Friday, May 29, 2009

What A Show!

Today was a good day!

I woke up really early feeling awfully nervous about how my high school drama class' play was going to go. This is my "mixed" class, containing students in grades 6, 7, 9, and 10. Not only is hard to teach a drama class to students in four grades who don't even know what drama is, the odds stacked against us were thus:

A) During yesterday's rehearsal, my students still didn't have their lines memorized.
B) We had a 25 minute window in which to perform, but the play has been dragging at 35 minutes because of forgotten lines.
C) Normally I schedule lunchtime performances on days when students have my class right before lunch so that when the audience enters the auditorium the kids are all dressed, miked, and ready to go. But today I couldn't. We had only 25 minutes to get ready, which, if you've ever taught middle school kids, you will know is not enough time.
D) Somehow, I also had to feed the kids, but fifteen minutes before the pizza was supposed to arrive, the receptionist called and told me she forgot to order it. (This is the second time this has happened. It only just occurred me to now that I speak enough Korean to do this myself. I order food to my place all the time, so why can't I order pizza to the school? Why did I never think of this before? Anyway, I digress.)
E) The elementary students were practicing for their own concert in the auditorium that morning, which meant that I would have no time to set up the set pieces in advance.
F) We were performing for the high school students, who are all nice kids individually, but when you put them together they have to be the most apathetic group of people in existence. Moreover, they don't really know what Drama is so they tend to be reticent about embracing it. How were they going to react to the show?

I was gnawing on my nails all through my morning classes thinking of this, but seriously, the timing turned out to be so beautifully orchestrated that I couldn't have planned it better. Firstly, my students in the pre-lunch class finished their debates with five minutes to spare, so I sent them to lunch early, giving me precious time to put the set together. Then, my students' middle school teachers graciously released them early so that they could come to prepare. That meant that by the time the bell went, half my cast was already dressed. That first half did mike check while the later arrivals dressed, and just as we were finishing up, the belated pizza arrived! I gave my kids their pep talk during the impromptu lunch in my classroom, and by the time our audience started to trickle in from the cafeteria, they were fully ready to go.

My students' performance was just bang on and the audience loved it. They clapped, they cheered, they laughed, they oohed and aahed. My students were stunned by their peers' reaction. (I was too- because, well, usually they don't react to anything.) This is their first big show in front of an audience, and they weren't expecting that. They held up well. Some lines were forgotten or missed, but they covered every mishap, and the play actually ended up running just under time. It just went beautifully! I think the kids are really excited to do the play again on Monday for the middle school students. They will be the first group in the history of my school to do the same performance twice, so I think it will be a real growing experience for them.

Still, I can't help but feel that the high school show was the most important. Next year, Drama will be mandatory for all middle school students, but it remains optional for high school students. Most high school students have emphatically avoided it because it was unfamiliar and Korean teenagers are shy about appearing on stage. But I feel like, because of that play, high school students are starting to understand why Drama is important and beneficial. I hope that some will sign up for it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

End of the Armistice

I took this picture in the Demilitarized Zone looking into North Korea in early 2008. Note the creepy guy with binoculars in the left window.

Although the Western media loves to make a big fuss over North Korea, South Koreans' typical response to the antics of North Korea can be summed up in one word: "Meh." They've lived beside them for so long, and have dealt with so much crap over the years, that for them it's no big deal. That isn't to say that they don't care; South Koreans are deeply saddened about the division of their homeland, but they don't freak out the way the West does every time North Korea rattles its sabre.

The thing is, North Korea might threaten South Korea and Japan and the US, but it isn't really about those countries at all. The fact that they have to do this speaks to the fact that the regime is probably crumbling from the inside, and they have to attack an "outer enemy" to ensure unity within. The US, South Korea, and Japan are the most convenient scapegoats. The Western media does not seem to have picked up on this.

After two years here, I've kind of adopted an indifferent attitude towards the North and its antics. I have to say, though, that the idea of the armistice being over is hugely unsettling. If the North did attack, their resources are so limited, their military so antiquated, that they wouldn't stand much of a chance...but they could cause a lot of damage in the interim.

I keep picturing what would be going through the mind of a North Korean soldier marching into Seoul and seeing the buildings, the lights, the cars, the stores, the prosperity. What would they think? Everything I've ever been told was a lie? Or, after a lifetime of indoctrination, would that only drive him to greater fury?

It's hard to know.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Whistle Man

Korea is always a noisy place. When you have 42 million people crammed into a country that is smaller than Canada's smallest province, the concept of "noise bylaw" doesn't really apply. This fact confronted me at 7AM this morning when construction workers began to jackhammer the road outside my apartment. Right now the truck that sells popcorn on my street corner is blasting some pop of the musical variety. You simply learn to live with it or tune it out after a while.

My friends Tom and Bonnie live on the ninth story of a typical Korean high rise apartment building that overlooks a busy intersection. I've grown accustomed to hearing the sounds of car horns, shouting, and other traffic noises when I go over there.

Last night, a bunch of us went over for worship. As we were singing, I noticed that there seemed to be more horns than normal. Aside from that, the shrill sound of a whistle kept piercing the night. At first I just assumed that one of the stop lights was out and somebody was directing traffic, but the whistling became more frequent and more insistent.

"Ugh, it's Whistle Man again!" Bonnie exclaimed.

We were all intrigued. "Whistle Man?"

Tom and Bonnie explained it to us. I'll let the video they posted on their own blog speak for itself:

Our friend Stephanie, who also lives in the building, has been intrigued by the Whistle Man for some time. "I have a theory," she said. "The Whistle Man was married, and his wife was hit by a bus. Now he tries to stop buses in an attempt to keep the same thing from happening to anyone else."

"That would make a great Korean drama," laughed Darrick.

We gathered at their window and watched Whistle Man. Tom and Bonnie's video was shot in the daytime, but it was night now and Whistle Man was running around in the darkness. Some of the buses got too close for comfort because they hadn't expected to see him. One bus stopped and the driver started yelling at him. I began to feel anxious, watching him. He looked like an ajoshi, a Korean middle-aged man, who had drunk one soju too many and lost his sanity along with his sobriety.

When we finished watching him and started to worship, I found it hard to concentrate on the songs because I just kept thinking about him running around down there.

Stephanie seemed to feel the same way. "I'm going to go down there and talk to him," she said.

"What are you going to say?" asked Darrick.

"조심하세요. It means 'Take care'. Somebody has to say something to him, and Koreans aren't going to do it."

She was right. Koreans' general response to anybody exhibiting signs of mental illness is to alternately to ignore them or laugh at them. In Korea, mental illness is a fate more shameful than death.

Of course, foreigners are exempt from many of the strictures of Korean culture. That freedom does come with a sense of obligation, however, because sometimes you are the only one who can do things that Korean culture prevents Koreans themselves from doing.

Such as attempting to intervene with Whistle Man.

"I'll go with you," I volunteered.

Suwon is fairly cosmopolitan and foreigners aren't as unusual here as they are in other parts of Korea, but we still weren't sure how Whistle Man would feel about being approached by two foreigners late at night. We stopped at a small convenience store to buy him an ice cream cone in the hopes of soothing him if we made him nervous. The store owner was standing on the sidewalk watching Whistle Man and laughing at him.

As we walked towards the median, we could hear our friends yelling encouragement from the ninth floor window. "Here," Stephanie said, "you'd better talk to him. Your Korean is better than mine. I'll give him the ice cream."

"Okay," I said. I ran through the word in my head, adapting it to the polite form to use to someone older than myself. (The Korean language is heavily hierarchical according to age - using the wrong verb ending is extremely rude.) Suddenly I was really nervous. We walked closer and I called out, "Ajoshi, ajoshi!" He didn't turn around. I wondered if he didn't hear me or if he was just ignoring me. "Ajoshi, ajoshi!"

We walked right up to him and he turned to face us. I was startled. For one thing, he was not the ajoshi he had appeared to be from Tom and Bonnie's window. He was young, younger than me, no more than twenty-five. He was definitely not drunk. I could tell from the shape of his face that he had some form of mental retardation. He did not seem fazed by our presence at all. He cocked his head, looking at us as if he saw us, yes, but we were just utterly irrelevant.

"조심합니다," I said. ("Be careful.") It was ridiculous to be using the formal honourific form to him when he was younger than me, but my mind stalled and I couldn't think of the correct way.

Stephanie handed him the ice cream, which he accepted with the bow of his head and then went back to his cart as if we didn't exist.

"Be careful!" I yelled again in Korean.

Whistle Man looked back at me and nodded once, then kept walking. I knew that, the second he stopped looking at us, we vanished from his mind. By the time the elevator took us back up to Tom and Bonnie's apartment, Whistle Man was gone.

I don't know if he left because of us, and I imagine that he'll be back on the median whistling away again before long. But I'm glad at least there was no more traffic-related danger for him last night.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Unexpected Cultural Differences

Today I went into the office to talk to Andrew, the director of the school's General Affairs about my oh-so-hideous, purple squiggle wallpaper. It was an interesting case of cultural difference.

I wasn't even sure if I'd be able to get permission to paint my walls, because as I said before, it's just not something Koreans do. One day, when I was feeling particularly whiny about my revolting wallpaper, I asked my Korean friend Mi Ok why they choose decor like squiggles and checkerboards instead of painting their walls pretty colours.

"Because," she said, "whatever colour you picked might look good in autumn, but it wouldn't look good in winter. You'd have to wait a whole year for the colour to look good again."

I guess this goes to show a real difference in mindset between Koreans and Westerners. For one, I would never consider a colour choice to correspond to a season of the year -- to me, it corresponds to a mood, regardless of whether it's spring, summer, fall, or winter. For another, even if the colour didn't match the season, I would rather have that than boring blah wallpaper that looks awful all year round.

So I approached Andrew with some trepidation. He looked at me with that expression Koreans always get when they're trying to figure out what the hell foreigners are thinking, and said, "When do you have time? I will send people to give you new wallpaper."

I had horrific visions of new, equally unbearable wallpaper replacing the stuff I already hate. "It's okay," I said hurriedly. "I can do it myself."

He looked at me in obvious surprise. I had known that this would shock him, because that's another big cultural difference -- the DIY interior decorating craze that rages in North America is not common here. Koreans are not about DIY home improvement. "You can do that?"

"Sure," I said. "I've done it before. I'd like to paint, actually."

"Wow," he exclaimed, genuinely impressed. "You are okay to do that?"

"Yep. I'll just strip the wallpaper, sand it down, prime the walls, and paint them."

He pondered this for a minute. "I have seen Westerners do this in movie," he said. "I think it is something foreigners like."

"It is."

"Ah. Very different from Korea," Andrew commented, but his tone sounded amused rather than forbidding, and I knew he was going to let me do it. "Be sure if you paint, then new people in your apartment can put new wallpaper on."

"Sure, no problem!" I exclaimed, delighted.

I went down to lunch and excitedly told Glau we'd been approved. My friends were dubious. "You're going to take the wallpaper down yourself without a steamer?" Stephanie asked, her eyebrow arched.

"It will be easy," I said, which is true. The benefit of Koreans not really liking home decor is that their wallpaper is not the best quality. I've already started pulling strips of it off without even wetting it down, never mind steaming it.

The next problem to tackle is finding the necessary materials. If I was in Canada I could just amble down to Home Depot and pick one of eighty thousand colours, but hardware stores are non-existent here, so I may have to scout. I still have to decide what colour to paint the living room. I'm thinking yellow might be nice...

Anyway, I may soon find myself in over my head, but I don't even care. Just anything to get rid of the purple squiggles.