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Monday, January 27, 2014

Daily Glimpses (or, what continues to amaze and irritate)

No big thoughts here, just a gathering of snippets from recent life that make me pause.  Or, to be slightly more honest, things that continue to irritate me.  :)

(1) Driving courtesies.  Imagine a four-lane street through a retail area with moderate traffic going about 35 mph.  There is no designated street parking. However, it's not uncommon--but still very aggravating--for people to park by the curb, which messes up traffic. Yesterday, a driver didn't even bother to parallel park but just nosed toward the curb and abandoned ship.  No one wanted to let the "trapped" drivers behind the badly-parked car into the other lanes. We got lots of angry honks for pausing to let a driver in.  It is not expected (or much tolerated) to help strangers.

(2) Poverty: We went to Busan yesterday, which is the 2nd biggest city in South Korea (at 3.5 million people, it's the size of Los Angeles).  At a busy McDonald's (happily, McD's supplies toilet paper in their bathrooms - just another little cultural tidbit for you who take that little public bathroom nicety for granted each day), we waited for Nick to buy drinks (side note: the straw dispenser was jammed and when he opened it to fix it--another American-ism in itself-- he discovered a very chewed-on straw. Eww).  Anyway, the kids were messing around with the (rather creepy) Ronald statue and I was standing near the trash counter.  Korean McDonalds's are serious about trash sorting: the reusable cups go in one bin (remaining liquids should be dumped in another bin); food waste goes in a separate bin from paper waste.  I noticed a middle-aged Korean woman with dirty hair fussing around the trash but taking longer than the usual few seconds; she took a straw out of her small black plastic bag, then poured the contents of several  (unemptied) cups into one empty cup, which she stirred and then began drinking.  As other customers approached, she busied herself with her plastic bag, trying to blend in with the trash rituals of the oblivious customers. Curious. Then my memories of living in Chicago kicked in: this lady was poor but had too much pride to beg.  My Christian/American side wanted to help her; my history in Chicago said you shouldn't give money to poor folks on the street; new sensitivity to Buddhist/Korean standards (don't offend, and don't help strangers ESPECIALLY if you're not Korean) meant I should definitely not help her. Nick had brought the drinks, chatting about his straw adventure, and we were leaving.  In the end, I hurriedly folded some money together and dropped it on the counter near the woman, where she found it with a smile and met my eyes before I turned to leave.  I still don't know if it was the right thing to do

(3) Foreign money:  In the US, I rarely carried over $20 with me and usually had less than $5.  I'm not sure why; maybe it's from being a graduate student for so long, when buying a box of Oreos was a really big treat; maybe from living in a rough neighborhood in Chicago and riding the train every day made me cautious.  But Korean money just doesn't seem real, especially given the difference in value vs. the US dollar (1000 Korean won are worth about 90 cents), and personal crime is so uncommon here that I carry a tiny amount or a huge amount with equally little concern. There are no checking accounts here, and our bank statements are in Korean, so inability to balance our accounts makes our finances seem even less real.  I have paid David and Elisabeth's school tuition in cash: 1.3 million won (about $1200) made the school secretary's eyes grow very wide.  I did some editing work recently and the author paid me in cash: a beautiful fan of 50,000 won bills.  It's so freeing to not be bound by money; our rent, utilities, and landline are deducted from Nick's paycheck; his cell phone bill is deducted from our bank account.  We have no bills to pay.  Side note: I love that Korea has a woman on its regularly-used currency; poor American women Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea got stuck on US coins that no one used.

(4) Names: About  half of all Koreans share just 3 surnames: Kim (pronounced "Geem"), Park (pronounced "Pahk") and Lee (pronounced "ee"). But of course there are others: Jeong, Cheong, Choi (pronounced "Chey"), Gang (pronounced "Kahng"), Min, etc.  First names range all over the place: Youchung, Ganghyun, Min, Hyeung-sup, Juram, Boyeon, etc.  Married women keep their own name rather than taking their husband's; children take the husband's family name. You probably know that Koreans use their family names first (so, Kim Juram) unless they are speaking to an American and they switch it around for you (Juram Kim).  Now imagine seeing names on office doors, in news articles, etc.  Even if you can pronounce every name (the Korean language is pretty easy that way), you have no idea which are family vs. first names or which designate males vs. females.  (There are even generational names, which I have only begun to sort out: every kid in a family gets the same basic first name plus a special suffix just for them).  I mentioned this naming confusion to a Korean woman, who laughed because it was so easy for her - but she couldn't understand American names!  Well, that's easy,  I blithely stupidly said.  Names that end with a "y" sound or have 2+ syllables are usually for women (e.g., Sherri, Debby, Mary, Lisa, Brittney, Rebecca); names with one syllable are usually men (e.g., Nick, John, Bob, Sam, Ken, Paul, Jim, Ray). Easy!  Well, she asked ever-so-politely, what about names like Danny, Barb, Beth, Travis, or Mason?  Oh.  Good point.  I suppose with the creative naming trends in the US right now (Taylor, Aaliyah, Regan) that names will just get messier for everyone.



Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Being Home (or, Not Working)

I started work as a psychology professor in August 1997.  No, wait, that sounds far too bold. Actually, in 1997 I was a shy doctoral student who was shocked (shocked!) that a room of compliant, (mostly) Dutch-heritage, Christian students just a few years younger than me would write down whatever I said.  (Except Tim, of course, who preferred to pass around his just-received vacation photos--boy, does THAT sound old--while his girlfriend took notes for him.)

And I worked hard to prepare each class.  On my very worst day that first year, I had students discuss the first part of the chapter so I could quickly read the 2nd half of the chapter and prep a lecture outline.  I loved researching the day's scheduled topics (thanks to my exhaustive and all-to-rigid syllabus at the time) and coming up with creative ways to teach the material. I absolutely loved that part of the job: being with my own brain in my quiet office.

As I matured as a professor (and as a human being), I came to enjoy getting to know my students as more than, well, mostly-Dutch-Christians.  Some were hard-working but not particularly gifted; some were smart but lazy; some were bright, hard-working and competitively arrogant.  Some were shy; some were distractingly friendly.  I no longer saw students as people trying to take advantage of me, or quickly judged them as easily distracted by unimportant (non-academic) pursuits.

At some point, I started taking my introductory students to coffee, one at a time, to learn about each of their families, interests, and goals. I later recruited teaching assistants based partly on these conversations: who was easy to talk to, used self-deprecating humor, and was a little bit sassy.  I like spirit.  Gradually, I grew to love my students, seeing them as broken people to be sympathized with; they were trying to find their way as new adults amid the complexities of managing laundry, friends' engagements, facebook, powerpoints, parties, and identity crises.  I no longer saw students in black-and-white terms or as "types."   As I got older, I began to see myself as an aunt--perhaps an eccentric one with a too-bawdy sense of humor--who dearly loved these young people and finally had the self-confidence to show them love (sending flowers for a recital; taking a stubborn but sick student to the hospital) and to kick them in the pants (why weren't you in class last week? why are your grades so bad?).  I transformed from insecurely judgmental to confidently condescending to vulnerably supportive.

Which is all very well and wonderful.  Now, however, after years of searching, my husband landed his dream job: a professor at an overseas university.  He would be the full-time professor now, and I would take my turn being at home, perhaps doing part-time work but mostly managing the house and kids.  He would be in the lime-light now, sharing his notes and gifts from adoring students and appreciative colleagues.  I would be...nobody.  No more gentle scolding of wayward students; no more daily praise (implicit or otherwise) for investing in the growing minds of young adults; no more notes of thanks for helping a student land a scholarship, apply to graduate school, or just learn to enjoy learning.

Now... home with kids.  Who didn't want to live overseas any more than I did.  I had chosen to teach college-age students because I can't really tolerate the noise and mess and check-list-resistant nature of people under 18. I like lots of time alone. I like tidy.  I like control, lists, silence.  Kids offer none of that.  I was not happy.

People who learn that I was a professor for 16 years (and an academic dean for 7 of those) can't help but ask why I'm not teaching here in Korea.  Initially I blamed my husband's university: they hadn't asked me. Then I reasoned I was still settling in and catching up with crafty projects, taking a long-deserved break.  But now?  Now...my answer is changing.  My kids (ages 11, 14, and 18) have a 9-week winter break that I was frankly dreading - so many crumbs and fights over screen time and squabble drama.  But now... I know a lot about my kids.  Which one loves to help around the house; who uses hugs to say he's sorry; who hates being in debt; who is naturally nurturing; who is upset by cursing; who loves sports statistics and using humor to relieve tension. Now I know why one son struggles with math; I see how another's musical gifts transfer to language learning; I know how one uses humor and isolation to deal with stress. I have a sense now of how to motivate each one; I am learning how to follow up on chores; I am figuring out when to push and when to be quiet.

So, why am I not teaching?  Here is today's answer.  Because, for the first time in my kids' lives, I am learning how to enjoy being a mom.  Not a teacher or mentor or eccentric auntie to other people's kids, but a mother.  Mentoring my own kids as quirky, willful beings who are making their way toward adulthood.

And I'm not sure that I've ever been happier.