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My First Lessons in Culture Shock

My First Lessons in Culture Shock

I first arrived in Ghana on a Friday. I remember this because I didn’t have any Ghanaian money on me, or even knew what Ghanaian money was called. Did other people come here knowing this kind of information? Then again, I know a number of people who still consider ‘Africa’ to be its own country, so I don’t feel too bad about this. But I did have a collection of American dollar bills. I was ready to go. American dollars: the currency of the world.

I didn’t notice the problem until the next day when I...

Returning Home After Two Years Away

Readjusting to life in Canada can only be described in one word: weird. Weird because I feel like a stranger in a place I lived for something like fifteen years. I can't remember anyone's phone number anymore.

Receiving directions, I can't remember where any of the roads are. (It probably doesn't help that directions in Korea never included road names—only landmarks—and I'm having to relearn the entire concept of street names.)

My first visit to Tim Horton's was embarrassing because I couldn't pay the $3.27—I forgot they didn't accept debit cards, didn't know they don't take Visa (only Mastercard, they said, and for $3.27, who wants to pay with credit cards anyway?), and am still carrying around Korean won instead of Canadian dollars.

I'm still living out of my suitcases because I don't have a bedroom yet.

And this morning I had to call my mom at work because I couldn't find the frying pan.

It's weird that I was more comfortable living in a city where I didn't speak the language very well than here right now. How long is this adjustment period going to last? Having been through this before doesn't make it any easier, but it does make it so I know I can get through it—which doesn't help me find missing frying pans, but hey, knowing it will pass is good too.

No One Knows What Tomorrow May Bring

On my flight home, I read this poem in my Korea Air in-flight magazine. As someone who knew it was time to leave Korea, even though my heart wanted me to stay, this poem really moved me.

When To Go
by Chung Dong-muk

The green so glorious
For two seasons,
Knows when to leave,
When it's time to go.
But you, old tree,
With your sturdy roots,
You know for sure,
You are in the right place,
And I in mine.
No one knows what tomorrow may bring.
Everyone in their place.

My Korean Adventure is "Finished"

In the days leading up to my last night in Korea, when people asked me if I was excited to go home, I had to be honest and say no. I wasn't excited. I don't know why. It's not like I wasn't happy to see my family or friends here, but I sure wasn't excited to be leaving Korea. I had an ever-expanding group of amazing friends, a wonderful job, a great apartmentwho would be excited to leave that? But I knew, somewhere deep in my gut, it was time to go. My heart said stay, but my gut, with its unknown reasons or unexplained logic, said it was time to move back to Canada and begin another adventure.

I was out for dinner with a couple of friends on my last night. Both Yonsei university students, I met them in Sinchon after their class was finished. Dinner was quiet; I had a lot going on in my head. Some last minute details were bothering me and I was trying to decide how to organize my time. We were trying to figure out our after-dinner plansI needed to drop some things off to a friend way over in Jamsil, he had planned to meet with another friend, she wanted to hang out with the both of usand I felt myself getting overwhelmed.  I didn't want to be doing this. I didn't want to be going through last-minute things. I didn't want to be making all the decisions.

They kept asking me what I wanted to do. "It's your last night," they said. "We'll do whatever you want." He said he didn't need to meet his friend today; they could meet another time, no problem. If I wanted him to, he said, he would even take care of some last minute things I was stressed about doing. She would hang out with me and do whatever I wanted to do. "It's you last night," they repeated. "It's up to you."

It's my last night. It's my last night.

I'm leaving and I'm not coming back.

I couldn't think anymore. All I could do was put my head down, cover my face, and try to hold my tears in. My friends let me have my minute. She rubbed my shoulder a little, and he asked if I wanted to talk about it. When I said no, they didn't say another word. We headed back to his apartmentthe apartment I was staying at since I had to move out of my apartment a couple weeks earlierand hung out. Another friend came to sleep over, too, and he talked to me about leaving Korea and beginning another adventure.

"You've got an adventurous spirit," he said. "You know you can't stay in one place too long because there's too many other places you want to go. It's time to move on to the next one."

At the airport, passing through the immigration counter, I handed over my alien registration card for the last time. He looked at the dates at the back of the card and looked up at me. "Is it finished?" he asked.

I nodded. Yes it isthis adventure is, anyway. But another one is just beginning.

Seoul Sonnet

How do I love Seoul? Let me count the ways.
I love the smell, the sight, the touch, the sound,
Of subways and shopping malls kept underground;
A fun way to spend time during commute delays.

Up above ground, under a clear blue sky,
I love the city parks in which to play,
Where Seoulites can relax and spend the day
In nature, away from traffic nearby.

A love the combination of old and new,
Aged palaces and temples sharing space
With modern high rises in the same place.
And I love the Han River flowing though.

I love the parties in the streets of Seoul,
The many festivals and fun celebrations
That unite people from different nations.
It's these occasions that make a city whole.

There's so much more that can't be counted in lists,
Like the joy in finding new places to explore,
Or the change in oneself that can't be ignored.
But perhaps what's most important is this:
No matter what I do or where I roam,
I love how this city always feels like home.

How to Name a Baby in South Korea

What's in a name? A pregnant co-worker of mine just told me that she's expecting a daughter. After some enthusiastic congratulations were offered, I asked if she and her husband had any names in mind. "No," she said. "We don't think about that until after the baby is born." Koreans like to consult fortune tellers for major events, of which having a baby is just one. The fortune teller, armed with the baby's birthdate and parental information (and I'm sure blood type), will come up with some choices for the lucky parents, who then choose their favourite name.

Almost all Korean names are three syllables: the first is the family name and the last two make up the given name. There's no "middle name" like in Western names. Tradition states that given names are rooted in Chinese characters (like family names) and the meanings are very important, more so than names in Western countries, where names are usually chosen for their sound. One of my friend's name, for example, means "big success" and another means "honour and virtue."

There are other naming traditions, too. Siblings usually share one of the two syllables in his or her name. As my friend already has a child, I expect that her second daughter will share one half of her name with her sister. Not only do siblings (or even cousins) share a syllable, but it's always in the same position. So if the eldest daughter's name is Eun Kyung (grace and honour), her sister might be Eun Mi (grace and beauty) or Eun Ae (grace and love). Also, kids take their father's family name, even though mothers keeps their family names.

Like other traditions, things are changing in Korea. For the past couple decades, families have been naming their kids pure Korean names, as in, names that can't be written in Chinese characters. My Korean name, which was given to me by my students, is a pure Korean name. It's Miso, which means "smile." Many families don't follow the generational shared name tradition, either. And, when I asked another Korean friend about naming a baby with a fortune teller's recommendations, the response was a huge, "What? Why would they do that? That's so dumb!"---which leads me to believe that tradition's on its way out, too.

Name are considered to be very important in Korea. So important, in fact, that it's considered rude to actually call someone by their name. I don't even know some of my elders' names because I've always called them by their titles. It's awkward (for me, at least), but that's the way it is.

What's in a name? In Korea, a lot.

The Koreas Call Hillary Clinton a "Funny Lady" & a "Role Model"

This week, Hillary Clinton made the news for her exchange of words with North Korea. After she likened North Korean leaders to "unruly children" whose antics should be ignored, they responded: “We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady, as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community,” the North Korean statement said. “Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.” (New York Times) That's a harsh statement, especially compared to her visit to Seoul earlier this year.

In late February, she made a speech at Ewha Women's University, where she impressed the audience of a few thousand female students. After the appropriate applause for her equally appropriate speech on women's empowerment, there was a town hall-like Q&A session. She spent the hour answering personal questions about her upbringing, finding love, her family and balancing motherhood and her career, feeling a little "more like an advice columnist than a secretary of state" (New York Times). A couple weeks later, Clinton was voted as the most respected international role model for women by the school's freshman students.

Start of Goodbyes

Today, my seventh-to-last day of teaching regular classes at Dongduk, I received a little going-away present from three of my students. All three are first year students (the equivalent of grade 7 in North America), and two of the three had been in a few of my after-school programs this year. None of them are strong students---at all---but they has never stopped them from coming to talk with me after class, which I've always loved. They presented me with a small envelope. Inside was a letter and some earrings. I was immediately impressed with the length of the letter; it was much longer than any composition they had written for me before. In the letter, they introduced themselves as "3 girls who received candies in 1-1 class." Apparently my prizes have made more of an impression on the students than I thought! They went on to tell me that they are sad to see me leave, and asked, "Will you be happy without us??" Knowing that I will miss them, they answered for me: "Maybe you won't HaHa~"

The pink, candy-shaped earrings, the girls wrote, were "composed of [their] minds," which, although I don't quite know what they meant by that, I appreciate the sentiment. Not my usual style, but I gladly put them on and am currently wearing them with pride.

The letter ends with a request to think of them often---something I'll have no problem fulfilling. How could I forget?

This has gotten me thinking about some of my old teachers. Some of them I remember for being great teachers, or for helping me learn about myself. I never would have gotten through math if I didn't have Ms Chalmers in high school for three years. Or, though I wasn't his biggest fan at the time, Mr Sardine pushed me hard in English, and I have to thank him for that. Keck, my drama teacher, supported me through my growing years in high school.

But there are also those I remember for telling us that they hated teaching. I never knew why a teacher would announce to their students that they hated being there with us day in and day out; it's not like we didn't know they were huge grumps, but to tell us straight up they didn't want to be there? That's harsh. Then why are you here? I would telepathically ask them from my seat.

Now, after being a teacher myself, I question their actions even more. WHY WERE YOU A TEACHER?? I want to scream at them. I have loved my job here since Day 1; I'm energized as soon as I get in the classroom, even if I was falling asleep on the bus on the way to school. I feel priviledged to be a teacher, to do my best to help these students grow as people as well as English speakers.

My students don't need to ask me to remember them. I always will.