Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book Reviews.

I've been reading a lot these past few months, but haven't really had the opportunity to blog much about the books I've been reading. Some have been quite exceptional and memorable, so here is a short list of things you REALLY should read if you haven't yet:

You MUST Read This Book! The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea by Charles Robert Jenkins and Jim Frederick. When I was visiting DC at the end of August, Anne, Sam, and I went to the Spy Museum near Gallery Place and Chinatown. I kept looking for information about Korea (living here has peaked my interest), but found little in the museum itself. To be fair, there was also very little information about the Middle East, so perhaps they are just limited by the fact that these are ongoing conflicts.

However, in the bookstore I found this little memoir of Jenkins--a man who defected to North Korea in the sixties trying to avoid the Vietnam war, and became stuck there because Kim Il Sung's Juche Policy (주체사상) meant they didn't allow anyone so valuable to the regime to leave their country. He only got out because Japan has fought vigilantly for the return of Japanese abductees forced to teach in North Korean spy schools, of which his wife was one. Jenkins tells his story with the assistance of Frederick, a reporter for Time stationed in Japan at the time of Jenkins's family's dramatic departure from North Korea.

It is riveting. I started it when I got on the plane in DC and finished it about halfway over the country. It is a must read for anyone involved with Korea, Japan, or the U.S.

A heartwarming and heartbreaking dystopia. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I had read McCarthy's No Country for Old Men after the excellent film version came out last year, but the pacing and intensity of his more recent Pulitzer Prize winning work was a bit harder to read than the dramatic story of greed and a psychotic killer. It took me about five tries to get into it, but when I did, it was really worth it.

It is the story of father and son travelling together in a world of ash, unable to trust other people who would feed on other humans because almost no food remained to scavenge from the fallen civilization. The story had passages I felt inspire to copy out because they were so powerful, but I can't seem to find the journal I jotted them down in... darnit! However, it's been awhile since writing has inspired me to do that... so you know it's pretty intense.

And unlike other post-apocalyptic works, the focus is always on the relationship of the main characters, not on the failings of mankind that brought this horrible world upon them. Not just how can an individual, but how can a family survive in the direst circumstances? Shocking, moving, confusing. I still think about it, even though I read it several months ago at this point.

An American Anti-War Classic. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Despite my high-school long love affair with Vonnegut's works that began one sick day in ninth grade when I devoured Cat's Cradle to cure myself of a fever, it took me several starts and stops to read his most famous work. However, even having outgrown my preference for some Vonnegutisms, I can see why this work is considered a classic.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes "unstuck" in time as a response to his traumatic experiences in the war. Although many other strange and fascinating things happen in his life (including hooking up with movie stars on other planets--seriously), the narrative, like Pilgrim's mind, keeps returning to his experiences in the war, culminating in the bombing of Dresden. So much of what is shocking is precisely how much more shocking the realistic events of the war are than the semi-science-fiction vignettes that follow lucky/unlucky Billy.

Especially relevant now as we daily forget how far removed from the daily action of the war in which America is currently involved.

So yeah, I've been peppering all of this depressing and shocking material with mindless and fun chick-lits. None of them dreadfully memorable or worthy of mentioning here.

Enough of the literature for now. Regular posting will resume soon.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tae Yang Taekwondo

Written as an introduction to my gifted writing class (the example for them so they can write their own introductions):

The room is full of fifth and sixth grade boys in variously colored doboks (the standard taekwondo uniform) with black or black and red belts embroidered with their names. They are kicking balls and running around until they notice me standing in the doorway. They stare for only half a second before the familiar screaming starts.

"Waegukin! Waegukin!"

The word means "foreigner" in Korean. I hear it at least five times in a day, usually more like twenty. In a land of black eyes, silky-smooth stick-straight hair, and toffee to almond colored skin, my blue-green/curly-blond/ivory combination garners attention as would a minor celebrity in a small town. I have lived here already one year, but moving to a new neighborhood on the other side of the city for my job teaching at the Foreign Language High School, means that I have to change studios for taekwondo. And I have to endure another set of eyes examining my foreign-ness.

Already I miss my Sa Beom Nim from my old studio who had taken me under his guidance when I first moved to this strange, crowded, puzzling country with its pepper-hot foods and overly generous people and public expectoration. He was (and is) a guide, a mentor, a friend, and a trainer.

Though I've never been an athletic girl, I have always enjoyed being physically active--hiking, swimming, skiing, dancing, etc. So when I moved to Asia, I pounced upon the opportunity to learn a martial art. And what better than the Korean national sport, taekwondo? Little did I know when I began that this sport was mostly practiced by children or that I would be able to earn a black belt in one year. In the U.S., martial arts have a certain mystical status, promoted by movies like The Karate Kid, Kill Bill, and anything with Bruce Lee. I have spent the last year learning that martial arts, like most other sports, are playful fun. Learning taekwondo was not the serious, focused, philosophical training I expected it to be.

Not that it's been easy. My former Sa Beom Nim spoke about five words in English, and I spoke as much Korean when I began. I've been bruised and injured and pushed more than ever before in my life. I lost weight. I gained muscle strength and flexibility. I sweat a lot (more than your average Korean person, yet another thing that stands out). I got yelled at about my posture and form and inability to run or jump well.

I came to this country to teach English. I love teaching. I was a teacher in the U.S. for three years before coming here. But while I do teach English here, and face the regular and significant challenges of my job, the challenges of life in a foreign land are much more difficult—and have become my focus. Things that were easy and automatic back home, like taking a hot shower or grocery shopping, are made complex by their other-world-ness. Even English is different here, as my best waegukin friends come from countries like England and Australia, where simple words like “pants” and “pepper” have whole other meanings.

But after a year, I’ve grown accustomed to the new language and alphabet, to the bargaining at the open markets, to the smell of smoke in every building, to the initial shyness of the students.

Now I'm in my new studio for the first time and the kids are screaming and pointing. I almost turn around and walk right back out the door again. But then a tall man with a kind face calls out, "Diana?" He sounds just a little bit like my old Sa Beom Nim, speaking Korean with a heavy Daegu accent. Smiling and inviting me in and chiding me for being late (there had been a misunderstanding; there are often misunderstandings speaking over the phone in a foreign tongue). He is my Kwangjangnim, now.

“Mianhamnida.” I’m sorry. And I walk inside.

Hearing Korean from the woman with golden-colored, ramyeon-like hair produces new shocks. One boy asks if I’m really a foreigner. A little girl in uniform comes in the door, notices me sitting off to the side, waiting for practice to begin. She takes my hand and shows me where to stand and what to do. Again, I will adapt, learn, evolve.

Maybe one day, I will belong.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Finding my way.

Well, I still don't have internet access at my new apartment, so while I'm composing this in my cozy new apartment (at my lovely new desk and one of my cute new folding chairs purchased Sunday at E-mart with Min Gi's assistance), I will be posting it tomorrow (now today) from my new job at Taegu Foreign Language High School.

Needless to say a LOT has happened during my temporary lapse into the technological dark ages. All that I had been planning—moving to the new apartment, visiting family and friends in America, going to Jeju Island for swing camp, starting my new job, finding a new taekwondo studio—has come to pass. Obviously the new place still has a few glitches (the lack of internet being a major one), but it has substantially improved since the first day when my gas (which operates the hot water in Korea) had not been turned on prior to my moving in and I didn't have a fridge. Yay three days of bitterly cold showers and no food. Ah, memories. Now, even the kitties are settling into their new routine nicely.

I will be blogging about many of these notable events and more over the next few days. Especially the entries that ought to have pictures accompany them, as transporting the pictures from my computer's hard drive to the internet when said computer is not hooked up to the internet is a pain in the ass. Anyhow, enough of the business end of things.

I have been an emotional wreck since returning to Korea. Let me start by saying that I love my new job, my new neighborhood (I'm right next to an outdoor market—score!), my new apartment, and even my new taekwondo studio. And after my brief sojourn to America, I know even more certainly that Korea is definitely where I want to be right now. I'm just feeling lost and homesick for stupid things, like the ability to wear sleeveless tops without being thought of as prostitute by about half of the population or having a healthy relationship in month four-ish without people constantly asking when I'm getting married. And even though I like all the changes, change is traumatic. I feel like I'm constantly having to be “on” because I keep meeting new people upon whom I'd like to make a good impression.

I only started to feel a bit more “right” when I went to swing dance at Azurajang on Sunday (even on Saturday it was in an alternate location... sheesh—are people trying to make me go insane here?). I didn't even dance that much as Gong Bi's class had too many follows (as usual). Just being around the people I'm comfortable with in a familiar place helped a lot. As does having a writing desk and getting some of this off my chest.

The weirdest part of being back in America was how much it felt like my time in Korea didn't “count,” because Americans by and large know absolutely nothing about this country. It felt sometimes like Korea was my secret—something close to my heart that only certain people over there, like Amanda and Kisu, could understand.

It helped a little to talk to Anne and Rebecca while I was there. We were in Pizzeria Uno's, like we used to do in high school, but within the last week all three of us had flown in from different continents (Rebecca, Europe; Anne, Africa; Me, Asia). While I was going back abroad in two more days, Anne and Rebecca were each at the point of “settling down” from their travels (whatever that awful expression means) to go back to graduate school. It reminded me that if I ever feel like I am finished in Korea, I do have things I could go “back” to, which is a little nice to know.

It has helped even more to talk to Leah and Min Gi since returning. Leah understands my feelings about Korea in a way few others do. And Min Gi doesn't really understand, but he can tell I'm upset, so he makes me slow dance with him in the apartment and makes me smile a lot and takes me to E-mart and is working on getting me an internet connection.

I still feel a little unsure in this new-but-not-new life I'm making. But I think I'm starting to get my footing.

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