Listeners

I once wrote a poem titled “Advice for Those Who Don’t Know How,” which was advice from a fire about how to become fire. Admittedly I can’t file that under the “Lily’s Real World Advice” tab but I think I can take that poem’s title and write a book filled with real actual advice that nobody would read because nobody ever listens to me or understands what I’m trying to say anyway. But for all that, I think I give pretty good advice. Whether or not someone accepts what I say is their prerogative, but I like to think that in real life and in dealing with other people I’m a good mixture of logic and emotional reasonableness, which is a good combination for troubleshooting and advice-giving.

And in my experience, most people are really bad at giving advice. Incapable of or unwilling to think outside of their own realm of experience and understanding into someone else’s, they spew meaningless axioms and empty pre-packaged condolences which, quite opposite of having the intended effect of cheering someone up, usually have the opposite of making them feel responsible for something they weren’t responsible for, or feeling worse than they were before they said anything, or feeling sorry they shared their story at all.

Particularly when it comes to giving emotional support, sometimes nothing needs to be said. No oh you deserve better’s or he’s such a tool’s. No you’ll find someone who’s good to you someday’s. These are all meaningless things to say.

Why? Because the person you’re comforting already knows that. They already know they don’t deserve to be treated poorly. They already know he’s not a great guy. That’s not why they told you what they told you.

They told you what they told you because they’re feeling horrible now and they need you as a friend to support them emotionally. That doesn’t mean telling them that they didn’t deserve to be treated like that and the guy that they sincerely, truly had feelings for is just a bad guy. By saying things like that, you can actually burden your friend with accusation: why did you have true feelings for a shithead like that? Why would you let yourself be treated that way? That’s what you’re saying when you say you don’t deserve to be treated like that and he’s a tool anyway. You don’t mean that, but that’s the message.

Trust your friend. You don’t need to point out “the lesson” in all of the mess. As time passes, your friend will figure out whatever they need to know. And if they don’t, they will the next time something happens. You’re not your friend’s parent. Parents are the ones who are supposed to make sense of the lessons in the bad things that happen for their children because children are experiencing things for the first time and their brains aren’t fully formed so they literally have no way of connecting all the dots. But don’t patronize your friend by saying pre-packaged things that you’ve heard before. There’s a time and a place for “you deserve better” and that’s pretty much only when your friend says to you “I don’t know if I deserve better.”

So then what can you say?

I’m sorry that happened to you. If you ever need to talk more about it, I’m here. And you know what? You’re going to be okay.

And then give them a big hug, and listen to whatever more they have to say, if anything. And give them space if they need it.

I forget the exact quote, but I recently read something that said something like this: as everyone’s inner writer begins to emerge, as is inevitable, listeners and our ability to listen will disappear.

I was horrified when I read this the first time. I read it again and again. And then I realized that it’s already happened and we’re already living in that world. We’re all making noise and creating output but how many of us are actually listening to what other people say? How many of us are actually thinking about our friend’s real situation, real emotions, and real needs before we respond? Isn’t it more like well, this is bad, and I know I need to say something in a bad situation, so well, here are these words that I think fit the bill?

I didn’t think about it in the term “listener” before I read this quote, but one of the qualities that really attracts me in a friend or a partner is that capacity to listen. To really hear me. To try  to understand me. When I speak, be it with close friends, new friends, or whomever, I’ve usually flensed it down to what I really want to say. I sometimes think out loud, but I’m saying something. I’m not just making noise. So the people who tilt their head slightly and nod while I’m saying something, or who watch my face as they interpret what I mean, or who ask me questions about something I said earlier… all of my best friends are people like that and everyone I have a meaningful connection with is that way. I think everyone is capable of listening. We’re just so used to having the flip switched to output that we forget to switch it back. Or we’ve already been saturated with information throughout the day, so we don’t want to take in anymore.

Really listening to someone has become an effort for some reason. There’s a Charles Baxter essay about the listening habits of characters in contemporary literature compared to the classics or even modernists: before the contemporary period, characters always listened to each other and understood each other when they were speaking. If they didn’t understand, they asked for clarification. If they didn’t like something someone said, they challenged them. In contemporary literature there’s a sudden decline in understanding between characters, there’s a sudden increase of distractedness, of “what?”s and misconstruction of information.

Be a listener. Notice things. Let things matter. And treat your friends right when they need you. Don’t rely on stock phrases to provide comfort or advice or speak heedlessly when there’s no need.

Teacher Class

Every Wednesday afternoon various department teachers come to an English Speaking class, usually held in the meeting room beside the language department office. When I first started teaching and my coteacher told me I was going to have to teach other teachers, I was terrified. Although nobody had been unfriendly to me, the language barrier between adults is stronger and scarier, and at that time I was still envisioning a structured class time with lectures and grammar explanations…

During the first couple weeks we left applications open and about ten teachers applied. During the first class I lead a discussion about our hobbies and other introductions; all the teachers were friendly and better at English than I had expected. I was very relieved that it hadn’t been the ordeal I’d been imagining and after the first few classes I began to look forward every week to our 교사 수업.

A couple weeks ago some of the other teachers asked me if we could go outside to get a beer together during class time, so last Thursday (June 15th) we waited until work was over at 4.30 and went together to a chicken / beer restaurant between Gongdeok and Mapo station (and much closer to my home than I had realized).

I had hoped that I would get some photos of all of us together but after we’d had enough beers… we all forgot about that kind of thing. I did manage to get this shot of the Korean teacher who shares our Language dept. Office (who’s always giving me snacks and telling people I don’t eat enough) and the administration department teacher before I had my second beer and forgot about most things.

During the whole evening, teachers made an effort to speak English and we actually had great conversation. I’d been prepared with a discussion topic but we didn’t need it, since the alcohol loosened up everyone’s English. I taught them slang like “tipsy” and “lightweight” and they taught me some Korean in exchange–I spoke Korean in front of them for the first time (with the exception of Korean teacher with whom I regularly exchange snippets) and everyone was delighted, despite the fact that all I’d really done was translate words. They were surprised I knew things like 쟁이 and certain curse words, which was a little funny for me, because as a language student and also a language teacher it’s kind of always been a known to me that language learners gravitate to that kind of slang first, even as they’re forced to learn textbook, overly-formal and proper language.

As you’d know if you’ve been reading my posts, I’ve had a bit of a rough time of it lately. While usually I’m a light drinker and one beer is enough to get me pleasantly chatty and tipsy, I kind of downed my first giant beer and then couldn’t refuse when they ordered a second round… which I also finished. By that time I was speaking freely and at ease and about half the table understood me and the other half had phased out into a beer-headed stupor, but would nod and “ah” if I met their eyes while I was talking.

I don’t know what time it was, maybe 7 or 7.15, but most people decided to go home. The P.E. teacher, music teacher, and I decided to go out for a second round and on the way to the bar, they showed me some places I might want to see–cafes, shops, restaurants. I doubt that I would be able to figure out exactly where that place was again without asking how to get there, but we ended up in a little sul-jib (pub) with friendly staff and a cute atmosphere. When we’d been at the restaurant planning where to go, the PE teacher asked me what kind of style I liked, and sober me would have said it didn’t matter, but tipsy me said “a place with no old men.” They thought this was hilarious, and P.E. teacher said she knew a place. The pub we ended up at fit the bill. Gradually more and more crowded, but no old men.

We talked about anything from renting bicycles, to which mascara to use, to which gym to sign up for, and were there until maybe 9, when we decided to go walk to the Han River Park, which I had always known was quite close to my house but had never known how to get to. They showed me the entrance to the park and we walked along the river for a while, and then they walked with me back to my apartment.

After all the stress I’ve been dealing with it was nice to loosen up a little and get to know my coworkers better. This was also the first time many coworkers became aware that I can understand a good percentage of spoken Korean although my speaking skills are wimpy in comparison, so it was nice to interact with them a bit more like friends.

Some Updates

As a date that I’d planned for tomorrow night falls through for a reason I’m not sure whether or not to believe…I’m still not feeling well. This guy and I had been chatting for about a week, had planned to meet this Friday… and suddenly he texts me at 2.30 AM today (Thursday) to tell me he can’t meet. When I ask why, he says he lost his wallet, so we’d have to meet next time (later).

I try to believe him. But I ask my friend what she thinks and she confirms my fears: it sounds like an excuse. He could have borrowed money from someone. He’s probably just not interested anymore.

Before recent events in my life I wouldn’t have been able to believe that someone who was talking to me yesterday and confirming plans to meet two days later would suddenly, without warning, and without good reason cancel a date, but based on how guys have been treating me lately, it doesn’t seem all too impossible now. He wanted to meet me as of yesterday morning when we spoke and yet suddenly at 2.30 AM the next morning he can’t meet me anymore. He says that he’d meet me later, and he hasn’t unmatched me on the site we met on, but I guess it’s only a matter of time until that happens.

 

When I told this same friend about what happened with J last weekend and I wondered to her why guys were treating me so meanly, she asked me if it was really only the guys who were doing something wrong? I asked her if she thought I’d done something wrong, then, and she said that there is a reason guys like J know I will go to him in this situation… even though it was him who did the wrong thing, and who always did the wrong thing, I still continue to go to him; I tell him sure, contact me whenever when really, I’m hurting; I let the guy who cancelled on me get away with his excuse by giving him the benefit of the doubt; I was willing to be friends with H again even though he lied to me and disappeared on me; all of that, and other things, I make those choices…

At first I admit I was annoyed when she said that men weren’t the only ones doing something wrong. Though I haven’t always, as I’ve grown up more and experienced more I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to treat others well, to respect them, to give them all the information and support I can; I try to be good to people. I make an effort to do the right thing for other people.

While we were in the middle of our conversation, I had to go to teach a class, but when I came back to my desk I saw the message waiting for me:

언니가 좀더 자기자신 아끼면 좋겠어, 남들을 도와주고 싶은 만큼, 언니 자기자신을

I can’t translate this perfectly, but it’s something like this:

I wish you’d treasure your own self a bit more; to the same extent that you want to help others, you’d think of yourself

Although I’d just come back from teaching a moment earlier, I burst into tears as soon as I saw the message and knew she was right, even though I’d been slightly peeved at her earlier words.

I’ve always known that J is a selfish person. Even when we were dating, I knew what he was like. I also know that he has never encouraged me in my pursuits, he’s never been sincerely interested in my hopes or dreams… but when he was facing a breakup with his girlfriend with whom he was still in love, he could still find it within himself to tell me that if he couldn’t manage to get into a community college in the States that I’d have to marry him; he could still find it in himself to pepper me with questions about my lovelife (which I avoided by shrugging them off or answering vaguely); he could still find it in him to sing songs about lost love in Norebang in front of me; he could still ask me to meet him at all.

I know he’s selfish and he doesn’t care whether or not my feelings are hurt; whether the wounds he’s given me have healed yet or not; what I’m thinking now as he continues with his girlfriend after asking me to meet him sometimes when I had free time.

Misung said something else; that living abroad is so lonely, and it’s so hard to meet people, and it’s especially so hard to meet someone who likes you sincerely that you start thinking it’s a good idea just to meet with any guy… her friends who lived abroad told her the same thing. And she told me that even if I had met casually with the guy who cancelled on me, I’m so lonely now that I’d still probably end up giving him my heart…

I’ve thought a lot about whether or not I’m lonely, whether lonely is the right word. Part of me rebels against it as a name for what I feel because I don’t feel the feverish, unbearable suffering I used to feel when I was in college when I identified that feeling with loneliness; but there’s simply a lack of friends here and that combined with the desire to have a relationship with someone, I guess that creates what can be called loneliness. When I told my co-teacher Carrie what happened with H (disappearer) and J (ex-bf) she told me that she wanted to find a nice guy for me; I appreciated her sincerity, but I also realized I don’t have any real hope anymore of meeting someone while I’m here.

Korean culture isn’t set up with any kind of social mechanism that can hold people accountable for their actions towards the foreigners they meet online; I can’t go tell all H’s friends what he did to me, so they’ll never know, and he gets to just continue to live his life happily while I sit over here and seethe about it, and get sad about it, and want to throw things at the wall and sleep for a hundred days because of it… I wish that I could just brush it off, I wish that I could just say you know what, goodbye, J, and goodbye, H. And goodbye date-cancelling boy. (Although in the latter-most’s case he did let me know and he did apologize, even if when I asked him why he gave a lame excuse.) You guys weren’t kind to me. So I do not need to care anymore about you.

The thing is, I know I don’t deserve to be treated like that. Everyone says that to me. Oh, you don’t deserve to be treated like that. I always want to say–do you think I don’t know that? Do you think I think I deserve to be treated like a disposable? But then I get to thinking, what difference does it make if I think I deserve to be treated poorly or not if I still let people treat me poorly…?

So I can forget about H. I still get sad; I think about it and hate that it happened and feel sick about it for a moment, but the moment passes. I know that in time, as long as he doesn’t drop back unexpectedly into my life… I’ll be able to get over this one without a lot more difficulty.

But with J… I think it means I have to tell him it’s too difficult for me to contact him again. I have to ask him to wait a long time, to give me time. I don’t want to cut ties with him completely, and I’m not sure why. But I guess that to be fair to myself I have to be honest with him about what I’m really feeling right now.

 

Last week I bribed one of my lower-level third-year classes into participating in a game with the lure of bringing snacks for them to eat in their next class, which was today. Students had to participate in pictionary to receive their snacks. This class is usually dead quiet save four or five regular participants, and it’s kind of a painful period for everyone, including me, because I know they don’t like studying and I know the book’s level is too hard for them and they might even be interested in me or what I have to say but they can’t understand me so the feeling in there is always just kind of depressing. I do my best with the materials and bring in supplements when I can, but because I don’t create the tests, I don’t always have a say in what material I need to cover. Anyway, because this class time is so miserable and students seem so helpless in it–I can tell they want to speak English well and they want to understand me but the lesson material is just too high-level–I kind of just assumed those students don’t like me.

Not that they hate me or have anything against me personally. I would just kind of think they think of me and their stress is triggered or something. Of course, today when I lugged in my bag full of snacks and put it down on the podium in front of them, they were all smiling and burst into applause. Not for me but because they knew they were going to get to eat soon. And they participated quite well in the pictionary game; I guess the lure of choosing snacks before other classmates is effective.

Anyway, a student who isn’t there half the time because I think she’s usually in the “discipline area” (I’ve never asked for more specifics on what that means…) during class time, and who hardly ever participates and who generally looks like she’s having a miserable time… today after receiving her snack called out to me– “Lily”–I was standing near her desk to watch the drawing activity students were creating on the board–and gave me a cookie from the packet that she’d earned, with a little smile.

I’m not sure why–but I was moved.

 

 

The English Speaking Class for teachers have made plans to go out to a nearby pub and hold class today. While usually while drinking with someone for the first time I limit myself to a beer or a half a beer, I think today I might get a couple and just try to enjoy their company. We always have a fun time in class together no matter the subject and we’ve discussed enough of our ideas about sensitive topics (though I plan to move us on into the political ideology topics next week…which will be the true test) that we know each other quite well. There’s a mix of personalities and ages in the class, but because the topics I usually choose for discussion are so general, we usually find some common points that we didn’t know we shared before. I’m hoping that today goes well and we can take some photos and that I can get their permission to post their photos here in a separate blog post later.

I also have plans to meet Misung tomorrow night for dinner (since the date fell through, at least one good thing is happening) and another female friend I met through a language exchange app on Sunday for lunch. I will also have to enact the long-avoided and well-overdue deep cleaning of my apartment that I’ve been so good at not doing on Saturday, so I have enough to keep me distracted for now.

Without my laptop, it’s been a little difficult because with all of this emotion lately I’ve been feeling like writing more. I was writing a lot of poetry during the month of May, and reading a lot of it too; but with everything that happened I suddenly stopped writing. There’s a stationery store across the street from my apartment that I usually try to avoid out of pity for the super-skinny my-age guy who works there who always looks like he’s about to pass out when he sees me enter the front door despite my never having forced him to speak a single word of English to me… but I guess I’ll have to go there and get a proper diary, seeing as I destroyed my other one.

Speaking of the laptop, my dad helped me figure out a way to get it home via a Seoul-based office of his company, so on Monday evening I have plans to take it there, drop it off, and pray that I can trust that it finds its way to Irvine, California intact enough to get the SSD extracted and data secured.

 

I can see that a few people regularly check the blog page but I’m not sure who you are. If you’re reading this, and you know me or you don’t, I’d just like to say that I’m okay. I’m fine. I’ve just got a lot to deal with and writing is the only way I know how. Other people might play violent games on their phones all day and then when you talk to them, you’d never know they were hurting. But I deal in words, so I always say it when I’m hurting. So it’s very clear to other people. And that might skew the proportion, because I don’t write about really happy things as much.

I think there are two reasons for this: firstly, my natural scale of possible emotion is naturally tilted away from the happy and bright; and two, lately, a very very strange set of circumstances have all piled up on me at once, and I have no other way to deal with the emotion that brings on but writing. Right now because I don’t have my computer, some things I would usually just journal about in my never-ending Scrivener document, I’m posting on this blog although they normally might not make it past my journal.

A lot of these experiences have been new for me and have been unpalatable learning experiences. I’m naturally trusting and naturally honest in relationships, so when I encounter dishonesty and people who prove to be untrustworthy, it’s not possible for me to understand and it kind of triggers a series of short circuits in my processor, whatever strange conglomeration of my brain and heart that may be. So this blog has recently become a place where I kind of try to repair those circuits but in doing so I expose the damage.

So I’m just saying… There are a lot of other non-shorted circuits that just don’t make it into view.

Coincidence

4 June 2017 (Sun): The guy I’ve  been contacting and meeting occasionally for just under a month suddenly, without explanation, disappears

5 June 2017 (Mon): I take sick leave from work after lunch

6 June 2017 (Tues): Memorial day (no work)

        I send him an email that I don’t expect he will read

        I spill water on my laptop, ruining it

7 June 2017 (Wed): early morning, I receive a response to the email

      I have the damage to my laptop appraised and it’s bad.

   Late night, I respond again, but this time thinking he’ll read it, though still not expecting another response

8 June 2017 (Thurs): early morning, I receive a text from an unknown number that says only “Hi” so I respond, thinking it might be the guy who disappeared. But then I find that the person has contacted a wrong number. However, even when they find out, they ask if we can be friends to exchange language. I say no. They insist. I ignore the later message “can I talk with u for a bit?”

     Afternoon, I visit the gynecologist and my uterus and ovaries get a clean bill of health. I’m prescribed birth control to manage PMS symptoms.

9 June 2017 (Fri): my spirits are back up, no anxiety to battle with, feeling ok about things.

     The wrong number person texts me again: “I wanna be ur Korean friend.”

     I block the number.

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Truth

As someone intensely concerned with language, I’ve evolved through several stages of appreciating, and placing great importance in, the many capacities language embodies.

When I was younger, I simply kept a diary because I enjoyed recording my thoughts. I would re-read the entries later. I wrote my first poems when I was seven usually about my thoughts or my daily life; the journal I kept in third grade shows a shift towards writing about my ideas, or comparing things to other things. One of the best poems (imo) I wrote during third grade (when I was 8 years old) was about the rain:

“…As rain drops down, it dances in a way…

The rain feels like little angels’s hands

touching my warm cheeks.”

I don’t remember at what age poetry is introduced to students in elementary school, or if I had ever seen poems before at that time. I must have, but I have no direct memories of reading poetry at that age. What I do remember is my Sunday School education.

If you’ve studied the Bible, you’ll know that it’s brimming with figurative language and anecdotes. The words of Jesus himself are almost entirely metaphor. The lessons that children learn from the good and bad things that happened and that people did in both Old and New Testaments are not only lessons in moral behavior and do not only give children a framework from which to safely view the world, but are also lessons in critical thinking (i.e. actions have real consequences) and lessons in comparisons. To see one thing as another (metaphor), to see similarities between seemingly unalike things (simile)–these are precious gifts to a child with literary inclinations. For this reason alone I could recommend sending children to Sunday School, given you could find a good one.

Similarly, worship music traditionally invokes the Psalms, which are poems. I grew up in the Church and so grew up listening to worship music; I believe this accounts for my ability to create, and interest in creating, similes in writing at such a young age.

Children naturally draw comparisons. Teacher is white like milk. They continually observe the world’s newness and try to make sense of it by relating new things to familiar things. But I went through a poetry unit with my first graders while I was at the hagwon and I often created lesson plans for my kindergarteners that integrated children’s songs and poetry, and I have learned first hand that children’s ability to speak in comparison and to write comparison are startlingly different.

I asked students to write a two-line poem integrating rhyme.

The glue

Is blue

For example.

They couldn’t do it.

I asked students to write a four-line poem relating one thing to another.

The cat is happy

Like me.

He smiles

Like me.

For example.

They couldn’t do it.

I explained to them in detail how to grammatically structure a comparison and while they could clearly comprehend the lesson and enjoyed shooting underhanded “compliments” at me using the lesson’s materials (“Teacher is handsome like a boy,” or “Teacher is like a pig” [not a compliment obviously]) at the top of their lungs, when asked to write this down on paper, they simply couldn’t do it.

There was one exception. A student named Charles, who had been my savior when I first started teaching and was confused by all the books, what to do at lunchtime, and how to get all the kids to change their shoes and pack their homework away in under ten minutes. When I spoke about poetry to the kids, Charles watched me with sparkling eyes. When I told them that poetry was supposed to use language in a fun way, a new way, and that poetry was always trying say things you had never heard before, he listened to me. He wrote what I call a “prose poem” (because it had no line breaks), and it completely stunned me. He wrote about watching from his apartment window as construction workers on the street below laid out new tarmac. He wrote about how when the tarmac had dried it looked like birds sleeping on the ground with their wings outstretched. A strange simile, but a real one. An original one. In a language that was not his own. Charles was a good kid. Even if I could never get him to eat his vegetables.

When I was in fifth grade, I wrote a poem about riding horses. It won an award. I remember not really understanding why it had been endowed with a “superior” ribbon by the board of whoever. I had simply written it. It was just something that I had done.

I remember vaguely what it was about. Standing in the saddle, feeling the wind rushing past, something about the horse’s mane between my fingers. I hadn’t been riding horses for long enough to have even made it into a lope, so it was pure imagination. But something about writing poems had already clicked with me by then.

I began to use writing as a tool to imagine things. New worlds, new friends, new realities. My cat became a jaguar and I used to “observe” his motions while he was on the prowl in the jungle of my back yard, keeping a field diary. Imagined scenarios based off of my real life, my school life especially, became a favorite thing to like. Fantasies (of the sort a ten-year-old girl can have) about boys also began to appear around this age. Things like talking to them at lunch time (lol) or exactly what words I would exchange with them if given the chance.

Interest in recording my friends’ personalities also emerged at that time. I went to a small private school and there were only about 20 students in my grade. About half of us had been together since Kindergarten. But as new students came and went, the friendship circles and “clubs” morphed and changed. I was straddling most worlds, having something of a commanding personality and being able to integrate myself when I wanted to without reservation. It never occurred to me then but often afterwards, how the fact that my mother was the school lunch lady and often a playground monitor and was scary to most of the students because she would tell them off for the slightest things (maybe the reason I was so well-behaved is because my home life and school life were full of the same fear of being caught doing something wrong), might have influenced students to accept me and to “play with me” even if they didn’t really want to. I kind of grew up with the idea that most people liked me and wanted to know me. It seemed like that to me at the time.

Kids also knew they could take advantage of me. This is going back a bit, but in third grade, I won a really big candy bar by climbing up to the next digit in “Multiplication Mountain” and made the mistake of sharing it with someone. Other kids saw, and slowly but surely, the whole candy bar disappeared as I gave and gave pieces away to other students. When I told my dad about this I got scolded for not sticking up for myself and letting those kids do what they did to me. I remember feeling bad about getting scolded more than I think I understood the lesson he was trying to teach me. I was always more concerned with how he was feeling than what he was saying at that age. I knew he was upset. And I’d done something wrong.

I’m just saying that maybe kids also liked me because they knew I would give them things, or do things for them. Even well into my twenties I’m struggling to recognize this part of myself and the ways that people take advantage of my kindness without compunction.

So in fifth grade, sixth grade, and middle school, I became very interested in people’s characters. How they were different to and similar with each other and me. How once I understood a character, I could write it into a story and predict its actions and interactions with other characters. I started writing short stories at that age. All based off fantasy stemming from my life at the time; horseback riding, and school life, mostly. I wrote stories about things I did at the time; having parties with the girls in the class and tee-pee’ing the boys’ houses, for example. And I wrote about what I wished would happen. I wasn’t interested in the story as an art form until I got into college, but I was writing them as early as ten and eleven. I was interested in the ways that language could carry a person, a character.

I also started writing fan fiction at that age. Exclusively Harry Potter fan fiction. I wrote scenes of the known relationships between the Maurauders (the name for Harry’s parents’ generation) while the books were still coming out, but well after the book series had been completed I was writing what we call “Next Gen” or next generation, i.e. Harry’s children’s generation. I wrote that well into college. The ability to craft character and plot amongst a universe of known and familiar and exciting rules is an invaluable tool for young writers. And it was for me, too.

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For the first time in my life, I destroyed a diary.

I opened it up and laid it on the shower floor before starting the water. I expected to see the ink run, but it didn’t. I had written almost fifty pages in two and a half weeks in what was apparently waterproof gel pen. I watched as the water beat holes into the pages. When it was sufficiently marred, I turned off the water and left the diary there, not sure what to do with it.

Why do good people hurt others? Why again, again, and again, do I get hurt by people whom I trusted? I can barely breathe without feeling like I’ll throw up. I’m angry and in denial in turns. Sunday morning I slipped on my bedroom floor and fell. I was surprised that my body didn’t make more noise; stunned by that fact more than the jolt of the fall, I laid on the floor and took stock of my body–was it really there? Why didn’t it make any noise when it hit the hardwood? Maybe if I don’t really exist then it makes sense that everyone keeps treating me like I’m worthless, expendable, like the fact that what they’re doing will really hurt me, will really ruin me, doesn’t matter.

Then I started to wonder if I really fell. But I have budding bruises on my left hipbone and elbow. A dark yellow, almost orange color.

Everyone is telling me that he was just a bad person, that I don’t deserve to be treated how he treated me. They’re telling me not to give away my heart so quickly next time. They’re telling me I’ll meet a better person someday.

Why isn’t anything anyone is saying making me feel better? Why doesn’t the knot at the bottom of my chest go away? There are moments of stillness in which it feels like everything was a dream. I often have nightmares, anyway. Then there are moments when I feel like the whole world is ending. I can’t breathe, and I can’t escape the feeling that something awful is about to happen. Dread. Fear. Grief.

Then I feel lightheaded, faint, like I could fade away. I feel homesick for the first time since I’ve been here, and afraid not to be in contact with people I know. I want to keep texting. If I stop texting, I feel unsafe. And I’m dreading telling my friends who don’t already know what happened. I know more of the same horrible words are coming. That he’s a bad person and I don’t deserve it. I don’t want to hear that again. I just want to stop feeling anxious and to stop feeling sad. I want to forget it.

But I can’t. I keep remembering times when I was with him and I find myself smiling. I bought him an umbrella because it was raining so hard one time when we were planning to meet and he’d told me he hadn’t brought one with him to his academy earlier. When I gave it to him he said thank you, Lily, I’ll use it well. He let me keep it when he went home because it had stopped raining by then. But before that, on the way to a pub after dinner, we got lost. We came out of the restaurant and I walked in the wrong direction and he followed me. I stopped, and said is this right? in Korean. He told me it was right. But after a few more minutes he stopped and turned to me.

맞나? he asked, smiling widely. I laughed. He looked beautiful, holding the umbrella I’d bought for him over his head and smiling at me. His face was shining. It was raining lightly.

There are a thousand other moments like this that I think about and smile and then catch myself smiling and then remember what he did to me and that he didn’t care about me at all, and that he doesn’t care about these moments like I care about them, and that he probably doesn’t think about me at all now when all I can do is think about him and wonder what happened, why he left, why he chose me to do this to, why he let me feel like it was safe to give my heart to him only to throw it away. Why he doesn’t care whether my heart is broken or not.

I remember the shape of his ears; I caught a glimpse of them once from above while he was sitting down and I was returning to the table. There was a little white bump on the back of one, maybe just the shape of the cartilage. He used to hang his head and laugh when I’d said something that surprised him. Sometimes he’d just meet my eyes and smile. He was soft spoken, and when he thought of something he wanted to say he’d inhale lightly but audibly, his lips pursing and eyelids fluttering for a moment before he told me what he’d thought of. The first time he did it we were at dinner deciding what to do next. I told him I’d finished my cold medicine sometime earlier, but now we were almost done eating and he said that because it was raining we should decide where to go before leaving. He looked to the side for a moment, his lips slightly pursed. He did the little inhale thing. You said you finished your cold meds? he asked. Yes, I said, yesterday. Then how about getting a beer? He said. I said okay, good.

The same thought had occurred to me earlier, that it’d be nice to get a beer with him. When he did the inhale, I thought he was just pretending to think of it then, but that maybe it had occurred to him earlier, too. But then he inhaled like that other times and I realized it was a real habit. It was cute. Endearing. Like all of his quiet, soft qualities. But then, maybe pretending was a real habit of his, too.

There’s another moment I can’t stop thinking about. When we were riding an escalator out of the subway station to catch a bus back to my apartment—he always saw me home after we met, even if we weren’t nearby my place, before he walked to the nearest subway station to take the train back to his hometown—and on the escalator, I was on the stair before him. When we were almost at the top he said from behind me, now your height is similar to mine, and I looked back and met his eye. He was right. We were at eye level. I thought he was looking at me with something like affection. I smiled and turned away. Now the glint of his dark eye, and the image of the one cute freckle under it, is playing over and over in my mind.

I thought it was affection.

summer pt. 1

I ventured into the teacher’s bathroom again yesterday to find that the toilet seat was warm. You may recall that the discovery of the heated toilet seat was a thing of great delight to me in the winter when I first arrived at the school, but it’s the first day of June, now, and the temperature outside is regularly peaking in the high seventies and mid-eighties with humidity levels in the higher end of percentages. Which reminds me. Sometimes, like yesterday, when I sit down on the toilet and I discover that it’s hot, I suddenly think to myself why don’t we have these in California? And then I remember it’s because there’s absolutely no need for it and what we need instead are portable humidifiers that preferably spray directly into your nostrils. So why don’t we have those in California?

The temperature is beginning its ascent into the unbearable. I recently complained to somebody about this in even less dramatic terms and his response was “but it’s not even proper summer yet.” Excuse me. I will decide when it’s proper summer, seeing as I come from the Kingdom of Summer, which might lend me a little more expertise on the subject. Is it hot? Yes? Am I suffering? Yes? Then it’s summer.

People sometimes ask me about the weather in California and when I say that it’s always hot, they ask then what about winter? No winter, I say. There’s just one season with variations that masquerade as other seasons. Summer, hotter summer, a little less hot summer…. 여름, 더 더운 여름, 조금 덜 더운 여름… I only wrote three because Spring seems to be a thing of the past in that place and no attempt seems to be made even to replicate it anymore. We only even had about a month of it here this year.

With the weather turning my wardrobe is beginning to thin out to the few pairs of slacks that I have, a couple dresses, and my limitless supply of t-shirts. When I wore shorts to work two days ago, the comments began in the morning: You look cool today, the language department head teacher told me as we entered the office together before the 8.30AM bell. Then, it was students, passing me in the hallway–teacher! Legs! As I walked into class after class, the sight of my legs continued to amaze and inspire students–one first year class immediately burst into excited twittering as soon as I walked in the door and were too excited to greet me with their usual “Hello, Teacher,” instead exclaiming amongst themselves–너무 멋있으셔! 다리 색깔은… 외국인이… –etc. While I teach, I usually pace around the front of the classroom so I can keep an eye on everyone and give all the students opportunity to hear my sonorous lectures, and I noticed a lot of the girls in the front with their eyes cast downwards towards my electric, LED white legs.

I’m always thinking about the beauty standards here–it’s often a cause of severe frustration for me and I often find myself fuming after small instances that I observe throughout my day. I read an article recently that explained the phenomena of commenting so candidly on the appearances of others, such as when a parent tells their son or daughter that they’re ugly and they need to get surgery later, as an instance of beauty having been dismantled into a set of objective standards which are either met or not met, with no scale to speak of. Parents see the beauty standards as another set of criteria which their child should meet and so feel no compunction upon dishing out statements that, however well-intended, I believe have damaging effects on their children’s self-esteem and, more than that, on the future of this country.

As I meet more and more Koreans and we discuss my opinions about their country’s culture, I always say the same thing: the beauty standards and gender roles are severe here. And without fail the answer to my comments is that things are changing. Sometimes I can agree. I work at a school, and so am in constant contact with young people and their thoughts, actions, and their cosmetic routines, their ideas about what it means to be a feminist or what it means to be a woman; I sometimes broach these issues where I find the opportunity, especially in my after school literature classes. I find that the girls have ideas more towards my line of thinking, but often are too shy to share them. We need to make an environment that’s safe for young people to dissent and to create the world that they believe in; parents speaking out of their children’s’ “best interest” to tell them that they just don’t match up and they need to change themselves to fit in in order to succeed is actually succeeding in the opposite: instead of opening up their children’s lives to the futures they want, they’re actually narrowing the realm of futures available for their children just by continuing to reinforce ideas that damage children’s belief that they are already full of all the potential they need to become their best selves.

I think about these young girls in the summer. It becomes too hot to cover up. Girls here are encouraged to show off their body; short shorts and skirts are the special culprit as the idea of showing off shoulder or chest is still considered racier than wearing booty-length bottoms. When I was in middle school the idea of showing my legs only felt safe if I modified my appearance–being very pale, even for an American, in a time when tan was the only shade of skin that wouldn’t draw unkind comments from classmates, I used to wear fake tanning lotion, building it up to an orangey sheen that fooled my four or five female classmates in the so-called “advanced” eighth grade class. When I was in high school changing for softball practice in the locker room, my teammates daily called out to me about my blinding shade of white down below though the rest of me (re: arms, face, chest) was usually tanned from our afternoons and weekends out on the field. Even into college I refused to wear short skirts or shorts without first applying a somewhat weaker fake-tan than the one of my middle-school days, the spray-on pantyhose variety that slightly livened me up. My friends said it removed the “I’ve been sleeping in coffins” sheen that I naturally wore. By that age I didn’t take comments like that to heart and recognized it as what it was; banter, a sign of affection. Occasionally friends still walk into a room where I am or meet me outside of the train station, gaze at me for a moment, and then say in amazement, “you are so white…”

Now the same bodily feature that plagued me and that I hated so much as a youth in America is drawing me good attention in Korea. It’s no secret that Koreans (and many Asian cultures, as I’m told) prefer a lighter skin tone to a darker one, although the range of naturally-occurring skin tones in Korean people has a spectrum that ranges similar to how white people have a range of naturally occurring tones. You can barely find a cosmetic product here that doesn’t boast “whitening” or “brightening” properties (the latter is a thinly-veiled euphemism as I’m sure you’ll have no trouble ascertaining for yourself). People continually comment about my pale appearance–once, standing on the street corner across from the hill that the school sits on top of, waiting for the light to change so I could cross the street, a couple of first year students said hi to me and then, after debating about how best to say it in English (unaware that I could understand them anyway), approached me from the side and said “Teacher’s face is very ha-wha-eet,” and then asked me if my eye color was from circle lenses or if it were real.

This is just one example, but there are literally dozens more similar occurrences. One of my favorite memories is from last year in a kindergarten class when one boy–I’ve written about this before–looked me over carefully and unflinchingly and then said “I think Teacher drinks a lot of milk,” and when I asked him why he thought that he said it was because my skin is so pale. To Korean youth, I embody an objective criterium which they’re forcefully, almost violently taught to believe is the standard to which they should arise. Sometimes with the kindergarteners, I would say “well, I like the color of your skin,” but I haven’t figured out a way to respond to the middle-school aged girls, who in Korea are 14, 15, and 16 years old.

I’ve written about this so many times before, but comments on my appearance are just such a matter of daily life for me here that they’re also always on my mind. These days I’m particularly aware of the gazes of others; not that I’m ever not aware, but because it’s summer and I can’t cocoon in my safe layers of autumn or winter wear, my body is more and more available to interested eyes. Last week, while walking home from school, I was following a group of first year students out of the school gates and down the hill. Before them was another group of first years who occasionally turned around to shout to them in conversation. One of the girls in the front group saw me and began speaking in English, though none of the others knew I was there.

“Where is..uh…Kang Min Seo?” she called, in English, and one of the girls in the second group replied “I don’t know” in English before switching to Korean: why did English suddenly come out…?

By that time some of the other girls had spotted me and had burst out into self-conscious laughter.

“Hi, Teacher,” they said, and I greeted them back. By this time I had passed the second group and was levelling with the first. One of the girls, who always comments on my clothes when I walk into the classroom by screaming “TEACHER FASHION SO GOOD!” also paid her compliments to my fashion that day: “Teacher fashion good,” she said, throwing me a thumbs up. I thanked her and passed the first group.

One of the girls behind me said in Korean, teacher is so cute. Then one said in English, “cute!”

“Cute! Cute, cute, cute, cute!” The chorus rang out behind me. I hung my head, not knowing how to respond, and kept walking.

“Teacher…ongdongi!” 티쳐 엉덩이! My shirt was tucked into my slacks.

Oh, I thought, my god… and I hurried down the hill, holding a book over my backside. They thought it was funny and began to chatter too quickly for me to understand as the distance between us grew.

That same day as I waited to cross the street at a stoplight near my apartments, an old woman stared at me from across the street so intently that she even didn’t notice when her dog took a poop on the sidewalk next to her. Whenever I go out at nighttime the old men cluttering the street after their 회식 ends watch me openly. The other day while I was walking back from the post office a group of 3 twenty-something aged boys were walking slowly ahead of me, blocking the sidewalk. When one of them moved out of the way (by accident) I hurried up to pass them while the chance was open and one of them noticed me. One of the others started talking but the one who’d seen me cut him off, saying “잠깐만! 외국인!” (wait a sec! Foreigner!), probably thinking that I couldn’t understand him or didn’t hear him. But I did. I always do. As I walked to the cafe where I was headed I was quite aware that they were chattering about me and probably watching my back as I gained more and more distance on them, eager to get out of sight.

These days as I pass students in the hallway, I’m receiving more and more comments: the other day, I was walking up the staircase to the third floor and some students passing by on the second stopped to call up after me “선생님 완전 pretty! So pretty!” and today some students told me the same thing as I proceeded them out of the annex building on my way to the office after class. Two days ago when I wore the shorts, three different students confessed their love to me as we passed in the hallways–티쳐, 아이러브유, complete with Korean accent. I’ve said this before–I know that compliments from students aren’t a direct comment on my appearance, and are more of a sign of a desire to connect with me, which I take as a compliment itself. So while I appreciate the students’ effort to communicate and connect with me, and of course while the teacher in me loves that they’re using English outside of the classroom in a real, authentic way–I still can’t figure out how to respond.

Think about it: if standards of beauty are just another criteria that is either met or not met, then aren’t compliments on appearance just a roundabout way of saying “congratulations! You match this particular country’s set of desired and worshipped physical characteristics!” and if it is, how can you respond to that? Can you do it with a “thank you?” After all, meeting that criteria didn’t have anything to do with me or my choices (unless you count staying out of the sunlight as a personal choice but I view it more as a matter of survival).

I said before that comments to kids about how their appearance is lacking limits children’s ability to become their best selves. But there’s something worth mentioning that probably comes as no surprise by now: children aren’t taught that each of them has special talents that they have a duty to bring to the world. Children are taught that if they’re a man, they’re meant to grow up and fulfill one of a certain, limited number of acceptable roles, and if they’re a woman, likewise. Young people these days are looking at other cultures, are looking at other countries, and are listening. Distances are closing. Space-time has become so compressed that two people on opposite sides of the world can share the same now, through facetime, chatting, any number of internet-related activities. We don’t know how to wait for things anymore. In a country where same-mindedness has allowed the extremely rapid expansion and development of the national economy and where dissent has been systematically repressed as a tool for nation-building, instant and predictable gratification for individual action on behalf of the nation has become a traditional expectation. Korea is an incredible country. When their economy tanked in 1997 during the IMF crises, families donated their own gold and savings to banks to pay off the country’s loans. And they paid off their loans three years ahead of schedule (by 2001) and got the economy back on its feet so quickly that by this year it’s the 11th strongest economy in the world.

Of course, in this situation, single-mindedness and the respect of national value over personal value is what saved the country’s future. What I’m saying is that beauty is a separate issue and needs to be treated as such.

But with such rapid success and such predictable results all occurring within an instant built into the national way of thinking, added to the increasing intolerance for delayed results caused by the easy access to internet-stored information, SOMEBODY needs to slow down, reevaluate. Desire for your children to succeed in this world cannot override loving language. Where will children learn tenderness and acceptance if not in the home? And if parents continually submit their child to derogatory remarks concerning appearance or performance and tell them they say these things out of love, won’t children grow up a little bit confused about what love is? And when these girls grow up and meet a man who mistreats them and is violent towards them and tells them it’s because he loves them, won’t they believe him? Because they grew up learning that that’s what love looks like? It isn’t love. It’s single-mindedness. When single-mindedness of a country’s national prerogative overrides love and affection and affirmation in individual relationships, children become trapped in a cycle that doesn’t respect their potential.

People say it’s not my culture and I shouldn’t have an opinion. But I think it’s irresponsible not to try to help students make a better world, make the world they want. So when I can, I expose them to other ways of thinking; never telling them what to think or what I personally believe, I simply expose them to as many ways of thinking as I can. I use literature to do this. In a world that is dry-heaving with conflict, that is over-saturated with information, literature can provide a grounding to work from: the exposition of human relationships, which can often get forgotten in the chaos. The body is one medium through which we form and maintain relationships with others: through physical interaction, but also through gaze. As long as the gaze is critical rather than curious, we’re just–as one Welsh poet put it–teaching kids to walk into the trees, rather than climb the branches and look up at the stars.