Tuesday, March 25, 2014

To Remove a Fatal Complex

All I remember is that I had an unnaturally vivid dream whose contents now escape me and that I woke up from this dream thinking that, as my alarm hadn't yet sounded, I probably had a good ten more minutes to sleep. So I went back to sleep.

And then my phone rang. It was my co-teacher. It was 8:43. I had a first period class at 8:50. I swore.

Not really understanding how I had managed to sleep through both of my alarms, I jumped out of bed, threw on the first clothes I found in the closet, considered asking my co-teacher to cover for me, then just bit the bullet and ran out the door. Fortunately, I live about a five minutes' walk away from school. When I'm running, make that two minutes. I got to my office at 8:49am this morning and went straight to class, disheveled and slightly out of breath. My hope is that my students were too sleepy to notice...

That's the second time something like this has happened, and I really hope it's the last.

- - -

Anyway, I wanted to talk about how wonderful my students are. Chatting with them during mealtimes always makes my day. I make it a point to eat dinner with my students at least twice a week, and some of them have taken note of this apparently odd behavior. Typical foreign English teachers don't eat with the students, I've been told. But I believe that bonding over meals is one of the best way to build up a relationship, so I don't mind the stares or awkward silences.

I usually try to time it so that I arrive at the cafeteria at the same time as the third-year students, since I've known them the longest and enjoy talking with them. But sometimes I'll just pick a table at random and walk up with a cheerful, "Hi! May I sit with you?" I don't really wait for an answer, though. The poor students have no choice but to stop gossiping in Korean and start answering my questions in English. "How was your weekend?" "Can you explain what's happening on the cafeteria TV right now?" "What exactly are we eating, anyway?" Although I make it sound like they're the victims of my heinous schemes, actually, I believe it's a positive influence. First-year students in particular are always impressed, first with me for being so bold as to sit with them, and then with themselves when they realize that, yes, they are capable of holding a conversation with a native English speaker and it's not as painful as they'd imagined!

And I love it when students ask me questions, too: simple ones such as what my favorite Korean food is or if I enjoy K-pop, or more complex questions like why I have a Korean name on Facebook (which led to a great conversation about the meanings of names). Today, a student was eagerly telling me about a great movie he'd watched called Final Fantasy, about a group of teenagers on a plane who learn that they are going to crash... I finally realized that he was talking about Final Destination, and we had a good laugh.

I was taken aback and actually touched one evening, when two of my second-years actually left their table to join me and some shy underclassmen girls. They were simply eager to talk to me about my class: JH wanted to study more Greek and Latin roots, and WJ thanked me for giving them the opportunity to write in class journals, but wanted more time to do it. I was absolutely thrilled. The underclassmen were absolutely bewildered.

Later, the conversation turned to a favorite topic of high school girls: beauty. It started when WJ remarked that I looked better without glasses. (I was wearing contact lenses that day.) I told her I'd considered getting corrective eye surgery in Korea, and from there we began discussing cosmetic surgery. WJ said that she didn't want to get plastic surgery, but the societal pressure was really intense. Any girl who doesn't want double eyelids is mercilessly asked just why she doesn't want to undergo a harmless, painless, beautifying procedure. JH, on the other hand, was 100% sure that she wanted to get plastic surgery, perhaps as soon as she graduated from high school.

"I look in the mirror every day, and... I can't look at myself," she said jokingly, covering her face in her hands. JY, who had just joined us, jumped right in to what she perceived was a typical roundtable roasting session. "Yes, yes, you're ugly!" she said ro JH, completely deadpan.

I tried to tell JH that she looked just fine the way she was, that all of them were naturally beautiful and didn't need plastic surgery, but JH's mind wasn't going to be changed in an instant. So, I told them a story about how one of my favorite students from my first semester as a teacher (way back in the fall of 2012) wrote a stellar essay on beauty standards. WJ was bright and daring, and she had chosen the prompt: "Should movie stars and people who appear on TV have to get plastic surgery?"

In her essay, WJ wrote that when she was younger, she'd lamented her physical appearance. However, when she realized that her role models were people like Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey who became successful without any help from their looks, she changed her mind about the importance of beauty in her life. But here's the clincher: she also wrote, "If somebody does want plastic surgery, then they should get it in order to remove their fatal complex." BOOM. A young feminist Beyonce in the making, I swear.

Well, and then WJ went and got her eyelids doubled, just like most of the other girls in her year when they graduated and went off to college. I didn't leave out that part of the story, and JH and WJ had a laugh at the slight irony. Nevertheless, I don't want this to be the end of us discussing standards of beauty. I'm trying to find room in my curriculum this semester for a lesson on this topic for my second-years. I mean, my students have nicknames like Monkey, Egg, and Rice Grain, because these somehow capture the essence of their achievements and personalities in a friendly, pithy moniker. No, I'm totally kidding; they call her Egg because her face is shaped like one, and she doesn't even mind. I really want to get my students talking about this.

Beauty is not the easiest topic to bring up in a South Korean classroom, especially if you're a foreigner with a wildly different perspective. My friend Julia was interviewed in a piece by This American Life last year, where she shared a lesson she did with her high school girls and compared beauty standards in Korea and the US. For the sake of her students' understanding, she boiled it down to: physical appearance seems surprisingly important in Korea, but you know what? It's not like that everywhere. Also, you are all beautiful.

I enjoyed hearing about her experience and listening to the clips from her class. There was some criticism about her decision to present American beauty standards in similarly black-and-white terms, but I admire Julia's intent to approach the topic objectively and with enthusiasm. I'm going to take a look at the lesson I did last year and see what I should alter or update for this year.

Oh hey, looks like I drifted way out into tangential waters again, didn't I? The product of a wandering mind on a late night. Time for bed. And I'll have to make sure I don't sleep through my alarm again!

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