The first semester of the Korean school year is rushing towards it’s conclusion. This means preparation for all the end of term activities, a rise in discipline issues along with colleague frustrations, and the inability to not daydream of summer plans. It also means we’ve been with our students for the better part of five months now, week in and week out, along with some weekends. For me, it means that my Korean students are used to the weird American, with a hair style featuring what they tell me is the potato look, a way of thinking that is decidedly more cosmopolitan than the homogeneity they are used to, and a body modeled after the spoon as opposed to the chopstick. Their getting used to me, and my getting used to them, this event horizon in one of millions of globalization experiences of our time, brings many unknowns with the joys and pains of openness and honesty, the glory and burden of trust.
While attention spans, including my own, have all but flown the coop, at least once a week a class discussion emerges bearing this weight of trust, and with it questions that land with growing penetration each time I receive them. Time for reflection is short in this busy season, but when I get it I return to the times when I was in 7th grade and 12th grade respectively. I try hard to think about how I understood the world at those times, and then try to imagine being Korean, or being a third culture missionary kid, as this covers the full range of my student base. It feels like a futile attempt at contextualization every time, enough so that I wonder if I’m doing more harm in my attempt at relevance than any good.
Kids of any culture are playful if nothing else. This play weaves in fluidly to my student’s every social interaction, as many of them have known each other for years, and as Korean culture binds it’s people together with a type of bond I don’t think I will ever know. They all know what seems like hundreds of games they grow up playing with each other. Guess which way I’m going to look, get it wrong and get slapped on the back. Rock, paper scissors, lose and get slapped on the arm. Say a number in a really dainty voice, do it wrong and face the shame of the room until you do it right. These type of quick and silly games break out like a pandemic and retract as quickly when something else takes focus, all while holding hands, massaging arms, shoulders, sharing snacks and drinks, notes for class and leaning on each other’s shoulder. In a given day I’ll watch two of my most macho seniors touch each other more than I have made physical contact with my best bro in my life. There’s not an ounce of sexual tension. One of my best friends is from India, and we discussed how friends of our respective cultures acted around each other at length. The western discomfort of Indian male friendship made the global scene in popular Canadian comedian Russel Peter’s joke about how they often hold each other’s pinky finger while they walk together. I watched that stand up show with a group of Indians while in grad school, and we all laughed hard, because many of them had made their American friends uncomfortable without knowing it and some had learned in harder ways than others. Comedy is often the medicine the globalizing world needs. I try to offer it as often as I can myself, to much less success than Mr. Peters thus far.
Often when teaching, my entire periphery is dominated by this cadence of play and learning. When a class discussion emerges, the play may subside completely or just in the immediate area where the student or students are talking to me and each other. I teach, play in all these small ways takes place, a discussion emerges, I shush those who are too loud and distracting us, someone goes to the restroom, a class activity, play and touch in various forms passes around the room like a virus, the class comes back together, a time of reflection and response, someone loses what was once a quiet game of guess which way I was going to move my hand and gets smacked loudly, a video is watched on the theme of the class, various postures are attempted to find the best way to lean on friends to achieve the maximum comfort of all, the video ends and complaints that the lights came on too quickly are silenced by a round of relevant questions before class ends. This is somewhat typical. As the semester has progressed this planetary system of social and educational behaviors in orbit around each other have been interjected with the deep realities of life, so deep they appear as black holes in an otherwise controlled chaos. Suicide, parental neglect, abuse, spirituality, sexuality, the purpose of life and the meaning of death. These realities fall into the scene with ease for my students, part of the cadence. As a foreigner my cadence is, assumption, fail, embarrassment, sadness followed by anger followed by acceptance, repeat, one point of wisdom added, one million points needed to win the game.
I sometimes feel like the well constructed walls of adulthood and culture block me from being helpful. But I remember my adolescence well enough. I remember sadness, confusion, unending questions, new feelings, doubts and despair. I remember parents, teachers, friends and student workers who offered wisdom, hope, friendship, hugs, pats on the back, and the appropriate rebukes when needed. Nothing I learned in school prepared me for life more than those things. As the bond deepens between my students and I, and as the welcomed honesty flows with all its joys and burdens, I’m trying to remember when I was there age as much as I am able to help me teach and offer the best wisdom. This week I realized their questions were helping me deepen as a person. That my kids honesty was helping me be more honest with myself, and consider my past more carefully. As I climbed this existential mountain, I realized that I was becoming part of the cadence of the classroom too, that my place in this community was spanning age, culture and sometimes creed. As I processed the revelation, someone got slapped hard to my left, the loser of a Korean folk game I’ll never understand or be able to pronounce. One point of wisdom….