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.
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.
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...