Three Girls, One Cup

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Medieval-woman-sweeping* This post has nothing to do with porn. If you arrived here via Google search, I apologize. I didn’t mean to mislead you.

I enjoy the time I spend in the lobby of the Gangnam dentist’s office. It’s nice, comfortable, a good place to read, the only distraction being the occasional sounds of drilling off in the distance. I imagine that it might be my girlfriend’s teeth getting drilled – perhaps I should rush to her rescue, James Bond style, kicking the drill out of the dentist’s hand and then blinding him by reflecting the big dentist light into his eyes with that weird mirror-on-a-metal-stick thing. Anyways, this is what I’m thinking while sitting on a big couch in the lobby.

Then something crashes. There’s a girl with an enormous shopping bag and she’s broken something, unaware of how deadly the sways of her bag are, the same way dogs don’t know that their farts smell. The dentist’s office had put out glass cups with colored beads in them, some sort of decoration, and the girl knocked one over. A staff person rushes to her, telling her it’s okay and allowing her to leave, embarrassed but uncharged. There’s glass and beads all over the floor, and I’m watching all of this like it’s the most interesting thing that’s happened in years. Call it waiting room enchantment. Lobby boredom bewitchment.

First, Girl A runs up with a Kleenex. “A Kleenex?” I think. “What the hell is she gonna do with a Kleenex? It’s broken glass all over the floor. That’s like trying to suck a runny nose with a Dirt Devil.” She’s looking at the scene frantically until Girl B takes over, appearing at her side with a broom and a dustbin. Girl A  runs off, opening up the opportunity for Girl C to join in the fun. She takes the broom out of Girl B’s hand and starts sweeping the mess. Girl B stands there and watches. Then Girl A reappears with a mop. It’s insanity. I start expecting more girls to appear with whatever they can find – a swifter, a vacuum, someone drives up in a Zamboni, whatever. Eventually, Girl C sweeps the glass while Girl B holds the dustbin. It isn’t working, so Girl C puts the broom down and starts kicking the glass into the dustbin with her foot. Girl A comes back with a file folder and finishes the job, thankfully, by using it to complete the floor-to-dustbin transfer of glass. All of this takes about two minutes.

Yes, it seems silly, but I envy them. I couldn’t do it. This is teamwork at its finest. No judgement, everyone chipping in. I’d flip out: “Leave me alone! Get away from me! I’m not incompetent, I can sweep a floor!” I’d scoff when Girl C started using her high heel instead of the broom. But really, these three girls just demonstrated humankind at its best. No loss of patience, goal accomplished, everyone happy. It reminds me of all the Polacks it took to screw in the light bulb (3 to hold the bulb, 2 to turn the ladder). Suddenly, the image seems beautiful to me.

A confederacy of morons, all working together. Laugh at it if you want, but they had light. Meanwhile, the geniuses in government still can’t pass a damn bill.

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Black Man Field Trip

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Sang Sang has big ears and wears huge Woody Allen glasses.  His head is thin, his hair is short, and he laughs every time he speaks English.  I’m not sure why, but I generally laugh when he speaks English too.  Sang Sang is one of the best English speakers at the school and yet it’s an adventure when we try to have a conversation.  Typically, we’re both baffled by what he’s saying.  Unlike other Korean high school students, though, Sang Sang isn’t embarrassed into silence due his (can we say) developing English ability.  He’s amused by it, the same way I might be if you dressed me up in pads and skates and threw me out into the middle of an ice hockey rink.

I know that when Sang Sang cracks up, he’s really just trying to tell me, “Listen, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing right now.  Enjoy it for what it’s worth.”

My most memorable conversation with Sang Sang happened during the English Interview Contest my school had me do about a month ago.  In a nutshell, students signed up to come into a classroom and have me interview them.  After doing the interviews, I would pick a winner.  It sounded easy enough, especially because my superior, Peter Teacher, gave me a brilliant list of questions to use.  It contained such gems as:

“Do you enjoy reading?”

“What is your favorite book?”

“What was your favorite part of the book?”

In dealing with the brilliant but inflexible Peter Teacher, I’ve learned not to question anything.  If he wanted me to ask them these questions, that’s what I would do.  On the day of the contest about fifteen kids showed up, all giggling nervously.  One by one they came into the classroom and I gave them the 3rd degree about their favorite books.  Most stumbled through descriptions of The Alchemist, grabbing their faces in frustration every now and again when they fell into a pit of indecipherable babble.  The agony showed on them like they were players on a football team that had just lost its fourth straight Superbowl (Go Bills!!!).  Somehow their second language had failed them and they blew it.  Peter Teacher glared at them sternly.  For my part, I was very nice.

“Oh,” I’d say, trying to help, “that sounds interesting.  Do you like colors?  What’s your favorite?  Blue?”

It was with a sigh of relief that I greeted Sang Sang, sitting down for his interview, a big goofy smile already on his face.  He talked about reading and his favorite book.  I don’t remember the name, nor do I remember in detail what his favorite part was, but it had something to do with racism.  The book was set in the US, and in the scene, a black man asked a white family for directions and was ignored simply because he was black.

“Why was that your favorite part, Sang Sang?” I asked earnestly.  The other students liked the action scenes, or the parts with the greatest drama.  Why on earth did Sang Sang like a scene in which a white family gave a black dude the Danny Glover taxi treatment?

“Because I like black people,” he said.

This was interesting.  Odd, yes, but interesting.  There are very few black people in South Korea – most are soldiers, either from the US or Ghana.  Koreans typically know nothing about black people other than that they exist, in places other than Korea.  Two years ago, during my first stint in Korea, I asked my class to name as many black people as they could.  Here was their list:

Michael Jackson

Michael Jordan

Obama

George Washington Carver

It’s insane to me that George Washington Carver, of all people, is known across the Pacific.  This is even more interesting when you take into account the fact that Koreans don’t really like peanuts and peanut butter at Homeplus is incredibly overpriced.  (In time, the students would reveal that they knew more than those four – their minds must’ve gone blank when put on the spot.)

Anyways, I digress.  Back to the interview.  Despite the ominous presence of Peter Teacher, I broke from the script.  “Sang Sang,” I said, “have you ever met a black person?”

Sang Sang lit up.  It was like a parent talking about a child or a film director talking about his next movie.  “Yes!” he said excitedly.  “Last year we had a field trip to Itaewon and I talked to a black man!”

Itaewon is the area of Seoul where the US troops are stationed.  “On the street?” I asked Sang Sang.  “Where did you talk to him?”

“He was in a room,” Sang Sang said.  “The school wanted us to meet a black person, so we had a field trip to Itaewon.  We were all able to talk to him and ask questions.”

I really wanted to know more about this.  Who was this black man – was he someone important?  Sang Sang didn’t think so.  He was just a regular guy.  I was dumbfounded.  Had Mansu High School really conducted a field trip to Itaewon – a good two hours from the school – for the sole purpose of having the students talk to a random black person?  I wondered how they approached the dude with the idea for the field trip:

“Say, our students only know who four black people are, and two of them are dead.  If you’re not busy this week, would you mind sitting in a room and having fifty Korean boys stare at you?”

How many students did they really take on this trip?  Did they need permission slips?

“Sang Sang,” I said, “is that the only time you’ve ever spoken to a black person?”

“Yes!” he said, nodding his head enthusiastically.  “I will never forget it.  It was a great experience!”

Koreans must spend a staggering amount of time talking to other Koreans.  Here was a high school full of boys who can’t sustain a simple English conversation even though they’ve taken English class for the last 10 years of their lives and many of them go to hokwons (private tutoring centers) to study English outside of school.  But the English classes in public schools are taught by Korean teachers, and hokwons are expensive.  For my students, English is still a very Korean thing.

I tried to picture, in my head, what the bus must have been like the morning of The Black Man Field Trip.  Were the students excited or were the scared?  Nervous.  Was the bus filled with talking or silence?  I wondered if the students realized that this was the first and maybe last time they would ever talk to a black person.  What went through their minds (in Korean, of course, not English)?  Did they wonder how different he’d be, or did they wonder how much he’d be like them?

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Sorry, Jack (Quotes Provided by The Buddha and Tennille)

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Last week, my friend Deyne posted the following quote on her Facebook page:

 ‎”My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

It just so happened that on the morning she posted this, I was in a terrible and grumpy mood.  My love life was a disaster and I wasn’t up for what I found to be a sappy quote about changing the world.  Deyne posted the quote exactly as it appears above, with no author attributed to it.  In the minutes just before the first bell of the school day – when my bitchiness is at its peak – I commented on her post by writing, “These sound like the words of a naïve fool.”

Turns out that they were the last words said by Jack Layton, the Canadian DNP Party Leader who passed away last Monday.  Deyne responded to my comment by informing me of that, and then went on to talk about how Layton wasn’t only a great figure in Canadian politics, but was also an inspiration to her personally.  Whoops!  Sometimes it’s better to just keep your mouth closed and click “Like.”  Obviously I don’t think Jack Layton is a naïve fool, mostly because I’m ignorant and American and I don’t actually know who Jack Layton is.  But my little Facebook faux pas got me thinking about quotes.  How was I to know an important person said those words?  Reading it out of context, with no speaker credited, it didn’t sound like anything profoundly deep.  It could have been said by anyone, Snooki from Jersey Shore even.  Secretly, I blamed Deyne for manipulating my Jack Layton dis – not identifying the speaker of a quote is like letting someone believe it’s delivery when it is, in fact, DiGiorno’s. 

What if we always took the name off the quote, I started thinking.  Then the quote would have to stand for itself, the words would have to be as strong and independent as female R & B singers (they’re very independent).  It occurred to me that maybe a lot of quotes are really only powerful because of who said them.  Really, someone like Gandhi could say about anything and it would sound profound.  And, by extension, Joey Lawrence, for example, could say the deepest thing in history and nobody, knowing it came from the same mind that produced “Whoa!,” would take it seriously.

Here’s a little example.  Look at the two quotes below.  Think about, just based on the quotes themselves, if one is really that much better than the other.

“Let your heart guide you.  It whispers, so listen closely.”

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

Both quotes are pretty similar.  The second one was said by Confucius.  He was pretty smart – or at least that’s what some people think – and so, if someone quoted that during a speech, I’m sure most of the audience would find it touching.  But what about the first one?  That was said by a character identified as “Littlefoot’s mother,” from the movie Land Before Time.  Despite its content, it’s not really quotable.  Could you imagine Barrack Obama using it in his State of the Union Address?

“My friends, I’d like to pause for a moment and reflect upon the words of Littlefoot’s mother…”

Um, the country wouldn’t exactly be proud.  Here’s another example.  Down below are two fairly well known quotes.  Imagine, though, what the perception of each quote would be if one flip-flopped the speakers:

“The greatest science in the world, in heaven and earth, is love.” – singer Jackie DeShannon

“Lord, we don’t need another mountain.  There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb.  There are oceans and rivers enough to cross…What the world needs now is love.” – Mother Teresa

Suddenly, Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s corny song lyrics sound pretty good.  Looking through lots of quotations, I began to realize that there’s a thin line between lame song lyrics and the influential words of great leaders.  In fact, if a political or religious leader wrote pop songs, I don’t think the end result would be very different from the songs as they are now.  It doesn’t matter if it’s The Captain and Tennille or The Buddha and Tennille.  Buddha said “love is what makes two people sit in the middle of the bench when there is plenty of room at both ends.”  Captain and Tennille said “love will keep us together.”  Same difference.

When we quote something, are we really choosing to quote those specific words, or are we quoting the words only in relation to the resume and reputation that go with them?  Almost like how we choose to accept one person’s phone call and ignore another’s, we screen the quotes we use based on perception and anticipated outcome.  This quote will have an affect, this one will not.  If you just look at the words and sentiments alone, though, one person’s words generally aren’t much better than another’s.  Language alone doesn’t go very far. 

I could tell Deyne that I’m sorry for accidentally dissing Jack Layton.  Or I could quote Tolstoy and say, “Let us forgive each other, only then will there be peace.”  And I wouldn’t want her to think it would happen again.  For that I would quote another great mind: “We must not reenact the history that divides us, rather we must embrace that which draws us together.”  That’s a pretty good quote.  Words of wisdom.

Thank you for saying it, Spongebob.

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David Bell and the Idea of Irresistible Similarity

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When David Bell was a kid, he ate some paint chips.  Years later, I met David, when I worked at a day program for people with mental retardation.  David was extremely affable, always in good spirits, energetic, and prepared to tell you about his brother, Joe Lewis.

“Where’s Joe?” he would constantly ask.

“I don’t know David,” I’d say.  “Home?”

“No,” David would tell me, “Joe Lewis GONE.  Shot by the police.”

Later I’d meet David’s cousin, LeWanda Bell, who just happened to be Joe Lewis’ daughter.  She informed me that Joe was fine, living a nice relaxing life on his couch, exactly where one would expect him.  He was not missing, nor was he being consistently shot by law enforcement.

There were so many funny moments with David.  He was in his late fifties, black, and seemed to be stuck in the 70s.  He dressed like he was a character on What’s Happening!!, in plaid shirts and a cap like Rerun used to wear.

“Right on!” he’d yell out, pumping his fist.  In truth, I loved David, and encouraged all of his silly behavior.

“Hey, David?  Where’s Joe Lewis today?”

“Gone!  The police got him!”

David would do another fun thing when I’d take out into the community.  We would go on an outing to the mall, and David would happily approach and talk to every black person we’d pass.

“Buddy!” he’d shout.  “My friend!  Where’s Joe Lewis?”

The black person David had accosted typically would have the same reaction as the ones approached in the past.  First, they’d look at David, confused, wondering if they knew him.  Then they’d see the rest of the group David was with and the light bulb would go off.  Ah, this guy, friendly as he is, isn’t quite right.

“Dang, Joe Lewis…I haven’t seen him…”

“He’s shot by the police!”

“Oh…I’m sorry…that’s too bad.”

The reason I go on about David is because I was reminded of him when I moved away from my people in America and off to the homogenously Asian country of South Korea.  Who are ‘my people,’ you might wonder.  Any non-Asian, I thought.  White people, black people, Hispanic, Samoans, Inuks, the Amish, people of a racial descent that is unclear when looking at them – it didn’t matter.  I thought of David Bell and how elated he was to see another black person, and I imagined that it would be similar here in South Korea.  If I would run into another white person, say, on the bus, we would talk and get along famously!

“Hey!  You’re not Asian!”

“Neither are you!  We must have some things in common, eh?”

“Yeah!  You like Maroon 5?”

“No!  But I can understand how you’d think that, as I am a white person…”

That’s how I imagined it going.  In my first few months, I even tried to strike up a conversation with a blonde girl I ran into on the street.

“Hi!” I said.  “You don’t see many white people around here.”

“No, you don’t,” she said and quickly walked away.

The truth, it turned out, is that in South Korea foreigners run away from each other like they’re diseased.  I’ve gotten used to that now, and have the same apathy when seeing a new foreigner as others had when I first arrived.  Approaching another foreigner, there’s always an uneasy moment where eye contact is painfully avoided.  This could involve checking the time, my cellphone, or looking down at the street as though I’m in danger of stepping in quicksand at any moment.  There is no desire to acknowledge that we’re both expats, just the uncomfortable realization that this person exists and the strong hope that the person won’t say anything.  We’ll walk by each other quickly, and after passing the other foreigner, a wave of relief will wash over me like I’ve just dodged the police.

Yes, the police.  I fear them.  I’ve heard what they did to Joe Lewis.

For good old David Bell, there was something irresistible about seeing someone similar to him.  But for some reason, for expats in South Korea, there’s something very uncool about seeing someone similar.  Perhaps it’s the desire to be unique, to be having a singular experience, or the fact that we left our home countries to get away from ‘our’ people.  I’m not sure.  If human connection is about shared experience, we here in Korea would rather keep that experience private.

“Buddy!” David Bell would shout to someone on the street, if he was here, in Korea, holding his hand out, waiting.

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