Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Mystery of the 7th Floor

Having taught in Korea before, the idea of cameras in the classrooms is not entirely foreign to me. It is however, a bit creepy when teachers tell me that if you write a message on the board asking the office to turn off the air conditioning, they actually do it. As the first week of the session drew to a close, teachers exchanged stories about classroom doors flying open and office staff snatching cell phones from sneaky text messaging students. It never happened to me; perhaps because I'm super teacher and am so alert and entertaining that my students are enthralled by my lectures on pronouns, which I feel like I'm making up as I go along, even though I spent three hours preparing for it. Or maybe the camera in my classroom doesn't work. This is more likely. In any case, a group of us went out for a quick dinner the other between the end of class and the start of our hours of prep work. As we walked back to the school, we saw trees on the roof of the school. Many of the buildings in Korea have gardens on the roof, so we got excited and decided to investigate. We took the elevator to the 7th floor and took the stairs to the roof. The door was locked, but we could see a small garden and trees from a half floor below. We turned and headed down the stairs and noticed a set of frosted glass doors. Assuming that they led onto the roof, my co-worker reached out to slide it open. Before his fingers hit the glass, a woman slid the door open from the inside, giggled nervously and shooed us away. The three of us exchanged looks, now so much more curious to discover what lay behind them. We headed for the stairs and as we reached the sixth floor, one of the office staff burst out of the office and in broken English asked us why we were up there. I pointed to the rooftop of the building next door, which had trees and a small rock garden. He shook his head and told us very secret things happen on the 7th floor. It was not a place for teachers. We apologized and bowed our heads to indicate how sorry we were, but we weren't sorry, just curious.

In other news, the young man that I discovered passed out in the street is doing just fine. I pass him on the way to school every morning and am happy to report that is up and about. It's a bit strange crossing paths with him every morning. Foreigners are such a common sight in this area that he never notices me, but I see him every time. It's weird that he had such an impact on my thoughts last week, but since he was asleep he has no idea that it was me that talked an ajimma into calling an ambulance for him. She suggested we let him sleep.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

When Enough is Enough

I'm worried about Korea. It's a bit strange. I've been back here for a week and a half and in some ways feel like I never left, but at the same time it feels like everything has been kicked up a notch and I'm beginning to see the seedy underbelly. I wonder if Korea has changed or if my eyes are more open. If I was sheltered the last time I was here by the relative poverty of my neighbourhood; a neighbourhood in which children played and peed in the street, sometimes simultaneously and always dangerously close to my door. A neighbourhood in which parents let their children ride their skateboards down the steep hill while cars share one lane, but head in two directions. Maybe my eyes were heavy with exhaustion and I missed the things that I'm seeing now. Because now I'm worried about Koreans.

Song and I stepped off the subway after a visit to Yongsan market, where I had picked up a used cell phone for 45$. I was delighted to feel connected again and somewhat alarmed by how naked I had felt without a cell phone for two days. In any case, we stepped off the subway and headed for the stairs, bypassing the line of weary Koreans waiting for the escalator. A large crowd was gathered at the top of the escalator. We glanced over, wondering what was wrong but all we saw was blood. An enormous red puddle grew around the top of the escalator and we hurried away, shaken and hoping the man would be alright. I assume he misstepped getting off the escalator and fell, or maybe his shoelaces got caught. Whatever the case it was unnerving to see so much blood. We continued on our way and fought to chase the red puddle from our minds.

Friday morning I was hurrying to work, anxious to get my first teaching day behind me. I stepped off the subway at Apgujeong Station, impressed that I would be making it to work a full half hour ahead of our scheduled morning meeting. As I rounded the corner near my school, a young man lay on the ground in a position that would have been comical if it weren't so frightening. His arms frozen away from his body in the air, as though he were a boxer; one leg pulled over his body as though he were struggling to flip over using only the weight of that leg. His hair was carefully styled, his Prada glasses sat perfectly over his closed eyes. His Louis Vuitton side bag was draped over his shoulder and he lay motionless. I stopped, noticing that Korean businessmen rushed past and glanced our way, but seemed unbothered by the scene. I gently shook the man and noticed he was breathing. An ajimma (older woman) stopped and was asking me what was wrong, but I couldn't answer, I just passed her my cell phone. She called an ambulance, which took twenty minutes to arrive and had to call back twice for directions. Finally I heard the sirens and rushed off to leave the ajimma to explain the situation to the EMTs. My Korean vocabulary definitely was not up to the challenge.

Before rushing away, I made sure to point out that the case for the man's glasses lay on a nearby flower planter and a contact lense case sat open next to it. I was on edge all day. Upset that so many people had passed by the man, likely assuming he was drunk. I wondered if he were diabetic and passed out from low blood sugar, or if he had gotten up to start yet another gruelling day as a Korean student and his body had just given up.

All these things were on my mind as I walked into my classroom at 8:30am, greeted the sleepy faces and passed a pile of SAT diagnostic exams to the twenty-five 14 year olds that were beginning class that day. After completing the two hour exam, I started my lecture and welcomed the kids to the Silver level SAT prep class. I informed them of the three school rules; arrive on time, do your homework and score 90% on the daily vocabulary quizzes. They shuddered as I informed them they had 100 words to study per night and if they 'failed' by getting 89%, they would not only lose their lunch hour to study session, but their mothers would also be informed of this failure immediately by text message. I watched as any hope of summer vacation slipped away as they were passed their course materials, two books totalling more than 700 pages of reading... to complete in July. I cringed as I tried to crack a joke and then directed the students to the first page of their text books. An exert from Einstein's Theory of Relativity. As they read over the text in silence, a few students gave up and put their heads down on their desk, exhausted from a summer morning trying to wrap their minds around words and concepts alien to a 14 year old, no matter how intelligent and mature.

I thought about the man who fell on the escalator and about the young man lying frozen in the street and I wondered whether the two instances were related to the ridiculously long days, stressful environment and pressure to be smarter, richer and better than everyone else. I wondered if that young man, who lay frozen in the street in Seoul's richest neighbourhood with his Prada glasses and Louis Vuitton bag was studying 16 hours a day like so many young Koreans. Or if he was working 16 hours a day to be able to afford his lifestyle and keep pace with his friends. I wondered how many Koreans try desperately to keep it all together, but are tearing themselves apart from stress and exhaustion and the pressure of being perfect. I wondered how long it would take for things to change here and for a forty hour work week to be enforced. Or for parents to decide that their children need to play as much as they need to study. As I take on this new class of children, 14 years old and already concerned about gaining acceptance to Harvard or Princeton, I worry about Korea.

Monday, June 02, 2008

It's hard to believe that I've been back from Korea for a year and a half. Hard to believe that I'm already running short on things to say. Hard to believe that it's taken me so long to stabilize myself again, only to find myself questioning that stability. I have a problem. I struggle with two sides of myself. My lovely astrologist friends tell me I have only the stars to thank. I was born at the end of August, a Virgo. This makes people think I should be practical, responsible, reliable and organized. In other words, boring. Part of me would love to be these things, but I'm far too unorganized, spacey and forgetful to measure up. My astrologist friends blame my Gemini rising for screwing everything up. They're probably right. How else could I explain the BFA that I spent four years working towards, without even once thinking realistically about how this BFA would help me pay for food?

The school year is nearly done and my year of two day work weeks is coming to a swift end. I hate the school I work at. The children can be monstrous, like children everywhere, but it's really the staff that make me feel like a 'maudite tête carrée' (damn square head- a slang term used by French Quebeckers for us anglos, it apparently suggests that our heads should be square to prevent us from drinking from the toilet). Just five more classes at the school and I'm free! I can't wait to be done and looking forward to the healthier environment of a new school.

I accepted a position in Seoul for the summer, since my plans of traveling in Cambodia and Vietnam were smashed by the discovery that my summer would be unpaid. So June 18th, I'm boarding the plane once again for a painfully long flight to Seoul. I start work at The Princeton Review the following day and am looking forward to teaching children who aren't six years old. The summer is likely going to be a whirlwind of seeing things I regret missing the first time around (how is a year not long enough?) and then I'll finally be back in Montreal in the evening on August 24th. The morning of August 25, I'll wake up realizing that I'm 28 years old (ouch!) and I have to go to work like a big girl. I have been hired to teach the English immersion program (or bain linguistique - language bath) at a private elementary school in Ville St-Laurent. I'm a little worried. I've never built a curriculum before and should probably begin working IMMEDIATELY, but am not too sure where to start. But don't tell anyone. I'll figure it out. The problem is I can't remember when I decided to go the responsible route and get a real job. Was it last summer when I accepted work at a call center because I was desperate for work? Was it when I realized Fred really was having a transplant and I should organize myself to support us? Part of me- the long dormant practical part of me, is happy that I won't be eating dog food for the rest of my life. The rest of me is concerned that this is the first step to seeing artistic dreams slip away. My goals have not disappeared or even changed really. I just need to figure out how to make them more practical. Perhaps teaching can help me support my artistic addictions?