Sunday, April 14, 2013

Come On, Teacher, Carve Your Niche

[Note: While this post was nominally meant as a summary of my experiences leaving Korea, due to time constraints it was not finished until well after I left left Korea.]
So the other day I remembered the Deftones did a song they named “Korea” for some reason, and I decided to give it a listen for the first time in a long time and see if I could figure out the connection between the song and the country, if any:
After listening, I’m still not sure if I get the connection, but I guess it does kind of remind me of a night out in Itaewon…
It seems to me like I’ve been seeing Korea show up a lot more in Western media in the last few years, and I don’t just mean that song with the dance and the guy in the sunglasses who was in literally every last advertisement the last time I went to a movie here. (I’m still here at the moment, in a hostel in Hongdae in Seoul, but I’ll probably be at Incheon Airport, or on the plane, or maybe even at my layover in San Francisco or home (home… what a problematic term…) in LA by the time I finish and post this.) Writers and artists often seem to look to foreign lands when they want to make a strange location seem more forbidding or exotic (or, dare I say, inscrutable? Or, perhaps even, oriental?) and when they seek that perfect mystery-shrouded locale halfway around the world their imaginations somehow almost always end up in the Far East. For years, I would say Japan probably had the most prominent place in the Western imagination when it came to oriental exoticism, but these days Japan seems a lot closer than it used to – after all, our kids grow up on Pokemon and Power Rangers, our baseball league has Ichiro and Matsui, there’s a Toyota in our garage and the local 7-Eleven is selling sushi and coffee in Domo coffee cups. So who is the new Empire of Strange and Far Away, now that we can’t depend on that far-away land on the edge of the world where people are descended from the sun? The Middle East is too dangerous, Eastern Europe is too European, South America is too colonized, Bangkok is a little to grimy, Hong Kong is soooo 1997, Bali a little too touristy and most people wouldn’t know which continent to start looking in to find Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta. Where do we turn? Shanghai, with its sexy new skyline, has definitely been making waves. But increasingly, it also seems like we’re imagining ourselves in the Land of the Morning Calm in order to get more lost than we’ve ever been.
I thought a little about this when I was watching “Cloud Atlas” in a Korean theater, since part of the movie takes place in a nearly-unrecognizable imagined Neo-Seoul. Usually I’m used to seeing the “Neo-“ tag stuck in front of some form of post-apocalypse Tokyo, and to be fair I think the filmmakers forgot which city they were in a couple times as well. (Tatami mats in the apartment? Really, production designer?) I kind of wondered how the Korean audience felt about getting stuck with the culpability for (spoilers abound) the future society of good-looking, pleasant, female slave-clone-drones rather than some other Neo-Corporate capital of the Neo-World. They chose a very colorful, East Asian type of pop look for the restaurant, but honestly other than the Korean obsession with appearances I didn’t see anything particularly East Asian about the type of sexism or wage slavery represented in that part of the film. Relations between the sexes and among workers may be a little different here, but let’s face it, sexism and worker exploitation exist all around the world with different faces. In terms of the story, I kind of felt like Seoul was plucked randomly from a short list of relatively wealthy, far-away places. It’s possible the audience in Korea never even felt any sort of connection with the Neo-Seoul represented in the movie. Koreans are probably used to seeing misrepresentations of Korea by now. (Vietnamese-style straw hats? Really, “Lost” production designers?) Plus they were probably too busy wondering why all the white people in Neo-Seoul had such weird-looking faces and odd accents. The only notable moments of shock I heard from the audience were for the man-on-man kiss (one guy, loudly) and the reveal at the end that Doona Bae had played the wrinkled older Mexican woman (all the girls, audibly).
Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about these things as I prepare to leave this inexorably unfamiliar place and return home to the United States. Is there a “Korea” inside of all of us – some far-away, alien place that we seek to discover, and maybe even live in, but know that we will never understand? What does that “Korea” have to do with the Korea that I’ve been living in almost every day for the last three years? Which one will I remember most strongly? Which one will I miss first?
Winter break and the winter session of school, which followed my trip to Thailand and Cambodia, were a little busier than I expected them to be. I learned a few days before the end of the school year that I would have an additional camp for incoming freshmen that I hadn’t anticipated, but I managed to pull together enough old summer camp activities to cover those classes. Then, during the winter session, by surprise, I had two weeks of classes spread over three weeks to do with the returning first-year students starting their second year of high school. This was a big surprise considering that in no past year had I ever been asked to teach anything during the short February session, not to mention that one of the previous middle school teachers had been given pretty much that entire time to pack up and leave, and the Lunar New Year holiday fell in the middle of that time. I suppose that previous teacher might have been given the time off because he was applying for a visa to move from South Africa to the United States to rejoin his wife, and, knowing what I know about US visa paperwork, he probably needed the time. [Note: Here in the blog (dammit, I can never get used to the immediacy of this medium) comes the time and space gap between being in Korea at the end of my contract and encountering Los Angeles, Buffalo, Los Angeles and most of a bottle of North Coast Sauvignon Blanc (I needed it to cook, I swear) on the way to the plastic folding table upon which I am now typing this.] So (oh god, I'm starting sentences with "so," I've been in Korea for too long) the process of leaving Korea was a little more compressed than I expected it to me. I remember that at some point, about a month before I was suppose to leave and after I had gotten home from Thailand, I suddenly realized, "Damn, all this time I've been so focused on how much I miss my friends and family back home and I never thought about how much I'm going to miss the people I'm leaving behind here." As I think I've mentioned before, I suppose that missing people and places is an inevitable consequence of traveling and exploring. But I have to wonder, in retrospect, how much of the time I spent in Korea was spent focused on what I was missing back home when I could have been focusing more on the good things going on around me.
Thankfully, due to the ending date of my contract I was able to squeeze in a couple days in Seoul before I left the country completely. I'm glad I was able to make the transition back to the United States in steps rather than doing it all at once—I felt a little bit like I was going through the same process as one of the pet fish I used to buy for my fish tank, which I would have to leave in their plastic bag from the pet store floating in the top of the tank for fifteen or so minutes before I could introduce them to the tank, so that the temperature would even out and they wouldn't die from the shock of suddenly being introduced to unfamiliar waters. I don't know how I would have handled it if I had gone straight from the emotional shock of rushing to catch a bus in Daegu to Incheon Airport and hurrying to say goodbye to my co-teacher, who was such a good friend to me over the course of the three years I was in Korea, and his family directly to boarding a plane to the United States and being launched headlong, fourteen hours later, in to the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, California, USA. In Seoul, I got to spend one last night (or was it two?) out on the town with one of the teachers from my town and got to meet and hang out with a couple of friends of mine from film school back in America. Oh, and also I got to make a late night stop at Taco Bell which turned out to be a bad idea. One of my film school friends actually invited me to visit her on the set of a film shoot for a low-budget Korea movie. I think the idea was to get my blood pumping for being back in the world of film production. I have to say it worked, to an extent at least. I mean, I don't think I have the stomach or spine to back into freelance electric and grip work, but it sure would be nice to be a part of something creative again...
I managed to squeeze in a couple touristy things on my way out of Korea via Seoul, and one of them was finally visiting the Korean War Memorial in Seoul. The Korean War Memorial appears to be curated by the Korean military, and I was a bit surprised how militaristic the message was at a museum dedicated to something I always understood as being remembered as a time of great suffering and pain for the Korean people. I mean, yes, the segments dedicated to the actual Korean conflict were quite mournful, but most of the other sections were surprisingly upbeat about "The Glories of War!" (quotes are mine to denote a concept I voice facetiously rather than a quote from the actual museum), including probably the cheeriest summary of any country's involvement in the war in Vietnam that I've ever seen. One thing that really stuck with me, though, from the whole experience was seeing the inscription over the wall of the wing of the museum that enshrines the names of all the foreign soldiers who gave their lives during the Korean War. I can't recall who it's attributed to, although I think it's from the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC. It reads, "Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met." To me, the idea of traveling to a foreign land, and giving your life in a violent conflict there, without ever getting to know the country and never meeting the people is just horrifying. I'm glad to say that, no matter how I look at my experiences from the last three years, at least I can say that I got to know the country and met the people. How terrible to leave one's homeland to travel the world, and never get to know the world beyond your homeland!
Well, my days in Seoul ended all too quickly, and soon I was on a plane back to the United States. I spent a week in Los Angeles, where I was hoping to see friends and perhaps land a job interview or two, but managed to do not nearly enough of the former and none of the latter. I headed from Los Angeles to my parents' home in Buffalo, where I was planning to look for some temporary position that could help me save enough money to move back to Los Angeles comfortably and without worry of having to spend financial bounty from teaching in Korea (I may get brave enough to write a blog post on how to use your teaching job in Korea to get out of debt, but I'm not sure if I want to take on that much braggadocio at the moment) but soon learned that the temp market in Buffalo is, not surprisingly, rather barren. An opportunity to take on a room and a roommate in Los Angeles came about, and after scrambling to unload a treasure trove of childhood Lego sets onto several generous eBay buyers, I ended up back in Los Angeles a little sooner than I had imagined.
So that's where I am now –scribbling these words as I take care of an unfamiliar cat and wait for the newest episode of Mad Men to begin here in Los Angeles. It's been quite a journey from when I left three years ago to my return now, and it's a little strange to ponder the fact that the whole thing took me from here to halfway around the world and then back to a place a short trip up the 405 and down the 101 from where I began. Fate? I don't know. Trying to get anyone to take my résumé seriously in Buffalo taught me that, to some extent, you really never can go home, and to some extent to you have to continue following the path you've chosen to its end, no matter where it leads and no matter what byways you attempt to take along the way. I guess the only direction you can ever really move, no matter which direction you face on the map, is forward. What's that thing in The Great Gatsby, about those boats being inexorably dragged forward? Wait, no, that was about being borne into the past, wasn't it? Damn. I'm sure it'll come back to me when I see the Hollywood adaptation this summer. Perhaps I should avoid respected literature and stick to the pop music references. Well, at any rate, here I am, for better or for worse, home sweet home.

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