nothing but myself and my own problems was exhausting me. I wanted to be in a situation where I could be of service to others. The two objectives converged when I first considered working at an international school. To this day, I still don't know where the idea came from or how I thought of it. God was definitely watching out for me when he put the idea into my head, and even more so when I got hired at my school. God found a way to bring me back here.
My job is a lot of work, and I know I complain about it sometimes. I also don't feel like I always do it as well as I should -- it feels like I'm making mistakes all the time. But what motivates me to improve is the knowledge that this job has taught me that I will always keep working to be a better teacher, a better coworker, a better friend. My coworkers are all so healthy in their worldviews and their relationships with other people, which has allowed me to relax and trust new people again. When I think about all that I'm learning from my students, I get more and more excited to improve so that I can continue to help them change and grow. They are such cool people, each with their own goals and ambitions, and I am so happy to be a part of that.
I feel like, this second time around, I have found a new Korea, the Korea that I had originally come here to find. The Korea that I experience through the filter of my own perception, unclouded by anything or anyone else. I am also more productive than I have ever been, doing things I could not have believed I would ever do. In 2009, I plan to push all personal limits and see just how far I can go.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You know it's exam season in Korea when...

...the hallways and classrooms are strewn with sleeping bodies. I swear, these kids are more dead to the world than...well, the dead.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My Wayward Lambs

One of my ESL classes at school is rather...infamous among the teachers for its less-than-stellar behaviour. Although the kids are all generally good kids when you get them one on one, put them together and it's a nightmare. I call them my "grey hair class," because I always come out of it feeling several hundred years older. The classroom management methods that work so well with other classes don't work with them. They don't listen. They don't do what you ask. They break the English Only rule constantly. They are always screaming at the top of their lungs tattling on each other. They kick and hit and pinch each other. Today, one of them lied to my face. Another swore at me in Korean when I gave him detention for talking, thinking I wouldn't catch him.
In a weird way, I'd almost feel better if they were only like this with me, because it would imply that I was simply doing something wrong, something that could be fixed. But they're like this with every teacher.
One day, in frustration, I found myself yelling at the top of my lungs, "Geez! What does it take to get through to you? Do I have to hit you?"
"Yes," they said, as if it should have been obvious.
I know that corporal punishment is still standard practice in Korean schools, but it had never before occurred to me that the kids' acclimatization to it is likely accounting for a lot of the problems going on with that class. Apparently, one of the kids I gave detention to today -- the one who lied to me -- burst into tears of happiness when he discovered he was accepted here, because, as he put it, "Western schools have no rules."
I thought that was a telling statement. To him "rules" mean "getting swacked". Western schools have rules. We give warnings, detentions, suspensions. But in my students' mind, none of these count. Rules mean corporal punishment. Nothing else gets through to them. Nothing.
As much stress as they cause me, I really do love those kids and I want them to succeed. I don't have them next semester, but I'm going to keep an eye on them anyway to see how they're doing.
It certainly hasn't been a dull semester, in any case.