Friday, August 19, 2011

No Joy in Mudville?

Hey there. So, it's summer. Summer vacation, to be exact. Initially I didn't want to use my vacation this summer. My original intent was to save it so I could use it all this winter, which technically isn't allowed in the contract but a lot of school allow teachers to do it. After crunching some numbers and talking things over with my school, however, I realized that I probably can't afford to take a vacation long enough to use all of my summer and winter days off, and since there would probably be time over the summer when school would be closed or I would be sitting at my desk in an empty office with nothing to do, it made more sense to just use the vacation days instead of causing administrative problems or moral dilemmas for the school. What can I say, I am both a schmuck and a team player. I count those among my better qualities.

My first three days of vacation were put to good use. First I headed to Daecheon Beach to check out the infamous Boryeong Mud Festival. The town started the festival to promote their supposedly cosmetically beneficial mud, but eventually people (including a large number of foreigners) discovered that the festival is a marvelous excuse to roll in the mud and get really, really drunk. I stayed at a hotel with a gang of four strangers from Gyeongju (who turned out to be fantastically nice people) and despite my best intentions I don't think I spent more than thirty minutes without a beer in my hand. Luckily I had a good time and nothing stupid happened, although Facebook now has pictures of me shirtless, which is something I usually try to avoid. (I've lost a pant size since I came here--which is good because a size 34 is "extra large" in some stores in Korea--but according to the National Health Service I need to lose another nine kilos to stop being considered obese. Well, fuck.) I've also come to realize that I may be the only American between the ages of 18 and 38 who has no tattoos. What can I say, I've never had the money to waste on tattoos, or a decent body to display them on. (I did recently joke that when I finally pay off all my credit cards I'm going to get a tattoo on the hand that I reach into my wallet with that says, "Think again.")

The next day I got up early and said goodbye to the roommates, whom I never saw again. (That's a lie. I saw them again a few weeks later at the Pohang Fireworks Festival. They might be reading this right now on Facebook, actually. Like I said, nice people.) Since I was already in Chungcheongnam-do I figured I would do some traveling and see some of the famous Baekje sites around the province. You know, because the best thing to do with a monster hangover is to strap on a backpack and walk around in the sun in mid-July in Korea. I followed that up with a trip down to Mokpo, mostly just to say I've been to Jeollanam-do and check off Dadohae National Park from the list of sites in the front of the Korea Lonely Planet. The problem with my plan was that I tried to pack way too much travel into too few days. Buyeo was nice (if you look up "bucolic" in the dictionary there might be a picture of Buyeo) but by the time I got to Gongju the famous Baekje tombs were already closed. I spent the night in Daejeon but I mistakenly stayed near the wrong KTX station, and even though I got to the station by about 7:30 AM I had just missed the KTX to Mokpo and had to wait 2 1/2 hours for the next one. Since I got to Mokpo late I had to skip the boat tour to Hong-do and the rest of Dadohae National Park and decided to hike up the local mountain instead. Because, like I said, the smartest thing to do in Korea in the summer in the middle of the day is hike up a goddamn mountain. I went to Gwangju the next morning but by the time I got there I had pretty much had my fill of hiking, museums, temples, tombs and other assorted Korean vacation options. Honestly I was glad to be home in air conditioning. I silently vowed to never undertake a solo backpacking vacation in Korea again.

The main problem with that was, I still had five days of vacation coming. Shit fuck.

Korea has school year-round but for foreign English teachers the summer schedule can be kind of a joke. (For the kids, apparently, it's miserable. In my conversation classes I would ask my students if they were looking forward to the summer and the answer was almost always a unanimous "no.") Unless you're a part of an organized week of "English camp" you usually get stuck trying to plan new lessons every day on your own for a group of kids that have been press-ganged into taking your class because letting the English teacher shirk the whole summer would just be too un-Korean. Don't get me wrong, my school and my co-teachers did their best to schedule a decent summer program for me, and I had a lot of fun in most of my classes. Unfortunately my last class of the day had some sort of conflict with an "important" class, so sometimes with no warning I would go from having six kids showing up to only one. This was especially wonderful when I, for example, had planned the final class for a week-long project and brought video equipment and bought GODDAMN SNACKS and had one student show, after six students had clearly and unequivocally stated that they would be in class. I don't want to complain too much--it's the Korean government's dime so they call the dance--but it's also hard not to get angry when the native English teacher gets treated like an expensive piece of furniture, or when your class gets bumped for something "more important" like math or studying for some exam or a goddamn assembly to check the length of the girls' skirts. Not to mention that time I got locked inside the teachers' office and had to climb out a window to get out. Guess I better learn the Korean phrase for, "Is anybody in here?" one of these days. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut, though, since I keep hearing rumors about how Koreans are unhappy with how expensive and foreign and drunk native English teachers are, and how they keep trying to find ways to replace us with robots.

(The linked article and video, by the way, have to be my favorite of the Korean English-Teaching Robot stories I've seen online. See what they did there? They used a robot to stick a white face on a Filipino teacher! That's sheer genius. I mean, I would be perfectly happy if they replaced us with robots that work, or better qualified teachers from India or the Philippines. The problems are that most of the robots I've seen online suck, and Koreans want to learn English from a "perfect" native speaker, which usually implies a Westerner--preferably a white American. I'm not going to bust out the "R" word here, because that sort of accusation is usually only good for starting fights. But it's funny to see how whiteness has become a commodity in the age of globalization. For example, you can rent one of us in China. Who says we don't make anything in America anymore? We make and export whiteness!)

So after three weeks of playing the Dancing English Bear on a reduced class schedule (yet another reason I really shouldn't complain, but still do) I had my last five days of vacation coming. The problem here is that unless you plan well in advance it costs a minimum of $500 to get a flight out of Korea and my ass is broke. At this juncture I have a confession to make--the main reason I took this job is because I'm up to my ears in debt. I've never had a steady job because I've always been working freelance in entertainment or temping while I was out looking for better opportunities. Like many people, I was stupid, and carrying too many credit cards, in my twenties. (Worse yet, I was stupid and carrying credit cards in New York City.) A lot of expenses from film school (hell, from applying to film school) that weren't covered by student loans got put on those same credit cards. So by the time the economy went tits up in '09 I had no good job, enough student loans from film school in forbearance to finance half a mortgage in the Rust Belt, and a mountain of credit card debt. So I packed up and moved to Korea in the hopes that I could pay off the credit cards before I finished the coursework I'm doing online and had to start paying the student loans. It was the only way to survive, other than moving in with my parents in Buffalo. (I don't want to be disrespectful to my parents or the city of Buffalo, but honestly there's days when I feel like I'd rather filter buckshot through my grey matter than resort to that option.) So far I'm on schedule to pay off those cards, post a year's worth of student loan payments and still bring a chunk of change back to the US with me when I go back in 2013. (Better check with my school and make sure they're going to let me renew before I get too engrossed in that plan, I suppose. Usually renewing is a formality, but hey, I'm intensely paranoid.) Anyway, paying down those bills involves staying on a pretty strict budget. After last summer I started budgeting for vacations, but when I started crunching numbers for the trip to Malaysia I'm planning to take this winter (and of course the trip home to see friends and family) I quickly realized that, while most of the other English teachers here are jetting away to take a holiday in Cambodia or China or Thailand this summer, I was going to have to stay in Korea. And--sorry, I have to be brutally honest here--Korea is pretty fucking boring. After being here for a year and a half I feel like I've seen pretty much everything interesting in the country. Add to that the miserable heat and humidity in the summers and it does not add up for a good vacationing environment.

So, I stayed home. "Staycation," as we said back during the recession. (Yes, I am using the phrase "back during the recession" with a maximum of bitter sarcasm.) Started re-watching The Wire. Bought Portal and played through it. Thought about finishing the final level of Starcraft 2 but then I realized I didn't care. Climbed one of the local mountain peaks. Might climb another before the weekend is through. Became nocturnal. Ate a lot of mac and cheese from Costco. Did homework. Cleaned the sixteen square meters I live in. Good times.

I don't want to be too melodramatic about this, but lately living here and doing this job has felt a little like a self-imposed prison term. Debtor's prison, I suppose. Maybe it's because I've been spending too much time this week sitting in a four-meter-by-four-meter square concrete cube with only one window. (Or maybe it's because I've been spending too much of that time re-watching The Wire and playing Portal. Honestly, my concrete cube is a helluva lot nicer than the first place I lived in Brooklyn. Not being located over a chop shop in a rat-infested corner of East Williamsburg already put the current place ahead in that race. Jesus, I bet that shithole is a six- or seven-figure condo now, considering how that neighborhood has changed. Maybe I should go check it out this February and laugh.) Maybe it's because I can't see my friends and family except during visitation hours. Maybe it's because the inmates are always changing but the bosses are always the same. Maybe it's because there's this world outside that I know I can't be a part of. Maybe it's because, not unlike Alcatraz, I know I'm surrounded on four sides by water and fences and I can't leave until I've done my time. Maybe it's because Bill Fitchner is always chasing me while popping painkillers out of his pen. Maybe it's because I made a lot of choices that didn't work out in the past and now, no matter how right those decisions seemed at the time (all part of the game, right?) and no matter what I'd rather be doing now, I have to stay here and pay my debt to society (or at least society's banks) and hope I learned something from the experience.

I'll admit, if teaching English in Korea is like a prison, then it's the world's most pleasant prison. The kids are great, the people I work with are fantastic, I've got mountains to climb in my backyard, and the food's gotta be better that prison chow. I can drop my soap in the shower to my heart's content. Nobody's going to get pissed off and stick me with a shiv (unless they find that blog piece I wrote about Dokdo a couple months ago, heh...). And when it comes down to it, I could leave at any time with thirty day's notice for nothing less than the price of a plane ticket and the loss of a guaranteed income. And I don't want to leave. At least not until I've paid my debts (and I find out if the United States still has a sane president).

I think mostly I'm just afraid that I'm going to spend the next year and a half in this fantastic job experiencing things that I'll never forget--and probably never be able to come back to and enjoy again--counting the days until I can go home and start my life over again. You never realize you're going to miss a place until after you've left.

A friend of mine told me years ago that some cognitive scientist types figured out that college alumni donations go up dramatically when alumni reach a certain age, because they forget all the bad things that happened and only remember the good things. I guess there's something to be said for living in the here and now and not dwelling too much on the past or the future. Maybe I'll find something in the near future to help me get back into that space. I sure hope so.

Anyway, thank Christ this vacation ends on Monday and I can go back to teaching...

(And now, a song about that time you accidentally moved to New York.)

No comments:

Post a Comment