Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Drim School English Camp

Teachers and volunteers for the Drim School's first English camp! Left to right: Debbie, Hannah, Carolyn, Leslie, Min, me, Alanna, Dianna, and Nikki.
Hello from Cheonan! I have spent the past two days teaching at an English camp for the Drim School (드림학교). This school is a 대안학교 (alternative school) for teenagers and young adults who are North Korean defectors (탈북청소년). They study in order to catch up on years of lost or insufficient education, become more adjusted to life in South Korea, and eventually take Korean primary and secondary school exit exams so that they can apply to university.

The Drim School, founded in 2003, is affiliated with the Korea Theological Seminary (고려신학대학원) in Cheonan and has been working with Fulbright Korea for about five years. Fulbright ETAs teach volunteer English classes there weekly. This English camp, however, was the first of its kind at the school. The volunteers wanted to provide something similar to the summer camps that the Drim School students can't normally afford. We prepared a program with English classes, cultural activities, games, and lots of time to make new friends and build strong relationships.

I was assigned to teach the lowest-level English students, which means lessons on recognizing letters and the basics of English phonics. This was surprising for me at first, since I teach fairly high-level students at my regular school. However, I learned that the reason I was given the low-level students was that I can speak and understand at least some Mandarin Chinese. The students who cannot speak English are mostly those who have only very recently arrived in South Korea, usually from China. Since they have spent years living in China (and may even consider themselves Chinese rather than Korean), they are completely fluent in Mandarin but have little to no grasp of English. A handful are not even conversational in Korean, so even the regular Drim School teachers have some trouble communicating or connecting with them.

Me with some "star"* students during the scavenger hunt!
One such student was OH. He arrived in South Korea no more than one month ago and speaks only Mandarin and very basic Korean. It wasn't hard to figure out why he looked so lost and lonely all the time; while he could talk to most of the other students in Mandarin, every other exchange in his life was conducted in rapid Korean. Even though he is Korean, he was just as confused as any non-Korean is when they first get here.

OH was in my class, and at our first meeting I told all my students straight off the bat, in Mandarin, that if they ever had any questions or problems and wanted to ask me, they could do so in whatever language they felt most comfortable with. Since I was the only volunteer in the camp who could speak it, many students chose to chat with me in Mandarin (or in a mix of Mandarin and Korean). Even though I'm well out of practice, not having studied it for three years, I welcomed the opportunity to practice and, more importantly, to connect with kids who may have gone months or even years without a teacher who can understand them in what they consider their native language. It was so wonderful to see how OH opened up, not just to me, but to his peers as well, over the course of the camp. I don't really know what his performance was like during the past semester, but he certainly proved to be a diligent student, taking notes in my class and asking me questions, volunteering for every game, and putting in a genuine effort to memorize the numbers from one to twenty.

Besides English classes, I also co-led an extracurricular class on guitar and songwriting with my friend Alanna. At first, we had no sign-ups, but eventually we had too many students in the classroom to keep the class under control! It was very loud and very fun; we just taught two simple chords and a strumming pattern and wrote a simple song about love. (It tastes like sweet chocolate and feels like the warm sun.) I think that more than anything, the students learned that learning how to play the guitar isn't easy! I'd forgotten how much it hurts your fingers when you first start out. But I think they all enjoyed it, anyway.

Hannah and me with the 동그라미 (circle) group!
There were other cultural activities, like t-shirt tie-dyeing, baking, and a Konglish photo scavenger hunt, that were quite enjoyable. I'm really impressed with how much effort the other volunteers put into their classes and activities. I myself was scrambling to throw together my lessons right up until the start of camp, because I literally moved out of my apartment the day before it opened and had been very busy and just a bit frazzled. Though like any camp, it had its hectic moments, unexpected snafus, and last-minute schedule changes, overall, I think it went splendidly. It was only two days, but that was enough for me to get close with my students and show them some love.

The vice principal of the school mentioned in her closing ceremony speech tonight that she was grateful that through our camp, the kids could experience some of God's love. And it hadn't occurred to me before, but I guess it's true. The Drim School, along with the majority of non-governmental South Korean-led initiatives to help North Korean defectors and achieve peninsular reunification, is an evangelical Christian mission. I have to admit I rather admire the passion that the Korean church has for reunification (this is despite my personal misgivings about its actual possibility in the near future), and I am grateful for the way their devotion to God has translated into tangible good works for those in need.

My father, who just finished a missionary English camp of his own in Taiwan, asked me recently if I had used my time in South Korea to share the Gospel with my students or others in my community. The simple answer is no, unfortunately, but now I wonder if there can be such a thing as "passive witnessing," wherein my students know that I am a Christian and can observe how I live and act in light of this information, or else I volunteer with the Drim School and reinforce the school's teaching that all good things are a blessing from God, including fun foreign teachers who speak Chinese.

I also admitted to a friend a while back that I'd sort of marked the last two years in South Korea as a spiritual lost cause -- this was mostly in reference to my frustration with church before I started attending Redeemer -- but on the other hand, I might be looking at things overly pessimistically. No one is a lost cause to God. He isn't in the habit of giving up on people, so I won't give up, either.

Okay, sorry for the tangent. Anyway, I am very happy and grateful to have had the opportunity to help with the Drim School's very first English camp, and I wish my students all the best in the years to come. I'll surely visit them when I return to Korea in the future.

- - -
* I'm covering my North Korean defector students' faces with stickers in my photos, because I am not allowed to show them anywhere online for security reasons.
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Monday, July 21, 2014

Scattered Thoughts

Me with friends at El Loco!
Well, I got hit by a car while riding a bike today. It was bound to happen, I think. I'm lucky, though: the guy was waiting to make a right, and he inched forward just as I was passing in front of him, so he only clipped my back wheel. I regained balance quickly and kept going after throwing him a dirty look.

Twelve hours until I vacate my apartment and leave Changwon for good. Time to start packing.

I've had a great weekend. Even I'm meeting people to say goodbye, it's not so much sad as it is fondly reminiscent. I finally went to El Loco, Changwon's rave-reviewed Mexican restaurant. Not bad! Portions kind of small, margaritas very very strong. Said my goodbyes to Soo, Eunjin, and Yeongbin.

Oh, and Friday night was my last outing with taekgyeon folks. I brought a tub of Baskin Robbins to the bar! We stayed out until around 1:30, and they got really drunk and kept telling me not to go back to America. Aww.
Taekgyeon folks and our two masters (on my right and left)

Today was my last day at church, my third and last time playing keys for the worship band. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have been part of Redeemer, even though it was for a short time. I had a nice sendoff, then a nice meal at Bombay with church folks. I'll miss them.

Moving out is a pain in the neck.

It's been rather amusing coming up with ways to use up all the food left in the pantry. I make my own jjajangmyeon with spaghetti and boxed jjajang. I've been eating cereal with peanut butter because I'm out of milk. Well, actually I've been eating cereal with peanut butter because I love peanut butter and would add it to anything.

Season one of Orphan Black was incredible. Tatiana Maslany is a genius.

I'm going to pierce my ears before I leave Korea. It's an idiosyncrasy of mine to get a piercing after a significant life milestone, and I think two years of teaching can qualify.

And to think I still have lesson plans to finish... Sigh. Okay, but I really must start packing now.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Last Day

“Good morning, UJ!”
“Teacher, last day!”
“Yes, today is my last day…”
Classes were canceled today (but of course) for student performances and the semester closing ceremony. I was disappointed that I couldn't have my last class with my first-years, but I had a lot of other stuff on my plate that I had to take care of, anyway. First on the list was a letter to the new teacher explaining everything about our school. I gave myself a week to finish it, and it ended up being 14 pages long. I also had to clean up the computers and my desk, which felt strange... and I ran around the school giving some teachers and students gifts at the last minute. Students kept coming into my office all day with goodbye letters they'd written for me, and I was very happy and grateful. But I was too busy to let my emotions take over.
"So you're leaving tomorrow?"
"Monday, actually."
"And you're never coming back?"
"No. Uh, I mean... well, I'll probably come back; I just don't know when."
"You know, I always find that on important days, I'm not as emotional as I think I should be. What I mean is, after the day is over, I look back and think that I should have been more happy, or more sad."
"Well, I don't know. I think for me, I just want to act as I normally do. I wouldn't want my emotions to be dictated by my thoughts or expectations."
At the closing ceremony, I watched my students sing and dance for the last time... then awards were handed out, the principal gave a speech, and I gave some final words. Flashback to two years ago, when I looked out at 180 young faces for the first time and said, "안녕하십니까?" Seriously, two years ago?

My speech was short. I reiterated the three points I'd made (up on the spot) when I was interviewed for the school newspaper. What parting advice would I give my students? Number one: please try to get more sleep. Not in class, of course, but in your dormitories. Number two: although you are all bound to be high-achieving, successful people in the future, please remember that your worth, your value as a human being, cannot be measured by your academic performance. Remember that what is most important is not what school you go to or how much you make, but who you are inside. Number three: please keep in touch! Although I am saying goodbye, I prefer to say, "See you later." My eyes became a bit damp at the end, but I held actual tears at bay.
"Teacher, will I see you next semester?"
"No, you won't..."
"Oh, no... really?"
"I'm sorry!"
"Teacher, I almost cried when you talked... what was it? You said, 'remember your value'... I was so... ah... Teacher, I'll miss you!"
"건강하세요. Stay healthy and happy."
After the final bell rang, I paid one last visit to the hallway by the environmental science classroom, accompanied by the earth science teacher who was my gym buddy this past semester. He told me to stay healthy and gave me a hug. I said my goodbyes silently.
"Teacher, can we take a picture?"
"Of course! I love taking pictures!"
"Dear Andrew... I want to tell you something. When you were in this country, you made many people happy. At least the students of this school, could enjoy an english class every week. So, when you go back, you should be happy and proud of yourself that you gave us a big present i love, and a nice memory. I hope whenever you think of Korea, you feel really nice. Thank you for your existance!


That's when I cried. Finally. As I sat on my bed at home with farewell letters all around me and the rain and thunder going nuts outside. I was so touched, so blown away by the affection of people I've only known for a short time. Everyone wants to be able to make a difference in others' lives, and to be validated like this, with such genuine, heartfelt gratitude from a student, was just the thing to get this stoic to shed a tear.

I will miss this... but I won't say goodbye.

See you later!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

지리산에 비가 오는 날 - Rainy Day at Jirisan

Ghosts hiking Jirisan...
Jirisan (지리산/智異山(1)) is one of South Korea's most famous mountain ranges. It spans three provinces in the south of the peninsula and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. About one hundred of these visitors are students from my school! The second-years have an annual trip to Jirisan, and this time, I went along.

The plan was to walk part of the way up to the mountain -- the peak, being 1915 meters/6283 feet, was definitely not doable -- and visit a temple famous for its 비구니, or Buddhist nuns, a nature/culture educational park, and a museum dedicated to a 16th-century Confucian scholar named 남명 who apparently built a school on the mountain.

Unfortunately, the weather was pretty awful all day. It rained on and off, and everyone was given thin rain coats to wear during the hike. It was like wearing a garbage bag, actually. I got wet from the rain and from the sweat produced because the plastic poncho wasn't breathable. Despite this, I enjoyed the time I got to spend with my students. During the nature walk, I chatted with them and mostly ignored the tour guide, admitting to my students that although I can understand some Korean, a full-on lecture was beyond me. But he talked about some of the special flora and fauna of the mountain, including Korean kiwis and some kind of tiger, and also showed us a mud house that was built decades ago when people still lived deep in the forest.

After the hike and a lunch of mountain herbs bibimbap, a bunch of students jumped into the river and had a massive water fight -- in the rain, no less! That was a lot of fun to watch; I would have joined in, too, but I hadn't brought a change of clothes...
Water fight!
The museum was boring, not gonna lie. And after that, we visited Jirisan High School, Korea's only completely free private school, for a short (and somewhat awkward) educational exchange. Their school is very interesting: it's extremely small, with a student body of about 50, and their educational focus is on service and building citizenship. The students are extremely well-mannered! I'll admit it: when they did their 인사, or bowing greeting, in perfect unison, our students seemed pretty 촌스럽다(2) in comparison... On the other hand, this school's shoestring budget is funded only by monthly private donations and receives very little support from the Gyeongnam Provincial Office of Education, whereas CSHS is like this giant magnet for scholarships and corporate sponsorship and all that. I felt awkward when I watched our school's introduction video because it flaunted just how well-funded we are and made Jirisan High School look, well, pretty 촌스럽다 in comparison.

And that was that! I had a good day, despite not being able to see the full beauty of Jirisan and not really learning too much from what was supposed to be an educational field trip. The good thing was that I got some photos with my students. I'll try to take more tomorrow, which is the last day of school!
Me with one of the second-year classes. They are all 찝찝해(3) and kind of miserable, but somehow look somewhat happy!
- - -
(1) 지리산 means something along the lines of "Mountain of Strange/Secret/Alternative Wisdom". The vice principal tried to explain to me exactly what it meant, but I never really understand what he is saying to me. I figured out, though, that the students go on this trip annually so that they can find some sort of wisdom and build character. Haha.
(2) 촌스럽다 describes things that are humble and perhaps uncivilized because they're out in the countryside; rustic, unsophisticated, provincial.
(3) 찝찝해 -- I don't know if I spelled that right -- means drenched or uncomfortably wet.

P.S. Today was my last day of taekgyeon training... I think 사범님 was actually tearing up as we finished. I kept thinking, "This is the last time I'll do X," X being whatever stretching, kicking, or sparring skill we went through. And when we ended with 명상, or meditation, I let my mind wander back to the very first day of taekgyeon, sixteen months ago... And the very last day will be tomorrow, when instead of training, we're just going out for drinks and stuff.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Going, going...

A few letters from students, including a gorgeous poster from my third-years!
Should I have made a bigger deal out of my leaving? I've been downplaying my imminent departure so much that I wonder if my students have really digested the reality of it all. I know I haven't, not really. This has been the week of "last classes", and they have mostly looked like this: I pass out class awards, tell the students via riddle or just straight up that I'm going back to the States for grad school, and then show Video Game High School or play Mafia. Then the bell rings, the students leave, and I sit at my desk and wonder if I should be, like, emotional or anything. I think one thing I am going to regret is that I haven't set aside any time to take class photos with my students.

Tomorrow, the second-years are going on a field trip to Jirisan, and I will join them, so there's a good opportunity to "catch up," so to speak. All the photos I take will end up on Facebook, and now that my contract is officially over, I think I can start adding my students as friends. In this way, at least, goodbye isn't really goodbye, since we can easily keep in touch online. Still, what I'll miss the most is physically being with my students, and no social network can replace that.

I'm having my first-year students write letters to the new Fulbright teacher who will replace me this fall. The letters are very cute, and so far they give good insight into the students' personalities. Some students surprised me by writing very thoughtful letters or by writing more than I expected of them. Other students surprised me by writing me a letter instead of focusing on the assignment I gave them. Well, I'm not going to take issue with that. :) I've gotten a few other letters from students, which I will cherish. I'm really touched when students take the time to show me that I've made some sort of impact on their lives, as brief as my time here has been. So yes, even the sheet of paper that says nothing but, "I love you, Teacher! Forever," and a bunch of hearts is going in my keepsakes box.

All of my third-years wrote something in a large card they gave me today. Since it was our last class, and since I like them enough to hand them twenty bucks and permission to go to the corner convenience store, I treated them to ice cream! And we blogged, of course. Ah, these are the students I taught for four semesters. I'll miss them a lot.

Oh! Unrelated: our school cohir had a mini-concert today. One of the songs they performed was called "Flying Free"; it was very beautiful. The other was "Hava Nagila", and I thought it was strange to hear Hebrew being sung from my Korean students' mouths... but my Asian church choir has sung in plenty of different languages before, so I guess I shouldn't make a big deal out of it! I really enjoyed their performance! Check out the videos below.

So... really. I'm looking at nothing but a day trip with students tomorrow, and then Friday, which is just a half-day. The last day. But it still hasn't registered yet.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

작별 인사 스피치 - Farewell Speech

Today, I went to the community center Korean class for the last time, sat down to write a short essay for the last time, asked the Korean tutors to check my work for the last time... and gave a speech for the last time. I haven't been going to the class regularly this semester due to busyness, but it was an integral part of my life in Changwon for my first year and a half. I'm very thankful for the 창원한글학당 (Changwon Korean Class) because it helped keep me motivated to study Korean. Anyway, here's the speech I wrote, with the translations beneath.

시간이 너무 빨리 지나갔죠? 다음 주 월요일에 저는 창원을 떠날겁니다. 그 때 이 주일 반 후에 한국을 떠날겁니다. 저는 달력을 보다가 걱정하거나 멘붕 와야 한다고 생각하는데, 실제로는 아주 침착합니다. 대개 저는 감정적인 성격이 아니거든요. 제 친구들중에도 한국을 떠나는 선생님들이 많습니다. 그들은 마지막 수업 할 때 많이 웁니다. 그러나 저는 오늘 학교에서 작별 인사 스피치를 했을 때도 눈물 하나도 없었습니다.

Time's really flown, hasn't it? Next Monday, I'm going to leave Changwon. Two and a half weeks after that, I'm going to leave Korea. I ought to be looking at my calendar and worrying or freaking out, but actually, I'm calm. I'm usually not a very emotional person, you see. Many of my friends are also teachers who are about to leave Korea. They've been doing a lot of crying in their last classes lately. But as for me, even though I gave a farewell speech at school* today, I didn't shed a tear.

제가 안 울고 있는데, 그 이유가 떠나는게 안 섭섭해서가 아닙니다. 저는 진짜 아쉽습니다. 약간 가고 싶지 않습니다. 그렇지만, 이제 저는 앞으로 나가기 위해 준비되었습니다. 이년 동안 한국에서 굉장히 즐거웠습니다. 매우 축복받은 사람이라고 생각합니다.

So I'm not crying. But it's not because I'm not sad about leaving. In fact, I feel really sorry to go! I kind of don't want to leave. But I think I'm ready to move on now. I have really, really enjoyed my two years in Korea. I feel very blessed.

저는 미국에 돌아가서 캘리포니아 버클리 대학교에서 언어학 박사학위를 시작합니다. 저는 진짜 신나고 여기서 받은 경험이 저를 도와 줄 것 같습니다. 특히 여기 창원 한글학당의 선생님들에게 감사 드립니다. 선생님들은 저를 격려하셨고 한국어를 잘 가르쳐주셨고... 창원에서 살고 있는 외국인들에게 매우 귀중한 단체입니다. 써니 쌤 열심히 지도하셔서, 또 나미 쌤 참을성있게 가르쳐주셔거, 그리고 여러분 모두 사심없이 도와주셔서 감사 드립니다.

When I go back to the United States, I'm going to start working on a PhD in Linguistics at UC Berkeley. I'm really excited, and I think my experiences here will help me. I especially want to thank the teachers at the Changwon Korean Class. You teachers have encouraged me and taught me well. The foreigners who live in Changwon have such a valuable resource in you. Sunny, thanks for enthusiastically leading the class; Nami, thanks for patiently teaching me, and to everyone, thank you for all of your self-sacrificial help.

미래에 한국에 돌아오면 다시 뵐 수 있기를 바랍니다.

In the future, I hope that I can come back to Korea and that we can see each other again.
창원한글학당 - Changwon Korean Class. Nami is in yellow, and Sunny is in white on the far right.
- - -
There were not too many people at Korean class today, but the few that I really wanted to thank were there, so that was enough. Nami gave me a small farewell gift, a beautiful keychain. Man, I really am sorry to go!

*Yes, I also gave a goodbye speech at school today. It was before the end-of-the-year teachers' sports competition, which took the form of a ring-toss tournament this time. Anyway, the speech I wrote (and my co-teacher expertly translated) was a heck of a lot longer than this one. I awkwardly stumbled through it for like five minutes because the level of Korean that I was reading was way beyond me. But my principal really appreciated it, I guess. He kept saying, "아쉽다! 아쉽다!" That means, "It's too bad! It's too bad [that you're leaving]!" Perhaps I will post that speech in its entirety later.

Monday, July 14, 2014

South Carnival (사우스 카니발) - 몬딱 도르라

This is too good not to share! My friend who teaches in Seogwipo on Jeju Island showed me this music video by a Korean ska band called South Carnival. The song is called "몬딱 도르라"*. Not only is this video cute and vibrant, the song is sung in Jeju-eo! The subtitles are written in Standard Korean, but if you listen closely (and can read/understand Hangul), then you can tell that what they're saying doesn't match up with the lyrics. And this is because Jeju-eo is quite different from Standard Korean.

I don't know enough about ska to consider myself a fan of the genre, but this song is currently stuck in my head for sure. Music is such a wonderful way to preserve language and culture!

*몬딱 도르라" (monddak doreura) is Jeju-eo for "함께 달리자" (hamkke dallija), which means "run together". Unfortunately, 도르다 in Standard Korean can also mean "to vomit," so maybe Koreans who are unfamiliar with Jeju-eo will be confused by the song title.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Redeemer International Community Church in Changwon

For the past few months, I have been attending a new church in Changwon called Redeemer International Community Church, or Redeemer for short. Redeemer was founded in Busan; I visited the church when I was in Busan with my parents a few months ago. It was during that time that preparations for a new campus or branch were underway. Just a few weeks after my visit, a small group of Christian expats in Changwon began to meet weekly in various cafes downtown to hold simple Sunday services. And after a few months of this, we finally found a permanent spot for our church, in a Korean church-owned cafe located in the busy downtown area!

I feel very blessed to have found this church. Pastor Dan is a really gifted speaker, and I've learned a lot from his witty yet hard-hitting sermons. The timing is bittersweet, though: because I was becoming increasingly bored/frustrated with my old church, I'm happy to have finally found a better source of spiritual nourishment. But the church launched in its new location at the beginning of July, and I'm going to leave Changwon at the end of July. 아쉽다! It's too bad!

Although my time is limited, I've stepped up to serve where I can: namely, as a part of the worship band. I really miss having music in my life, so I'm thankful that I had this small opportunity to help out. Also, Pastor Dan preached from Hosea 2 today, and one of his points was that we believers -- represented by Hosea's unfaithful wife Gomer -- have received beautiful and lavish gifts from God but too often squander them and, even worse, fail to recognize that they are blessings from God and not from the other lovers we chase. It's important for me to remember that with all that I've been given, I should be giving back even more.

I'm excited about the future of Redeemer Changwon. There's a huge potential for growth, and I think this church can offer the English-speaking community of my city something it really needs. May God bless the efforts of this congregation and allow them to bear fruit!
Pastor Dan delivering the message at the "first launch" service last week.
This photo was taken by a Korean church member, Mr. Ha.
Redeeemer Changwon info
The cafe we meet in is called Cafe Send (카페 센드). Services begin at 4pm and end around 5:30pm.
Korean Address: 경남 창원시 상남동 3 마디미동로 4층
English Address: Gyeongnam Changwon-si Sangnam-dong 3 Madimidong-ro 4F

Friday, July 11, 2014

An Anniversary

The music teacher sits down next to me as I scan the newspaper for words I can identify. She smiles, and I put the newspaper down. Here we go again -- how uncomfortable will she make me this time?
The music teacher likes to practice her English with me, and I usually welcome being her language partner. The problem is that the subjects of our conversations always, somehow, veer into awkward territory. She asks me every time why I don't have a girlfriend, for one. She likes to tell me about her various experiences with choirs and music conferences around the world -- and then wants to see videos of my own high school choir performances. She is comfortable telling me about times when she has been depressed, but I squirm in my seat because this is not the kind of small talk I'm used to. Once, over lunch, she told me that I was 예뻐요. I turned to my co-teacher.

"Doesn't that mean 'pretty'?"
"Well, yes," my co-teacher replied. "Is the word 'pretty' not used for males?"
"Generally, no," I said.
"In this case, actually, it can mean something more like 'cute'. The way a grandmother would call her grandson 'cute'."
I stared.
"In the United States, do men not like being called 'cute'?" she asked.
"Well, not if they're twenty-three years old," I answered curtly.
My co-teacher translated this back for the music teacher, and they laughed. I ignored them.
Today, the music teacher wants to talk about Haeinsa; all the faculty know that I visited it the other day. I tell her that it was very pretty and very peaceful. "You know, I used to work at a high school near Haeinsa," she begins. This legitimately piques my interest. She tells me two stories about the small high school where she taught piano, music, and folk dance in the late eighties.
This high school had around one hundred and fifty students, and several of them were orphans who were being raised by the monks of Haeinsa or students who otherwise did not live with their parents.

The student she remembers most was one of the class captains. He was a smart and hard-working student. A bookish kid who was always reading. He was being cared for by the monks of the temple, and although his background was a difficult one, it looked to all as if he had a bright future ahead of him.

One day, the student went missing. They found him many days later at the end of a rope in the woods.
"He was a student who had many thoughts," says the music teacher. "He thought too much. He was depressed."

I want to ask her why she is telling me this, but she continues with her second story.
Her favorite student was the son of divorced parents. His mother had lived in the United States, and his father came from a rich family. For many reasons, the wife and the mother-in-law did not get along, but the one who was left worst off by the split was the child. He was sent to live with his aunt near Haeinsa, and he was not given a cent from his rich father. Everyone assumed that he had enough savings in a bank account somewhere to be able to buy all the required textbooks, but he didn't and he couldn't, and he was punished for not meeting their expectations.

One day, the son learned that his mother had returned to Korea and was coming to take him away. They were going to go to the United States for good. He left willingly.
"I still keep in touch with my old student," the music teacher tells me. "He lives in Seattle. He is now a taekwondo master and just received a degree in theology. So he is a pastor and a master. And he still knows the folk dances that I taught him when he was in high school."

I subtly glance at the clock. It is almost 1:30pm, when the bell signalling the end of the lunch period normally rings. "I have a friend who is moving to Seattle. Maybe when he gets there, he can meet your old student," I say brightly.

"And when are you leaving?" she asks.

"At the end of July. First, I will travel to Seoul. Then, I will fly out of Korea in early August."

"I used to live in Seoul..." she muses. A third story begins.
She used to live in Seoul, until she graduated from high school. Then, her family moved to Daegu, because her father was a colonel in the army. But then her father developed cancer. He drank too much. He was in great pain toward the end of his life. "I want to die, I want to die," he would shout in his bed. It was a sorrowful time.

The music teacher was in the middle of class one day when the principal interrupted and told her that her family was on the line. It was her mother, delivering the news: aboji had passed. At that moment, she had a vision of her father, no longer in pain but smiling and waving down toward her. "Goodbye, my daughter," he said.
"At the very end, he became a Christian," the music teacher confides in me. "So he went to heaven. And then they gave full military honors at his funeral -- I've told you about my father's funeral before, haven't I? He was cremated. At that time, the yellow flowers were in full bloom, and they were beautiful, but I didn't care. I was too sad. My mother was too sad. But now, it's okay."

The clock reads 1:35pm, but the bell hasn't rung, and then I remember that the final exam schedule is different from usual. I don't know how much longer I will be here.

"Death," says the music teacher, her eyes bright, "is a great sadness." She looks into my eyes and pauses.

"Do you remember what happened at our school one year ago?"
One year ago, one of our students committed suicide by leaving the study hall at night and jumping out of the fourth-story window next to the environmental science classroom.
I look at the music teacher with the most emotionless stare I can manage, because what I really want so say is, "How dare you talk to me about this?"

I want to say, "Of course I remember. I was haunted by it for months."
I want to say, "The minute you started sharing about your student at your old school near Haeinsa I prayed to God that it wouldn't lead to this."
I want to say, "Can you feel how uncomfortable I am right now? Because I feel very uncomfortable right now."
I want to say, "I have no desire to continue this conversation."

Instead, I say, "Yes, I remember." I push my discomfort down into nothingness, and I nod solemnly.

Taking this cue, the music teacher continues. "The environmental science teacher was in pain for a very long time," she says. Physical pain resulting from emotional trauma. How could she teach in a space darkened by such tragedy?

"But recently, she has changed the hallway. Have you seen it?" I shake my head, still in disbelief at where our conversation has ended up, but my curiosity is piqued once more.

"What do you mean, changed?"

"Let's go. I'll show you."

As we walk up the stairs, I tell the music teacher that I rarely venture up to the fourth floor from the realm of the English department on the third. She mentions something about there being more natural light on the top floor, as the ceiling is made of glass. We pass the music classroom, then turn left into the science wing.

Everything is green. The hallway and the classrooms have been painted a pastel shade of new pine shoots. Along the walls, workers are installing hexagonal shelves, like carbon rings or honeycombs, upon which small potted plants sit. And at the end of the hall, there is life. Pink flowers in planters are arranged in a neat row on the windowsill. Two plants with long hanging tendrils are suspended from the ceiling in front of the windows, although they don't completely obscure the long metal bars that were recently installed across them. Beneath the window are more honeycomb shelves, filled with books, students' artwork, and models of birds in flight.

The stairwell to the left of this space has been converted into a gallery for the students' environmental science projects: posters, paintings, books, and even a board game that one team of first-year students created. Half of the windows are now covered by display cases, but the stairwell is still full of light and color. One year ago, it was desolate.

"This was part of the environmental science teacher's healing process," the music teacher says to me as I silently take it all in. "She wanted to change it from a sad place to a place where students will want to come."

I don't know what to say, so I don't say anything at all.

I don't know what to feel.

"She told us at the last teachers' meeting that she wanted to send a message to our student. Although he's gone, maybe he can still hear it." The music teacher nods at the model birds. "And she wanted to say, 'You're flying now, aren't you? You're okay now, aren't you?'" A message of hope and light.

건호야, 지금 괜찮지?
I never knew about this place. I never knew exactly which windowsill it was where he placed his slippers and his wallet before opening the window and flying away. And I have never had a reason to go to the fourth floor to find out. But now I know, because the environmental teacher decided to reclaim and to transform, and because the music teacher wanted to show me. It was never her intent to make me uncomfortable, but I am grateful that she did.

Now I know, and I will visit again before I fly out.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


     He said, "I've been studying Japanese lately, been getting a real kick out of it, too."
     They were at a cafe that was situated above another cafe, looking over a busy intersection as umbrellas competed for space on corners not meant for the cars parked on them. Rain was in the air, not so much falling as existing, hovering, slowly being drawn toward surfaces like dust to a sheet of plastic wrap.
     As he spoke, she stirred the empty contents of her cup and watched him, noticing that his words left his mouth and fell straight down into his half-full glass instead of traveling up to meet his eyes. As he spoke, his gaze remained silent.
     He stopped and thought for a moment. "It's kinda ironic, I guess? I know what you're going to say: 'So when are you going to start studying Korean?'
     In fact, she was going to say that.
     "I've been here two years and I can still barely order chicken and beer." He chuckled. "But we're thinking of, you know, moving on."
     This was news. "Wait, hold on. You're going to leave Korea? And go to Japan?"
     She paused her stirring for dramatic effect, the director and only audience of a play staged between her chair and the middle of the table.
     A slight hesitation. "Not Japan, necessarily. But, you know, somewhere. Korea has never really felt like home."
     With the smallest suggestion of raised eyebrows, she quickly replied, "Well, of course it doesn't. No, your home is where your father was born."
     "What?" he asked, forehead wrinkling in confusion. "According to who?"
     "According to Korea," she answered, matter-of-factly. "That is, according to the traditional concept of hometown. Gohyang."
     "What, does that mean even if I live here for twenty years I still won't be--"
     "Right. 'You're not from around here.' You never will be, because your family isn't. But your real home, your gohyang -- what is it, South Carolina? Georgia? At least that will always be there."
     He paused to consider this, albeit briefly, and signaled this by glancing out the window, where green had just turned yellow, then yellow red. She looked into his eyes and, subconsciously, followed them outside. People had begun to cross.
    "In any case," he began, "we're obviously not going to go before our contracts are up, but we're, you know, keeping our options open."
     "And well you should!" she said loudly, causing his eyes to widen. "But look, permit me to give you some advice? As someone who has been here now more than half a decade?"
     She didn't wait for permission. "Forgive me if this comes across as condescending, but perhaps the reason you don't feel like Korea is home is that you haven't tried to make it your home. And no, I don't mean by making your parents move here and getting them fake birth certificates. No, just, maybe try to learn the language? Meet more people? Realize that there is a world outside of your apartment, your school, and your five favorite cafes downtown?"
     "I do do a lot of stuff," he countered. "And I really like my school, my kids. Maybe it's hard to explain how I feel. Things just haven't... clicked."
     "Korea isn't for everyone," she remarked calmly.
     He bristled, and immediately hoped she didn't notice. "Well, all the cafes are overpriced, anyways."
     "So where is your hometown, then?"
     "South Carolina was right." His eyes were a deep indigo blue. "And yours?"
     She thought for a moment with her mouth slightly ajar. "Well, it's complicated. Father's from Indiana, mother's from New York, but we've lived abroad for more years than we've been in the States. So uri gohyang... could be anywhere, really." She shrugged. "As long as it's not Eagleton."
     He gave a small smirk, finished the rest of his drink, and looked around. Every other pair in the cafe was a couple, communicating via a combination of texting and making doe-eyed faces. One girl had been taking photos of herself with her latte-sipping boyfriend in the background, pretending that his cuteness was candid. I will never understand this, he thought to himself. She cleared her throat.
     "You know how they say, 'Home is where the heart is'?" she said.
     "Not here, apparently," he replied. "I mean, who is the 'they'?"
     She had to think about this, but wasn't sure if she wanted to. So she met his gaze once more, saw that it had sharpened, and went with rhetoric instead.
     "Who indeed?"