flashback

​​​while converting this blog to squarespace, which will allow me to archive my korea blog neatly and also have a fresh start for what lies ahead, i came across this entry in a draft. it sums up one of the most important lessons i learned, something that i think will serve me well wherever i am headed. i’ll post the link to the new blog here when it’s ready. 

one of the greatest and most discouraging challenges i’ve faced teaching in korea is communication. i guess this is a given if you’re straight off the plane from wherever home is, but even if you’ve been here for a while and feel deceptively acclimated, even if you’re studying korean diligently, or even if you’re dealing with coworkers or friends who speak english fluently, you can’t escape those moments where “mutual” expectations of each other and “logical” courses of action in a situation turn out to be anything but. sooner or later the reality sets in that although people here may eat mcdonalds and swarm to lady gaga concerts just like we do, we are truly living and working in a society with which western culture has just as many dramatic differences as surprising similarities. if you’re dealing with this in your personal life, then the scenario might play out in any number of ways depending on how devoted you and your friend or significant other are to overcoming that challenge, but in my experience what follows from this realization at work are times where you feel faced with only two choices: (A) take a deep breath and resign yourself to the counterintuitive wisdom of your korean director and coworkers, trusting that a millennia-old culture that has successfully risen from the ashes in an unprecedented fashion must be doing something worth trying, or (B) have a psychotic break, the only natural result of trying to convince yourself you can fit a square peg into what is clearly a round hole. or if it gets really bad, (C) get fired, i guess. i woke up this morning at 6 am (the morning i originally wrote this, anyway) and took a long walk along the tancheon river behind my apartment, reminding myself the whole way that this week i have to consistently and deliberately choose A, or come home in a straitjacket. 

five minute friday – home

For me, home is found somewhere on a Pantone chart. Though I have yet to get into Lilly, I admit Palm Beach fashionistas drape themselves in those bold prints for a reason – down here, we like bright colors. The dreary gray skies and naked trees of a ~conventional~ winter are soul-crushing to endure after a lifetime of verdant palm fronds and purple sunsets no matter what time of year. We take for granted tangerine-speckled citrus groves sandwiched by turquoise ocean. And lately, it has come to my attention that not everywhere has lizards scurrying around freely, which is a shame because what Floridian child hasn’t passed time standing as still as possible to watch an scaly little lizard’s throat fan in and out?

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And the list goes on: garnet and gold, orange (juice) and blue (herons), pink flamingoes and grapefruits, and shades of yellow ranging from panthers to key lime pie. If you have to resort to neutrals, gray is for turtles, manatees, alligators and dolphins. Black is for the asphault that will most assuredly burn your feet if you don’t slip on a pair of flip-flops, and the raccoons that will help themselves to your pet food if left unattended long enough. Our anthrax and hanging chads are white, but so are most of the boats zipping around Peanut Island on any given weekend, as well as Donald Trump’s towers standing head and shoulders above the downtown skyline. And of course, the crazy people whose sole purpose in life seems to be keeping my hometown in national headlines come in all shades.

Five Minute Friday

personal narrative

So, last week I found out I passed the Foreign Service Officer Test. The news came at an optimal time to lift me out of a terrible slump — I’d spent the past several weeks reclusively hammering out cover letters with few encouraging prospects, and gnashing my teeth at the thought of living at home in this state of limbo for much longer. To be on the safe side, I really hadn’t allowed myself to entertain the thought of passing the test. I’ve never been rejected or ignored this much before, and it’s at the point where getting my hopes up didn’t seem like a wise thing to do. So when I opened the PDF file and saw “Congratulations!” on the first line, I picked up my phone, called my mom, and immediately burst into tears. (Sorry for the scare, Mom.)

Now it’s onto the next task in the application process. I have six “Personal Narrative Questions” or PNQs to answer in under 1300 characters each, and I must provide a reference contact for each part who can verify my answer.

  1. The Foreign Service seeks a diverse workforce with broad job skills and a depth of experience to represent the US overseas. Briefly describe why you chose the career track you selected. (I’m applying to become a consular officer.)
  2. Intellectual Skills: In the Foreign Service you will confront challenging situations that require identifying the problem, collecting relevant information, and formulating or advancing innovative solutions to resolve the problem. Describe a time when you responded innovatively to unanticipated circumstances to solve a problem. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to think through the situation? How did your action address the situation? What were the results?)
  3. Interpersonal Skills: In the Foreign Service, you will be called upon to interact effectively and diplomatically with people in difficult situations. Describe how you have used your interpersonal skills in a specific situation to resolve a problem or achieve a goal. (What was the goal or problem? What specific stefs did you take? What was the result?)
  4. Communication Skills: Communication skills are critical to successful diplomacy. Describe a situation in which you used your communication skills (either in English or another language) to further an aim or achieve a goal. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to deal with the situation? What was the result?)
  5. Management Skills: Foreign Service Officers are often required to manage projects, demonstrating the ability to plan and organize, set priorities, employ a systematic approach, and allocate time and resources efficiently. Describe a project you managed or helped to manage and how you sought to achieve the project’s goals. (What was the project? What steps did you take to manage the project? What was the result?)
  6. Leadership Skills: Leadership can be defined as motivating others, encouraging creative solutions, establishing positive team relationships, or significantly influencing the direction of the work. Describe how you have demonstrated leadership, either on one particular occasion or over time. (What was the situation? What steps did you take to show leadership? What was the result?)

But as I’m writing this narrative of my past, I’m also busy trying to start writing one for my future. Ideally, within a year or two, I’d be getting sworn in and shipped off somewhere, but I’m fully prepared for that not to be the case. Maybe some people will think I lack confidence or ambition because of it, but I think it’s just being realistic. So within the past month, I’ve entertained the following options:

  1. Going back to school and becoming a certified teacher, or getting my CELTA someplace interesting, and going back to teaching abroad, but with more options at my disposal this time. 
  2. Going back to school in Korea, teaching adults in split shifts, and studying Korean language, which is really just an excuse to throw in the towel and go back to Korea, which I promised myself I wouldn’t do. It would make me a more attractive candidate for the Foreign Service, but it would be a dangerous gamble because I’d be putting all my chips in the Foreign Service basket, and if I don’t get it, I’d be jobless and po’.
  3. Getting my master’s degree in library science, specifically archiving. I don’t know why this has been an appealing option to me for many months now. I know I would enjoy it, but when I examine myself, I know I’m not a very emotionally smart person sometimes and I think it would be the worst thing in the world for me to retreat into a dusty room somewhere and never be challenged socially.
  4. Continuing to pursue jobs in DC. This is mixed, because I think I would love living there, but it intimidates me to consider being a little fish in a big, ubercompetitive sea. I know I didn’t exactly thrive in that environment in college, but I feel like maybe the growth I experienced in Korea would equip me to do better this time. Who knows until you try, right?
  5. Applying for a job in Jacksonville, as recommended by a friend. I liked it when I visited it, I have a handful of friends there, and the job, if I got it, sounds like it would be a really excellent opportunity to apply myself and grow and meet people without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated like DC might.
  6. Working on a kibbutz, as inspired by a Jesse James special on blacksmithing. I honest to goodness checked out flights. This was a little bit bad timing on TLC’s part, giving me an idea that was equally outrageous and just barely doable, and a little bit in rebellion to my parents telling me, “I don’t think you’d like that” in response to jobs I’ve applied for here. They didn’t think I’d like teaching kids either. What is more antithetical to my life’s story so far than shucking off all my worldly possessions and farming on the outskirts of a desert? Watch me make stuff grow. Just watch.

ten years

the lauren remembered by some people.

I got a text from a friend last night saying that one of our middle school teachers (a woman who, at the time, was not much older than we are now and who we adored in a manner approaching cult-like) found her email address somewhere and contacted her to say hello and catch up. Before I left for Korea, I included another former teacher, a legend in the mind of any kid who went to our middle school, in the massive email I sent to everyone about this blog as I departed, and she sent me the kindest words of encouragement in response. But then today I went back through this blog, and through pictures from my first year in Korea, and struggled to match faces to names and vice versa. To be fair to myself, A) that whole period was an assault on my senses and B) I cheated on guessing with the boys because three-fourths of them were named Jayden or Kevin, but it still made me feel guilty. I know I loved those little boogers as best I could, but time and limited brain capacity make it hard to hold on to all of them for very long. So what an honor it is to be remembered after ten years. I wonder which ones I will remember in 2021 (and who will remember me.)

ordinary

Dad keeps fussing at me to write more. I’ve never been diligent about it but when I’m struggling to orient myself I figure now is as good a time as any to start making a routine. I’m going to try some blogging community prompts and maybe make a schedule similar to NaNoWriMo. But in the meantime, I’m starting with this, Five Minute Fridays. One word or short phrase and you set a timer for five minutes to write. This week’s theme is “ordinary”.

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for a long time, ordinary was dogs barking, bud’s chicken, with my brother pestering me and dad’s phone ringing and ryan seacrest or somebody’s voice on the TV in the background. then it became catching the bus and avoiding the stares of the weathered old people, men with golf caps just as plain as their wives’ pants are colorful, inspecting me and my blue eyes like the alien i was — but not before i caught a whiff of the silkworm pupae being steamed around the corner, and glimpsed a legless war veteran rolling his torso down the dirty, uneven sidewalk with a radio blaring to get our attention. a world away, another radio was blaring, on our cozy back porch next my mother and her collection of orchids and cats. proof that even the most disorienting, extraordinary things can become comfortable and ordinary.

Park Jae-seo vs. Popcorn Sutton

Lately I’ve been really intrigued by MoonshinersThat, Duck Dynasty, and a recent visit to the Cheesecake Factory have almost fully re-indoctrinated me as a red-blooded American capable of deciphering unintelligible hillbilly and consuming enough calories for a week in one sitting. But I have several questions plaguing me.

  • How do they not get arrested?
  • How are the camera crews not in hot water over witnessing all this illegal activity?
  • Why aren’t these ATF officers just following the camera crews right up to the stills?
  • Aren’t the flood lights in the middle of the woods kind of a dead giveaway?
  • and this one, a little less hotly-debated on Twitter: Why don’t Koreans make their own liquor?

Tax evasion motives aside (a bottle of soju costs a dollar, how much can Lee Myung-bak be pocketing off of that, I ask you…), moonshiners seems to appreciate two things that Koreans also highly value. The first is family recipes. Moonshine recipes are really proprietary, right? Just like kimchi. (They’re both fermented too! And made in large quantities. Who knew a moonshine/kimchi Venn diagram would come together so effortlessly?) Can you imagine if every family had a soju recipe? There would be many intense ajeosshi quarrels over who makes the best soju, which would be fun for the rest of us to watch.

The second is rambling around in mountainous areas. I’ve written before about how Koreans hike with such devotion and intensity, and how they tote backpacks full of soju up and down the mountain. Can you imagine if, instead of carrying it, there was just a barrel of it at the top of the mountain? I briefly Googled “soju making”, and it appears there are artisanal soju masters in Andong, which makes sense because Andong is the capital of all things endeavoring to honor and preserve Korean traditions.

The Korean Popcorn Sutton.

The Korean Popcorn Sutton.

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The American Park Jae-seo.

But the process doesn’t sound difficult, so I think there need to be a few more hollowed-out Kias and Ssangyongs running up and down the highways. Hey, it’s Lunar New Year! Men, I know you’re not busy right now because every day following these holidays, your wives would come into work and complain to their coworkers like me about how you did NOTHING to help (and how your mom is bossy and mean.) So while they are busy making tteok-guk, hop to it and get started. :)

I’ve been admonished several times by my grandmother that I need to conclude this thing, so here it is. I’ve been home for a little over a month now. The last few weeks of Korea were a whirlwind, trying to finish work and tutoring, pack everything, and maximize the amount of time I could spend with friends and say goodbye.

I guess I have to start way back in mid-November. I had to work one Saturday each in November and December, which was aggravating. But I made up for it by making fun plans for afterward! In November, some people gathered at an amazing buffet at the Intercontinental Hotel in Seoul for my friend Jenna’s birthday. Fifteen minutes before closing time we stealthily approached the bar and snuck bottles back to our table. Then later, after we were finished taking their all you can drink wine offer literally, Casey talked us all into tequila shots, and I spent the next day curled up in the fetal position on the couch. :( But I was happy to celebrate with Jenna Teacher! Now she has moved on from her teaching gig and she is working for Yonhap News (akin to the AP in Korea) copy-editing for their English section. I am so proud of her! Chingus moving up in the world!

I celebrated Thanksgiving 2012 more fiercely than any other in Korea (as in, I actually ate turkey this year.) My friend Michelle invited several of us over to her lovely home in Itaewon. Her husband is in the Army, so they got everything for an amazing dinner on base. It was so nice to eat yummy food and hang out. She was expecting at the time (and still an excellent hostess) but she just delivered her baby, Jack Jiwon. :) So congratulations Michelle and David! Then the next night we had reservations at a microbrewery called Craftworks for another Thanksgiving dinner, which turned out to be amazing too. So I was a full and happy Lauren Teacher that weekend.

In December, my second-to-last Saturday was spent at school making up my first (and only) snowday. Boo. Give me a hurricane day in slacker Florida any day, I’ve decided. That night was spent in Itaewon at dinner with Jenna, Casey, and Suna, and later in Sinchon for a show my friend Ryan performed, which is always very fun. The following weekend was another friend’s birthday, so we went to an amazing all you can eat, all you can drink buffet (we were really good at finding those) and then the party reconvened back at my apartment, which was in shambles, but we still managed to have enough fun to get in trouble with the neighbors.

That Friday, I met with one of the people I tutored, a businessman named Bill who studied English with me twice a week and Japanese with another tutor three times a week. Amazing! He was one of my favorite people in Korea because he offered me a perspective I didn’t usually get to hear or learn from. The Korean men I met were generally my age; the Korean people I met who were older than me were almost exclusively women. Also, our tutoring sessions were primarily conversation practice, so we spent an hour or two each week just talking about anything we could think of. He grew up right after the war, so he experienced a starkly different Korea than any of us can imagine, and we talked a lot about the missing generation compared to the American generation gap. His generation would be more akin to the “Greatest Generation” here in America, having endured a serious economic depression and war, with widespread poverty to boot. On the other hand, his sons, who are my age, and I are pretty similar in experiences and expectations. On my last day, he gave me a ceremonial wooden mask as a departing present, like the ones I saw at the mask dance in the Andong folk village my first year. It is so nice. We are keeping in touch on Facebook but I miss our morning chats. For both their sakes, I hope his tutor now shows up less bleary-eyed than me at 7 am. :)

Bill taught me an important Korean expression for my last two days at school: “majimak suob,” which means “last lesson.” On Thursday, I met with my fifth and sixth graders for our majimak suob, and it was one of the hardest classes to say goodbye to. We were due for a Christmas Carol competition during the last period, and they were totally unfamiliar with the words, so we listened to the song fifty times, made cute signs to wave during the performance, and ate a bunch of snacks. It was good bonding time. At the end, I told them they didn’t have to hug me or anything, since Koreans aren’t really huggy people, but with the exception of one (who has surprised me since by emailing me on a regular basis), they all gave me a big hug. We’ve been keeping in touch on KakaoStory, which has been really nice. My goodbyes in kindergarten the next morning were kind of anti-climactic. Karry made me a paper heart but Raphael was a jerk and ripped it up at lunch, so Karry slipped me a note with the most precious apology. Later that day I found her Minnie Mouse notepad in her cubby, so I left her a note thanking her for the heart, assuring her it was okay, that I still had 30 other things she’s made me :P, and that I hoped she would email me and stay in touch. I got an email from her after New Year’s! So sweet. In one of my second and third grade classes, I took aside one girl who had been struggling a lot but also opening up a lot and working hard and gave her a big hug and told her I was so proud of her and if she kept working hard she would be great at English. Then she started crying. :( Major sad.

On my last “sleep” in Korea, Suna, Naomi, Jenna, Casey, and Riana showed up to take me out to dinner. We ate at my favorite meat restaurant, with a huge, bubbling vat of kimchi jjigae to share. Then they came back and raided what I hadn’t yet packed, which was a shameful lot of things. :( All of them are pretty organized and responsible and thorough so they were shocked. I have times where I can be, but packing isn’t one of them. Suna took a suitcase, and as much stuff as she could fit in it home with her. Jenna took home everything she’d given me when she left in June, Casey took most of my food still left, and I think I snuck stuff in Riana’s purse when she wasn’t looking. :) Then they also gave me a precious card which made me cry later. Between Yvonne, Ryan, Min, Casey, Jenna, Riana, Naomi, and Suna, I was very lucky to work with people who also became treasured friends.

The teacher who arrived to replace me seemed very nice and like he would be a great teacher in no time. From Kakao updates, I understand my little hoodlums are still running wild, and the most mischevious one still doesn’t have any reservations about whipping his junk out in front of everyone in class, so I pray for him often. But I guess you have to sink or swim…

The morning I left for the airport, I was struggling to drag my suitcases from my apartment to the airport bus stop. It wouldn’t be Korea if a kind passerby didn’t stop and help me tote one, and ask me questions about myself, and apologize for his English, and ask me if I had a boyfriend, and in this case, make me listen to the Beatles on his iPhone. And stand and wait fifteen minutes for the bus to come with me. …and push the bus driver away and insist on loading them in the luggage compartment himself. …and stand by the sign and wave sadly as I got seated on the bus, and continue waving as the bus pulled away. It started off cute, and ended awkward, which is everything lovable about Korea. Sooo I’m glad we had that moment.

Another departing memory to treasure: bear in mind, Incheon is arguably the nicest airport in the world, if several prestigious travel awards are any indicator. I got my last bite of bibimbap with Yvonne, who was sweet enough to meet me there and spend time with me before I had to go through security. When we debated getting a beer before I left, I first thought we would find a bar somewhere. But wise Yvonne Teacher had something more sentimental and uniquely Korean in mind. Maybe you remember from my first entries that there are no open container laws in Korea? So it’s a-okay to buy cans of Cass from the convenience store in the departures area, walk over to the lovely historical architecture exhibit, and pop a top inside a replica of a palace building. If Tim Riggins ever visited Korea, this is exactly what he would do. (I wish I had been as deep into Friday Night Lights then as I am now, I totally would have made her cheers “Korea forever”.)

I miss Korea really badly right now during this downtime, but I hope when something new starts the excitement will take away the sadness and all I will have are happy memories left. Sometimes I think of it as a privilege and a comfort to know I have friends scattered in all corners of the world, but when I’m stuck in my little part for the time being, it’s more frustrating than anything. Lots of people still in Korea, some people relocating within the US, and one gallivanting off to Singapore and Vietnam next week (I’m looking at you, Matthew.) I wish I could have fun everywhere with everyone at once.

I really don’t like this website for blogging, so I’m trying to start a new venture. I mostly just hate WordPress. I bought laurenbankert.com a few weeks ago. Toying with that, we’ll see how that goes. I would be delighted if Lauren’s Korean Adventures could be reopened one day, in a new venture other than teaching. I miss Seoul with all my heart and if any possibility presents itself to go back one day I am so on it. You should be too.

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