Sunday, June 17, 2012

Like Swimming

So I have this friend who spent some time in the Peace Corps in Georgia back in the day. Friend of friends, really. Anyway, she ended up being evacuated from Georgia when the Russians invaded that one time, which pretty much ended her Peace Corps career. When she got back to the States, we, of course, all wanted her first-hand account of what really went down between Georgia and Russia, since the exact nature of the conflict was always difficult to make out from the US media accounts. By her account, the conflict in Georgia was pretty much one unending but occasionally punctuated skirmish - every spring and summer some dudes from Georgia and some dudes from whatever other part of Georgia would get together for some good old-fashioned nationalist or sectarian violence, and every winter they would decide it was too darn cold for war and go back to their business indoors. Then suddenly in 2008 the Russians jumped in and everyone was like, "Hey, what the fuck, we were trying to have an endless small-scale war here and you're big enough to actually tip the balance of power one way or the other." (Caveat: this may be a highly inaccurate recounting of her explanation, not to mention grossly inaccurate regarding the actual conflict in Georgia.) Anyway, after a rough day at work involving a particularly inattentive class (and guess which co-teacher should have been in that class with me...) I couldn't help but think of that Georgia story and consider what a crime against nature it is to attempt a year-round school system. Human beings really aren't supposed to get anything constructive done between May and the end of July. Even adults get distracted the moment it gets warm, so I don't see how I'm supposed to be expected to teach anything to a pack of hormonal high schoolers who really just want to go outside and play soccer and kill shit and burn things and try to figure out what their genitals are for. So in short, I feel a bit like some Russian soldier trying to declare a state of South Ossetia in the middle of Georgia and saying to myself, "What the fuck am I even doing here?"

Final year senioritis continues unabated. (I'm referring to my own senioritis, of course, not that of my students - Korean high school students in their final year of school can't afford to develop a lax attitude until the day after the national exam in November.) If I play my cards right and don't get dealt any more curve balls by the school (and by the way, fuck you, cards and baseball are in the same metaphorical ballpark so I can mix them at will) I might be able to complete any substantial lesson planning I have left to do for the rest of the year by the end of this semester. The semester doesn't end until almost the end of  July, although, due to the bizarre scheduling polygon that is the Korean school year, I won't have any more substantial instruction to perform after about two more weeks of classes. If I can get all my planning for the year done before summer, I'm not sure what I'll do with all the extra time at school. Maybe I'll finally buy "What Color Is Your Parachute?" and figure out what I want to do with my post-Korea life. Or maybe I'll write a screenplay or formulate a stand-up comedy career instead. Either way, it's hard to come in and care these days. The students are in a state of perpetual not-caring, the Korean teachers are mostly concerned about getting the students through final exams and vacation time is tantalizingly close. Unfortunately there's some sort of week of inter-school summer camps that hasn't been scheduled yet, so I don't actually know when I'll get my vacation. But those are the breaks here in the Metaphorical Republic of South Ossetia-Korea. Can I get some black bread and vodka up in this piece?

I have to say, even though it's hard to stay focused on the job these days, my social life has improved. I feel like I might actually be learning something - albeit slowly - in my weekly Korean class at the YMCA. It's gotten to the point where people have started mistakenly referring to me as "the guy who knows Korean" in situations where someone might need to understand some basic Korean, which makes me wonder about all those times that I was counting on friends to be "the guy/gal who knows Korean" and equated their basic knowledge of Korean to with some sort of expertise. The people I've met through the Mannam service organization I mentioned in my last post have turned out to be extremely nice and friendly as well. The other foreign teachers in Cheongdo have also been a lot more interested this year as compared to last year in getting together now and again (or maybe I'm just doing a better job of joining them for activities, I don't know). Of course that means I'm not looking forward to the time when a bunch of them leave at the end of August. Living here as an expat, the constant churn of friends and associates coming and going really wears on you emotionally. People are always leaving just as you're getting to really know them. It's funny, sometimes I'll walk past someone I met on an EPIK trip or in orientation and nonchalantly friended on Facebook and I suddenly get this feeling like they're my oldest friend in the world, and then I have to stop and reconsider before I run up to them and yell, "Hi!" because there's a very strong possibility that they don't even remember who I am. And meanwhile, most of the best friends I have here are people I only met very recently. Plus, what am I really going to do about these new teachers I'm going to meet in August and only have six months in which to get to know them? Seems like a waste of energy to even learn their names...

One surprise among the list of teachers departing in August is the middle school teacher at my school. She was originally supposed to stay at our school until February but some time back around the beginning of the school year she began experiencing this unexplained pain in her knee. She visited some doctors here but none of them could figure out what was wrong with her. Around that time she went back to South Africa for a family wedding and found the time to visit a doctor there while she was at it. The doctors there did some blood work and immediately diagnosed her with some sort of virus that causes arthritis-like symptoms, and wrote her a prescription to treat it. The South African doctors apparently told her that they thought something in her environment - food, possibly - had caused the virus and it would be better for her to not come back to Korea at all, but she strongly felt that the least she could do was complete the semester. She's had a difficult time getting her prescription filled here, though, and I think the whole incident has colored her view of the Korean health care system. It's difficult sometimes as a foreigner to judge how effective the Korean health care system is. It's definitely much cheaper and easier here to see a doctor than in the US, although I continually hear stories about Westerners getting stuck with unpaid medical bills from major procedures that somehow weren't covered under the Korean national insurance plan. The only times I've had to go to the doctor here were to treat a cold, in which case I got handed a prescription for a bunch of pills to be taken three times a day and sent out the door without a single test run, and for that ridiculous HIV/drug test we have to get every year because the Koreans don't trust us. Koreans, of course, insist that they have the best health care system in the world, the same way that they insist that everything they have is the best in the world, and the same way that conservatives in America insist that we have the best health care system in the world even though no one can afford to use it. Numbers would disagree with both of those assertions, but then again those numbers clearly don't explain how South Africa trumped Korea with this particular diagnosis. Regardless, even though we all agree that it's the best thing for her to finish her contract early and leave at the end of the summer for the sake of her continuing health, we're also disappointed to see her go, especially under such unusual circumstances.

So let's get back to the fun stuff. Like many teachers here, I recently decided to fill some of my free time by taking up a hobby, but instead of some sort of traditional Korean thing like taekwondo or belly dancing I opted for scuba diving. I found a really good outfit in Busan - Sea World Dive Center - to take me through the PADI Open Water certification, and I just finished it with two days of diving at Taejongdae in Busan last weekend. The whole process was a little intimidating at first - everything went really quickly; the same weekend we were getting into water with gear for the first time we were also doing tricky stuff like learning to breathe underwater without a mask. Eventually I learned to trust myself in the water and take confidence that as long as I had air in my tank and the regulator in my mouth I wasn't going to drown, and I really enjoyed the experience. Even silly little things like seaweed look really cool when you're seeing them underwater in their natural environment for the first time. Of course now I have an expensive new hobby that I want to indulge in while having the same income stream that I've always had, which is supposed to be primarily dedicated to paying off the debts I racked up in the States. If I forgo too many expensive purchases I think I can hopefully stay in touch with my new diving contacts and squeeze in a couple weekend dives before I head off to dive in Thailand this winter, though. Besides, at times here you need to be willing to dedicate some funds to traveling and being social or you'll drive yourself nuts. It's a tricky balancing act, to be sure...

So what else is new? I've pretty much settled on a trip to Osaka, Kyoto and Nara for my summer vacation - there's a very affordable ferry to Osaka from Busan and the other two cities are close enough by rail that it should be easy to explore all three. I had played with the idea of seeing more of Japan during the trip, but that was before I really managed to wrap my head around the concept of just how big Japan is and how expensive it is to travel to a city six hours away there. There's some other places in addition to Japan that I'd like to visit before I leave Korea but I'm not sure if I'll have the money, and definitely won't know for sure before I finish the Osaka trip. The good news is that I seem to be on top of the bills that brought me here. When I pay my bills this month, I should be paying off the second of the four credit cards with balances that I brought with me, and I should have half of the overall credit card debt paid off. It's not quite the point I wanted to be at when I started making plans to pay off my bills - I wanted to me closer to three-quarters of the way paid off by now, originally - but it's good enough that I should have the ability to deep-six those bills with the savings, bonuses and pension refund I'll return to the States with, and no matter what the remaining debt will be a lot more manageable. I also seem to be losing more weight - people have been commenting on it and I've started using a new notch on my belt, which typically leaves me with a ludicrously long overhang of belt on the other side of the buckle that's hard to prevent from swinging around comically. None of my pants fit anymore but I'm too lazy and cheap to try to buy more here so I'm dealing with the lumpiness and belt overhang the best I can and hoping they don't fall apart before I get back to the States. I keep staring at silly things I want to buy online, especially guitars. I have two guitars I never play at home so buying another one here would be pure madness but I really want to try my hand at learning to play a little better while I'm here and I have the time. Maybe I can rent one and start taking lessons. If I stop paying for Korean lessons. Or give up on the scuba diving. Or something. I suppose I shouldn't give up on food since I'm already losing weight...

I can't think of anything else too interesting right now and I just rented "God Bless America" so I should probably get going. After all, tomorrow's the beginning of another big week of doing a job it's hard to care about, teaching students who don't understand me and don't give a shit what I say anyway, and waiting for it to all end temporarily for the summer.

On to the song, which this week is definitely about swimming and not sex and/or drugs. Meanwhile I'm gonna go buy a bunch of little pizza things from Paris Baguette so that my pants start to fit again.


  1. Your remark about being "the guy who knows Korean" is very timely. Jer & I are quite probably going to have a 13 year-old exchange student from Korea in the next few weeks. My Korean is, at best, nonexistent. So of course I was thinking, "Hey! I should get a hold of Wade and ask him for advice!" I will not do that now.