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.

1 comment:

leone said...

Linda - don't worry about the 'ups' and 'downs' too much as eventually you will even out. Korea and Koreans are not so very different from Americans, Brits or Canadians (or Aussies for that matter). It just takes a while until the objections become predictable and your own objection covers become finely tuned and highly effective.

In short, you learn to relate on their terms whether that be in a confrontational or amicable situation.

The 'it's Korean culture and you don't understand' becomes less intimidating when actually it's not and you do!

Daegu is a great place isn't it? But like any place - it has it's moments! Hang on in there.........

Best wishes