Saturday, April 29, 2006

Eyeball Creatures, Part II: Its Name is Lesion

Yeah, I've been spendng a whole lot of time at repeat visits to three doctors over the last week and a half. The good thing is that these doctors' offices are located near a Subway sandwich place, so I do enjoy a nice healthy vegetarian lunch when I visit that neighborhood, which makes me exceedingly happy.

The ear doctor speaks good English. She thinks my infected membrane is slightly improved, but not enough. Yesterday she changed my medication and increased my antibiotic dosage.

The opthamologist understands English and can write it very well (better than my advanced students) but he doesn't really speak it to me. At all. So our conversations are very interesting. I talk, and then he writes. It's kind of fun. Most doctors here studied in English for some/all of their medical school, is what I've heard, so it makes sense to me he can read and write it but not speak, but it's just hilariously fun. He writes kind of big, so he uses a lot of pages from his tablet of paper.

Anyway, he writes to me but he is, after all, a doctor, and so sometimes the handwriting is a little messy and I get a puzzled look and he rewrites a word. When he wrote that I have a lesion on my eyeball, I swear, it just looked like "legion" at first, which I found entirely too amusing. Especially seeing as when my eye began hurting, I was sitting in a coffee shop with some of the cast of my play and I kept touching my upper eyelid below the eyebrow saying "I feel like I have a little eyeball creature crawling around my eye." Later, when I rubbed my eye and discharged a blob-like secretion my friends were fascinated and one said, "Wow, I've never seen an eye give birth before!" So pretending some little demonic creatures have taken up residence on my eyeball membrane is just really amusing. At least for me. I do have an eyeball creature! Its name is legion! Ha!

Oh, don't think I don't take my eyeball demon seriously. But apparently there's nothing to be done about it except, get this: leave Korea! Brilliant! It seems I have allergic conjunctivitis. It also seems that chronic irritants can lead to this lesion developing, a little bump of protein deposit in the eyeball membrane. Doctors won't really do anything about the protein lesion/legion unless a)it moves to the cornea b)it interferes with contact lens wear. I'm in the latter category, but I don't really want to have surgery here in Korea. Although I have had many friends -- expats -- say I'm wrong and that I should have surgery here because it's great and cheap. But, as I said, the surgery isn't really necessary/recommended. Rather, not wearing contacts is recommended, because of the allergic conjunctivitis: I'm allergic to something in the air right now, and it's going to keep chronically irritating my eye, leading to dryness, redness, and lesion creation!

So, the doctor wrote, we can treat the symptoms with artificial tears -- and possibly a topical steroid, I read, when at one point he gave me his English eye manual to peruse -- but there is no cure except environment change. He wrote that, then looked at the paper and paused. Then he wrote "leave Korea." Frown. "Impossible?"

Oh, no, buddy, I replied, it is certainly not impossible at all! Rather, it's going to happen as soon as I can make it so! That was funny, too, because here I already had plans in motion but this is like motivation to effect them even more swiftly! Sorry, Ding Ding Dang! Doctor's orders! Gotta go!

Oh, it's all so amusing. Except it's really not. The problem might be the "yellow dust." Every year the yellow sand blows in from the Gobi Desert, but the problem is that on its way out of China it passes over major industrialized areas, factories, etc. and arrives here filled with pollutants, basically an annual toxic dust storm. They say most years it lasts four or five days. This year it's been weeks. All the long-term expats are in awe: "I've never seen it this bad!" I heard that Japan gave China $100 million dollars to plant trees near the Gobi Desert to improve the situation but that China took the money and did not plant the trees. I haven't verified the claim, but I don't know that I'd be surprised. I also heard that in the last few years the toxic storm has been so bad it's reached L.A. and San Diego, too, on the Pacific trade winds.

Meanwhile, here I am. So many little time...

Friday, April 28, 2006

Eyeball Creatures

Ack! Too tired! So sick! So busy! Can't blog...sorry...must sleep...eye infection, ear infection, many doctors, many antibiotic drops, too much to contend with...

Directing and producing play, and that's in two weeks...

Ack, I said! Ack ack ack!

The answer is: Hofstra.

More soon.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Thursday, April 20, 2006


See, now it's going to be weird to go to Dunkin' Donuts in New England again!

First, it was weird to go to Dunkin' Donuts in New England because it was weird to go to Dunkin' Donuts. Growing up in the Southwest I totally associated Dunkin' Donuts with, well, doughnuts. And I hate doughnuts. Plus, I'd been to maybe two, and they were totally sketchy. They don't exist at all in California. So when I moved to New England and they a.)were everywhere b.)were shiny c.)had delicious coffee, I suddenly discovered a whole new world.

I still try to explain it sometimes to some of my peeps in the West. But the Northeastern types totally get it. That is some addictive coffee. (I even have a theory: Starbucks=cocaine, Dunkin' Donuts=crack. But I digress.)

Then, I came to Korea and there were fifty billion Dunkin' Donuts everywhere and I was just like, what? How did they decide to tap this market before, say, the entire U.S. West? But OK, whatever. And since most coffee shops in Korea don't open until eleven o 'clock or sometimes even afternoon (go figure) I settled on Dunkin' Donuts as my daily grind. I even made friends with the girls who work at the one that's on my route to work here.

It occurred to me the other day while I was getting my coffee that now it's going to be weird to be back at DDs in New England again. Yet another in the list of ways Korea has irrevocably changed me.

By the way, the title of this post is pronounced "k'oh-p'i."

Sunday, April 16, 2006


So we celebrated Easter at Ding Ding Dang with various events, mostly making Easter baskets crafts in each class and a preschool Easter "egg" (candy) hunt in the park. Also, several of the Korean teachers asked us foreign teachers to "explain Easter" to the kids. The great thing about this request was that it was sort of - impossible! I mean, besides the limited English of some classes, it was really strange to try to explain Easter. I could easily enough draw a basket, eggs, the bunny, and the cross. And pretty much every kid knows -- roughly -- who Jesus is. But it was really strange to try to explain "we celebrate" blah blah blah when it's really only Christians who celebrate "Jesus is risen," not the entirety of Western civilization. Let alone making the eggs/bunny connections.

Some of the Korean teachers asked me "why rabbits?" So I started talking about how the Holy Roman Empire, in its efforts to take over the world, sent conquering missionaries into pagan lands and adopted many of their fertility/spring rites and rituals into Christian commemorations and they've all morphed into weird things like that. One of the Canadian teachers walked in while I was talking and was like, oh, here we go. "She asked!" I protested. It's true, she admitted. They were really curious. They wanted to know all about it. I pointed out that missionaries had done the same thing here, adopting some of the traditions of Confucianism and ancestor rites into Korean Christian worship.

I had my awesome 12-year-olds of the advanced conversation and fabulous essays write a few sentences about "what is Easter?" They wrote things like: "I think the Easter is when Jesus died but he lived again so he is famous" or "I think Jesus was born, lived, and was born again, so now we eat eggs because in the egg is born like Jesus was born." I thought, well, that's about as good an explanation as I could come up with!

It made me think a bit about the whole (nonsense! nonsense! nonsense!) debate about teaching "intelligent design" in U.S. classrooms. First of all, give me a break. But secondly, I suddenly had a bit of a feel for what it must be like. And mind you, no one was asking me to teach anything, as in, to explain as fact, a religious speculation or myth. But I did experience the notion of once you start explaining something as an authority, you are called to answer questions about it, and when it veers into opinion, it's just that: opinion. Expat ESL teachers in Asia are often called on to give their cultural perspective in the line of duty. Biology teachers should not be.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

"The sweetest part is acting after making a decision..." -- Indigo Girls

Who, by the way, have signed with a new label, Hollywood Records, after finishing their contract with Epic that has brought their music to us for just about two decades now! How amazing is that? Life, music, time -- they're all amazing. There's another guitar-toting trobaritz, the wondrous Tift Merritt, who has a fantastic song I'm playing over and over today. It may not be literally true word for word but I'm all about its overall feel right now. It's on her album Tambourine. Get it! With no further ado, then, here is "Write My Ticket":

This city must belong to someone
but it don't belong to me
From the window I got here
I count the traffic through my tears
wanting to write my ticket, write my ticket home
I got to get back in the arms of a man who loves me
I got to get back to the people who have always been proud of me
Take me back
I was wrong
Write my ticket home
Place called Susie's, I'm a waitress
Sue says, "Girl, you'll get used to all this"
There is no way she could see
how much that cold rain gets to me
how much I've traded for a picture in my mind
I got to get back in the arms of a man who loves me
I got to get back to the people who have always been proud of me

Take me back
I was wrong
Write my ticket home
I can hear them sitting around joking:
"She talks so big, though she come back broken"
Well, I got to try
I ain't so proud
I wish I were talkin' bout nothin' with 'em right now
I got to get back in the arms of a man who loves me
I got to get back to the people who have always been proud of me
Take me back, I was wrong
Write my ticket
Write my ticket
Write my ticket

Sunday, April 09, 2006

This is what I know today...

I used to be a good little blogger. Now I am all kinds of slacker-like. But this has been a totally insane week of madness. "Insane madness"...guess that was from the department of redundancy and saying things twice.

Yeah I'm in a weird mood. I'll admit it. It comes from having been in Korea for six months, I think. And here's the thing about that: today was a good day. A hard day, but a good day. The main things it involved were rehearsal for my play and having necessary and good conversations. One person I had many conversations with was my friend Melissa. I don't usually mention a lot of people by name on the blog but man, she was such a help to me today. We really, really understood each other and had great talks about life, where we are at (literally and figuratively), where we've been, and what to do about all of the above.

She also reminded me of something: a lot of you don't understand what it's like to be here.

I know that can sound like a jerky statement. I don't mean it to. In fact, I think it's kind of self-effacing too, really, 'cause it's like saying despite my best efforts I can't effectively convey on this blog what my life in Korea is like.

But really. I'm currently making decisions about this place and she helped me remember that in the end you all get only glimpses. It's so weird, and it really reiterates the ultimate value of traveling.

I know--I'm not making sense. Where do I begin? This week at work things just went completely loopy. ComPLETEly. I had to open a new class on Thursday. What that means is a new group of kids are registered and we now start them from Level 1, Syllabus Day 1, with "Hello! I am Linda! Who are you?" etc. The kicker is that all the mothers come to the opening class and watch, then have a 20 minute or so session afterward where our director talks to them and they make their final decisions about whether their kids will take the class.

So my director and assistant director had a private meeting with me earlier in the week to remind me of the importance of impressing the parents at an opening class (duh) and to tell me that I needed to not wear "reggae hair" and that I needed to cut my nails.

Now, let's get a few things straight. For one thing, I do not have my hair in dreadlocks. What I did have were a bunch of little braids, and I've worn them for many weeks a few different times here in Korea. As for the fingernails, they are my usual, and the nail thing was first mentioned in passing in a full English teachers' meeting a few weeks ago, but I didn't realize just how serious the issue was. At the time, I told the cool assistant director, "Sure, get me a manicure and I'll cut 'em."

Well, I was really opposed to the whole idea of having to cut them, mostly because it seemed so silly. Could it really be a big deal? Wasn't this another in the long string of dingy dingy dang ridiculous requests? Then I was also sick this week. I almost passed out in my Wednesday classes and couldn't leave because with the Englishman on vacation this week we were covering extra classes, and frankly I just went home and did not stop at the store to buy nail clippers. On Thursday morning I got up, donned the requistite nice clothes (no jeans on opening class days), pulled my non-braided hair back as they'd requested, but was like, hmm, no nail clippers...but then I went to work and taught preschool and began dealing with my day and just really didn't care. That was a mistake.

After the opening class, the Korean teacher with whom I will share it came to tell me it went well and that in the meeting with the parents, no one had complained but there was "just this one small thing: one of the mothers asked [director]Michelle about your fingernails."

I must have turned so pale. I froze. "Where's Michelle?" I asked. I had visions of her coming around the corner at me with a hatchet. You see, this means not only did I not do what she asked, but a mother brought it up and Michelle therefore lost face, which is like the ultimate no-no in Korean culture.

"What? It's no big deal," the Korean teacher tried to reassure me. "There weren't any big complaints or anything!" But I just shook my head, no, you don't understand. Nothing worse could have happened. I wished they had complained about something else. Anything else.

Sure enough, Michelle was livid. I was kept after work in an hour-long meeting getting an official reprimand and then having a discussion with assistant director Betty. Michelle was so angry she didn't even come to that meeting. I was at least grateful that she showed that restraint, instead of just coming in and killing me outright. On Friday I got to have another hour meeting after work, this time with John, the director of all the DDDs; you may remember him from the early days of my stint here, picking me up at the train station and moving me into various apartments.

I can hear you already: what is the big deal about it? Why do you always do this, Linda? Why can't you just compromise? Why are you so stubborn? Or, if you take another tack: there are cultural differences, Linda. But you're missing a point. I will tell you what that point is.

I've had jobs before where appearance is an issue. Most jobs have dress codes. Sometimes they seem silly: dressing up to work at a call center. Sometimes I think they're offensive: at Cambridge Borders we were allowed to wear shorts but not sleeveless shirts. Hello? It was totally an armpit hair thing. (But I had hairy legs, too. ha!) When I worked at Disneyland, appearance was a huge part of the job. All of us cast members had to have no more than one earring, no facial piercings, no visible tattoos, no facial hair for men, and so on. I really had no issues there. They provided me a costume! I went "on stage." You know what the difference here is? Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. Ding Ding Dang has got a *long* way to go before it reaches that!

Anyway, the point everyone is missing was nicely delineated for me by John in our meeting on Friday night. When the parent of one of our students says "jump!" Michelle says "how high?" for the simple reason that money talks. This is why there is constant reactionary behavior there. One parent says we're concentrating too much on speaking and not writing enough, so a Korean teacher tries to totally alter the class to be more writing-focused, and then another parent says we're not helping her kid's pronunciation, so we alter the class again. It's ridiculous and it happens all the time. And all three of my directors told me in no uncertain terms that they have had parents question my appearance and whether I "look like a teacher" not because of clothes but because I have "black people hair" (and yes that is a direct quote) and long nails and those things are perceived as "dirty."

So. You know me. This enrages me. And it just so happens that I was already deciding this week whether I might not be long for this world...and then this.

John sat there meeting with me and told me that it's nice to be idealistic and that as I get older I will get more conservative and start realizing that in running a business the customer and his/her money are the most important things. And that instead of defending their teachers--and I was repeatedly told in each of these meetings this week what a great teacher I am, by the way--they have to placate the parents so we don't lose their business.

Does any of this sound familiar? Well it certainly should, to anyone who works for/has ever worked for Borders, or who knew me when I did! Bigger than that, though, it's every money-making endeavor in the world. I absolutely, positively miss working for not-for-profit public radio so desperately. It's not like we didn't have people to answer to. If we didn't attract and retain listeners to our shows, we went off the air, and The Savvy Traveler did just that a few years after I left. (The founding staff members and I who had all moved on by then may have our own private theories about why that happened.) But my goodness. There was such a different overarching atmosphere to working there. I took it so for granted at the time.

All I'm saying is that sitting me down for a little chat about cultural differences is one thing. Officially reprimanding me is one thing. Maybe even forcing me to cut my nails (they're short now) is one thing. Hey, I wrote a letter of apology to director Michelle, and I am SO OKAY with that. What I am not okay with is people ever, ever, ever telling me that money is more important than principle. Any principle. However big or small.

My employers looked me in the eye and said, Hey Linda, we think you are so great, especially this great work you've done with the older students, and we want you to train the new teachers coming soon, and we think you're pretty even if you don't wear enough make-up, and we know that the braids in your hair don't mean you're not a good teacher and we know your long nails are not dirty and that you're not a trashy person but you know what? A parent saw you and we're here to make money.

Well, they can tell me that. But if they think that's the way to smooth things over and settle me down, they have taken the exactly wrong approach.

And when people in the U.S. talk about what I'm doing here, and about my one-year contract, and my students who "need" me, and about all the things they think about what I should and shouldn't do, I appreciate so much my friends and family and their opinions and insight and feedback and help, but at the end of the day, I think, they don't, they can't, understand what this experience is.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

April Fools & Living Daylights

Not being a big fan of practical jokes -- correction, not being at ALL a fan of practical jokes -- I didn't do much in the way of commemorating April 1, but I'll tell you what. It was certainly a day to celebrate! I was really glad to bid a fond farewell to March.

"In like a lion" was never truer; March came roaring upon me and never once let up. I can only hope the lamb is ready to take over and that April proves a bit more gentle. I don't know what made March so fierce! And it seemed like it was March forever. Maybe 31 days just seemed like a lot after the 28 of February absolutely flew. I was also in some sort of weird emotional haze for large portions of March. And it feels like I just existed in that emotional haze and did little else but sit bleary-eyed in the commune and drink and drift.

But that's clearly not true, as I was so terribly busy during March! I mean, there were the Oscars. I went to Seoul one weekend. There was the poetry slam at the arts space. (I won 2nd place! I'm competing in another one this week.) I had two meetings of my reading group...weekly meetings of my writing group...and furthermore, I held auditions for the play I'm going to direct! Plus callbacks, and I cobbled together a cast which was quite a lengthy and time-consuming and maybe a tiny bit stressful process. We had our read-through today and start rehearsals this week. I met with the Korean Democracy Movement about the play and the Speak Truth to Power symposium to be held in Seoul in May to which they have invited me and my cast. I also started taking a Korean class at the YMCA (more on that later).

Not to mention that this last week of March, the Canadian marrieds who teach at my school were on vacation in Thailand and Ding Ding Dang did not see fit to get a substitute, so we had to cover a bazillion extra classes. I had like 100 extra students this week. Or should I say, that they had me? And just to top it all off, starting Thursday night we had to deal with a plumbing issue in our apartment and it was handled in typical stellar Ding Ding Dang fashion.

So - yeah. I was really busy, I really was! No wonder I got sick and am so exhausted right now. No wonder I haven't finished reading War and Peace. It was all I could do to finally get my federal taxes done at some point during March.

And now it's April. The Koreans are familiar with April Fool's Day. It's not a big deal, though. Is it a big deal anywhere? Not really, I suppose. I guess we will be doing something for Easter, along the lines of coloring eggs and whatnot. The next big holiday here will be the Buddha's birthday, which happens to be on Cinco de Mayo. Awesome.

Korea, you may remember from the fall, does not go on daylight saving time, so instead of being 14 hours ahead of my East Coast peeps I will go back to being a mere 13 hours ahead, just as I was when I first arrived last fall. Here, let us pause to consider what that means: I have been here half of a year!!!

To be precise, I have been here 175 days. I am going into my 26th week. The time just keeps on keepin' on. Another teacher is getting ready to depart. As I sipped a beer on Friday night Frazer the Englishman casually mentioned that he has 29 teaching days left. Wow! He's so almost out. They're kicking around a few resumes for his replacement. We'll see how long it takes to fill the spot this time. They tried to get him to stay of course, but he's so going home to sit around and watch the World Cup. They also told him -- this was really funny -- that he should be setting a good example for us, as the senior ENT right now. They said he should be spending more time in the office doing -- what, exactly, we're not sure, presumably made up work to keep us at our desks because they resent us leaving during our midday break. We all had a good laugh over that one. He so doesn't care.

It's fun to call him "Senior" though. It fits right in with my ongoing metaphor of expat English teacher life here being much like high school. And now I'm passing from being the "sophomore" staff member at our school to my "junior" period, and the Canadian marrieds will be the "seniors" soon. Their senioritis has already set in big time, though. Bram pops into our little desk area every day to give me his updated numbers. "Hey, Linda, you want a number?" he'll say. "Here, I've got two for ya: 104 and 73." Those would then be their days left in country and days left teaching. Sometimes he would throw in a third, days remaining until they went to Thailand. It's so funny. I hadn't counted mine in a while -- I'm telling you March has been so busy -- but today I thought I'd check.

After the cast read-through and dinner with a few friends, I went to Movie Night at the commune, a fun Sunday night tradition at the foreigners' watering hole. Tonight's selection was Raising Arizona. It made me miss my desert stomping grounds something fierce! Those saguaros! Those desert vistas. The SKY! The sun! The Arizona clouds! You will never see a skies like that anywhere else in the world, least of all Korea. Let alone the big hair and crappy cars peeling out. Oh Arizona, Arizona of my heart.

Spring gaily forward, everyone! 'Cause here I am launching a performing arts/human rights venture, keeping very busy, coughing up my lungs, and picking my battles. Lots and lots of battles.