Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Michelle's Decision

Friday morning August 27, in the aftermath of Harry's decision, I found myself checking and rechecking the shelf in the K-1 classroom for the one remaining pile of books that marked the existence of my once-thriving class. Yes, Michelle's things still occupied her cubby space; but for her supplies and an ex-student's forgotten remnants, the shelf was empty. I sighed with nervous relief. My reprieve was only short-lived, however, for I needed only to have waited for Michelle's arrival to be told the full gravity of the situation. When her mom dropped her off that morning, she gravely informed my Korean co-teacher that this would be her last day. So Harry was right: Michelle did follow in her peers' footsteps.

We did the best we could to accommodate her last moments with us. Instead of being alone, she was able to join the girls of the K-2 class for lunch as a "new friend." I was more lax than usual in my classroom discipline and procedure. For our last "Reading Circle," we stayed in our room instead of going to the library as we had usually done. But somehow our efforts still felt like we were fluffing the pillows of a terminally ill patient, the news of her soon-approaching departure weighing so heavily. The heaviness didn't escape her, either. "Why only one student at ILS?" she asked solemnly as we read together. I still had nothing good to tell her.

Monday morning, August 30, felt like I had entered an entirely different school without Michelle there. By the end of the day, the PK-1 students had moved into the bigger, brighter, now-empty K-1 room, erasing any last traces of the old class even as their name stickers were peeled from the shelf. PK-1 now conducted all of its classes, including those combined with PK-2 and lunch, in the new room. As I walked out of it to get my lunch that afternoon, the swap still fresh on my mind, I was told by one of the PK students to "eat in the kitchen."

I wheeled back around to face the class, defensive and protective as if actually wounded. "We don't talk to Teacher Jennifer that way," I scolded, "because it hurts her." I turned his comment over in my mind as continued to the cooking room, fully aware that I was letting a five-year-old's words get to me. It saddened me that such mean-spiritedness could now occupy the same space that just a week earlier had been the backdrop for such caring and consideration from K-1.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Forgotten Dongtan

On a nature walk through the picturesque hills of Dongtan's Central Park, I stumbled upon the high fence that marked the edge of its trees. A trail ran invitingly along this borderland and, though I could have turned back downhill, I adventurously decided to follow. The view wasn't as beautiful as being submerged in greenery would have been, but it allowed me a chance to study the cityscape and decipher my current location. I picked out two subway lines and a gigantic church building as I observed. The subway trains I knew to be from Seoul's Line 1; the church I recognized from the time I rode to the subway stop in Dongtan. "There's Seodongtan [Station] right there," I told the trees, pointing behind the church. Instantly, I could orient myself in the suburban geography. My decision then was to continue onward along the fence.

As I made my decent, the fence soon broke off from the trail and in its place crawled a neat, asphalt drive. The trail soon ended in a small overgrown meadow and I decided to follow the road to the base of the hill: It would presumably lead to another road, which in turn would lead to still more roads and the way back to Central Park. As I approached the mouth of the drive, I
noticed the unkempt condition of the crossing street, its edges ragged zig-zags and its surface a tired grey. I considered each direction for the best way forward. As the subway station rested somewhere to my right, I decided I would walk left into town.

The thing that I noticed almost instantly as I began my hitch-hike back to town was the numbers on the sides of brick-and-concrete-posts lining the way: "Byeongjeomjungang-ro 22beon-gil," read one. It was an actual street, this worn-out strip of asphalt. What lined it then were addresses, skeletal remains of once-dignified lives. Concrete fences outlined what were once courtyards; roofs gaped open towards the sky. Artifacts of humanity lay exposed to the elements like the bones of a forgotten era: Mirrors, tapestries, hinges, and light fixtures mingled with plant life as if they had been grown there. "Jennifer's descending into the slums of Dongtan," I thought, looking around at the sagging scene in front of me.

As I continued my steady pace, I hoped that no one lived in these structures anymore. They were death-traps, glorified shanties. Glass-less windows made it possible to see from the back of one apartment building clear to the other side of the street and to another set of apartments. It was like the building wasn't even standing there! The area began to feel eerie and uncomfortable as I trekked through it, silent but for the chirp of summer cicadas. I was sure I was the only living soul on the street. I walked for what felt like a quarter-mile without seeing a crossing street or another person. "I just have to get out of here," I told myself to quicken my pace.

In my passage through the area, I saw only three other people: a welder in a small shop amid the debris, a businessman getting out of his car, and a younger man watering flowers at a nearby church. This church looked state-of-the-art, a beautiful structure three stories tall with shiny new windows, a trim parking lot, and a courtyard just inside its doors. I wondered at its age, as it looked recently-built. I marveled that
such a brand-new structure existed in such a run-down part of town. I wasn't sure how populated the church's immediate vicinity was, though I saw a car parked in front of one of the ruins that I passed. Fields adjacent to the street looked tended and plots of land, planted; surely someone must be living there. If the church were ministering to the needs of the surrounding local people, surely it would need to be a little more down-to-earth than this in such a district. It was an oddity among oddities, to be sure.

Touted as a "planned community," and extremely young at just three years old, one would think that Dongtan would be immune to such blemishes as the structures witnessed today. And yet, its hidden ruins speak of an age that belies its youthful radiance. New buildings are continually being raised and months-old businesses close their doors to be replaced by still-newer ventures. Yet just on the other side of the latest office-tels and storefronts lies the still portrait of another Dongtan, one whose wrinkle in time cannot be reclaimed to make something fresh or new. It stands as somber witness, a changeless birthmark on Dongtan's ever-changing landscape.


Tonight as I waited to catch the subway from Seoul back to my residence in Byeongjeom, I noticed that the approaching train's destination was Seodongtan, Byeongjeom's sister stop. "My train!" I thought enthusiastically, until I watched it pull up to the Guro station: Its windows revealed a teeming sea of commuters shoved into railway cars like so much cattle into trailers. It looked full to bursting before it stopped--and there were still masses waiting to board! Afterwards, I saw more people getting on than exiting, which further compounded the issue. I was quickly beginning to question the wisdom of boarding such a train.

I stood at the open door of the subway car in front of me for several seconds, considering the meager room allowance the woman on the train had left me. I warily eyed the cramped corner, unsure if there were room enough for me to fit. Indecisively I shuffled mere inches from the edge of the platform, almost scooting inside. "I don't think I can do this," I finally said aloud, slowly backing away from the entrance. Moments later, I watched an older Korean man step awkwardly into the inches-wide triangle of space I had just left vacant. His foot rested just over the tiny metal railing that the car's door would soon slide over; the bill of his white cap reached into the open air of the platform, pleading like a baby's outstretched palm. There was so little room for the man that I thought the doors would scrape his folded knuckles as they closed.

Mere seconds after the arrival of the older man, a younger, much more agile businessman knifed his way between the woman and older man like the fin of a shark. A wave of agony rippled through the woman's countenance as he passed, as if the fin had slashed through her. He slipped into the remaining space like spilled liquid seeping into every surface crack. The old man's extremities still protruded from the cabin; I envisioned them being caught by the door like the hem of a dress. The businessman himself looked like a woman tightening her corset; I was sure he couldn't breathe with the crush of humanity around him. I could only watch helplessly as the the mechanical doors slid in place and sealed them all in like an overstuffed Ziplock baggie.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


The first week in August brought a fresh semester to the hagwon, with a busier schedule for all staff members and fresh, new classes to teach. It also brought with it a stirring sense of incompleteness amid the excited hurry. Apple Tree was now two teachers less--minus Jack,who had just finished his contract, and Lena, who had decided to pursue other ventures.

As the days strung into weeks in this new state of affairs, I began to notice other familiar faces who were also missing: several members of my once-thriving EX-1 class, as well as key students from GA-1. Among my full-time morning students, Lucy and Erica from my K-1 class had yet to return from summer vacation. I merely thought these two were on longer family outings than most of my other students. I was fully confident that I would see their shining faces again in the coming weeks. However, after such a prolonged absence as they'd accumulated, I slowly started to doubt their ever coming back to school. By the middle of August, I began to expect only six students out of the once-eight-member class: Lisa, Grace, Sky, Sherry, Harry, and Michelle.

Turns of events throughout the month foreshadowed still more turns as the days marched on. Grace was out of school for almost a week due to a skin irritation. Just after she came back, with her condition a bit more under control, I noticed that another face was no longer coming around. Lisa, who had taken an extended break back in July, must have finally decided our school wasn't a good match for her, despite my efforts to include her. My class was now officially down to five. Shortly after Lisa left, Grace's mom made the call to go ahead and pull her out because of the skin condition. That now left not five but four: Michelle, Harry, Sherry, and Sky. Though we were small in number, I was still excited about pressing forward. Not being a Korean speaker, I was blissfully ignorant of the ever-widening crack in K-1's foundation and what would soon bring it to light.

That was six days ago, August 20th. Yesterday, the 25th, I heard Teacher Grace mutter under her breath that she needed to call Sky's mom to check on something. The day before this, Sky had told Harry that the next (the 25th) would be her last day at Apple Tree and that he needed to give her a present. Just after finding out about Sky, Harry's Mom called up at school to ask what was going on with the K-1 class, as everyone seemed to be leaving. None of the staff believed Sky because nothing had been confirmed by her mom. And yet, her mother unexpectedly came to collect her, just as Sky had suggested, at the end of classes yesterday. She told me simply that she wanted to spend more time with Sky and that, for the next month or two, she'd have the time on her hands to do so.

Though I agree with Sky's mom's decision, I feel it comes at a stressful time, given the conditions surrounding the K-1 class right now. At the same moment that Sky's mother came, Sherry's mother also arrived at the hagwon. Rumor was that Sherry, too, would be pulling out of school; James and Grace said as much yesterday afternoon. I mildly rebuked James for suggesting something that we couldn't confirm--then apologized today for my rash reaction, after noting that all of Sherry's books and supplies had been cleared out of her cubby.

Today was a somber day as the realization of such weighty changes swept over me. "Why only two students at ILS/Apple Tree, me and Harry?" Michelle asked this morning at snack. I had no good reason to give them. "I don't really know," I said slowly, feeling that the recent events should have taken months to transpire and not mere days.

Michelle's mom had sent two pound cake rolls to school with her this morning, one of which became the kids' snack while the other found its way to the teacher's office. I couldn't help but think of the gesture as a subtle sign of continued support, like a reassuring pat on the back. No matter who left Apple Tree, Michelle and her mom would still be there to continue their patronage, the cakes seemed to convey. But perhaps I misread her signals; perhaps it was really intended as a way of saying goodbye. Harry commented more than once that "today, me and Michelle last day." I hoped he was joking--until I met his mom at the elevator, who confirmed half of his statement for me. It would be Harry's last day, if not Michelle's. I suppose we'll find out tomorrow whether she followed in her classmates' footsteps.

"It's unfortunate that you had to be there," James commented today in an effort to ease my discomfort about the situation. He observed that it would have happened to a Korean teacher as well--that none of this was my fault. "They still have confidence in this school," he went on. "Apple Tree is a good name and they think we are good teachers. [But s]omething got into the K-1 parents' minds. Soon the K-1 class might be gone."

It saddens me as I contemplate the situation I now find myself in. Within two days, my entire class has vanished. Serious consideration must now be given to the one remaining student, unless she too decides to pull out. I thought August was a month full of the smell of new things--freshly sharpened pencils from a batch of new school supplies and starch from freshly pressed uniforms. Should it not be full of new friends and new years, instead of goodbyes to old ones?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

You've got a Friend in Me

"You've got a friend in me.

You've got a friend in me.

When the road looks rough ahead

and you're miles and miles

from your nice, warm bed,

just remember what you're old pal said--

you've got a friend in me."

--R. Newman

On August 13th, I was on my way to visit Brandon one last time before he left Korea. The night before, I had scouted out the best bus to take to the Suwon terminal, the plan being to catch the 7 p.m. bus to the Ju in order to make it there by dinner at 8:30. It was sprinkling a little as I made my way to the hanbit maul stop and waited for the 7-1 city bus; I was on it by 6:20. "Jennifer Lowery will be in Chungju Friday night, rain or shine," read my Facebook status. In July I had cancelled a get-together I had organized due to monsoon rains. As this was my last chance, I wouldn't let that stop me this time.

Rain I was prepared for that day; traffic, not so much. I breathed a prayer for the LORD to get me to Suwon's terminal on time as I sat nervously trying to read and relax on the bumpy ride. Things looked like they'd be tight when it was twenty-five minutes till 7 and the 7-1 bus was still ten stops away from the terminal. I counted down the stops with anticipation, eagerly awaiting the announcement of "Suwon Bus-su Tuh-mee-nul." I grew impatient and disheartened when the bus crept through one traffic jam after another. Anxiously I watched the cabin fill with still more patrons. It wasn't until I walked into the terminal that I reassured myself--it is Friday. Things are bound to be busy, especially in such a traffic-clogged place like Suwon.

The 7-1 dropped us off ten-to-fifteen meters from the actual bus stop, which was itself several tens of meters from the street corner which led to the terminal entrance. Rounding the corner resulted in another twenty yards to traverse. Tempted though I was by enticing storefronts and would-be indoor shortcuts, I half power-walked, half sprinted to the entrance, checking my watch or cell phone every few seconds to assure myself I could make it. Once inside, my heart sank at the first clock in sight: 1900 hours, already 7. Not many people were queued at the ticket counter when I glanced at it, so I held out hope that I'd be on time. Behind only two others, I paid quickly and took my ticket. "20:30," read the departure time. I was still late.

Something propelled me out the doors of the concourse and onto the platform. I walked the few paces to Gate 14, the departure gate for Chungju, and noticed a bus quietly sitting there. He had already turned his wheels to maneuver away from the curb when I timidly knocked on the door. I held up my ticket and quietly asked if I could still get on his bus. He nodded his head aggressively and motioned for me to take a seat. We pulled out of the parking space at 7:01. I was never so thankful for a bus than at that moment.

I made it to the Ju just after 9, later than I anticipated but still in time for Brandon's cuisine of choice for the evening: a shabu-shabu feast. Shabu-shabu is a Japanese style of cooking, something Andy and Brandon introduced me to the first week I was in Korea. Waitresses bring out cauldrons of boiling broth, heaps of noodles and mushrooms, and little shreds of frozen meat that you pinch with your chopsticks and dip in the broth to cook. Normally we would have had to go all the way across town and split the expensive 3600 won ($3.00) taxi fare to indulge the pleasures of such dining. But serendipitously, a restaurant specializing in the dish recently opened just across the street from Learning Well, in the near-vacant building Koreans raised as we watched from our office windows all winter long. With its proximity to our first meeting, it seemed a fitting place for our final dinner together.

At the restaurant, I met up with Brandon, Daniel, Matt and a Canadian named Jason. Matt walked home after the meal, but the rest of us headed to meet up with a few others for a night of singing at a downtown nurae-bang. Brandon kept commenting throughout the dinner that Andy should have been there--it would have been a party for the two of them, had he stayed. I couldn't have agreed more as we sat picking karaoke songs to sing that night. Remembering Andy's selections from the times we went as a large group, I picked out some to sing in his honor. I imagined him accompanying my rich alto with his clear falsetto as I sang "A Whole New World," a favorite of ours to sing as we would sit in the office together.

The last time I was at a nurae-bang with the gang from Chungju, I sang a song for Andy and Brandon as a reflection of our parting ways, Trisha Yearwood's "How Do I Live?" This time I didn't want to suggest such a melancholy note. I looked for a song to dedicate but couldn't find the one I wanted. Instead, after it was all over, I asked the guys to stay for a moment as I tried my hand at acapella. "This is for Brandon," I said, "as he's leaving us for bigger and better skies. You'll recognize it." Looking into his eyes to make sure he caught the message, I sang out what my kindergarteners call the "Toy Story Song."

"When the road gets rough ahead," I sang with conviction, loud enough to have not needed a mike. I looked straight at Brandon and thought of his upcoming trek across Nepal's Himalaya mountain range. Soon, it would be rough ahead, I knew. "And you're miles and miles from your nice, warm bed"--yes, this too would be true. "Just remember what you're old pal said: You've got a friend in me. Yeah, you've got a friend in me!"

Somewhere deep inside, I want that song to be true for us--for Andy, Brandon, and myself. I really don't want this to be the end. If it were, it might then feel that all the emotion and turmoil from the winter was really all for naught. Here's to you, my best friends in Korea. You've got a friend in me.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Namsan Tower

Midway through August, as I thought about Brandon leaving Korea, I remembered that a friend of mine from another church was scheduled to return about the same time that he left. I sent her a text message that night but got no reply. Later in the week, I saw a mutual friend of ours online and asked him if he knew whether she was in town. He said she was, but had been sick--so I assumed that to be the reason she hadn't replied to my message.

The conversation quickly moved onto other things and during the chat, he invited me to his church that Sunday because he would be preaching. "Your offer is quite tempting," I said. "But I still need to pray about where the LORD would want me this Sunday." He argued his point very well and even tried to make the decision for me. Yet through his forcefulness, I was still hesitant. "All right," he finally wrote. "I'm bringing out my bargaining chip: Becky will be there."

I thought about his assertion this morning as I readied myself for my hour-and-a-quarter subway ride into town. I still hadn't made my decision after transferring to the last of three metro lines. As I was about 15 minutes late when I arrived at Noksapyeong station, the closest stop to church, I decided to go ahead with my usual habit. I knew I wouldn't get to my own church on-time and didn't have the heart to walk in late to someone else's. I walked the ten minutes to SIBC instead of the 15-minute-longer walk uphill to KMI, breathing a quick apology to my friend.

I feel quite strongly that the LORD is in the midst of those days when things seem not to go right. Late or not, it was good for me to be at SIBC that day. The service itself was a refreshing, strengthening reminder of what the gospel is and how it should manifest itself in my Christian walk. Not only that, but I was able to meet with something else a little unexpected. Setting my stuff down during announcements, I noticed the familiar face--at least one I'd seen in pictures--of Becky's sister and a person away from her was Becky herself. Apparently, John's bargaining chip was sitting across the aisle from me!

After the service, Becky, her sister Melanie, and her brother-in-law Brian joined a portion of SIBC's young adult group for a Turkish lunch at Instanbul, a fast-food-like eatery near Itaewon. Later, minus the sister and her husband, the party adjourned to Cold Stone Creamery where we indulged our inner children with waffle cones and two scoops of delicious, melt-y ice cream. It was here that the group split up--some to go home, others to hang out in Itaewon, and still others to run off to errands. Becky and I decided to follow Holly and Dawna over to What the Book?, a trendy English used-book store on the main strip.

Both of the other girls had decided to hit up a hot shopping spot around Seoul after perusing the bookstore, but Becky didn't feel like going shopping. We tried looking for clarinet music books at another trendy, though cramped second-hand store, but found only piano-vocal collections at best. "What do you wanna do?" she asked. "I was thinking of either going home or walking up Namsan Mountain."

By this time, it was five-thirty, a reasonable time to head back to Suwon. I knew that I had chores to do back home, but that they could probably wait until later. Only Frankie waited for me at the apartment and when I had gone home early the week before, I discovered how quickly he could get under one's skin. I wasn't exactly dressed for a hike, as I was in a skirt and flow-y blouse. I looked down at my shoes: dressy, feminine sandals, not exactly supportive hiking boots. Still, the idea was appealing. I had never been to Namsan, though I had taken several pictures of its landmark tower. "It's all stairs," Becky affirmed. "Ajimas [old women] take their dogs up it all the time and people wear high-heels. Let's go!"

What started as a half an hour took two in total sum, taking into account the mini-hike up a busy street to get to the tower, and the trek coming back down. We paused to take some panoramic shots of the city skyline before reaching the "base," and paused again at the scenic photo island midway up, a place we both thought would be ideal for wedding proposals. We finally reached the summit, along with a myriad Koreans come to peacefully pass away another Sunday. The hour grew later as we witnessed the sun bathe fellow visitors to Namsan in its golden twilight. Becky promised it wouldn't be as long getting back down, as she had taken me up the scenic route to get there.

We noticed the effect of such an "easy hike" up stairs almost immediately. Sweat gently coated our arms and soaked our clothing through as we ascended the flights of steps to the top. The evening's cooler breezes chilled us as we journeyed down. Once at the bottom and headed again toward Noksapyeong, our thighs wavered uncertainly beneath us, unused to such exertion. Neither of us had sat down for three and a half hours by the time the walk was finished.

"Thanks for letting me rest today," Becky said as she dropped me at the Noksapyeong exit. Legs still wobbly, I suggested that it wasn't quite as restful a day as it could have been. "If I'm not working, it's restful," she affirmed.

I acknowledged that it was a great idea. Even with its mild effects, the path was still enjoyable.
We both felt rejuvenated at the end by the physical activity and agreed that we had been in need of a good walk. "It totally hit the spot," I told her. "[Now w]e both need to work on stress relievers!"


View of Namsan Mountain and the western side of Seoul
from Namsan Tower’s platform

A Namsan Tower tradition: Couples write sweet messages and promises of fidelity and love to each other on combination or key locks, then attach them to the railing of the Tower’s platform as an outward symbol of their faithfulness.

It seems to be a favorite hang-out spot for lovebirds.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Last week, the Apple Tree teachers and I needed to fill time for one afternoon, as the teacher for our students' Chinese class would still be out on holiday. It wasn't necessary to teach Chinese to the kids, simply because none of us knew the language. We decided instead to have a water gun fight out on the roof after lunch on a warm, humid Friday. It was scheduled to last from 1:00 P.M. to 2:20; whatever time was left over after the fight would be devoted to resting, cleaning up, and watching a movie until the kiddies headed home. The plan seemed peaceful enough.

The day of the special activities arrived with students brandishing bubbly, plastic weaponry of all sizes--from tiny, three-inch pistols to mega-sized water rifles with torpedo-like backpacks for extra ammunition. What I noticed as the kids unpacked was the number of folded raincoats that appeared in their cubby-holes to rest on top of their books. Some had remembered to bring towels as well, nestling them among the day's other accessories. They would definitely be well-armed, I thought as I watched the kids filing in. I looked at my unshielded self and an uneasy feeling settled over me. I thought about my own assets--two tank-tops, one pair of shorts, a pair of sandals, and a travel bag. I had no towel, no change of clothing, and no super-soaker to use as retaliation. I knew it was true even as I confessed to a nearby teacher: "We're gonna get soaked."

Just before one o'clock, James and a couple of Korean teachers gathered students in a line to go upstairs, helping to button slickers and adjust hoods. I spied Teacher Michelle collecting kids' water guns and other such odds-and-ends with a raincoat encircling her body. Anita, seeing to the children's wet ammunition, was clothed in like manner. Grace was similarly clad when she later joined the festivities. Once shot at a few times, James retreated back downstairs for a moment to don his own protection. Daniel, one of our part-time teachers who was on hand to help carry water, spent most of the fight in the comfort of the office; he had been sprayed once and, without any plastic shielding, had decided once was enough. Hints of what lie in wait for the one who came unprepared were all around me, had I eyes to see or a willing heart to heed. I could have refused to take part in the activity, but I chose to err enthusiastically on the side of unabashed participation instead.

As we ascended the stairs, Daniel noticed our low water supply. I rounded up the classes as the other teachers scrambled back to the fifth floor for more munitions. Remembering Jack Teacher, the American who had just left, I led the students in a game he made up called Leader Game to fill the down time. Sherry, from my K-1 class, pulled at her plastic collar as we began. "Teacher, hot," she said. I could almost feel the kids sweating under their protective layers while we waited. The day's humidity sat oppressively on top of us in its own anticipation of the impending fight. It was a perfect day for such an endeavor: the humid, breeze-less air wouldn't matter once the children were wet.

At almost the same moment that the signal was given to fill cartridges and start shooting, I made a beeline for the other side of the roof, mercilessly not even 50 yards away. When they saw me running, my students gave chase. I soon found myself surrounded by no less than 10 pre-K and Kindergartners, all pointing their plastic barrels at me; I was backed up to the edge, my flailing arms a feeble attempt to stave attacks. Left without recourse, I stepped onto the shin-high ledge, held tightly to the golden railing, and looked out, mimicking a woman in search of the best place to jump. Satisfied that they had thus cornered their prey, the kids left me for other exciting targets. Less than five minutes into the fight, my army-green shorts already bore the dark stains of the enemy. I wasn't sure how much longer I could last.

It was then that I remembered my cell phone, left in the now-sopping pocket of my shorts. I stepped into the stairwell to make sure it was none too worse for wear and one of my K-1 students, Sky, tried to follow me. She stuck the business end of her water gun inside first, aimed it at my chest (I surmise), and fired. A trickle of water dribbled from it to the floor; it seemed she was in need of a refill. "Teacher Jennifer has to check something," I instructed her. "She's not a target right now, not for the next five minutes."

After a moment of respite downstairs to hide my phone, I reemerged on the roof, this time to find shelter in the other direction. What I found sadly was a space no more than one-quarter the size of the roof's other portion. A small detachment of troops, made up of Egor, Richard, Sky and a few others, watch me try to hide there and were instantly upon me. I clamored up a fire-escape ladder to try to avoid them, holding tightly to each rung for fear of losing my grip. Sky ventured to the first rung and reached her gun as high as her arms would let her to unload her ammunition on me, the squirt of water hitting my flexed calves like a small dog nipping at my heels.

I stayed up there, suspended above concrete, for several minutes just to earn relief. By now, more than just my shorts were soaked through and it was no longer feeling like much fun. The moment I touched solid roof again, Richard backed me into a trio of whining air conditioner units that I nimbly climbed over, careful not to fall off this side of the roof either. I almost rammed face-first into a large spider and her web as I dodged his shots. Once secure in my defenses, I peeked my head out from my armored cover every few seconds to locate my predator. My only reprieve was granted when the kids were called around the corner for a picture. They then settled on emptying their water guns onto the black wall behind them, instead of me.

Soaking wet, I returned to the office fully aware that I would now have to teach my afternoon classes in such a foolish condition. It was only 1:30 and I knew we had to keep the kids for at least another hour, but I was none too helpful at that moment. The air conditioner's icy fingers had already started to curl themselves around my limbs and I was too wet to sit down with the children on the sofa to watch the movie. "I'm going for a walk," I told Teacher Daniel. "I'll come back when I'm dry."

I can't say I dried off any on my walk. I spent the better part of a half an hour meandering around picturesque apartment parks in Dongtan trying to speed evaporation, a thing unlikely on such a humid day. The only other thing I could have done, I suppose, would have been to run myself dry. But I doubted how my moisture-swollen skin, clad in water-saturated sandals as it was, would have weathered such an endeavor. That, and I don't really like to run. At one point I tried sitting down in an effort to squeeze as much water from my shorts while still leaving them on, which resulted in two half-moon water prints left on the bench where my rear end used to be.
All I have to say is that you know how loved you are by how drenched you become after a water gun fight with kindergarteners. As I was a favorite target, I must have ranked high on their list.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Lost Boys

Meet John Bul Dau. He doesn't live in Korea--nor, in fact, anywhere in Asia. He's not from my hometown or any of the places I have ever visited. I've never met him in person, but his story is compelling. He's a very tall, black man from Africa who currently lives in Syracuse, New York, with his wife and daughter; how he got there is miraculous. He has written a memoir on the subject called God Grew Tired of Us. "They call me a Lost Boy," he writes. "[B]ut let me assure you, God has found me" (7).

I had heard of the Lost Boys of Sudan in passing, but I had no real understanding of what the term meant. I had no real interest in learning about them, either, safe and provided for as I was in my own homeland. I bought the book early in 2008, thinking it would help in a research project about unreached people groups. I was grossly unaware of why the book was written at all and remained painfully blind to the conflict Dau's people faced. The research project eventually took off in a different direction and his book sat forgotten on my dusty, overcrowded bookshelf.

I spied the book again in the hands of a friend in Seoul one recent Sunday. I mentioned how I had the book at home but had never read it. She firmly pushed it toward me and urged that I take it, though she had not yet read it herself. I took the book from her, if only to give me material to read on the subway ride back to Byeongjeom, and started it that night. I found the story so captivating that I finished its 287 pages in 8 days.

The book starts during a midnight shelling raid on Dau's childhood home, a southern Sudanese village named Duk Payeul--a raid which forever altered the course of his life. Scrambling to get outside the hut full of sleeping children that he had been resting fitfully in just moments before, he was pulled to safety by a man he presumed to be his father. For the next hours, they watched and listened together as their village burned. This was 1987, the start of a great civil war for Dau's country and a fourteen-year journey for himself. "I have wondered, more times than I can count," Dau writes in his introduction, "if my friends or I would live to see a new day. Those were the times I thought God had grown tired of us" (7).

From Duk Payeul, Bul Dau traces his path on foot across southern Sudan and into an Ethiopian refugee camp just across the border, called Pinyudu. Along the way, he and the man who rescued him--who wasn't his father, but instead a close family friend named Abraham--encountered first three, then a group of nineteen, then eventually uncounted thousands of young refugees heading towards the camp. Most of these young people were boys under the age of eighteen, just like Bul Dau; girls and adults like Abraham were scarce in the group indeed.

Here was an entire generation of orphaned boys resting on Ethiopia's doorstep. The civil war that led them there pushed them further and further away from their villages and eventually out of their homeland altogether. These child-refugees settled safely in Pinyudu for a peaceful few years, but their conflict was far from over. The government who sponsored raids on their villages pursued the displaced multitude yet again, this time from the Ethiopian side. Bul Dau and his friends were caught off guard by the suddenness of the attack and fled with whatever meager belongings they couldn't afford to abandon, wanted fugitives on the run in a place that should have been their refuge.
While reading I realized with devastating certainty that events that fell upon these Lost Boys happened to my generation. Dau was 13 in 1987, the year his government fired on his village and scattered his family; my twin and I were only 3 and my older brother almost 5. In the refugee camps he relocated to, Dau was among the oldest of the boys; countless thousands of others made the trip as six- and seven-year-olds. By 1991, some of the children who struggled into camp could have been my exact age!
As I devoured page after page of his story, I could identify myself with John in very meaningful ways. I have felt the disorientation that he felt as he endeavored to survive in a country not his own among a people not his own. I have worshipped the same God that he worshipped among his fellow refugees as he danced and sang in his native tongue. And I have lived in the same timeframe, though swaddled in peace while he was shrowded in conflict. Our experiences are not so far removed from each other as what at first might seem. John Bul Dau is my peer, in every sense the word carries. What challenged me the most about his narrative was his unwavering faith in Christ. "War would come to us," he writes in his first chapter, speaking of his native southern Sudanese people. "[B]ut God would be with us in our hour of torment and make us powerful again" (36).
The LORD was surely with Bul Dau and his fellow refugees on their painful sojourn. Though they struggled through such devastating hardship, Dau witnessed the LORD provide for their needs and watch over their care through agencies like the UN and World Vision. As the Lost Boys trekked on foot through hostile southern Sudan, on their way to yet another refugee camp, water and food supply trucks followed them. It was amazing to read how the hand of the LORD rested on them as they journeyed. They had to walk through the difficulty, but God made sure they did not walk alone! While they covered the five hundred miles from a makeshift home in Pochala, Sudan, to refuge across the Kenyan border, Dau and the other boys sang a song in Dinka en route to safety:
"As we go through this wilderness,
We thank you [Jesus] and worship
Because your words we have listened to."
Yes and amen, LORD. Yes and amen.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My Baby Pays a Visit

Just before our hagwon's week-long summer vacation started, the teachers were informed that one of our part-time kindergarten staff members would not be at school for a week when we returned, due to a longer vacation time. This meant that we'd have to cover her class: Chinese.

"But I don't speak Chinese!" I nearly shouted at one of my co-teachers, incredulous.

"Don't worry about it," she said slowly. "We will not have Chinese class that week. Just we will do something for the class."

I was later handed a small slip of paper that denoted my time to substitute: second period on Tuesday the 3rd, with K-1. On the weekly schedule for that time slot, where the word "Chinese" used to be, was printed the opened-ended command, "Having Fun." What kind of fun was then left up to us. "I'm glad I wasn't given that [assignment]," an acquaintance of mine noted tongue-in-cheek today. "I would have said, 'Alright, kids, let's read 20 pages of The Economist.' "

I knew the class wasn't going to be the kind of fun my friend had mentioned, but neither would it be "fun-do-whatever." I was loathe to walk in without any real objective for the time I had; 40 minutes or not, the kids still needed some structure. I could always sing with them, I thought--but I have either a song-and-chant or musical-drama class with the kids one to two times a week. I didn't want another repeat of those, for fear of boredom in my regularly scheduled classes. Finally, it donned on me: Why not teach them to read music instead of just sing it? While I'm teaching them to read, there needs be a method for them to practice their skills--so why not an instrument, too?

I'll admit, I got a little carried away in my ambition; after all, this arrangement of extra time was for one week, not six. And they are kindergarteners, still lacking the finer motor skills which would allow them to complete such an endeavor successfully. I finally settled on a simpler approach: Don't worry about teaching them to read music. And don't worry about squawks and bloobles, either. Just introduce them to the idea that they might some day be able to play. It was settled, then--the very next day I would take my baby to school with me and together we would teach the kids about the art of making music.

I would first introduce the concept of music-making to the kids with a couple of etudes. Then I would introduce five of the basic notes and fingerings that I used. I would have the students finger them first on a pencil and then on the gem, my baby. If there were time, I even invented a game for the kids--tossing beanbags into bowls to symbolize which fingers to press on the keys or holes.

The class, I feel, was a rousing success! As soon as my baby and I started playing, virtually all of the kindergarten classes came to listen. As we settled into the bulk of the lesson, only four students remained and I was able to give them focused attention. I called them up front and each were able to not only blow into the clarinet, but actually produce the desired notes. One of my Korean co-workers later mentioned that the kids were so impressed. "Wow," they said. "I want to play an instrument like Jennifer Teacher!" My co-worker suggested that students like these, ones who attend English hagwons, don't really have a chance to try anything musical. She said it was good for the kids to at least be exposed to it. My baby and I had fun that day, for sure. Hopefully there can be a repeat performance in the near future.