A Girl with a Goal

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“Life Goals.”

These are the only two words written on the first page of Kelly’s journal.  They’re written at the top, and the rest of the page is completely blank.  I laughed when I saw it.  It amused me to think that this Kelly person sat down, determined to make a list, wrote “Life Goals,” thought about it for a little while, and then decided that she had nothing.  The only thing that would be cooler would be if she wrote the word “none” on the page.  Life Goals: None.  I also liked that she never went back to it.  There was one brief moment when she wanted to make her list, but that passed and she wasn’t interested in silly things like life goals anymore.  At the very least, she could’ve made a goal to make a better list.

The journal belonged to Kelly, who I don’t know and have never met.   I found it the first day I moved into my apartment in Korea.  It was in a drawer under the television.  Despite being the type of person who has no life goals, Kelly kept the apartment up pretty well.  She was very thoughtful and left me a lot of other stuff besides her journal.  I inherited loads of body wash, a yoga mat, two jump ropes, a deck of Indiana Jones Playing Cards, and an extra toilet seat with cartoon bears all over it.  I’m hoping these things were left on purpose.  I wouldn’t want Kelly searching through her possessions upon getting back home and frantically crying, “Where the hell’s my teddy bear toilet seat?!?”

A few pages into her journal, I found a rough draft of Kelly’s resignation letter.  Reading it, I learned that Kelly broke her contract in Korea and went home early.  The letter, written to her principal, says that this was because “a sudden and very urgent problem has arisen.”  It goes on to say, “It was an extremely heartbreaking decision to make {to break the contract}, but at the present I need to be home with my family.”  The letter is pretty vague, but things became much clearer when I read the next pages of Kelly’s journal.

Of course, I had no right to read Kelly’s journal.  It was a nosey thing to do, but I couldn’t help myself.    It was too enthralling – especially the letter she had written to someone named “Baha.”  It reads:

“Dear Baha…I’ll probably be sitting next to you when you read this letter…I came back for you, for me, for love.  I come knowing that we may never happen…I want you to know that…I’ll give up most things for you, that’s what you are to me…I made a mistake…Why did I do it?  I have no excuses.  I was weak and selfish.  I was scared…I’m beyond sorry for hurting you…Whatever happens, I love you…I’ll never forget you.  You’re the great love of my life.  Whatever happens, I’m lucky to have had you once.”

The full letter is much longer, and I couldn’t help but be moved by what Kelly wrote.  There really wasn’t a “sudden and very urgent problem” like she told her principal.  No, there was a boy.  There was love, and Kelly (whoever she is) went where her heart wanted her to go.  Thinking about what she wrote, I found myself talking to Baha (whoever he is) in my head – “Take her back, stupid Baha!  She’s sorry!  The girl loves you!  Don’t you understand that?!”

And then I realized that I was reading something written by a stranger, to a stranger.  I knew nothing.  All I had was one letter written by a heartbroken girl.  I couldn’t read the letter and feel the same things Baha would, because he had all the scope and complexity and context that surrounded it.  I thought about love songs and poems in books.  It’s easy for strangers to be moved by the love someone feels towards someone else.  But we never know the reaction of the person the song is written for.  Maybe that person changes the radio station, and maybe Baha throws down the letter.  It’s heartbreaking, in a way, to think that all those songs and poems and things like Kelly’s letter – the things written about love – can move a stranger much more than the person they were intended for. 

In the real world, Kelly didn’t want to write a letter that the guy who moved into her apartment would read and find touching.  She simply wanted to be loved back.  That was her one life goal.  The one she probably meant to write on that blank page, but for whatever reason couldn’t.

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On Interactions – Social and Otherwise

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The girl at the GS 25 has long dark hair and a pair of glasses with thick black rims.  We’ve gotten used to each other, since we see each other every day.  She knows what cigarettes I smoke, understands that my Korean vocabulary is limited, and isn’t offended (or at least she doesn’t seem to be) that I forget to touch my elbow when I hand her money.  Sometimes I wonder what she thinks when I come in.  I buy the same stuff every day: a bottle of green tea, some noodles, and a cheap pastry to eat for breakfast.  It’s an uncomplicated order completed with a simple transaction.  Her facial expression rarely changes, words are rarely spoken, and we both know to wave politely when it’s over.

Back in America, I used to get looks from strangers when I’d speak l0udly to the checkout operator.  The irony is that the checkout girl I say so little to in Korea is actually a person, while the checkout operator I’d speak to in America was an automated kiosk.  I don’t understand how the majority of Harris Teeter or Bloom customers can refrain from answering when the robotic voice of the self-checkout machine addresses them.  For me, it would happen almost unconsciously:  “Welcome” “Same to you!” “Please place your items in the bag.”  “Hold up, give me a second.” “Please place your items in the bag.”  “I am, I am!”  “Remember to take your receipt.”  “Well print it already and I’ll take it!” “Thank you for shopping at Bloom.” “You’re welcome – bye!”

From the first time I used self-checkout at a gas station, I was in love.  No more having to chit-chat with the dopey gas station attendant.  The appearance of self-checkout at the grocery store was like a dream come true to me.  It was as if I was emancipated, freed from the constraints of the typical grocery shopping experience.  I could buy whatever crap I wanted to, and didn’t have to dodge the eyes of the check-out girl.  DiGiorno Pizza every night for a week?  Yes, it could happen.  Enormous family pack of toilet paper?  They’ll never know!  If I wanted to buy a random grouping of odd items – say Bacos, Hot Pockets, and Acne Scrub – I could do so in complete and wonderful anonymity.

My ardor for self-checkout would only increase.  In moments of boredom, I found myself reading about it on the Internet and then, later, talking about it.  “Hey,” I’d say to a friend, “did you know those grocery store self-checkout machines were made by the same guy who did Atari?”  For two years I even had my English class read an article about self-serve kiosks and discuss all the business advantages: faster customer service, less staff to hire, an end to wrong orders, and (the most important one) people tend to go for upselling more frequently when it’s pitched by a machine.  That’s the most interesting one – the shame of Supersizing apparently changes to joy when the consumer doesn’t have to request it from a thinking, judging human being.

But the glories of self-checkout have not spread to South Korea yet (as far as I know – although they do have it in the movie theatre).  When I make a trip to Home Plus or the GS 25, my safe and impartial machines are nowhere to be found.  Instead there’s the impartial young girl with the black-rimmed glasses.  She seems happy with her work, apparently unaware that across the ocean people like her are being replaced, because people like me are too uncertain of strangers, even if they smile politely when they wave goodbye.

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The Thrill of Asking a Question on a Korean Game Show

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“William, I cannot do Winter Camp with you,” my coteacher Hye Jeong told me one day before winter camp started.  “The school will be on show, and I must learn to dance for show.”

I nodded, although I had no idea what she was talking about.  Being in Korea had taught me to just go along with things and not ask, so that’s what I did.  Fine.  The school will be on a show.  And she’s going to dance.  Of course.  Who couldn’t predict something like this would happen?

That was two weeks ago.  Just two days ago, Hye Jeong told me, “You must go to Dong-bu Student Gym tomorrow, for show taping.”  Again, I nodded.  I’m not sure what I anticipated.  Maybe that there would be some guy with a video camera and we’d all get on public access tv.  I might’ve even been unhappy about this break from the routine, if not for the fact that Hye Jeong had spent the last two weeks in dance practice, and I found it humorous that the school would make her get on tv and shake what her uhm-ma gave her.

All this is background, established in an attempt to convey why I was completely blown away when I stepped into the Dong-bu Student Gym.  The place (huge and, of course, unheated) was filled with a wonderful set – a giant golden bell placed in the middle of what looked like a quaint Dutch city.  I felt like I was in Amsterdam or something.  There were enormous lights all over the place, and a camera crew setting up.  A gigantic crane was erected and a camera was hung from it.  Peter Teacher came to me with a smile on his face, “This is popular game show on Channel 9.  That is the government channel.  The show will broadcast all over Korea next month.  They will all see you.”

“They’ll see me?”

“Yes,” he said, beaming.  “You will read question.”

“I’ll read questions?” I asked, unprepared.  “How many?”

“No,” he said.  “Question.  One English question.  You will read it.  The camera will zoom in on your face.”

For the next three hours, I sat in the live studio audience as “The Golden Bell Challenge” was recorded.  The whole time, I kept wondering when I would be called up to read my one question (and how I could try to stop the camera from zooming up on my f**king face).  The game consisted of 100 students being asked questions and writing their answers down on dry erase boards.  After the host would ask a question, my school’s teachers – sitting to my left and right – would aggressively whisper the answers to the students.  I would later learn that this was ordered by the principal.  It makes sense.  No school wants all of its students ousted from “The Golden Bell Challenge” after five or six questions.  It is much better to cheat, obviously, than to be humiliated publicly.

During the lunch break, I asked Peter Teacher if I could see my English question, and also what the winner of the game gets.

“It is impossible for you to see the question,” he said, cryptically, following that with the equally mystifying, “If a boy rings the Golden Bell, great opportunities will come.”

Finally, six hours into taping, when all of the students sitting away from the teachers had gotten a question wrong and been dismissed, the producer called me to the front and I was handed an envelope with a question in it.  I read it to myself.  “What painting…no eyebrows…Leonardo da Vinci…”  I was relieved that there were no difficult words in it.  I lifted a small flap and looked at the answer.

Mona Risa.

Suddenly, I went into panic mode.  What would happen if a deserving student was told he was wrong because of this letter slip up?  I ran to the producer, “Wait!  It’s NOT Mona RISA!  It’s LISA!  Mona LISA!  I swear!”

She didn’t argue, just wrote an “L” over the “R” and gave it to the host who looked at the change without any interest.  Eventually I read the question, bashfully looking away from the camera, and my moment of fame was over.

Sadly, no one got to ring the Gold Bell.  The winning student could not get the Bell Questions right and the show ended without tolling.  The country will watch him fall narrowly short of glory when the seven hours of footage are edited down to one and the program is broadcast.  I wonder what won’t make it in?  Hye Jeong dancing to Girls Generation?  My English question?  I’m sure a lot of us in that gym yesterday will have stories like this – about how we were there, and on camera, in a moment that just wasn’t quite good enough.

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Girls On Film

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Lesbian sex scenes have never done it for me.  They possess an appeal that misses my radar entirely.  For a sex scene to work for me, there needs to be a character involved that I can put myself in the place of.  Hence, when two girls are going at it, I’m always left on the sidelines.  It’s the same reason I can’t stand UFC.  Neither the lesbian world nor the Octagon are places I can envision myself in.  Other, more daring, people can enjoy them.

The lesbian sex scene in the movie “Black Swan” turned me off for an entirely different reason.  If you haven’t seen the movie, there’s a scene about an hour into the movie where Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis get down like they’ve just come home from an Ani DiFranco concert.  The scene, despite its glaring lack of nudity (the ’70s would be ashamed), is really pretty graphic.  As it played, though, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable.  This was because the two actresses involved didn’t look like women to me; they looked more like girls who carry fake IDs.

Afterwards, I got to thinking about it.  I remembered how I hit puberty back in the days of Red Shoe Diaries and the “erotic thriller.”  The early nineties were dominated by the likes of Pamela Anderson, Joan Severance, Sharon Stone, and the amazing duo of knockout Shannons (Tweed and Whirry).  It was such a different time from today…a time when the women looked like women.  Thinking hard on the subject matter, I determined that I couldn’t remember anyone from that period who was quite as girlish as Natalie Portman or Mila Kunis.  Yes, we had Drew Barrymore playing “Poison Ivy.”  However, when Drew stripped down, it wasn’t all rib cage and hip bone.  There were actual breasts and hips to disguise those things.  And, if I’m not mistaken, “Poison Ivy” didn’t win any Golden Globe awards.

Taking this train of thought perhaps a bit too seriously, I began to do some research.  First, there was the Maxim Hot 100.  I wanted to know if we really have seen a tectonic shift in taste – if a new Baywatch would be cast with girls in training bras.  The Hot 100 wasn’t too bad, although it certainly had its share of nymphs: Blake Lively, Emma Stone, Hayden Panettiere, and Amanda Bynes to name a few.  The answer came to me, though, when I switched my research into the realm of porn.  There it was, clear as day.  Of the top 12 most popular porn stars in 2010 (measured by Internet searches and hits), a large number looked very, very young (Sasha Grey, Ashlynn Brooke, etc).  Then I found the 30 most circulated porn mags and read the titles – Barely Legal, Just 18, Finally Legal, Girls Gone Wild the Magazine, etc.  It’s not that Hollywood has gone all Humpert Humpert.  Porn has.  Hollywood is just catching up.

To be fair, there were also a few MILF magazines.  Maybe that’s the problem.  It’s not a MILF –  it’s a WOMAN.  It’s only a MILF if you’re a teenager.  I have a feeling it isn’t teenagers buying the MILF magazines, or Barely Legal for that matter.  It’s men whose sexual fantasies peaked at age 17 and have been repeating since then.  Let them download “Black Swan” and get all giddy off it.

Then again, I’m equally as bad, aren’t I?  The only difference is that I grew up in an era where girls hadn’t gone wild yet and, for better or for worse, to see a hot lesbian scene you had to watch Cinemax after 11:00.  And it wouldn’t star an Oscar favorite.  Just a grown woman, possibly named Shannon.

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The Agony of Teaching Spec Ed

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There was a pair of twins in my reading class.  One day, a girl in the class asked one of them what he would do if his brother died.  He thought about it for a moment, and then said, “I’d carry a full-length mirror around with me.  That way I could look in it and think he was still there.”

His response made the whole class laugh.  It was ridiculous, yes, but also clever.  I had nine students in my reading class, and they were all labeled “special ed.”  At the end of the year, they would have to take the same state test as every other ninth-grade student in the school.  None of my students had passed their eighth grade test, and most didn’t come very close.  In North Carolina, the state uses past testing data to create predictor scores for every student – the score the student will likely get on an upcoming test (I’m not sure if other states do this).  According to the predictor scores, not one student in my class was going to pass their state-made final exam.  Everyone would fail, and fail pretty badly. 

Thanks to No Child Left Behind, my nine students were required to pass this test in order to eventually graduate from high school.  It seems like a logical conundrum – if the state and the school system have reliable data to suggest the students will not pass the test, then how are they still being held to that standard?  That’s kind of like throwing a fish down on a hot street and hoping it’ll breathe.  To extend that metaphor, I would be sort of like a life guard, assigned to helping the fish learn to use it’s gills like lungs.  Perhaps that’s a negative way to look at things, but it’s how you start to think when you’re a spec ed teacher: Do they really believe that I can do this?  The thing is, it’s hard to imagine that the school system truly does think that you can get all those students to pass.  Which creates a second question: Have they really given me an impossible assignment and just walked away with their fingers crossed? 

Let’s go back to my little reading class.  We spent the year reading and writing like a good English class is supposed to.  I tried my best to make the curriculum interesting: we used Wu-Tang Clan lyrics to learn assonance, played “Match Game” to learn analogies, and had a class poetry reading complete with coffee and candy cigarettes.  My nine students were trying as hard as they could.  Sometimes they’d get frustrated and close their books – the work was too much.  Sometimes we’d just talk and laugh, about how I’d had a bad date over the weekend, or at DC’s new purple wig, or at the thought of a twin using a mirror to trick himself.

At the end of the year, I held my breath while they took their test.  After retesting, 4 out of 9 passed.  Everyone outdid their predictor score.  Which brings us to the true agony of the spec ed teacher: Was our class a success or a failure?  We outdid expectations and everyone showed progress.  Yet over half the class failed.  I talked on the phone with overjoyed parents.  Yet their joy was brought on by a grade of D minus – happiness because their child hit the lowest possible passing score on the nose.  I was thanked.  DC hugged me because she was so proud she’d passed a state reading test.  Another student, HG, literally screamed when I told him he passed.  He was 17 , still in the ninth grade and had failed all of his classes first semester.  Usually when he got news from his teacher, it wasn’t this sweet.

To be a spec ed teacher is to bank everything on hope.  You hope you can teach them.  You hope the odds aren’t as bad as they seem.  Finally you hope that the small victories will add up, the weight of failure doesn’t become too much, and that your students will keep having ridiculous and clever ideas, and the ability to laugh at them.

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Reflections On My Very Strange Christmas

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Sickness kept the girl in my bed.  As soon as she felt healthy enough, she got up and left and I wouldn’t see her again.  It’s odd when you have a guest in your home that clearly wants to go.  That must be the same feeling a boss has when catching an employee staring at the clock.  I think that’s why they have clocks in office buildings.  Not to tell time, but instead to act as a constant reminder to all of the employers of the world that the people working for them are always, regardless of how content they may seem, waiting to leave.

The sick girl and I were only supposed to have Christmas brunch together, but then she got sick and I took her back to my apartment to sleep.  Over waffles, fruit, and yogurt, she had already started to tell me what I knew was coming.  She didn’t want me around anymore.  This message was put on hold, though, when she got weak and couldn’t raise her head.  So off to the apartment we went, where she could recover and, her health and energy returned, kick my ass to the curb.

I spent most of Christmas day in my dark apartment, reading about North and South Korea while the sick girl slept.  The day before, the South Korean military drills ended.  The tanks and the planes went back to their bedrooms to rest.  The talk coming from both sides was a bit worrying, North Korea using the words “sacred war” and President Lee warning that another North Korean attack would result in a massive counterattack.   Both sides seemed to be moving towards a war neither side really wanted.  I looked at the sick girl and thought about how a nuclear bomb could fall from the sky and incinerate us in seconds.  It’s hard to fathom being blown to smithereens before consciously understanding exactly what has happened.  I wondered if there would be a sound or a blinding red glow in the moments before I would be turned into a small pile of dust that might later be mistaken for another dead Asian.

My friends called me, wanting me to meet them out, but I couldn’t.  It didn’t seem like the right thing to do, to leave the sick girl alone in my apartment like that.  I’m a man of class.  I don’t leave sick-girls-on-the-verve-of-kicking-me-out-of-their-lives unattended to.  I’d just sit around for the remainder of Christmas and if she needed soup or a drink of juice, I’d get it for her.  The plug was already pulled on my Christmas lights, metaphorically speaking.  There were no presents, no calls from home, no “Merry Christmas!” emails from family.  There was only a girl who wanted to leave but couldn’t, and two countries wondering how to destroy each other.

Now that the holiday and the girl are both long gone, I find myself wondering why I stayed in that situation all night.  It wasn’t like I was going to change the girl’s mind.  I guess it’s just nice to feel important sometimes.  Perhaps that was the girl’s Christmas gift to me.  For that one day, doing my best nurse impression, I got to feel as though somebody needed me.   I celebrated, in a way, in that boyish delusion, while the girl celebrated in the quiet of sleep, dreaming about whatever it is that sick girls dream of.

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An Angry Man on a Bus

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The angry man on the bus yelled for at least ten minutes, and none of us really knew what he said.  He was a big guy with floppy black hair and glasses.  He yelled with a strong voice and pointed his finger.  At times he pointed at me, and I looked away and didn’t say anything.

This happened on Christmas Eve.  A group of foreigners – myself included – had gone out to a buffet in an attempt to make the holiday seem as though it was actually happening.  Spending Christmas in a foreign country is like smoking a cigarette in the shower.  It doesn’t seem right.  Although there were lights and songs played in stores, Christmas felt more like a vague notion, something that would eventually happen but somehow didn’t feel like a reality.  The oncoming holiday seemed as distant as grey hairs and grandkids.  In our own little room in the restaurant, we said “Merry Christmas” and smiled and talked about home.

After dinner, we got on the bus and that’s when we met the angry man.  For awhile, he sat in his seat and stared at us.  If one of my friends in the back of the bus said something, he’d jerk his head and glare in that direction.  All of us noticed the looks of death he was giving us.

It was only a matter of time before he blew his top, and eventually he began shouting in Korean at us.  We all quited down and said, “Sorry, no Korean.”  That of course didn’t stop him.  The remainder of the ride was filled with his loud voice.  Afraid he would get physical, I slipped my hand in my pocket and felt for my doorknob.  Under the man’s yelling, I heard my friend Ryan say, “He’s mad ’cause we’re speaking English.”  He was a bit older, probably in his forties, and he didn’t let up until the bus reached what turned out to be our mutual destination.  We all got off at the same time and – after refraining one of my friends who wanted to fight – we walked down the cold sidewalk in silence.  He walked behind us, a satisfied look on his big face.

We all have notions of what “home” means, and we all have certain things that don’t belong in our definitions.  For the angry man on the bus, white skin and English and conversations between people in the back of the bus and people in the front of the bus were not supposed to be in his home.  We walked away passively from him, but I imagine he knew we weren’t really going anywhere.  He would stumble into others like us again, and maybe he’d realize that all of his shouting wasn’t keeping anybody from coming through his window and making his home their own.  As for us, we forgot about him quickly.  The next day was Christmas, and we turned our thoughts to memories and to wondering, because the reality of the holiday didn’t exist here for us, but instead somewhere far far away.

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