Friday, April 30, 2010

My Brother's Wedding

for my grandfather, Glynn Hudson Lanier

The lights dimmed in Henry's Mexican Restaurant, a modestly-sized eatery only cramped due to the sheer volume of rehearsal-dinner attendees the night of April 23rd. Attentions focused on the building's right inside wall as a slideshow faded in and out on the screen to the time of a Star Trek instrumental theme. Younger versions of the bride and groom shuffled into view, chronicling their growing-up years before the audience's eyes. I recognized most of my brother's photos. I was in some of them: the two of us safely bundled up together in Mom's arms amid our first snowstorm at 11 months; Jason and I strong-armed by a young Uncle John as infants; all three of us innocently naked sitting together in the bathtub at three and four. As I watched mine and Jason's childhood pass before our eyes, it finally hit me: I'm not the only woman in his life anymore.

Being twins, Jason and I clung to each other as a sort of comfort as we were growing up. We were uniquely sensative to each other's needs even from the beginning. When Jason would scream for his feeding or for his diaper to be changed as a baby, I would patiently sit there and wait my turn. I joke with myself that if he hadn't been so boisterous, I may never have been fed or changed. But I know I didn't mind the wait: Even as a small child, I seemed to enjoy defering to him. The two of us would often go off by ourselves and play, leaving older Chris to fend for himself. My favorite game that we played together was called "Lion;" in it, Jason was the lion and I was the lion-tamer. We would walk along side-by-side, he on hands and knees and I upright in the tall green grass of the mobile home's backyard, pretending like we were part of a circus routine. I adored being with him and being in whatever business he was in as often as he would let me be there.

When he was still a toddler, Jason began a life-long posture of watchfullness over me. My grandma tells me the story of what happened one warm day in 1985: I was just tall enough at 18 months old to touch the kitchen table, but couldn't reach what I wanted on top of it, a nice crisp apple. Noticing me straining to obtain the prize, Jason put down his own toy, ingeniously found a chair, mounted it, and seized the apple. He then genteelly presented it to me. This inclination to watch over me continued throughout our growing up years as a sense of responsibility for me and a desire to protect me in whatever way he could. Anytime he heard a negative comment about me, he would raise himself to his full stature, clench both fists, and aggressively declare, "Don't you be messin' with my sister! Whaddya doin' messin' wi' my sister?"

During our school years, Jason was ever-cognizent of our different sexes and ever-mindful of others' perceptions of our closeness. Because we were always in the same class and hung out together after school, he was somehow afraid that someone unaccqauainted with us would watch us walking together and assume that we were dating. I must have put that scare in him big time when we were in fifth grade. On our birthday that year, my friends kept daring me to give him a birthday kiss (on the cheek, of course). I knew how much it would be uncomfortable for him, so at first I declined. Succumbing to 'tween peer pressure, however, as we walked to music class that day, I stole one. He yelled so loud and was mad at me for a week!

As these pleasant memories flooded my senses the night of the rehearsal, I realized that our twin relationship would be irrevocably changed less than twenty-four hours from that moment. In some ways, I felt, I would be giving my brother away to another woman, a girl far less his twin but so much more his life-long companion. She takes a place that I could never fill: He couldn't bring himself to be mad at her for kissing him, even on the cheek, for a minute--let alone a whole week!

I could not be happier to have such a woman as Christy Luster as my sister-in-law. I met her in the fall of 2007, one day when Jason brought his new girl by. I'm not sure how long they had been dating at that point, but, if memory serves, I knew it hadn't been very long. He had been in China for all of the previous year and returned to the States in March of 2007. Sometime after that, she found him on Myspace and boldly messaged him with, "Hey handsome!" She revealed that she lived in La Vernia, a small town just outside of San Antonio. They then discovered that they both worked across the street from each other. Appearantly interest was mutual, because less than six months later here she was on Dad's porch, Jason's girlfriend.

A relationship is not without its criticism and Jason's with Christy had its fair share. From my perspective, however, I have rooted for them almost from the start. I was privvy to an interesting evening in the infancy of their relationship that sealed the deal for me. As a Christmas present, in December 2007 Jason and Christy took me out to dinner at the Rainforest Cafe in downtown San Antonio. He had asked me to bring my phone, dubbed my "secret cell phone" and used for emergencies only, as a point of contact. I arrived just before seven that night and, having forgotten the phone, walked upstairs to give them a call. He was calm and said they'd be there in five minutes or so. He mentioned that they were on the corner of St. Mary's and something and I told him that was far from the restaurant. "No, it isn't, no it isn't," he declared in his characteristic gruffness. I told him I'd see him soon and walked back to the waiting area. I hadn't the heart to tell him that if he didn't arrive within fifteen minutes, the restaurant was obligated to give away our table.

Just after 7:15, I spied the couple approaching the Rainforest's broad entrance, both Jason's and Christy's expressions looks of frustrated annoyance and near-exhaustion. He carried Christy's bag and she carried her twelve-month-old on her hip. At that moment, I wasn't sure if this had turned out to be a good idea. I was picturing Jason's unpredictable side bubbling up and all I could think of was to stay as far out of the way as I could. Mercifully, the Rainforest had held our table for us and, after checking in with the "Rock" (what we called the hostess' podium), we headed upstairs.

The dinner proved to be quite lovely. The meal itself was quite delicious. I remember Christy ordered a burger and split it with the baby; Jason either ordered steak or some other kind of burger; and I ordered some sort of pasta or salad. Camryn, the baby, was very well-behaved throughout the night. One of the restaurant's managers and also one of my friends from work, Vince, sauntered to our table and gifted us with complementary chips and queso. As it was the first time that I was able to sit with Christy for any length of time, I really enjoyed my time with them that night.

Conversation quietly passed to the reason for the late entrance and Christy confessed that it was due to Jason's parking job. He had talked with me about the event long enough to figure out the time and the restaurant's general vicinity, but he failed to ask either for directions or convenient places to park. Christy reminded him of the need for such things, but he just brushed her off. Remembering something in my directions about the street Trinity, as he spied it from the driver's seat he pulled down it and into the first parking lot he found: a narrow strip twenty spaces deep and wide enough for two rows of parked cars and one lane of traffic. The three of them flopped out of his F-250, a hulk of a pick-up truck, and began the search for the restaurant. They found a sign pointing to the Riverwalk and knew the restaurant was somewhere on it. As Jason lively told her, "It's just around this bend," they walked on. Five bends later, they still had not reached it but continued in steely silence. When I called him, Jason hadn't wanted to worry Christy that they might be lost, so he brushed off my comments as well.

The night's excitement had only just begun, however. After dinner, we repeated the walk they had made earlier and I discovered that they had parked only three blocks away from me, a journey that would have taken them far less to traverse had they walked on the street. We piled into the truck, Christy securing Cami in the backseat with me and then climbing back out to direct Jason out of the parking space. He started to back out with her as his guide. "You have that much space," she said through the window, indicating about 8 inches with her hands. He tried the other direction, but with similar results. After a frustrating twenty minutes of this, he had all but given up. He started to grunt loudly and yanked his hat off his head, throwing it violently on the floor of the truck as Christy climbed back in. "It's nothing to get mad at," she said matter-of-factly. "You're just stuck."

By this point, having witnessed the tell-tell signs of Jason's rising anger all-too often, I cowered in the backseat and focused my attention on entertaining Cami. I didn't want to be yet another cause of his frustrations. A thought popped into my head, one I was none-too-eager to voice: What if I went to get my car and I took everyone home and then brought Jason back to get his truck? In the time it would take to go home and back, surely someone would have moved and given Jason space enough to get out. We sat there muling over what to do for minutes until finally I felt comfortable enough to suggest my idea. Reluctantly, he agreed.

My car was only three blocks away, but Jason asked Christy to walk with me anyway because he didn't want me to go alone. Within minutes of getting the car, all four of us were piled in and headed to Christy's dad's house to drop off the baby. It was then that she said she wanted to drive him back because if not, she'd worry about him. It was an argument I could not argue with; after dropping Cami off and making sure Jason and Christy were safe, I headed home, confident that she'd take good care of him that night.

I am ever thankful that a woman like Christy would not only be willing but more than eager to spend the rest of her life with a man like Jason. I saw his "Baben rage," a nickname from high school given to his outbursts, peeking through his resolve the night at the Rainforest Cafe. But I also saw Christy's reaction to it and it didn't ruffle her feathers. She has a pretty even-keel personality: She's assertive without being overbearing and patient without being pushed over. Since she's been with my brother, I've seen the way her temperance has molded and matured him. I know I couldn't handle someone like my bother, but I know the LORD has blessed her with such an ability. When she lends her support to him, I know it's valid. She not only allows, but encourages him to pursue his interests. In good humor, she "puts up with" his love for all things Star Trek--and she makes allowances for it! When Christy confesses her love for Jason, I know it is true because I have seen the contrast.

"We all remember Michelle," Jennifer Click, a long-time friend from middle school, confessed at Jason's wedding. Jennifer, her husband David, and Eric the Best Man, grew up together with my brothers and me while we were in school. The three of them, together with their spouses and my brothers, still form a close-knit social circle. Jennifer was speaking of an event from several years prior that the group helplessly watched unfold. Jason almost married a girl who proved not to be as keen on marrying him as he thought she was.

For a long time, my brother has wanted what the LORD richly blessed him with on his wedding day. Nearly five years ago, he felt like he had it. He had met a girl at school that he fell in love with--and he was going to marry her. He informed us of this decision around August of 2005, not really asking our permission but rather letting us know it would happen. Sometime after that, he proposed and she accepted.

The whole situation was oddly matter-of-fact for a man and woman presumed to be so much in love. Jason asked Dad at one point, "Is this how things should feel?"

Dad countered with, "No, this should be the happiest stage of your married life."

It clearly wasn't the happiest stage for him. As things progressed, Jason began to notice how beligerent this girl was. The girl would fault him for wanting to go out and fix his Mustang, the project car he'd had since 2001. She would also make fun of his affinity for Star Trek. As I helped Jason move during this time, I heard her say to him about his beloved TV show, "Jason, are we five?" As his sister, I know how important these things are to him and it pained me to think that they weren't as important to this girl. Nevermind whether these were her own interests--she should be so supportive of them because they are such monuments in his life.

In planning for the wedding, Christy showed how supportive of Jason she really could be: From the overall country theme down to his Star Trek TNG-communicator cuff links, every detail spoke of their merging interests and their merging lives. I could see that it was a labor of love from her to my brother. Jason made a comment that day about how much a reflection of himself the event was--"It's got fishing and deer hunting and country and Star Trek." He was overwhelmed at the thoughtfulness of it all. His groom's cake was a deer-hunting scene, complete with blind and deer figurines, a thing he showed off proudly. His and the groomsmen's vests and ties were leafy camoflague-green to match. They were announced at the reception with a Star Trek theme and the final dance was another such work. Her gift to him at the reception was the companion guide to all things Star Trek, a book we stressed could not be taken on the plane flight to the honeymoon. Her touch was even present in the element that Jason brought to the wedding. Were it not for her patiently allowing him time for his Mustang, it would not have been ready for them to drive off into the night with.

This is definitely a union worth celebrating and his wedding day was nothing if not a celebration. Literally, hundreds of people flocked to witness the event and 700 people were served dinner at the reception. I knew it was going to be big when more than fifty people showed up for the rehearsal dinner. Having come all the way from Korea to be a part of it, I can honestly say I would not have missed this for the world. Jason and Christy, "Love long and prosper."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Coming Home

Today I embark on a visit back to Texas, a journey that will last for a blissful twelve days. This week-long trip has been on my heart since I left the States five months ago: It was a deal-breaker for signing my first hagwon contract and was a condition upon signing the second. If neither employer would let me take the trip, I wasn't going to work for them. My brother is getting married a week from today and, even though I had moved halfway around the globe, wasn't about to miss the celebration.

The trip itself has been eagerly awaited and anticipated for many months. It's been greatly publicized by word-of-mouth at my new school, ILS, and throuh a letter to the parents of my students. I feel as though my brother is now quasi-famous for his wedding. One of my co-workers bought him a wedding present out of courtesy and a deep sense of respect, even though he had never met my brother. A near-stranger saw me in the ILS stairwell and asked me, "Your brother's getting married?" He might as well have said, "So you're the one!"

My students have been equally well-informed of my travel plans, though at times armed with a bit of mis-information. Annie, one my my EX 2 students, asked on Wednesday, "Teacher, your brother 'dun-dun-d-dun'?" It was so cute! It reminded me of my Learning Well students who hummed the same song months ago about another couple they thought might marry. Then David, the other student in the class, excitedly spun this story: "Teacher," he said, "Friday you last day and you go to Texas and you marry." I think he forgot a couple of important details, ones which I made a point to quickly clarify. I reminded him that I would indeed be back in just under two weeks and that, sadly, I wouldn't be bringing a husband along for the ride.

I guess all this hoopla about my brother makes me a bit famous, too. I felt quite the popular woman yesterday as, amid preparations for my substitutes, people continued to search me out until well after the close of the day. I stayed until after 7, an hour after the end of classes, to finish up my final preps. I asked my fellow teachers what they wanted as presents from the States and one of them, Daniel, told me, something like, "The only present we want from Texas is for you to come back." I suppose I'll have to make that my top priority.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

And I Thought Dad's Bathroom was Small!

*My new apartment in issues*

I was informed on Thursday evening, March 18th, just over two weeks after my initial move to Hwaseong, that the lease for Jack’s, James’, and my apartments would be up that coming Sunday and we would be moving over the weekend. It appeared I would be on the move in Korea yet again, having just settled into what I thought would be my permanent base of operations for the next year. Mercifully, the late notice was considered, the relocation date extended, and we scheduled a proper move for March 31, giving me at least a week and a half to come to terms with the unsettling turn of events.

During that time, the apartments that we thought would be ours fell through the realtor’s hands and the three foreign teachers would now be split up into several different buildings. One week ago Monday, two days before the move, we were permitted the keys to the various apartments and were then allowed a tour of them. Or at least I thought it was just a tour. In vain, I imagined an apartment showing similar to one in the States: You look at the rooms available and choose a good fit based on your preferences. I was grossly unprepared for how far along in the rental process I had passively been carried by the current of my employer’s executive power: The woman showing us around was not parading available rooms for rent but actually introducing us to our new homes—signed, sealed, and delivered. There would be no going back, as payment had already been made and paperwork had already been filed. The only option available to either James or myself would be to switch rooms with each other, if we disliked our own so vehemently.

I’ve heard that a man won’t marry a woman with a magazine collection because she has too many issues, but the same could probably be said for not signing Korean apartment contracts. I nearly cried when I stepped into Wabora Building Room 208 for the first time. I instantly noticed that my window faced the brick edifice of another apartment wall not twenty feet from it. The other window's burglar bars and tiny air conditioning fans scrunched together into a menacing smile like so many metal braces and caps, barring me from a glimpse of creation. I felt trapped in a concrete jungle that I couldn’t escape, needing to import as much scenery as I could because there was none to be had outside. My heart sank as I thought that the morning sun would not be able to pleasantly peek in the way it had in my other two apartments. It was glumly dim as I glanced around the room, adding to the bleakness. The lights weren't working, a problem which the realtor said was the curcuit breaker and promised to have fixed the next day.

The room itself was easily one-third smaller than 403 Modern House, which itself was half the size of Gyeong-in Building Number 611. It so appeared that so far in my Korean career I had gone from small, to smaller, to tiny. As I looked around the modest accomodations, I was having trouble imagining places to put things. I didn't like where the kitchen was placed, just inside the apartment door and set off as a sort of entryway. It was long enough only to permit an adequate sink and a two-burner gas range, wide enough only for a small sliding door. Having walked the length of the room in under seven strides I grumbled, “I think I just need to find a new country to live in.” I could be thankful, though, that at least it wasn't a hermitude.

I was beginning to feel disheartened at the dismal prospects of culinary, artistic, or interior
design expression this new apartment so far was offering. The refrigerator, having nowhere else to be, stood in a corner on the opposite side of the apartment from the kitchen, which would make retriving cold ingredients a bit of a chore. I noted, too, that the kitchen had no counter-top to speak of, which meant no real space to chop vegetables. A television the size of a small luggage set glared menacingly at me, taking up more precious space with its blank, empty screen. When I glanced into the closet, I noted there wouldn't be room enough for either of my suitcases to comfortably fit inside. As I stood at the closet door, I looked down at my feet and noticed a drain in the middle of the tiled balcony-style room that served as a laundry space--the drain being a tell-tell sign of where the washer's washwater would likely go. This meant that Frankie's box could not find a home in the washroom.

As I followed the realtor around the room that night, I said to myself, “Jennifer thinks that apartment-shopping in South Korea is disheartening at best”—and to that I could add, dismal at worst. I couldn't even concentrate when she tried to show me how to work the water and floor heater, so distracting was my opinion of the new space. I bit my tongue as we left my building, not wanting to betray my feelings. Some of James' advice swirled through my head as the enterage and I meandered through the streets of Jinan-dong: He had told me to inform our director, Michelle, of any issues I had concerning the new place. "I'm not going to say what I think about it," I told my co-workers firmly, trying to minimize my complaint. I think the effort was false, however, as my distaste was rather obviously written on my face while I had inspected the room. They finally pried the truth from me. I was so dissatisfied with it that Jack called our director Michelle and looked at me for clarification. "Your problems with the apartment are the view and the kitchen, right?" he asked.

In their conversation, Michelle asked to speak with me. “I need to know the reasons exactly why you don’t like it,” she said, “in order to tell the realtor.” I told her that I didn't really like the view and that there didn't seem to be much room in the apartment as a whole. She reassured me that she'd speak with the realtor and ask for a different room; if that didn't work, I could talk with James and ask him to switch with me. When asked, James seemed satisfied and content with his living conditions at present. He said he wasn't happy with his own apartment but was unwilling to switch. "It's not want I want," he kept saying, "but it's not really for me. It's for the other teacher, too" (whomever would be replacing him in 11 months). Michelle called back about 15 minutes later and confirmed the impossibiliy of switching rooms because the contract had already been signed. She offered to look for another room for me, but nothing would be available for another four months and I would have to wait until then. It seemed, then, that dispite my reservations with the apartment, I was stuck with it.

Having settled into life in this new space for the last week, I feel like I’m living in a hotel room, one supplied with the sparce necessities that pass for a kitchenette: two cabinets above the sink and three below it, space which is needed to suffice both as the home of my pots, pans, and dishes, and as a pantry. My father's kitchen has more drawers and cabinets than my entire living space. I am sure even my limited collection of supplies barely squeezes into such accommodations. Who knew that such things as counter space, adequate cabinet space, and room for a shower were luxuries? These Koreans have literally cut out everything that isn’t imperative, absolutely necessary--a concept that in this country can encompass anything from cabinetry and enclosed showers to, apparently, sinks. One of my new co-workers recently moved into a place that had no bathroom sink but instead a nearly full-length mirror and a faucet. I suppose, amid all my complaints, I could have it worse.

Welcome to Hwa-Su-Byeong-Dong-jeom-tan

The day I had my interview with my new school (February 22), it took me three and a half hours to get here. I missed the earlier bus in Chungju by fifteen minutes, putting my arrival time to Suwon fourty-five minutes later than expected. I was on the bus when my 10:30 appointment should have started. By the time the driver dropped us off at the terminal, I was still two subway stops and a cab ride away from my destination. It was still another one and a half hours before I would make it to the interview. I should have known from the start, then, that this would be a directionally-challenged place to live.

The wonderful information-booth attendant I found at the bus terminal spoke impecable English, but directed me to the Yeongtang campus of ILS, a school with the same name as my potential employer and a mere twenty minutes away but which proved to be the wrong hagwon. It was by the grace of God that I followed the man's advice, though--and followed it erroneously, I might add. I hopped on the 5-1 bus I thought he had directed me to and with my broken Korean tried to spy out the stop he had suggested. A fellow passenger asked in English if she could help--and when I pointed to my stop, promptly informed me I was on the wrong bus. "Opposite direction," she said. "Get off at the next stop and take the 5-1 the other way."

Unknown to myself at the time, my interview was actually at the Dongtan Campus of ILS, a place I hadn't realized would be in another city entirely. Instead of getting on another bus, what I actually had need of now was access to the subway. As I looked up at what surrounded the northbound 5-1 bus I was still on, an enormous mall-like structure loomed above traffic to the left while a sturdy concrete footbridge crossed the busy-ness in front of us. Apparently this was the next stop: Suwon Station.

I crossed the footbridge, found the city-bus lanes, and planted myself firmly next to them to wait for what I knew would be my bus. After five minutes and no sign of 5-1, I remembered my director's instructions: from Suwon, take subway line 1 to Byeongjeom station, then take bus 27 or 73 to the hagwon in Dongtan. But I thought to myself, wouldn't it be easier to take bus number 5? By now, it was at least 11AM and I was thirty minutes late. I knew where I was going! Taking the subway sounded awfully unnecessary for a hagwon that should have been twenty minutes from the terminal.

I called my director to ask if I could take the bus, but she was adamant: "Take subway line 1 to Byeongjeom and from there take bus 27 or 73 to Dongtan," she insisted. My mind returned to a comment I had heard among my foriegn friends, that Koreans only have one way of doing things. I chalked up the situation to their stubbornness and started on the way she had said.

Only because I have now lived here for three months have I realized the wisdom of following my director's advice that day. The area in which I am now in Korea--south of Seoul but still in the Kyunggi-do province--is so densely populated that cities bleed into each other on the landscape. Yet it is so district-oriented that a given building does not belong to another city. Metapolis, for example--a gigantic apartment mega-plex left ghostly unfinished--looms in the shadows of Suwon's skyline. You see its towers from the subway line just after the station, standing sentinal as silent watchmen on the walls. But Metapolis is not in Suwon; it is part of Dongtan, affectionately dubbed "Dongtan New City" by Korean locals.

According to my American co-worker Jack, who has lived in its vicinity for more than a year, this locale is only three years old. It's an adolescent, too new and hip to be considered part of a parent city, but not quite big enough to be considered its own. I asked a Korean co-worker of mine about it one day and he said, "Dongtan? Dongtan is just... Dongtan." Despite the lack of official title, the subway line has extended the mile or two east Byeongjeom Station to this new cluster of buildings in an effort to be more attractive to commuters and potential tennants. "It was a planned community," says Jack. "They're trying to play [it] up to get more people to live here." The appearance of the location is itself an incentive. From businesses to tall apartment complexes, everything is new and fresh and vibrant. The layout of streets and buildings is much more spacious and manueverable; it feels every inch the modern city that it is.

I live in neither Dongtan nor Suwon. When I arrived to my first apartment in this new part of Korea--there has been one other newer, smaller model since then--I tried asking Jack where we lived, as he was in the same building. I wanted to let everyone back home know how to reach me. "I don't know my address," he confessed. He's lived here how long, I thought, and he doesn't know his address?

He invited me up onto the roof of our apartment building one night and showed me his spectacular view. He pointed north to rows of innumerable dark columns with little flags of light: "There's Suwon right there," he said. Then in the other direction, he nodded to a pair of streetlamp rows running perpendicular to the roof and leading, like airport runway lights, to Lotte Cinema and its accompanying brightly-lit business establishments. "And this," he said proudly, "is Byeongjeom."

"I thought we lived in Hwaseong," I countered. By this time, I was armed with my address and the director's business card, both of which denoted "Hwaseong-si" as the city name. They were official--I was sure they had to be right!

"Hwaseong is like a county," Jack explained. "--like Bexar County. Byeongjeom and Dongtan are like cities within that county, like Live Oak and Schertz and stuff like that. I still have never been to Hwaseong."

I wasn't fully convinced of his argument then, nor am I now. I find the regional divisions among theses different locations to be highly unneccessary. I was at first surprised that there wasn't a bus terminal in the Byeongjeom area. Then I discovered that the Suwon terminal is only twenty minutes away by taxi--so what need is there for yet another terminal? In a space less than half the size of San Antonio, there are more than three distinct "cities," all of which somehow need their own spot on the subway line. And none of which can be allowed to blend in to any other city. Why the need for so much separation?

I thought about the interconnectedness of our respective communities as a sat on a hill in one of the sports parks in the Byeongjeom area. As I sat watching the setting sun, I gazed out at the thoroughfare not half a mile from me, which ran from Byeongjeom Station to Suwon. Parallel to the lanes were the tracks, from which shot subway trains headed to Seoul and back. I could see clear to Suwon from my perch. If this had been San Antonio, I mused, I would have only been looking at a fraction of such a large city. With such little effort could I go from the place where I sat to the place to which I gazed. I marveled that locations so close together could be so distinct. It all seemed part of the same city as I watched another caterpillar of a subway train crawl out from its cacoon-like station and race toward the north to continue the connectivity.