Thursday, June 26, 2014

Korea Part IX: Taekwondo

            As a child of the ‘80s, I loved the movie The Karate Kid.  Like most kids who fell in love with the movie, I wanted to learn how to punch and kick as well as Ralph Macchio.  But growing up I was already heavily involved with basketball and softball and I was unwilling to give either one of them up to become the next karate kid.  Besides, I knew the difference between Hollywood and reality.  As much as I would have loved to vanquish the boys that teased me mercilessly, a part of me realized that karate wouldn’t exactly solve the problem.  In a Catholic school, I couldn’t go around beating everyone up, even if I felt they deserved it.  However, my childhood infatuation with controlled violence never completely diminished so once I got myself situated in Korea, I decided to enroll in a class to learn taekwondo.  It was a different discipline than karate, but as far as I was concerned, it was close enough. 
            One day at work, I expressed interest in learning martial arts and one of my co-workers, Joff, told me that he really enjoyed his class and he invited me to join him one night to scope out the place.  I expected a class full of Koreans, so I was rather thrown back when I walked in and discovered that most of the people in the class were Americans and Canadians.  The only Koreans were the two instructors who spoke limited English.  One of the Canadians spoke Korean and he was kind enough to act as a translator.  After a short exchange in which I expressed my interest to learn and answered some questions regarding my background – where I was from, where I worked and what I thought of Korea thus far – I filled out a form, forked over some money and received a uniform along with my very own white belt.
            I would love to say that I became a very dedicated student, that I learned all my forms correctly and that I eventually earned my black belt, but that would just be a fanciful account.  At first I enjoyed my lessons – the physical challenge, that fact that my muscles screamed from exertion, and swelled with soreness – but becoming so engrossed in taekwondo left little room for other activities.  Wanting to get my money’s worth and not miss anything important, I initially threw myself into the lessons heart and soul, and went every single night after work. 
For awhile, taekwondo even served as my main social outlet.  Some nights after an intense workout my fellow classmates and I would head over to a local hoff (bar) and order a couple of pitchers of beer.  Yuck!  I’m not a fan of beer to begin with, and Korean beer was one Korean taste I never did acquire, but at least it was cheap, so I would sit and nurse one glass until it became grossly warm from being cradled in my hands.  We always chose to sit outdoors.  The end of the summer and early fall evenings provided a wonderful respite from the crushing heat of mid-day.  If we were lucky a light breeze would blow, but the air maintained just enough warmth from the day to make the temperature perfect.  It was intoxicating, listening to trees rustle their leaves, watching the stars emerge in the sky and feeling the cool breeze on my face.  As I took my seat, my legs still rubbery from kicking and jumping, I could think of no other place I wanted to be. Sitting around the table we’d chat for hours exchanging stories about our pasts and sharing our dreams for the future. 
Joff, in many ways was an inspiration.  He had traveled extensively, backpacking mostly through Asia and engaging in many activities that were of a questionable nature. But he had a great way of making everything sound exotic and fun.  It was through him that I first learned of a small country called Nepal.  He had gone there several years earlier because he wanted to escape life in United States.  He had gone for a week and ended up staying for months, drifting from village to village and hardly spending any money, because everything, he smiled contently just thinking about it, was so damn cheap.  I had never heard of the country before, but so intrigued did I become that I was soon obsessed with the idea of going myself, to experiences the richness of the culture.  Yes, I had gone to Korea to satisfy my urge to travel, but being their only intensified my craving.  If I learned nothing else from those late nights, I learned that I would never be content leading a sedentary life.  Getting stuck in one place was the worse possible future I could conceive of.
Joff wasn’t the only one addicted to traveling. One couple in my class had traveled to so many places that they had to apply for extra pages in their passports.  Having gotten married they quit their jobs and decided not to return home to Canada until they had circled the globe.  They had been gone for nearly five years.  They had fallen into a rhythm of traveling until they were low on cash and then they would stop and work for anywhere from three months to a year. With their bank accounts replenished, they would head back out onto the road.  I promised myself one night, before I stood up to begin the long walk back to my apartment, that before my passport expired, I too would fill enough pages with stamps and visas to require me to apply for extra pages.  If there is one good thing about the teaching profession, it’s the fact that it requires employees to work only ten months out of year.  It has now been five years since I last traveled abroad, and I can’t even begin to explain how much I miss it.  Oh how I long to return to the world that continues to call me.
Anyway, I stuck with taekwondo long enough to earn my yellow belt.  In order to get the belt our instructors told us that we would have to break a board with our hands.  The little child still stuck inside of me yelped with excitement.  How cool, to learn how to reduce a board to splinters.  I could not wait for my turn.  Stepping up to the board, envisioning the proper technique in my head, I felt the adrenaline coursing through my body.  Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and stood in the proper position. With a fierce cry, I let my hand loose and with all the strength I could summon I cracked the board.  High on excitement, I eagerly accepted my new belt and it was only later, after my exhilaration had simmered down some, that one of my classmates explained how the boards were made. Much to my dismay, I learned that the boards are designed to break and therefore my feat did not require either an abundance of force or precision.  In short, even kids could break them. 
Along with being a social outlet, taekwondo also proved to be my first encounter with the inequality of the sexes in Korean culture.  And ultimately, it was this which diluted my enthusiasm for the sport.  In total there were eight of us in class – four men and four women – but the instructors often acted as though they had only four students.  It was infuriating, maddening, to feel invisible.  The instructors would demonstrate a new kick, punch or blocking move and we would then be told to practice.  And practice we did, but when practicing something you want to be sure you are practicing the correct form before your muscles ingrain a faulty move in their memory – and my muscle memory has always been much better than my brain memory.  But no matter how many times I or the other woman tried to get the instructors to pay attention to us, they didn’t.  Continuously, they worked individually with the men helping them hold a particular stance or making them change the angle of their kicks.  Even when we intentionally screwed things up in order to flag their attention, they simply nodded at us as though it didn’t really matter if we learned correctly.  At first, I hoped that things would change, that in time the instructors would realize that I was athletic and could potentially be good if only they took the time to guide me.  But the weeks passed and then the months and it became obvious that nothing was going to change.  The most exasperating aspect was that the women were paying the same price as the men and were getting an inferior product.  I complained continuously to my parents, and my dad encouraged me to stick it out, reminding me that I was there to learn about a different culture not try to change it. But I wanted to change it. I wanted to be treated equally and in time, my pride got the better of me and I quit.  Did I make the right decision?  It’s hard to say.  I certainly regret not learning more but, in quitting, I suddenly had time to make new friends and explore more of the city.  I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me to look elsewhere for lessons and if I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, perhaps that is what I’d have done differently.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Korea: When Memories Fail

After nearly twenty years, my memories are like crumbs scattered across a table.  What had once been a feast of incredible life altering experiences has been devoured by time, eaten in such a hurry that if one looks closely at the crumbs one can still see remnants of what they once were – at trip to the DMZ, a joke-a-thon between two friends at a party, Sorak-san, Christmas.  Visions of the past rise up on occasion like images emerging from a thick fog in the early morning before the sun has cleared the horizon.  Encased first in darkness and then shrouded in white, the images appear milky, cloudy and unclear.  I peer at them intently, hoping the sun will burn off the moisture and the contours of each moment will grow defined and crisp, that the shadows will dissipate and the colors become vibrant.  But more times than not, the fog persists and I find the images fading before I can fully grasp them.  Time has become my enemy.
            When I commenced writing my adventures in Korea, the early chapters were as fresh as if I had lived them yesterday, but after several installments I became overly aware of the holes, the gaps, and the absence of texture. I hold out my finger to touch the people and places I once knew, but the moment I make contact they blur, like a reflection on water disturbed by the drop of a pebble.  I remember enough to make me homesick – if one can be homesick for a temporary home. Songs and smells are magical when conjuring up the past, miniscule moments that might otherwise have been lost if they had not be encapsulated in a particular lyric or odor.  I remember enough to wish that I had done some things differently.  Instead of returning home, should I have taught abroad indefinitely, hoping from country to country?  I remember enough that smiles still arrive unexpectedly when I hear certain words.  And pictures, random pictures on-line or in the news send me traveling back through time until I am sitting at a bar in I’taewon, watching a movie with Yasmine or hiking at Namhansansong.  The past is still there, trapped, buried and sometimes broken, but if I work hard I can sometimes excavate enough to cheer me up on a particularly solemn day. 
To write a memoir, however, I need help.  And apparently a younger version of myself realized this.  A twenty-two year old me knew that someday I’d be sitting here struggling to remember and so I wrote instructions to my dad in an email, instructions he evidently followed because I found the documents I needed last time I went home for a visit.  On Wednesday, October 23, 1996, I ended an email, “PS – If I know Mommy she is probably saving all the letters I send home.  But if you aren’t, can you, please?  Someday I may write a book about my life in Korea and the letters are probably as good if not better than a journal.  Besides, writing to people is so much more fun than writing to blank pieces of paper.”  In retrospect, I’m not sure I completely agree with myself.  I think journals are better – they are private and as such enable one to be more candid and honest.  But letters certainly beat having nothing but memory to fall back on.  Once I left Korea, and traveled extensively, I never went anywhere without a journal and was more faithful to my writing than anything else.  I wrote every day I was away.  I logged every adventure, outburst, bout of sadness and all my dreams.  But those tales came later.  As for Korea, I must thank my parents for printing every email and holding onto them so that I have a record.  As incomplete as I may view my emails now, they are all I have and something is always better than nothing.
It is an interesting experience looking back at your life through the lens of a younger self.  Yesterday, I finally had a moment to start reading the emails that once upon a time kept my parents abreast of what I was doing, seeing and experiencing.  I read through a couple of months and found myself oscillating between disappointment and shock.  The things I once deemed extremely relevant, important tidbits regarding my life, seem so superficial now.  Really who cares about what it was like to work out in a Korean gym with all the women gawking at me?  Why did I go on and on about how boring parties could be and how awful the taste of soju is?   The more I read, the more I wished I had written.  How come I never described the smells of the spring afternoon when I walked home from work?  Why didn’t I elaborate on my time in Sorak-san?  Why did I not think it important to document exactly what Lauren cooked when she was kind enough to make Christmas dinner for those of us who were lonely and missing our families on the holiday?  How come I never deemed it important to write about my individual students, their personalities, their quirks, and my interactions with them?  In my emails I painted everything with broad strokes giving a wonderful overview of what my life was like, but I totally neglected the details, the shadows and subtle shifts in perspective.
What strikes me most is that in many ways I was that which I have grown to loathe?  Extensive travel has taught me to be culturally sensitive.  When I leave America, I do just that – I leave.  I have learned to adapt, to accept that some people make pizza with ketchup and that sometimes the best shower you are going to get is a cold water hose.  But apparently, that wasn’t always me.  I was the ugly American, the one who could not accept the fact that things were done differently, the fact that women were basically ignored in taekwondo or that Koreans double dip their odang (processed fish sticks) in sauces meant to be shared with strangers. I held everyone to the standards I had been brought up to recognize as being the best and had not yet learned to stifle my American bias.  I’m surprised in some ways I didn’t get myself killed.  I am not the same person I was twenty years ago and that difference will certainly impact my writing.  I don’t see how it can’t.  And that makes me wonder, the memories that are still in tact, the moments that I remember as crisply as if they occurred five minutes ago – how accurate are they? 
It is surreal to be on the receiving end of some rather intimate thoughts and rants.  How odd to have written letters to my future self?  To read things out of context, the way my parents might have read them, picking up pieces here and there but never really seeing the whole.  Every once in awhile my dad had asked me questions, and I cut and pasted them into my email before responding to a particular inquiry.  The questions and answers are always so disjointed from the rest of my narrative, belonging to some earlier statement written a day or two or perhaps a week earlier.  Sometimes I can find the thread if I flip back through the pages and sometimes I can not.  What I find extremely ironic is that I, who have professed for years my adaptability, my ability to live as a Roman in Rome, needed my Dad to continuously remind me not to be so critical, to put myself in someone else’s shoes and to be mindful of the fact that I was in a different culture and that I shouldn’t expect to change what I find upsetting, oppressive or unfair.  Yes, I have traveled a long way since my first visit to a foreign country, something to keep in mind as write, since the writer and the subject are not necessarily the same.  I could laugh at myself but mostly I cringe, thankful that I am less abrasive today than I was back then. 
In some ways it’s incredible that I did manage to document as much as I did via email. In 1996, email was still relatively new.  Today, it the developed world, it is extremely commonplace, everyone has it and everyone knows how to use it (except perhaps for my mom).  We’ve become so dependant on it that sometimes we wonder – even those of us that grew up without it – how we would ever get along in the absence of it.  How in the world would we ever correspond with anyone without a computer?  But back in 1996, I was just learning the rudiments of what a computer could do.
For a graduation present my parents had bought me my very first computer – yes, now I am truly dating myself.  In college, I did not need a computer.  I got through an entire four years with nothing more than a word processor and some professors even let me handwrite assignments.  My first computer was a laptop because my intention had been to travel the world and write about it.  I dreamed of being a travel writer of sorts – at least the dream hasn’t totally died, although for awhile the dream was on serious life support.  Anyway, my first encounter with email was in Korea.  With my new computer, I arrived eager to embrace the new technology.  And then I attempted to download the necessary files in order to get internet access and in the process I somehow – please don’t ask how, because I can’t even venture a guess and I’m totally mortified even admitting this – wiped out my entire hard drive.  Yep, not a single file remained.  That was the very first and very last time I ever tried to do something more involved than pressing the on button.  Since then if someone else isn’t around to install or download something new it doesn’t get done.  A child of the seventies and eighties, I’m petrified of technology. 
Luckily, Steve had the same computer and was social enough that he met and became friends with a Korean computer geek who quickly became my new hero.  One night, he met up with me and Steve for dinner, loaded all of Steve’s software onto my computer and set me up so that I could begin keeping a record of my time in Korea.  So a big thank you to the man who made emailing a possibility for me.  My memoir would certainly have skidded to a screeching halt without him.
And now, I must resume my research – research on myself, research of primary documents that I myself wrote. What a strange concept, to dig into my own past as if I were a stranger. And how disconcerting it is to stumble across something – a fact, an event, and emotion – and have absolutely no recollection of it.  Or to read about it and wait as it slowly takes shape in my mind, emerging – sometimes partially, sometimes misshapen - from the depths of my past.  I am discovering myself, and in the process, I will hopefully succeed in keeping you entertained and interested as I delve deeper into my life as an ESL teacher in Korea.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Teeball: The Final Game

Today was the last game of my son’s first teeball season and I must admit there is a small part of me that is sad that it has come to an end.  As frustrating as it could be at times – lack of an assistant coach, late games and no access to equipment – it had some spectacular and special moments as well – watching the kids figure out what to do and enjoying my son’s quirkiness.  Like me, there were things about the season my son disliked – standing in the field when nothing was hit to him, not getting a snack when parents forgot them, and not being able to hit more than once an inning – but there were also things that made him laugh and smile and have fun – getting a thumbs up from me, making new friends, getting to field more than one ball a game and running the bases, oh how he loved being on base.   

            Only five kids out of seven showed up to play the last game.  Not even the assistant coach – or his son – was there, nor did he have the decency to tell me they weren’t going to be there.  But I suppose when you only show up to coach three games out of fourteen it is understood that you won’t be there.  One of the little boys who did show up had fallen asleep on the way to the field and when his parents woke him up he was too groggy to play.  I tried to coax him out onto the field for the last game but he had no interest in playing and I didn’t want to force him.  However, we weren’t too short on players since one of my son’s school friends was there – having played an earlier game – and when he asked if he could fill in for one of my missing players I said sure.  

            Sadly, my son probably saw less action in the field today than in most prior games.  In the first inning he played wingman, but only one ball was hit to him.  After fielding the ball, instead of throwing it to first, he ran it into home and simply placed in on the tee for the next batter.  I think he was eager to get the game over with since he knew he were going to a party afterwards and he was excited to get there so he could play with his friend.  Needless to say, he was slightly exasperated when the coach of the other team took the ball off the tee, handed it back to him and kindly encouraged him to throw it to first.  In the second inning he asked me if he could play first, and since I was eager to have the last game end on a good note I readily agreed.  As usual, he let every ball get passed him and half the time he even looked surprised that the ball was headed in his direction.  Sometimes I wonder if he really likes to play first or if he just wants to stand there because it is where everyone else wants to be.  In the final inning he asked to play second base and when I said yes he ran over to stand on the base.  When I explained to him that the second baseman actually stands between first and second he argued with me.   According to his four year old logic – and perhaps the logic of everyone not so well acquainted with the game – if the first baseman stands next to first base then the second basemen has to stand equally close to second.  After lots of prodding, he finally moved to the correct spot.  While he was there, only one ball was hit to him, and when it was hit I screamed his name and told him to get it. But one of the older kids totally ignored me, out ran him and plucked the ball up just as he was about to reach for it. Disappointed, frustrated and angry, he fell to ground and with his back on the grass and his arms and legs stretched towards the sky he winked at the sun and smiled.  If only I knew what was going through his mind.  He did not want to get up and so I had to carry him back to his position, but by then his mind was completely out of the game and he hand no interest in playing.

            The first time up at bat he hit the ball and instead of running to first, he took off his helmet and tried to hand it to his school friend, since his friend was up next and did not have his own helmet.  “No,” I screamed, “Run to first, you have to run to first.” But he didn’t listen until I grabbed the helmet, put it back on his head and pointed him to first.  When he got to the base he looked crushed and I felt terrible.  So I went up to him and explained that it was very nice of him to want to share with his friend, but in teeball, when you hit the ball you have to run to first right away.  And once on the base, you need to keep the helmet on your head.  But he was mad at me for having gotten frustrated at him and so he didn’t talk to me for an inning an a half.  The second time at bat he did much better.  However, it is rather adorable the way he watches the ball – while holding the bat - for a second or two before his instinct to run kicks in, at which point, he tosses the bat and, only when it lands on the ground, does he actually run.  In that inning he made it to third without incident but once he got to third he crouched down and picked up a rock.  When the next batter hit the ball, he ran three fourths of the way home, paused, dug a small hole, planted the rock and then continued on to home.  Later on when I asked him why he planted the rock he responded, “I loved the rock and so I wanted it to grow more rocks.”  My son’s third time at bat produced the first legitimate out all season.  He hit the ball squarely to the kid on the pitcher’s mound.  The kid fielded it flawlessly and threw it to first.  With his foot on the bag, the first baseman caught the ball before my son even got half way.  But since teeball doesn’t actually calculate outs my son got to remain on the base and eventually run home.

            After the game, each of the kids got a small bobble head trophy for participating in the season.  My son was thrilled to get his first trophy, but the black spots on the gold troubled him greatly, so much so that he announced that when he got home he would have to wash his trophy. I tried to explain to him that the black wasn’t dirt, it was just the trophy’s natural coloring but he didn’t believe me.  Instead, he made me promise that I would give him a wet towel and soap at home so he could give the trophy a ‘bath.’  

In the car, he clutched the trophy in his hand, his smile etched with pride.  Beaming, he asked me, “Why do you have lots of trophies at Nonna and Ba-bap’s house?”

            “Because,” I answered, “A long time ago, I used to be really good at the sports that I played.”

            “Maybe,” he said, looking from me to the trophy, “I can bring my trophy to Nonna and Ba-bop’s house and put it with yours.”

            “Yes, you could do that if you would like.”

            “But if I did that I couldn’t see it every day.  Maybe I’ll keep it home, but I’ll bring it to Nonna and Ba-bop’s just to show them.  Okay?”


            As for me, I was rather surprised that some of the parents gave me a card thanking me for coaching their sons.  I was even more surprised to find a gift card inside the card.  I must admit, it is nice to feel appreciated.

            So, the big question is, Will I coach again next year?  And my answer will have to be, It depends entirely on my son.  If he wants to play next year then yes, I will probably coach.  As frustrating as it could be at times, I don’t think I could go from coach to spectator.  Now that I better know the kinks of the league, I’ll be better equipped to deal with – or rather ignore – the things that troubled me most.  

                                             Photo taken by Kati Jaeger

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tattered Emotions

Stifled, wrecked and choked
by the vines of your oppression
I stumble through the forest looking for scattered remains,
the girl I was, the one now lost.
Seeking shelter in your embrace
I believed that somehow I would now be able to breathe.
That first breath, however, proved to be my last.
Slowly, the sun has set
Darkness descending until I am trapped,
caught in a void unable to react.
Where nourishing winds should have blown,
repressive rays battered the earth,
sweat spilled until my body felt limp.
Denied water I withered,
my will flushed,
excitement squashed,
energy extinguished.
Heart in chains,
spirit broken,
body weak,
I turn away,
the poison winning,
my soul lay dying.