1.4 Spring 2020 (COVID Archives)

July 6

The elementary school across the street had a student test positive so as a precaution our school also closed to students until the other school was confirmed to have no further cases.

As a result C and I had no classes today and also no served lunch. She ended up accompanying me to the local kimbap shop where we each had a fish cake and tuna kimbap. These kinds of restaurants are classified as “snack shops” and always give their patrons free fish cake water. The idea of hot fish broth may put off western readers but I found it really hits the spot.

We spent an hour there talking about universities and schooling. Interestingly, high school teaching positions are so prestigious and coveted that often thirty people will apply for one position.

While most of our kimbap talk was about the difference between the US and Korea I know that as C’s primary link to the western world she wants to discuss these things.

My father, who has spent two decades traveling back and forth to Europe told me the more he travels the less he wants to talk about differences and more just have… talks. Family, economy, hopes, dreams, what they ate for dinner.

One day we’ll be close enough where it’s less about Venn diagramming and more about connecting.

She held her umbrella over us as makeshift shade while we walked back to school but on a whim I pulled her inside the local cafe for coffee. Our orders were technically to go but we spent another hour there.

Of her own accord she admitted she thought that it was unfair native teachers had to work over holidays because of contracted hours. Validation!

I told C about the Atlanta job and my emotionally abusive managers and all the things that led me here. I don’t think I entirely imagined the sheen in her eyes. She wondered if one manager might have been jealous which is not the first time I’ve heard that in response to my story.

“I thought Americans would be reasonable in the workplace.” She thought aloud.

People are good and bad everywhere.

“You know, the idea Koreans have of America is so different than the reality. I’d sure like to live in the America Koreans are imagining.”

She told me she wants to live in a rural area or outside of Seoul but her boyfriend, who fears flying, and her family pull her back.

“Maybe one day,” she sighed and I suddenly felt the weight of people’s lives being chosen for them. Pragmatism works best when you don’t have dreams.

Americans are just as likely to acknowledge the drudgery of office life but much quicker to condemn it than Koreans who seem to swallow the bitter pill of societal expectations.

C and S both share this mentality of “this isn’t exactly what I want but it’s what I have and maybe in my next life I can do what I want” and it kills me. They both tell me they can’t change— and I wonder if it’s my perpetual American optimism or their perception of work rigidity that’s wrong.

It sometimes feels as though bearing suffering is a national identity.

As a peninsular nation between two powerful neighbors, Korea has suffered threats and damage from both China and Japan for millennia.

While younger Koreans didn’t live through the war, working 12 hour days at a world renowned company that doesn’t pay you enough to afford your own apartment is its own hell. And young people do call it “Hell Joseon” (Joseon being the last Korean dynasty before Japanese colonization).

But I wonder. Why suffer needlessly if there’s a choice, an opportunity, not to?

Interestingly, I feel that my two North Korean refugee tutees are much more interested in the world and they seem motivated and happy. I imagine if they felt resigned to their fate, like many South Koreans, they wouldn’t be here.

The longer I spend doing what I want the more I realize we have a limited time on this earth. If there’s another, better life on the other side of societal expectations, family appearances, and the big lie that more money and big status means big emotional return, we should scale the wall and jump to the other side.

We’re all going to die and I mean that in the best way. Do you fear death or do you fear an incomplete life?

We’re mortal and our lives are a blip; I can no longer see myself worrying about titles or prestige or all the things we’re taught to value in order to value ourselves. For whatever time I have, I choose a good life.

C brought us around to lighter topics and out of my mental preoccupation more fitting of our sparkling grapefruit ade and suggested that I come back to this school after my stint in Busan.

“The principal will be different next year.” She added.

Of course, that’s not possible for me to apply directly back to this school– the government randomly assigns native teachers to schools in a process that seems opaque even to the people I work with.

But I think.. she might miss me!

It reminded me of our ever guiding G who told me “relationships are most important and I think you are good at making them. My youngest son is very good at that which is why he’s a bank manager. People trust him.”

I don’t know if C has met someone like me— my thinking is not super revolutionary from an American perspective but maybe she’s never had someone so plainly say “this is what people want of me and I don’t care”. Maybe it’s a little island of hope or a lighthouse on a shore that’s a bit less distant.

Or maybe she thinks I’m a wild American with a cowboy heart.

We eventually made it back to school with only two working hours left on the clock. With a full day to mentally chew over, and lesson planning, they flew by.

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