Thoughts on being and feeling foreign

I’m in my home state of Kentucky for the first time in several years, and back in the United States for the first time in a year and a half. It’s the longest I’ve been away from both and coming back feels both strange and wonderful. I can feel all the friction in life of being a foreigner dissipate, and that’s quite an experience, to notice a lack of friction. I guess this is one of  the things the experience of living abroad buys you, you can feel “home” more deeply.

It’s all still pretty fresh still and will only last a few weeks, but my mind is already drifting into thoughts about just how foreign I am in Korea and how much I feel it. Korea is easy to learn to survive in but hard to feel at home in. I love it, no doubt, I truly do. I love being and feeling foreign, and when someone local takes the time to make you feel and be less so, it’s a real gift and friendships can grow quick and deep in that way. Likewise, when someone local takes no time to do that, or takes time to make you feel more foreign it can feel horrible and disheartening. Experiencing both of these things while out and about is one thing, but where one works and lives is harder. For me, my place of employment is the hottest furnace of cultural friction. It’s accredited both by an international Christian school organization and by the Korean government. It often feels like two schools in different dimensions existing side by side and overlapping each other in some quantum realm where the rules of physics are broken and bent. Often I love it because it creates situations that I find comedic. A task that should be simple is complicated to no end because cultural norms for decision making, leadership and communication smash in to each other or miss each other completely. Over time it does start to wear people out, and then it’s time for popcorn as different cultural norms for engaging conflict take center stage.

I’ve managed to befriend and learn the most from third culture people. These are folks who are Korean-plus. Korean Americans, Korean Canadians, Korean Argentinians, Korean Uzbeks, and the list goes on. The ones I work with are all bilingual and even though they play down their knowledge of Korean language and culture, to a mono-cultural American they are gateways into the other dimension, and with every small explanation, be it about words or issues or cultural norms, a once blackened part of the map of our experience has light shed on it. Being foreign is just what someone from the outside is, regardless of how they feel. But feeling foreign is related to how much information one has to survive and thrive in the context, and ignorance is bliss until your life is defined by it. Upon reflecting on my flights home, I realized the best friends I’ve made in Korea are the ones who help diminish my ignorance quotient, which always has the affect of making you feel more at home, or at least more at ease. The worst feeling is being ignorant, simply not having information, but being treated like you’re stupid, like you have the information but are too dumb to use it properly. Maybe the only thing worse than that feeling is when someone knows you’re ignorant, and won’t help because they feel like you’d be too stupid to understand. In a work environment, where you’ve been hired because of your value to the organization, being made to feel foreign, or being ignored or overlooked because overcoming your foreignness will take too much time, starts to make you question your value. At one point I actually asked all my students and their parents who visited me, if they felt like I was a valuable addition to their education and life. Thankfully I got a positive response, and it has helped me focus on what likely matters most to my time in Korea, my students. Working in a foreign context means that you are dependent on others to give you access to parts of the organization in order to provide any value there. A lot of times access can very simply be denied. That leaves you in a position to hammer down on what you do have access to and make the most of it. Like I said earlier, I actually love Korea and I love my work teaching Bible in a secondary school, but there’s no denying the challenges.

Another big part of the challenge is how to deal with challenges. After years of having my conflict management and leadership skills honed in the furnace of tech startup culture on the west coast, where issues are surfaced quickly and open and frequent communication are valued at a premium, I’m now in a context where that’s the worst thing you can do. All my instincts work against me. I’ve highlighted what I see are severe issues to the organizational and spiritual health of our Christian school, and it’s as if I’ve walked out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to my butt. Everyone gets quiet and tries to pretend it’s not happening to protect what’s left of my diminishing honor. I hate it. I hate being treated like the problem for simply taking a flashlight and showing where the problem is, especially when that was the very currency of leadership where I had come from. But there it is, ignorance met by a black hole of communication and the oh so present reminder, you are not from here. That leads to another question of belonging.

Thankfully I believe a sense of belonging should be cultivated separate from a sense of foreignness. Even though I’m visiting my home now, I don’t feel the same belonging I once did years ago. I’m a different person, and I feel called to different things in different places. I feel called to belong in a foreign place dealing with all the friction that ignorance provides. Ultimately, as a Christian I believe I’m an alien on Earth no matter where I am, and I hope that in Christian contexts this is something we can all agree on. We are citizens of God’s kingdom and that transcends every tribe tongue and nation.

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The Golden Age of Television

Today is the first day I haven’t felt like writing since I started trying to blog everyday. But it marks the last day of the week since I started so I have to do it, I just have to. We had a sizable earthquake in Korea last week, followed by a typhoon, and last night we had a sizable aftershock and high winds. I live pretty high up in an apartment complex so I didn’t get much sleep what with all the blowing and shaking and clicking my heals chanting, “there’s no place like home.” But I survived, I’m the boy who lived, so I fight on for another day. And what better to talk about after a sleepless night pondering death than the golden age of TV?

I kept hearing the term, “Golden Age,” applied to TV over the last decade or so before I really started watching it very much. I was in a culture vacuum while in Bible college in the mid 2000’s. I saw plenty of movies, but it wasn’t a golden age of movies at that time, nor now. All the while Sopranos was wrapping up, as was The Wire, and a host of other shows that became known as the harbingers of this new golden TV era. Once in seminary, my housemates and I started borrowing DVD’s, even from the library (which feels weird to think of now), and we watched Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, and the beginning of Son’s of Anarchy while we got our masters degrees in theology and started a church in our house. It was an interesting way to get introduced to this Golden Era. We had all grown up on standard sitcom television, and this new kind of TV, the kind with regular international instant cult classics being the norm (basically the definition used by wikipedia for this era), was something we were seeing after it was well underway. Like so many things in American Evangelical subculture, we were late to the larger cultural waves in both participation and understanding. While an increase in production of this caliber was interesting to me, and to my friends, what really stuck with us was the way TV was becoming a mythology machine for a globalized America, to such an extent that it was becoming the sacred space in American culture. The news media was losing favor and has continued to do so ever since. Politics, already nobody’s favorite source of American culture creation and appropriation, has continued down the stream of actual culture production such that it’s now just the last place at the receiving end, a thermometer verifying what’s wrong and not a virus. Every sociological survey on the matter is highlighting the ongoing waning influence of churches in America, evangelical or otherwise. And movies had already started to just remake themselves over and over. There have been some good ones, but nobody is saying it’s a golden age of film.

However, TV has become one of the primary places where American culture does it’s thinking, reflecting and hypothesizing. It’s become high literature in many ways. There’s an intertextuality in the storytelling that has actually changed the way film franchises work as well. I’m not saying all of this should be the way it is, just that it appears to be the case. I hope to spend more time in the details of this in the future, but for now here’s a first glance into my reflections on the golden age of TV, and why I think it’s an important reality for thoughtful minds to consider, because more than nearly any other platform, TV has become America’s pulpit. What is it saying?

Remembering when I was my student’s age

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….