Friday, October 5, 2012

She Sells Sanctuary

Time flies like an arrow, as they're fond of staying here. Have I used that line already? I can't remember. It flies especially quickly when you know you're leaving. The other day I was sharing my thoughts about things running out and breaking and me not wanting to replace them with the new foreign English teacher at my school. Real nice guy, by the way - English this time, after two South Africans in a row - and definitely more fun for a wild night in Daegu than the last foreign teacher at my school (no disrespect, dear departed friend). Anyway, he suggested that maybe I would know it was the right time to leave on the day when everything runs out at once. A few days later, I was out of dental floss, opening a new tube of toothpaste, had just opened a new stick of deodorant and needed to replenish my laundry detergent, and I thought to myself, is this the day? Am I overstaying my welcome now?

Before I bought more laundry soap I actually counted out the weeks that I would still be here. Nineteen. Somehow the grocery store had the perfect package, too - thirty-eight loads for nineteen weeks (not counting the two weeks I'll be on vacation in Thailand and Cambodia). It certainly seems a lot shorter. The break for the Chuseok fall harvest festival just ended here and my school is now in the dreaded week before midterms. After that, there's only about seven or eight more weeks of regular classes for me to teach before the next exam and those two odd, vestigial weeks of school after final exams that I always fill with PG-13-rated Hollywood nonsense. I may get asked to do winter camps for two or three weeks in January (this is the first year I haven't avoided it by asking for vacation time during the most likely dates for camp - whoops, just showed my hand there, huh) but other than that, the bulk of my teacherly duties should be done after about seven or eight more weeks of real work. Three years away from home, and that's it - seven or eight weeks of work, a week of self-study, and then two weeks of watching "X2" four times a day, forty-five minutes at a time. Sigh.

Oh, and then, like I said, I'll be in Thailand and Cambodia for two weeks. So there's that.

So in my last post I teased you with the promise that I would tell you the story of how I almost joined a cult. Well, at the time the situation was still developing, so I couldn't say too much about it, but now I feel like I've got a slightly better handle on the situation, so sit back and listen well as I spin my yarn of betrayal and woe...

So earlier this year I decided that I should look for a language exchange partner to help me with my Korean. (Incidentally, I had also heard that this was a good way to meet women.) I had taken lessons at the YMCA in the past and had heard that they had a board for meeting language exchange partners, so I posted my name and contact info, took down some names and numbers, and hoped for the best. Out of laziness and perpetual fear of strangers I failed to get in touch with any of the people on my list. (Also I can't really tell the gender of Korean names, so that put a big damper on my secondary objective.) Eventually, however, I was contacted by someone looking for a language exchange partner and we agreed to meet at a coffee shop in Daegu. (By the way, this story will not include any names, including the name of the religious group and the name of the volunteer group in question. There's not much information about this topic available out there on the Internet and in the interest of the feelings of everyone involved, I don't want this to be the first thing that pops up in Google regarding the subject.) At the end of our meeting, my newly found exchange partner mentioned that he (damn!) was heading to a meeting for a volunteer group in Daegu that was sponsoring free language classes. This sounded to me like a good opportunity to find some more possible partners to help me with my nearly nonexistent Korean conversation skills, plus as the resident of a small town it's not easy for me to meet other English speakers on a regular basis. So I went along.

I liked the group. I began regularly attending language classes, trips to local Korean restaurants and the occasional service or public awareness event sponsored by the volunteer organization. As it turns out, I also already knew some Westerners who were helping the group organize events. I think all of us who encountered the group were really genuinely grateful to meet some Koreans who cared about foreigners enough to actually want to get to know them and help them with some of the parts of life in Korea that are difficult to navigate, like learning the language. I always assumed that the Korean members of the group were mostly motivated by a general desire to be diligent and helpful, along with the usual Korean pride in all things Korean and a desire to share Korean culture with others. Occasionally one of the Korean members of the group would mention something about their "leader" (I assumed this meant the president of the volunteer association) and his philosophy regarding community service. There was this spiel about the moon and stars and trees and victory and light and how the Earth gives us air for free so we should give good things to others for free, or something, but I never thought much of it. It just sounded like some feel-goody humanist sloganeering to promote the volunteer group and its mission. I mean, every group needs a catchy slogan, right?

So things were going well, aside from a few minor things. My language exchange partner got busy with organizing some sports clubs the group had put together, so we weren't able to meet very often anymore, and the free language lessons were repeating a lot of stuff I had already done at the YMCA with professional teachers so I wasn't all that satisfied with the Korean lesson aspect of the group. But there was a sports festival in the summer that was nominally for charity where everybody got wet and danced to "Gangnam Style," and there was a free trip to Gumi for a Korean Liberation Day celebration, so I was having fun. I have to say that events like the sports festival were really cool because they were an opportunity for all sorts of foreigners living in Korea to get together and meet and mingle. I meet other English teachers on a fairly regular basis here, but usually I don't have the opportunity to hang out with US service members, or foreign students at Korean universities, or guest laborers from South and Southeast Asia, and all those groups of people were represented at the volunteer group's events. It's funny that Korea is generally known for being extremely homogeneous and relatively indifferent to foreign influence, yet it hosts an extremely diverse community of foreigners who rarely get the chance to interact with each other. I thought that what the volunteer group was doing for foreigners, even if some of their service and awareness events seemed kind of lame or pointless, was a really amazing service for everyone involved. As I said before, it was really refreshing to meet a group of Koreans who really seemed to care about foreign people, even if a lot of it was done nominally for the sake of exposing foreigners to Korean culture. When you live so far outside the predominant culture in a country, it's easy to start to get the sense that no one cares about you, and these people really cared. Or at least, they seemed to care.

Now let me make it clear that I was suspicious almost from the moment that I got involved with the group that it could be a cult. I even think I joked about it with some people before I knew the truth. I became aware that the group really was somehow connected to an unorthodox religious sect of some sort pretty early on, as well. I don't know when I started hearing rumors about it, or from who, but the fact was generally known, or at least whispered about, by many of the foreigners involved with the group, that the volunteer organization was supported by or somehow connected with what would be commonly known as a "cult" in standard parlance. However, in short, at the time none of us really cared. I'm a naturally suspicious person (hey, I lived in New York City for a while, it's a survival instinct) and I'm fairly agnostic about religion these days so personally I wasn't too worried about being brainwashed by these guys or anything. I waited for them to start asking for donations or something, but that time never came. In fact, it seemed like a lot of stuff was happening for free, like bus trips, that seemed like it should cost something. So I figured I wouldn't worry about it until the day the other shoe dropped - and that day never came.

I want to make it really clear that no one in the volunteer organization ever pressured me to join their religion, or attend any meetings that explicitly related to their religion, or asked for any offerings or donations, or tried to group-marry me or anything else like that. In fact, nothing bad ever happened at all in the volunteer group. That is, nothing bad happened until people started asking questions about the religious sect behind the curtain.

The downfall started when a foreigner who's been living in Korea for some time and was more familiar than most of us with the ins and outs of Korean cults placed a post on a Facebook page that the volunteer organization had been frequently posting to (some would say spamming, perhaps) with notices for events. In short, the original post stated, "You guys know this volunteer organization is the front for a cult, right?" The subsequent conversation that happened in this Facebook thread made the relationship between the volunteer organization and the religious sect explicit, and pointed out a lot of similarities between the activities of this sect and its volunteer association and other cults active in Korea like the Unification Church (a.k.a. the Moonies). Personally I haven't seen a lot of evidence of cult activity here, other than the time I was handed a Moonie pamphlet outside the Seoul National Museum. Also, I once ran into some missionaries for some "goddess" cult here, but I just told them that I worship Slayer and kept walking. But in a nutshell, it's a classic cult strategy to start "secular" front groups performing genuinely valuable community services to lend a sense of legitimacy to the core organization, and perhaps even do some recruiting while they're at it. On top of that, foreigners, especially Westerners, as much as we're not exactly embraced enthusiastically in Korea, carry a certain caché in Korea by virtue of our foreignness and Western-ness. For example, every festival in Korea goes to great pains to show a large group of Westerners front and center in their advertisements as if to say, "No, really, this is an INTERNATONAL festival. Just look at all these foreigners!" (I'll never forget the time that the provincial office of education declared that all foreign teachers MUST attend some two-bit festival in my town, clearly just so they could take some photos of us. I was the only teacher dumb enough to actually show. When I got there, no one could tell me where to go or what I was supposed to do there. Plus it was raining. I'd really like to find whatever bigwig at the POE made that proclamation from behind his desk, without following through on it at all from his end, and relieve myself in his Sanka.) But back to the cult stuff! As I was saying, it's a classic cult strategy to start innocuous front organizations to help make the cult look legitimate. The Unification Church, for example, is famous for doing things like inviting US politicians to an awards ceremony for the "Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace" and then duping an Illinois representative into crowning the Rev. Sun Myung Moon as "humanity's savior [and] messiah." So basically, the Facebook post was a gentle reminder to all the foreigners involved with the service organization that, even if an organization looks legitimate from the outside, nobody wants to be the one stuck holding the crown when things suddenly get all messianic.

I actually have very little information about the cult involved in all this nonsense. Most of what's available in English about the religious sect has either been extensively pruned and cleaned up by the sect, or it's coming from mainstream Korean Christians who consider the group heretical - not exactly what I would consider unbiased sources in either case. I haven't heard anything too bad about the group, other than it clearly has some sort of messianic and apocalyptic elements to its beliefs, mostly based around a cult of personality encompassing the founder and his wife. (Oh, and get this - the founder and his wife both have taken on names that mean "light," and together parts of their names make up the name of the volunteer organization - sure makes all that stuff in the volunteer organization's official slogan about "light" seem a little suspect now, doesn't it?)

The Facebook thread that started the whole thing actually started while I was in Japan on my summer vacation, so all the really fun stuff went down when I was completely out of the loop. To summarize, a bunch of people got freaked out and abandoned or distanced themselves from the group. The volunteer group, after way too much time had passed, issued a press release explaining their (official) relationship with the religious sect, but not much else. In the meantime, a lot of people's feelings got hurt. I think the main reason a lot of foreigners I know chose to distance themselves from the volunteer group is because they felt the volunteer group was never very forthcoming about their relationship with the religious sect. Unfortunately Westerners and Koreans have very different cultural standards regarding what information is appropriate to share publicly, so sometimes it's difficult to tell when or why someone is being purposefully evasive, but in general in a Western country, if people feel like an organization isn't being transparent about something, people will believe that something funny must be going on behind the scenes, which is what people did. Basically, even before the walls came down, all the trust among the members of the group was destroyed. The foreigners no longer trusted the Korean organizers because they were suspicious of the religious sect's role behind the scene, and my impression is that the Korean organizers stopped trusting any foreigners who started asking too many questions because they felt like they had betrayed some part of their unspoken relationship. Trust is like a spider web - it's extremely delicate, and nearly impossible to rebuild once it's been snagged by a sticky situation. Add a layer of cultural misunderstanding to the situation, and you can see how things went very wrong very quickly.

I still have very mixed feelings about what went down, personally. On one hand, I have some serious questions about the religious organization standing behind the volunteer organization. Maybe part of it has to do with the recent death of Sun Myung Moon and all the details I read about the Moonies while I was trying to figure out how to handle this mess with the volunteer organization - I couldn't help but think that it seemed like, to paraphrase the greatest movie of all time, this sect had got the Unification Church playbook and they were running it step by step. Some of the parallels were uncanny. On the other hand, I personally know some of the Western organizers working with the volunteer group and I know that they were (and still are, in some cases) doing good work that has nothing to do with the cult behind the scenes. I think many of the Korean organizers in the group also had nothing to do with the cult and just genuinely wanted to help foreigners, although I've learned from reliable sources that some of the Korean organizers are members of the cult. I have no idea who is or isn't in the cult, though. In their press statement, the volunteer group said that its members were uncomfortable with being asked to publicly state their religious affiliations, comparing it to asking a Westerner to be forced to publicly declare their sexual orientation. I have no idea how much of that was a convenient contrivance and how much is genuine to the Korean concept of their public face, but I'm willing to respect their wishes to remain anonymous.

When the whole thing was going down and we were all trying to work out how we felt about the cult issue, some of us tried to draw a parallel between the volunteer organization and the YMCA, which also offers Korean lessons to foreigners in Daegu. On one hand, we know that the YMCA's primary mission in the modern day isn't to be an organization for proselytizing - Christians simply felt that the values of their religion compelled them to help people, regardless of those people's personal religious beliefs. On the other hand, "Christian Association" is right there in the name of the group - they're not trying to hide anything behind a secular veneer.

Since all this went down, I haven't been to any meetings or events sponsored by the group. (In all honesty I was planning to quit the Korean study group anyway - I'm not sure if it was doing me a lot of good and since I'm leaving in another nineteen or twenty-one weeks I'm not quite as motivated as I was before to learn Korean.) I've only talked to one member of the volunteer association extensively at any point since everything went down, and I didn't say much to her (via online chat) other than that I felt like a lot of foreigners, myself included, were put off by the lack of transparency in the relationship between the religious sect and the volunteer group. I have a feeling that at some point since this mess started I've been identified as some sort of "disharmonious" or "unmutual" element since I don't seem to be receiving invitations to events anymore. Meanwhile, in the lead-up to a large event for the volunteer group in Seoul that was co-sponsored by the cult (another factor that put a lot of people off the volunteer group) I suddenly started seeing people I had never seen at any events for the volunteer group trying to recruit new members around Daegu's main shopping district. Man, I hope the volunteer group didn't have a quota to fill or something. Not the best way to not make your organization look cult-like, though...

Honestly, as much as I'd like to give some of the people in the group a second chance as individuals, I don't think I can comfortably have any involvement with the organization anymore. After all, I'm pretty confident that I can remain independent of any sort of weirdness before they start passing out the Kool-Aid, but what if I want to bring a friend to meet the group, for example? I did introduce a friend to the group once, inadvertently - we had gone out for coffee (it was our first time meeting and we found each other on a dating site, so I guess technically it may have been a date) and as we were parting ways we ran into the members of my Korean study group. One of the leaders of the group introduced himself to my friend/date, talked to her about the group and offered to take her information down so that she could be informed of events. (Here's the funny thing, though - being a fairly staunch atheist, she asked him if it was a religious group, and he said no. How's that for transparency?) Later on, after all the cult talk started, I felt compelled to email her and warn her that I may have inadvertently introduced her to a cult. It was awkward, to say the least. (I haven't seen here in a while anyway. The date went well, actually, and we had another good meeting/date later on, but then she was really busy, and then I was kind of busy, and she lives in a different city... Honestly, I get the impression that maybe neither one of us was really that interested in going through the whole dating process, independent of how we felt about each other. Or maybe that's just my justification for being lazy and a dick. Yeah, sorry, I've been a dick. If you're reading this, I promise I'll be in touch again. One of these days. And no cults this time.)

I think what bothers me the most about the whole thing is how disappointed I am that, after finally meeting some people who really cared about foreigners in Korea, it turns out that they may have only been interested in us as a front for their cult. There's just no way to continue a friendship when every day you're looking over your shoulder wondering, "Are you being nice to me because you genuinely care about me, or is it because I make your cult look legitimate?" It's a real slap to the face to even consider the possibility. And, worse yet, as far as I know, they didn't even try to recruit any foreigners into the cult! How cold is that - good enough to make you look good, but not good enough to be a part of your apocalypse club? No thank you.

Yeah, so you though a story that started with, "So this one time I accidentally joined a cult..." would be giggles all around, didn't you? Nope. Complete tragedy. Hurt feelings all around. Lost a lot of friends, trust in people is shattered, nothing to do but be hurt and bitter now. Feel-bad story of the year. Well, at least I didn't have to spend my savings to send my cultist friend to California so that I wouldn't have to tell him that his Star Trek spec script was terrible or anything. At any rate, I'm going to try to put it behind me and focus on making the most of the rest of my time here, because Jon Lord knows I don't want to focus on the future beyond Korea right now. I finally finished "What Color Is Your Parachute?" and I feel like, as much as it gave me some valuable advice for finding a new job when I get home, all the self-discovery stuff really confused me about what I want to do when I get home. I kind of rushed into the whole accounting certificate thing in a panic, and now that I feel like I might have some other options and I'm considering how my personality would match up with that type of work environment, I'm not sure if that was the right choice. (If only somebody had given me the damn book BEFORE I paid all that tuition money...) Of course, the thing about the self-discovery exercises is that they all told me more or less that I should do the same type of thing I was doing in LA when I was out of work, broke and miserable. Let's face it, nobody wants to pay creative people to be creative; they want to pay greedy people to be greedy, but with their money (which is really not the type of thing I'm good at.) Right now I'm looking for something that might combine my interest in finance, organization and statistics with my entertainment experience, but this teaching job has really opened my eyes to the type of unusual opportunities that are out there if you hunt for them. Like, for example, I've been doing some more diving with Sea World Busan and one of the guys I met there came here to teach English, eventually bought into a private language academy, trained to be a divemaster in the meantime, and just left to run dives in Honduras. I mean, whose high school guidance counselor looks at them and says, "Hey, maybe you should teach English for a while and they go to school to be a scuba instructor in Honduras"? None of them. Because they don't know! People only tell you about the shitty job opportunities. They keep all the interesting stuff and the valuable stuff to themselves, and they only throw you the crumbs. But if you think outside the lines...

The only thing I know for sure is that I want to come home and give the USA another shot first. Or see if it gives me another shot. Either way, I know I'm not staying here. The ticket's been bought. I'm coming home February 26th. Hope you'll be glad to see me.

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