Monday, September 22, 2014

Ends and odds

There are several tidbits of fascinating, if not essential, info that have slipped through the cracks as I haven't posted or self-edited to keep things relatively brief over the last many months.

Here are a few of them for your edification and amusement. (Mr. Caslick, my favorite junior high teacher, always started with "For your edification and amusement", and I, sadly, lack the style to follow suit in person.) So... here you go. Hope you will be edified and amused. If not, I will gladly refund the time you spent reading this stuff.
In my last post, I mentioned my mixed feelings over moving from a quiet, greenish neighborhood to an extremely urban one. I guess what decided me to move was the feeling that not doing so would be clinging to the past. Last year, we had a little Yangjae Gang of St. Paul teachers: Jie and Dave in one building, me next door, Alysia next to me, and Claudia and her husband Frank next to her. Frank and Claudia hosted movie night every week, with the snackiest snacks ever, sundry adult beverages, and their beautiful giant TV and professional sound system. I almost always got to ensconce myself in their beautiful pleather-covered recliner... good times. (It's my beautiful pleather-covered recliner now; guess it wouldn't fit in the overhead for their flight to Cairo.) I could also look forward to frequently meeting one or another of my freighbors on the street. Frequently we would go en masse to the noraebang (karaoke room) to demonstrate to the neighborhood what fine singing is. Since the great diaspora, the 'hood felt like a ghost town, and it just seemed like it was time to be somewhere else.
I am deeply, passionately in love with Korean fall. The weather we've had for the last week has been utterly perfect... 75 Fahrenheit with low humidity and piercing sunlight and infinite blue skies in the daytime, low mid-50s at night. One lunchtime I hiked up the hountain behind the school and found three bunny rabbits lazing about in the sun. The sun has been so bright that I've been reminded of the wisdom of living east of work (which I do). The sun's behind me when I go to work and behind me when I head home. Clear skies, no squint, can't lose.

Hey... how ya doin'? Relevance of photos to blog posts is overrated.
Jeez, I leave you guys alone in America for six measly years and you go and change stuff! It feels from here that the USA is so much better and so much worse than it was in 2008. We elect a minority president and edge closer to equal rights for gay Americans, and half the country goes nuts, saying they "want their country back". Obama has been a great disappointment to me, though I always knew he wasn't the bright-eyed crusading reformer some hoped for... but the vitriol directed at him has been shocking. He's just a little to the right of Richard Nixon, (Ol' Tricky created the EPA, froze wages and prices, and opened China to the West... Obama presides over a health-care system originally proposed by Republicans, he orders drone strikes that kill many, many innocent people, and--possibly due to his name and skin color?--he's the African, Commie, Islamist, Nazi, Socialist antichrist.

Come to think of it, what's so bad about socialism? People think it's Soviet-style Communism or Nazism, since both Lenin and Hitler threw the word "Socialist" in there to gain support, but you know who's truly socialist? Denmark, repeatedly named as the happiest and most peaceful country on earth, and the other Scandinavian countries, which are right after it on the happy/peaceful scales. Hey, public parks, paved roads, and fire departments are socialism. Even uber-capitalist South Korea has true public healthcare, and when I got a twelve-mile ambulance ride, an examination, a cleaning of my eyebrow gash, x-rays, and stitches for $35 out of pocket, I was glad of it.

You know, it's been 18 years since we had a president that half of the country didn't loathe. The level of vitriol in American politics is unsustainable, and the coasts and northern Midwest hardly seem like the same country as the middle and southern parts. The corporations and banks get stronger and stronger and the rest of us wither on the vine. What are you guys doing over there?
I love teaching frequently-banned books: Huck Finn, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, Speak, Hunger Games, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian... I get no thrill from sharing ripe language or adult themes with young people, but so many of these books get challenged because they confront authority and ask kids to think for themselves. My parents never told me what I could and couldn't read, and I'm the better for it. Fortunately, the parents here are apparently either respectful of teachers or unaware of what the books mean, because I've had no trouble with my selections, and I think the kids appreciate the respect implied by my trusting them with the controversial stuff.

Right now, I'm teaching Fahrenheit 451, which was once burned by an irony-deficient school. As Bradbury quotes in 451's epigram, "If they give you lined paper, write the other way."
Eli Manning's lost it all faster than Oedipus did.
I miss having a dog so much it's almost painful. I've been in love with dogs my whole life, and I miss our Bodhi at least as much as I do any human, but I've had four dogs and 19 cats. But leaving a dog alone all day in an apartment, and ignoring it for paperwork when you're home, doesn't seem fair or humane. Cats are a lot more social than many people think, and I pay as much attention to Tug as I can, but it can't seem so lonely when you're asleep 70 percent of the time anyway. Cats are pretty cool, too, but they're not dogs.

"Cats are not dogs." With that pearl of deep wisdom, I shall head for bed. Another full day of corrupting the morals of Korean children awaits.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The more things change...

,,,the more they, well, change.

After five years living in the same neighborhood and teaching at the same school, I'm now in a (radically) different neighborhood and a (mostly) different school.

The last school year was an utter nightmare. Through a combination of horrible business decisions and, somewhere along the line by somebody, malfeasance and probable embezzlement, the school was constantly in danger of closing mid-year, a bunch of teachers and a lot of students quit, and we the teachers got cheated out of our legally mandated pension money and other benefits and lost three months of pay. Overall, we were shorted somewhere near ten thousand bucks apiece. At times I dreamed about going into a less stressful business, such as bomb defusing.

The school staggered on, somehow, to the end of the spring semester and then quietly expired. (This is gonna get complicated, so take notes, kids: there will be a quiz.) The owners of two hagwons (evening academies), called Proud 7 and British Columbia Collegiate, formed a partnership and contacted Saint Paul's parent organization in (duh) Saint Paul, Minnesota. They bought the name and insignia and opened a new school, in a new neighborhood, with 30-some of our former students. This is where I, along with a few of last year's teachers, work now.

The old school started as Saint Paul Preparatory Academy and changed to Saint Paul Preparatory School when we got accredited in the US. (However, according to Korean law, we were still an academy--a hagwon--because our kids aren't foreign and haven't lived for years abroad. They didn't care that we had an American curriculum and credentialed teachers, were fully accredited in America and had kids admitted to Notre Dame, NYU, Boston College, and USC. The inflexibility of Korean bureaucracy is a nightmare.

A local TV station ran a sensationalistic, biased report on us... it was so slanted that it made Fox News look, well, fair and balanced. This certainly didn't help the cash-flow problem.) This was the same station that ran a "news" report saying that Americans' purpose in coming here is to despoil virgins and spread AIDS.

The new school is called Saint Paul Preparatory Seoul. My friend Bob Ellison, the math teacher, is the principal. It's a teeny-tiny place, more or less an elongated log cabin with six classrooms, most of them rather claustrophobic. We have just seven teachers, and of that only three (Bob, Billy Stewart, and I, the remnants of the old SPPS) are full-time.

This is not it.

After six whole days of classes, I can say I like the school. I like that every student in school is in one or another of my classes, and we have really good kids. It's a very homey, friendly atmosphere. The back wall of the school is all glass and we're at the base of a hountain, so I can always see trees and birds. Also mud, but what the hell, it's organic.

The glass-walled offices on the first floor are decorated with four-foot-high photos of Ivy League colleges. Also an NFL photo labeled "rugby"; go figure. Anyway, all the college photos are simple shots of boring old buildings, except Cornell's, which is this one:

It's really nice to walk past this every day and remember what a beautiful place I come from.

I guess it's not as unique being a Cornellian here as I thought; our college counselor at the old school was a Cornell alum, and so is our new math teacher, Min. She and I were practically classmates; only missed her by 30 years. (No, I'm not implying that she graduated in 1950.) And now I hear we've hired a part-time science teacher, who also has a Cornell degree. Apparently they're giving the damn things away in Cracker Jack boxes now.

As to my new digs, sometimes I feel I've made a terrible mistake. My apartment in Daegu was in a quiet, residential area, and for my five years in Seoul I lived in a very (literally) green neighborhood a few blocks south of the city. There was an institute across the street with a big empty soccer field, there were two big, beautiful parks with, no exaggeration, thousands of trees, and I was 200 yards from my beloved Yangjae Cheon, the landscaped stream that runs from Gwacheon City to the Han River in  the middle of Seoul: ten miles with no cars, lots of wildfowl and trees, and mostly soft, rubbery surface for running. I could see hountains from my windows.

My new apartment is bright, modern, and airy, but all I see around me is concrete and bricks. I'm a couple of blocks from one of Gangnam's busiest avenues, an eight-lane, traffic-choked street lined with hundreds of stores and businesses. Cars drive across, and sometimes down, the wide sidewalks to park in front of storefronts, and I might get clipped by a bike, because only idiots with death wishes would ride a bike in that street.

Straight down the end of the street, a couple of miles to the east, is the half-built Lotte World Tower, which will top out at one hundred twenty-three floors, a good deal taller than the Empire State. Right now, it's a mere stripling of 70-some stories.

Note the giant-gorilla-proof tip.

It's just like living in midtown Manhattan, which for a small-town boy like me is a shock; every time I've visited New York City, I've loved it for three days and then couldn't wait to escape back to Ithaca, where it's green and quiet and the buildings are on a human scale.

It's also eight-tenths of a mile of running on cement and brick, with heavy traffic, to reach the Cheon. My legs are taking much more of a pounding, my left knee stiffens up faster, and I may not make it to my marathon this fall.

On the other foot, sometimes it's good to walk out the door in the evening and find a myriad of restaurants, grocery stores, miscellaneous shops, and people, mostly teens, because there's a hagwon every few feet. Compared to my old digs, there's a lot less nature and a lot more life.

It may not help my marathon prep that there's a Baskin-Robbins, a Krispy Kreme, a churro stand, two Dunkin' Donuts outlets, and a soft ice cream shop within five minutes of my place. I wish I hadn't typed that; it's 10 p.m. and suddenly I feel an urge to take a little stroll...

It's also centrally isolated, farther away from everywhere I want to go than I'd thought when I was being driven around to scout apartments. It's right in the midst of Korea's ritziest area, but the subway stations and bus lines don't line up to go anywhere quickly. It's a 30-minute walk to school, barely closer than my old place would have been, or 20 minutes combining walking and the subway, which in itself is a treat during rush hour.

Great honk, I miss greenery.

But hey, Krispy Kreme...