Monday, 31 May 2010

Love always wins!

There's a lot of talk about love these days. I feel as though I've been having the same conversation over and over, with everyone from my middle school students to the friendly bar owner in one of Seoul's busiest neighbourhoods.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my fifteen-year-old students approached me and said her boyfriend broke up with her. She was extremely sad, which was such a shift from how I'd seen her just last month -- bright-eyed and beaming.

"I love him, teacher," she said.

She'd met him at an amusement park in Seoul, and their relationship lasted just over three months. Anyone can agree that three months in middle school land is a pretty long time. A couple of weeks went by, and I approached her again to see how she was feeling.

"Still... confused," she answered. "I just... love him."

"What do you mean," I asked. "How do you know about love?"

She looked at me and started smiling. I could see the pictures circling through her mind; memories of time spent together.

"I know love means happy," she started. After struggling with the thought for a little while, she went on. "Love... it means even when you are sad, you cannot feel sad."

I looked at her, with an utter loss for words. How would I - jaded and bah-humbugy - respond to that? I simply smiled, told her she'd be OK, and asked her to allow herself to feel any emotion that came her way.

"... even when you are sad, you cannot feel sad."

It made sense in a strange way, because love always wins. It's the strongest emotion out there.

I just posed this question on the SFTC Facebook fanpage (which, if you haven't already joined, you should!): "Which is a stronger emotion - Love or Anger?"

So far, commenters agree that anger and other emotions are fleeting, but love overpowers them all, and lasts the longest. I tend to think so too.

When it comes down to it, I feel that life is rooted in love. Whether or not people admit to it, a majority of our daily actions stem from love for something... or someone. And though our society is rapidly turning into a 'me' culture, deep down, everyone longs to be loved, and fears leaving this planet feeling unloved.

Am I right?

I got talking to a bar owner on Saturday night; a Korean woman in her mid-thirties who's witnessed the rapid generational and cultural shifts in the city. I was immediately intrigued by her, because, as a bar owner, I figured she must have met a lot of people from all walks of life, with strange and interesting stories in tow.

She laughed when I told her this, and said, matter-of-factly, that she was brimming with stories!

"This is a story of strange love," she said. "I don't understand, but I have this friend. Everyday she calls me and tells me she broke up with her boyfriend... and she cries. I tell her it will be OK, and she hangs up. She calls back the next day and tells me they are back together... and she laughs. I tell her I'm happy for her, and she hangs up."

"So... what's that got to do with love?" I asked.

"She's been doing this every day for the past two years."

I couldn't help but laugh. Talk about a bitter-sweet relationship!

But I guess her point was that love doesn't make sense... and why should it have to? It's an emotion that manifests itself into different forms to work in particular relationships. And as long as it works, why question it?

Because regardless of all the fighting, the emotional wars, the broken hearts and pain (sometimes self-inflicted), love - in one shape or another - always wins. And deep down, even the strongest cynics know that.


Thursday, 27 May 2010

May days

Apologies for not posting as frequently in the past weeks. I have no excuses other than the fact that I've become consumed with the daily happenings here in Korea.

Needless to say, it's been an interesting month on many levels. I made some decisions this week that might later change certain aspects of my life. It took me a long time to come to these decisions... but I think sometimes, all we need is one moment of clarity to finally just do it. And I'm glad I did.

One of these decisions involves what I plan to do once I'm back in Toronto. All I know is that I want to continue writing. It's the one thing that I take comfort in, and it's certainly a creative outlet. It's stressful to think that I might struggle to get back into the industry, but I'm willing to battle it out. They say if you want something badly enough, you should just keep chasing it, right? I just hope I don't have to chase for too long.

A bright spot in Korea is that one of my articles got published in a magazine. I'd submitted a story about my trip to India in 2008, and Speakeasy magazine in Seoul featured it in their May/June issue. I'm pretty proud of it, as they also included a link to the blog in it.

As the weather's been warming up, I've been spending a lot of time in parks and along the riverside in Seoul. Though not nature in its truest form, (Seoul's a city with manmade landscapes built into it), I've enjoyed walking through the trails and finding moments of serenity among chaos.

The photo above was taken on Buddha's Birthday as we celebrated with a picnic along the Han river in Seoul. It's the Seoul skyline with Namsan Tower in the distance on the far right. The bright glow above the city is a result of light pollution. Still, it's a beautiful sight, isn't it? Yeoinaru park along the Han has to be one of my favourite spots in Seoul, by far.

The above shot was taken at Seoul's Olympic Park. We spent a rainy saturday wandering aimlessly through the park's trails and hidden gems... one of which was this beautiful stream. Everything looked so lush and green -- it truly reminded me of Goa's scenery during the monsoons. It's definitely another one of my favourite spots, and I know I'll be frequenting it a lot, as my time in Seoul draws to a close. I feel a sense of comfort around Olympic Park's landscape.

Other than that, life goes on. Watching the news is pretty stressful these days, as the North and South continue to blame each other and make threats. I've often said that I don't know how to feel about all this... more fear or less anxiety. In any case, I'm taking my cue from the citizens of Korea and trying to maintain a sense of calm. No use stressing over something out of my control, right?

Until then, I'll continue to wander through my favourite haunts in the city, enjoying solace and the hidden gems in this country I've called home for the past year.


Thursday, 20 May 2010

Let's face the facts

OK. I'll admit it. I'm mildly frightened.

It's been all over the news for decades, and when the Cheonan sank during the last days of March, the issues between the Koreas (North and South) were once again brought to the forefront of every news agency across the planet.

I've been living in Seoul since August 2009. Before I left, one of the editors at the magazine I was working for, asked if I knew what I was doing. She mentioned talking about my move with her husband, who responded with, "Does she know there's a mad man living literally minutes away from Seoul?"

Yes, I knew. And I'm aware of it now more than ever.

Today, South Korea officially blamed the North for sinking their Cheonan warship. The belief is that a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine hit the warship on March 26, killing 40 sailors, with six still missing.

My friend S has been following this issue in great detail, reading articles on it from across the globe. I've been paying attention as well, but because the whole situation makes me uneasy, I've tried to curtail the amount of information coming my way.

If this happened while I was living in Canada, I can guarantee I would have been crawling the Internet for the latest updates. However, because of the fact that I'm living in Seoul -- the main city that would be the target of any retaliation from the North -- I'm pacing myself.

I found out that South Korea would be making their official announcement today, when I came across an article in the Washington Post on Tuesday. I must admit that it sent chills down my spine. Then, when I turned on the TV this morning and saw the press conference on various news stations, I felt sick to my stomach.

Any retaliation from the North would literally destroy Seoul within minutes. North Korea is adamantly building its nuclear program, despite being condemned by countries across the globe. It wouldn't take long for the North to attack Seoul... especially if they truly believed they have nothing to lose.

I suppose I should feel lucky my time in Korea is coming to an end. But it doesn't feel right knowing that a city (and country) that I've called home for the past year, could face attacks so severe, that it would literally be wiped off the planet.

I guess all we can do is wait and watch. I'm feeling a new uneasiness that I hope will leave soon. But in the meanwhile, positive vibes and prayers for this country -- and anyone who has such little value for human life -- will go a long way. (I hope!)


Monday, 17 May 2010

100 countdown

I seem to have come full circle.

This past week was absolutely emotionally draining for me. I received some news from home that shook me up a little bit, adding to an already exhausted body from some experiences in the weeks prior.

But, I'm OK now. It's funny how sometimes in life, we find ourselves moving forward without looking at what's gone by, when what we really need to do is stop and take a moment to reflect on what's happened.

This week, I plan to rest. I have to. May has chugged on forward, taking me through a tailspin of emotions and feelings that I haven't experienced in a long time.

I mentioned not too long ago that I plan on finishing my contract and heading back to Toronto at the end of August. Although I'm not heavily concerned about my lack of employment upon getting back, I am worried about my... self.

I wonder if the self I encountered in Korea will go back with me to Toronto. On many levels, I want her to. My mum asked me the other day if I feel less confused about life now, than I did before. I couldn't really answer her properly because I'm not quite sure. Experiences that I've had here have made me question my beliefs and thought processes a little bit.

As an example, what I've been dwelling on recently is this: Is what I say I want in life, really what I want? Or am I just saying it because I know it's what other people want for me?

I bet you're laughing! I find myself laughing at the silliness of it all sometimes as well.

But as the days pass by, I can't help but hope that the lessons I've learned here will continue on with me as I rebuild what I left back in Toronto. A positive to all this is that I finally feel ready to face situations that I've put on the back-burner for far too long. That feigned strength I used to put on all those months ago, finally feels real.

On a completely different note, last Saturday was Teacher's Day in Korea. As a result, I received a stream of letters from students in various grades, expressing their thoughts about English class and... well... me! One student even paired her letter with a box of throat candy because she was sad I'd been sick for these past couple of months. I tell you, these simple gestures go a long way in helping make up for the chaos I'm put through sometimes.

One of my letters read as follows:
Hello ~ S teacher!
Today is the day of Teacher!!
I thank you unconditionally because you do many things for me.
For example, you learned my name by heart, you smile every day and you inspect my English diary.
I want to be good at English. Please help me ~ keep it up.
I don't know if this is the right grammar?
But, are you OK?
Do you know my mind? I love you ~ and I respect you.
You are very pretty ~ more than a flower.
It's true. Believe me please.
I love you x100000000000000000.
Have a nice day.
Oh!! Can you inspect my English diary next week?
I will also write on the weekend.
Bye bye! ~ See you next week.
I must say, I teared up a bit at this. I've never received such genuine gratitude in my life. I didn't expect it, really. This particular student keeps an English diary and brings it to me everyday. We sit and spend a few minutes looking over her entries, while discussing her thoughts and ideas. It's actually one of the most rewarding experiences for me as well. It's during times like these when I feel like I'm actually making a positive impact on them.

Sigh! I will definitely miss these moments.


Thursday, 13 May 2010

I wish I could go back to middle school...

... just so that I could kick some 'mean girl' butt!

This entry's going to be long... but please read on, as I'd love to hear your comments.

I am steaming right now. I haven't been this angry in ages, and go figure, all it took were a bunch of ignorant little tweens and their twisted realities, to send me flying over the edge.

I teach the equivalent of grades 7, 8 and 9 at my middle school in Korea. The ages in the classes range anywhere from 13 - 16. This particular incident involved my third graders... the supposed leaders of the school, by Korean standards.

One of my classes (that I see twice a week) has a special needs student in it. She's absolutely brilliant in terms of speaking, reading and writing English. I've been told she has 'autistic tendencies' by the teachers here, but they do nothing to help her, and force her to socialize and deal with the wrath of her peers in regular classes.

A couple of weeks ago, this student - let's call her J - was playing with a blue plastic mirror case. It had the design of a pig on it, and it seemed to amuse her to a great deal. With a few minutes left for class to begin, I approached J and asked her what she was so happy about. She pointed to the blue pig case and said, "This is a gift from my friend. I am very happy!"

I asked her if I could see it, and proceeded to open the case... only to be shocked when I found a broken and fragmented mirror inside it.

"Who gave this to you, J?" I asked. I was absolutely concerned about her safety at this point.

She simply smiled at me and said it was a secret. "I am told to keep a secret. I can't tell you!"

This made me angry, and I started to look around the class to see who would deliberately give someone a broken mirror, and call it a gift! This person clearly wasn't a friend.

A few minutes later a girl walked in, sending J into a fit of giggles. I looked at the front of the class, and saw a thinner, more petite girl, giving J the sternest look a middle schooler could muster.

"It had to be her," I though.

Following my instincts, I approached the girl and asked her why she'd give someone a broken mirror as a gift. The girl looked at the case, then at the broken mirror, and let her jaw drop to the ground.

"Teacher!!! What happened? This is dangerous! Oh, what about J? Is she OK?" she asked, in a breath.

"Yes, she's fine," I said. "What I want to know is why you'd do something like this? What's wrong with you?"

The girl proceeded to feign ignorance and said she had no idea the mirror was broken. She then walked up to J and exchanged some seemingly sweet choice words with her. Although, now that I think about it, it must have upset J a great deal, as she was quiet for the rest of the class.


J walked into our class after lunch and told me right off the bat that she hated coming to school.

"What's wrong? Why are you upset?" I asked her.

She said she couldn't tell me (again) but that her homeroom teacher knew.

I figured the bullying had something to do with it, but I let the topic drop after she insisted on talking to me about the weather. Still, I decided to keep an eye out for the student who'd given her the mirror in our last class.

Within minutes, this student walked into the classroom, seemingly angry about something. she took a seat in the row ahead of J and shot her a vicious look that I'm sure everyone caught. Yet no one said a word... including my co-teacher.

I proceeded to start the class as usual, working on the date and weather for the day, when I saw this student pull out a plastic mirror from her pocket and hold it back to J. The frame stood on it's own, with the missing mirror replaced by the photo of a pig.

I lost my restrain!

I called the girl out on it in front of the class, while taking the mirror and shoving it into a drawer in my desk. Once again, the girl - and her friend, who just so happened to be one of the smartest students in my class - feigned ignorance and said she was clumsy and broke the mirror before class.

J's face gave the situation away. I knew these girls had something to do with J's sadness, and I looked at my co-teacher in desperate hope that he'd intervene and do something about it.

He, as expected, did absolutely nothing, choosing to ignore what was happening right under his nose.

This is the third time I've encountered the same experience with the same students. What I can't wrap my mind around is how twisted these girls are, that they can think of bullying in such a way.

From what I gather, this is how it goes down:

They approach J and make her see her reflection in the mirror. They then proceed to taunt her, telling her she's ugly and that she looks like a pig. Next, they smash the mirror in front of her, telling her that it broke because of her face. So she should never look into a mirror, because the only thing she'll see in it, is a pig.

I hate this. I absolutely hate it! There's NO reason that anyone should be treated this way. It's also sad to say that the girls who are doing this have admitted to undergoing plastic surgery on their faces... in middle school!! Why on EARTH would a young teenager have access to cosmetic surgery at such a young age? Is their view of beauty and what's considered 'normal' in this world, so twisted??

I've done what I can to fix this situation, from confiscating mirrors, to yelling at the girls, to punishing them in class. But because neither their homeroom teachers nor my co-teachers think this situation is severe enough to need more attention, there's nothing else I can do but wait and watch as this time-bomb ticks.

It's moments like these when I'm reminded how limited my resources and means to make a difference are in this country. I can only go as far as they want me to go, as long as they're watching. It's only when they're not watching, that I'm able to take small leaps ahead.


Friday, 7 May 2010

Full speed ahead

A few weeks ago it dawned on me that my time in this country is limited. And as soon as that happened, the weather picked up, with days of sunshine and brightness gracing us for all the adventures that laid in store.

The past couple of weeks have been filled with trips to amusement parks, neighbouring cities, traditional markets and coffee shop terraces.

May 1st was spent at Lotte World for my friend J's surprise birthday party. Lotte World is the equivalent of Canada's Wonderland in terms of amusement parks, with the exception of fancier decor and an indoor park to compliment the lavish outdoor playground. Seven friends and I spent the day being kids, while indulging in all the fair food we could get our hands on. We paid for it by feeling ill in the days that followed, but for the time spent in laughter and giddiness, it was absolutely worth it.

The main castle at Lotte World amusement park in Seoul. Has a definite Cinderella feel to it.

May 5th was Children's Day in Korea. It was a national holiday, so all schools were closed, including banks and some government buildings. Three friends and I decided to take a day trip to Incheon to check out the country's biggest Chinatown, while eventually winding up at the ferry docks, where we indulged in a few carnival rides.

Chopstick sets at a traditional Chinese store in Incheon's Chinatown.

The close to perfect weather has been bringing us out of hiding a lot more these days. It's starting to make up for the endless months we spent indoors, avoiding the bitter, winter cold, and then, the brutal yellow dust that followed with spring.

A shot of the fairgrounds at the Incheon ferry docks.

It's been nice seeing people less tense than they were in the previous months. There's a sense of lightness in the air, along with more opportunities to explore the country I've been living in for the past eight months.

A large number of the friends I've made here will be heading back to their own countries in August. I can't imagine what it will be like saying goodbye to people who've become like my family while living in this country. In fact, I can easily say that some of them are my family. Yet, I find it comforting to see beauty in these circumstances, knowing that I now have a global network of friends who I'm sure I'll be seeing quite often - in different parts of the planet.

They say everything in life happens for a reason... and if that's true, then coming to Korea was a wonderful idea, if the reason was to meet kindred spirits such as them!

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