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Friday, March 30, 2012

Lay of The Land

"I did not know the exact route myself, but steered by the lay of the land..."
                                                            Henry David Thoreau

The Korean peninsula is an ocean of undulating mountains, not usually majestic but, like the rest of life here, almost always curiously alluring. In Korea I am child-like and wide-eyed, naked to the possibilities, oblivious to matters of necessity.

I chuckle at the smallest things: how everyone suddenly sports an umbrella at the slightest sign of rain; the way people cup their wrists with their other hand as a sign of respect when giving or receiving items from each other; the ubiquitous, polite calls of “welcome” and “goodbye” heard when entering or leaving almost any establishment.

But I don’t know the exact route here myself. I am an outsider, a “wei-gook-saram,” a foreigner. I navigate by the lay of the land. When I am not lost in thought, I will greet every one I pass by with a genuine “hello” in Korean. There is an almost universal reciprocation that marks each moment in time for me.

On campus young women are usually busy laughing and exchanging gay banter. Embracing couples are now commonplace, where they were once a rarity. Almost everyone seems to be carrying English language books. There is a collective sigh of relief emanating from the students here who have finally made it to college. Most have spent nearly every waking moment of their childhood fixated on studying, getting good grades, cramming, honing some new skill, improving their mathematical prowess, learning a new language. They have survived that test.

I am an observer; a student of life here. The light, the smells, the sounds—they are my guideposts. They dot my landscape. I steer my way by the lay of this land.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Not So Ugly American

              "He wished he had inhabited more of his life, used it better, filled it further."
                    from "The Amateur Marriage," by Anne Tyler, author of "The Accidental Tourist"

Many books and movies have prompted reflections on not only traveling, but how we tend to approach other cultures. On some levels how we engage other cultures is something of a Rorschach test; we project our values and assumptions onto a panoramic screen featuring our traveling experiences. As we travel we might ask ourselves: To what extent do we stay in our own personal "comfort zones" of language and customs that recreate "home?" Or conversely, do we stretch beyond the familiar into "learning zones," experiences that may cause us to feel insecure, unsure or downright uncomfortable during our sojourns? Yet by leaning into those spaces, and embracing the other culture, even in small ways, we create countless opportunities for learning and growing.

In "The Accidental Tourist," by Anne Tyler, the protagonist, Macon, navigates safely within the cocoon of rituals that comprise his comfort zone. His embrace of the cavalcade of people and cultures around him is encumbered by the heavy baggage of the unresolved, tragic and untimely death of his young son. Any meaningful engagement with local culture, on his part, is truly accidental.

For most of us, the term "ugly American" has come to have a pejorative meaning, a metaphor for insensitivity and arrogance on the part of Americans. Ironically, the main character in the novel by that name (Burdick and Lederer) was, in the eyes of the locals, a plain looking American, who rolled up his sleeves and respectfully engaged the native people of the fictitious Asian country, Sarkan. His behavior was anything but, what we would normally consider, arrogant.

Recently, I gave the Korean students in a writing and communications class I am teaching an assignment. I asked that they read my blog, Korean Bookends, select one posting, and send me an e-mail with their critical appraisal of the piece they chose. One bright young woman, Eun Hye, made reference to Antoine De Saint-Exupery's marvel, "The Little Prince," saying in her response...

"And if you don't mind, I want to share a quote from the 'Little Prince' as the fox speaks to the little prince...

 'To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world'"

Then she continued,

"Like this quote, Korea was a mere country to you when you were shocked in the packed and smelly bus on your first day. (If it wasn't, sorry for my hasty assumption.) But I think you didn't close your mind, and didn't establish any stereotype after the awkward situation in the bus. As a result, you made Korea as your friend, and now this country is unique to you. And that's maybe why you could not smell the odor of Kimchee; you got used to living in Korea and then, you came back to Korea."

"I personally have several places I tamed, and I was tamed by," she confided. "They can be just some small rural areas to many others. But to me, they are the places of my childhood, and my family's laughter. Thanks for reminding me of those places. And your stories made me look back on my life. Because I'm now around the same age as you were when you made your first visit to Korea.  I've lived my life mostly indoors, wondering about the outside world alone in my room. And lastly, thanks for being a friend of Korea. With not only this story, but also the "Bookends On a Lifetime," and the other 3 stories, I could feel your lifelong affection toward Korea. And I really think I am lucky to have you as my professor now."

I was both grateful and moved by Eun Hye's insights. Indeed, to tame and to be tamed during one's travels, to experience another culture as unique, without fear of losing one's own uniqueness, requires more than a modicum of courage. The reward, of course, is the world itself.

Friday, March 9, 2012

I Want to Hold Your Hand

Last night I took the subway to Daegu, from the city of Gyeongsan, where I live and work. Daegu is the province's most populated municipality by far. It had been some 24 years since I last walked the streets of this city.

For the students in my classes who claimed their hobby is "shopping," Daegu must be a fragrant flower indeed. The pedestrian-only streets are vibrant with Koreans young and old-- but mostly young. There is a pulse powered by lights and sounds. One hears the giggling of middle and high schoolers, the muted tones of lovers pressed together closely. There is no end to the stream of humanity, the glare of retailing, the shear energy of late afternoon gaining momentum as evening unfurls itself.

I notice two young men holding hands. My mind immediately flashes back to these same streets when I was in my 20's; my Korean friend grabbing my hand and embracing it tightly. I was overwhelmed, embarrassed. My heart starting racing uncontrollably.  My world of openness and cross-cultural sensitivity was trumped by my homophobia and still inchoate self-esteem. The totality of my awareness was focused on our hands, fueled by my fears.

Of course, this embrace was a statement of my friend's brotherly feelings for me. On the one hand, he was simply being Korean. On the other, we were both trespassing each other's cultural spaces. I was way out of my comfort zone and thus, had much to learn and reflect on. I still carry the lesson today as I walk the streets of Korea.

As the night wanes and I meander my way back to my apartment, I feel a deep sense of belonging. I am reminded why I love traveling and reaching, for those brass rings of humility--when I am able.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Memory Stick And a Plan

I have spent a great amount of time in my career as a consultant and educator nursing my back and holding my breath. Where are the light switches in the hotel’s conference room? Will the screen come down when I push the button to begin my presentation? Picture, if you will, orange extension cords, covered with duct tape at critical intersections stretching north and south across meeting rooms. Someone in the audience, identifying themselves as an in-house safety guru, would inevitably give me feedback about the safety nightmare I was creating.

Many U.S. universities claim to be on the leading edge of high-tech innovation. Yet if you go into their classrooms they look pretty much like they did in 1973; lighting is poor, seating is uncomfortable and the state-of-the-art around classroom technology amounts to calling someone on the geek squad a week in advance to arrange for an LCD projector—but you’ll need to bring your own computer and any required cables and attachments. Of course, the night of your class you’d discover the guy got your message in a moment of distraction and forgot to set things up for your class. So forget the PowerPoint presentation or video you were hoping to share with your students and get ready to “tap dance.”

I say this because I had begun to think this was the way of the world. My life as an educator was about carrying and hauling and making countless low-tech teaching “diving catches” while living in a high tech world.

I recently stepped into classrooms at Yeungnam University where I am currently teaching in Korea. While I can’t yet be sure if this is universal across universities here, or even across this campus, each room is fitted with a huge electronic screen, a recessed networked computer, a sound system and a “wet board”--to replace the blackboard of past generations. Just last summer I was stymied while teaching in an accredited business school classroom in the States when I couldn’t find a piece of chalk to write on the blackboard. Here, at Yeungnam University, what I need to lead my class is a memory stick and a plan. My backpack and other paraphernalia remain in my office or home and, more appropriately, somewhere in the past.