Where did the weeks go?
[I will bracket our Japan trip for now]. One (week) was the first week of school. Big deal. The other: Andy was back in Urbana and I had my hands full with the emotional roller coaster of the three kids. And here we are.
So, let’s start with school. There is one 6th grade class and the girls are in it together: an experience which led to their suddenly announcing to me one day last week that they DEFINITELY want to be on different teams at the middle school next year. The classes at Sungmisan are small: about 12. The girls’ moods vary enormously (as they would at home too): they are happier on at the end of the days that have been less academic — when Korean has been less central. Which makes perfect sense. Fortunately, between nearly whole days at a local theatre for games, badminton, art, music, movie-making, they really do get some reprieves. Perhaps the hardest for them (and in Korea at large) has been that they really don’t like being stared at, pointed at, and having their lunches scrutinized by everyone in the lunch room (a woman came up to Simone on the subway yesterday and told her she looked like a perfect pink strawberry!). My mistake has been to try to explain this to them rationally: that Korea is a homogenous society, that yes there are many Americans here but that many people have still not had so much direct contact with them, that people are simply curious about what they might be eating for lunch etc., but rational explanations are not really the order of the day as the experience, as Haejoang reminded me, is mostly an emotional one. I encouraged the principal to talk to them about this; and their homeroom teacher to perhaps have an open conversation about it. I know, though, that I can no longer answer to/for this problem because it is entirely unproductive.
The girls have 4 other girls in their class and that is really a small number when you get to know them. And the group is not without complexity: there is the tom-boy who is feeling very threatened by Carmen, who is her athletic match (the teacher says that she has never before met her match in a girl); the girl who spent the first 7 years of her life in the U.S. and a recent year in New Zealand who does lots of translating for them, seems to love grooving with them about American popular culture, but also likes to commiserate with them about the problems with Korean kids (who stare, are “mannerless” etc.); the girl who is having a hard time because her Mom lives elsewhere and her Dad is about to leave for 3 months; and a girl who always seems happy and easy-going. Just a week ago we had all 4 girls over: the mother of the girls who seems threatened by Carmen stayed for all 6+ hours — it was a long afternoon! We had a pasta lunch, chocolate chip cookies, and some of us hiked up the mountain behind while Simone stayed back with the 2 girls who didn’t want to hike. It seemed to work; the “rival” felt most at home playing with Isaac — but attention to Isaac (who seems to win everyone’s heart everywhere) is truly a sore point with the girls these days. They are just so tired of the many people who proclaim his intelligence, cuteness etc. It couldn’t have been worse when having JUST set foot back in Korea (from Japan) the customs officer (we went to declare some apples and rice balls: they confiscated the delicious Nagano apples) upon hearing Isaac’s queries about the conveyer belt++ took the time to say how intelligent he was which the girls then asked me to translate and then they rolled their eyes as if to say “here we go again” and it somehow is true, from cab drivers to officials, they all comment on Isaac.
The girls’ teacher is lovely and seems to enjoy the ride of adolescents and their drama but adding Carmen and Simone to the mix definitely has its challenges — and she speaks it seems almost no English. They have been doing some Korean when the class is working on their Korean and it seems that things are converging in math class: one day last week he brought in a friend who could translate. Fortunately they don’t have much homework, but they have been sports about doing the assignments: a paper on yutnori, a Korean New Year’s game which lends itself to the study of probability (it was a math assignment); and a test of about 20 Chinese characters. There is little that I don’t hear from them about Korea: for the most part I remind myself that they enjoy many things here and that if we were back home I would ALSO be hearing many things about other aspects of their lives there. But of course since we are in Korea “for me” I do hear the run of it from the girls.
In the midst of all of this I think a great deal about the many Korean immigrants (short or long term) I know in the U.S. (including my grad students) and the emotional experience of putting kids in a school in a totally foreign language environment. Jiyeon, my remarkable RA who has now joined me in Korea (Oh my goodness, what good fortune for me), who is looking through a number of the early study abroad memoirs (we are writing a paper about that) says that there is lots of attention paid to the first day of school. The girls started 2 days before Isaac and I knew they were fortified by the English speaking girl and their own ability to retreat into novels (those first days were hard though because they were mostly planning and cleaning days), but when I left Isaac at 10 (I had been hanging out since 8:40 and every other first grade parent had long before gone on their way) I was on the verge of tears just wondering how he would make it till 2 in that 100% foreign language environment. When he was happy at 2 my heart soared and when he announced, “the girls have been going to school for 2 days already and haven’t made any friends but I already made lots of friends in just a day,” I couldn’t have been more relieved.
By the second day of school, Isaac was able to articulate a “strategy” for making friends in Korea: being funny, chasing kids about, parading his “martial” (a made up martial arts, loosely based on his sporadic attendance at Hapkido and Kung Fu Panda) etc. And it seems to be working; on this past rainy Friday morning when we couldn’t catch a cab for 30 minutes and ended up spending some 70 minutes on public transportation to get there (we need a different plan B) and reached the school an hour late, the kids in his class were heading down to recess and “Isaac is here!!” echoed through the stairwell. Once he said to Andy matter-of-factly, “Dad, didn’t YOU have your strategies for making friends when YOU were little?” He explained that he has secret strategies at home but that he won’t divulge them.
[The more frequent paragraph breaks are thanks to Judy Han who put in a plea] That first day of school we tried the “after school” and Isaac quit that day. After-school is pretty disorganized and the coordinators do not have the talent of his teacher whose nick name is “cookie” (many progressive organizations/groups use nicknames to try and break linguistic and social conventions of age and other hierarchies) and manages to communicate with Isaac despite having little English. I let him drop out because I think 5+ hours a day in Korean is enough to ask of him. So, the problem is that 3 days a week he gets out 2 hours before the girls and once a week an hour earlier. So far we have done a patchwork: me, the flight attendant mother of a classmate of his (who has very colloquial greeting-level English that doesn’t go too deep but does the trick; she is lovely and also knew just what to bring Isaac to keep him happy — a kit with lots of paper cars to assemble), Eun-Jung (the babysitter the kids all adore, especially Isaac — the girls explain that she knows just how to make him happy), and this last week I found two Yonsei undergrads (one a former student of So Jin’s) who can help out too. This retinue hangs out at the “chagun namu” (little tree) café down the street from the school that is run by a collective of (mostly) mothers from the school. The homemade chocolate ice cream and garlic toast (the bread is about 5 inches thick) are favorites and the coffee is good too. Isaac has a vision: that the Leal neighborhood (his elementary school at home) needs a café like this one and I think it could support one. His idea: instead of a fixed menu, whoever is working that day can set the menu. There are many parks in the neighborhood so as the weather warms I have a feeling that the 2 new babysitters, Haenul and Yesong will use those hours outside. The three kids are now able to taxi their way home alone: Carmen uses a little guide prepared by Yonmee (the teacher downstairs) and also she knows the way so she can direct the driver herself. A couple of days a week two 8th grade boys go home with them (Ho-chang and Sang-un; the girls objected profusely at first, but are very happy with the arrangement now) and hang out with Isaac which lets the girls head to Hapkido if we aren’t home yet. The boys do lots of rough housing with Isaac — read, he climbs all over them — and all three of them seem to have a great time; the big boys couldn’t be more adorable. As for the girls, they have very little to do with them — and that seems to work, mutually.
[whoops, that was a long paragraph] The girls got their yellow belts in Hapkido; I washed the white ones and put them away. Most evenings they are there at both 5 and 7 which pushes dinner till 8 and by 9 I for one am ready to drop. Only last night — they were demonstrating for Hee Jung’s parents (who took us to a lovely soy-based restaurant in Koyang in Kyonggi) — a humorous pop dance that they also do there. As I have written before, the brilliance of that neighborhood studio seems to be that they keep it all fun: between classes they seem to do pick up ball games etc. It really seems to be as much a playground with intermittent Hapkido lessons and the girls like the teen girl set there, although they aren’t coming as much now that school has picked up. No question that the prospect of the black belt is a motivation.
Isaac is ambivalent about Hapkido. A couple of weeks ago things had really devolved. The girls reported that he seemed to be purposely unlearning and that he seemed to be causing some problems during the class time; there was no question that he enjoyed the pre- and post- play time. So we asked him what to do about it — did he want to quit — and he proposed a meeting with Sabomnim. He cracked me up when he put it to me in plain terms: “Mom, let’s face it: have I made any progress in Hapkido? How long has it been since I started — 6 weeks — and I haven’t progressed at all (I was surprised he even knew the word/phrase).” The day came and Andy and I took him over at 6 (between classes for her) and we sat in the big chairs in the office next to the gym. Sabomnin was clearly getting a BIG kick out of this BIG summit for this little boy. They shook hands that he would give it another try, not every day, and that she would only teach him small things so as to not overwhelm him. Sabomnim told Isaac that he could realistically go up 2 belts — yellow to blue — which he said he didn’t think was possible. Since then (it was already over a week ago) he has gone twice (he needed some urging) and really enjoyed it. We’ll see; when it comes time to pay again I think we’ll give him the option of quitting. But the teacher is so lovely, and the play so much fun, that if we can make it work it would be great.
There is no question that being here is emotionally challenging for all the kids. Isaac has cried himself to sleep a couple of nights. I am blown away by the metaphor (or at least that is how I have come to hear it) he uses: often he says that he is always hungry in Korea and he longs most for Monical’s Pizza. Literally, he has cried most over missing Monical’s pizza which those of you who know it know is a very low end pizza chain in Urbana-Champaign. He talks about how when we go home he wants to go to Monical’s and then to the Courier Café and yesterday he mentioned Olive Garden. He is definitely crying out for comfort. When Andy couldn’t bring Monical’s back from Urbana last week, he cried from his soul. It hurt to watch.
Thank goodness that Zona, his school and neighborhood buddy, arrives in Seoul THIS Wednesday: quite remarkable really that this could happen (her Dad, Pega, has an invitation and frequent flier miles are letting Zona and her Mom, Ivana, come with). Having this visit on the horizon has really made a difference: Isaac will skip 2 days of school, and one day Zona will go to school with him. The kids are counting the days, and after that to my sister Ruth and her daughter Molly’s arrival mid-April, and then maybe my Mom’s visit in May, and Dana, Craig, Jonah, and Evie’s visit in June. They talk about the visits constantly and all they will show and do with them. I just feel crazily lucky that thanks to Haejoang we have a place where we really can host all these folks.
One big news about Zona’s visit is that Isaac will get to go to Lotte World (one of the 3 Seoul area amusement parks) and most importantly with Eun-Jung. A couple of Sundays ago Eun-Jung and her boyfriend took the girls to Lotte World and Isaac hemmed and hawed as to whether he wanted to go. He is, in fact, a bit afraid of amusement parks and was stressed but still wanting to go. He was frozen by indecision and very sad so I suggested that if he was that confused that he had better not go and arrange another time with Eun-Jung. This calmed him a bit, especially if he could go with her alone (the boyfriend he had never met might have stressed him a bit too), and he has been talking about it constantly ever since. The excitement is that this coming Friday afternoon, Eun-Jung is free to take Isaac and Zona to Lotte World. It is Isaac’s decision as to whether he wants the girls to come with and he is still deliberating. The night that he cried himself to sleep over whether to go or not he also cried over missing Monical’s pizza. That was also the weekend before the start of school, when he had truly broken down buying slippers for school and Velcro sneakers (on an otherwise beautiful walk down Seoul’s amazing Chengyech’on — the riverlet that was unearthed, cleaned up, and is now a beautiful stretch in the heart of Seoul). So, a lot was happening just then for Isaac. Ahh, as I write this I realize that we have already weathered a hard transition.
Last week Cookie got to thinking that Isaac had so much to say and couldn’t so 2 times she had her husband (who knows some English and is a freelance photographer) come to class to play with Isaac. Isaac lectured him about the universe, the planets, the coliseum, the empire state building etc. and he was so impressed; no doubt for Isaac it must have been so nice to get to be (again) in school the very verbal person that he is! So nice of Cookie to do that. Her husband has an earing, longish hair, and has a lovely way about him: before I met him, Isaac said to me, “Mom, he’s your style. You’ll really like him”! I did!
Another high point for Isaac was the letter (email) his teacher sent from home. Mrs. Hume — how does she manage it — typed in a little note from each student in his class and he was in stitches hearing them. One little boy (Isaac is pretty sure this was a joke) wrote: “Hope you’re having fun seeing the pyramids in Korea.” He just cracked up over that one and has told many people here about that hysterical line!!
The girls have a 4 day field trip coming up — to a beautiful island. Simone, after considerable initial enthusiasm, is getting cold feet (likely the food is worrying her), so we’ll see if/who ends up going. And after that we head to Cheju for a much anticipated long weekend with Hee Jung’s family.
OK, that was the kids and school. Now I need a little air time. Smile. In the middle of all this school+ trauma, I have somehow nonetheless managed to have lots of fun. I just love what this city offers: museums, old friends, new friends+++ And I like managing the public transportation; where driving is so intimidating to me at home, here I am so much more capable in getting around. And I like the small store shopping, and oddly living more in the cash economy; “I” spend so much more money here while at home I hardly use money. From this perch, Urbana Champaign seems isolated/ing and I worried about how I will feel when I get home; that will become “regular” again, I know. But, one has to worry.
Although I fretted over it for much of last fall, I am loving co-teaching with Haejoang (I am not official, just along for the ride). And remarkably it turns out that this is the first formal anthropology undergraduate anthropology class at Yonsei (the department in brand new and celebrated just the other day with a founding party!!). We have just devoted the first two weeks to meditating on what it means that this class is in English (which is all the rage at Korean universities where new faculty have to sign a contract stating their willingness to teach in English for the rest of their careers — that is a longer subject) (actually Haejoang refused to do so until last year). The 20 some students wrote essays about their English learning histories which for all of them are enormously emotionally charged: many essays about jealousy (of those who can speak better; one young man cracked me up with a line in which he explained that he consoles himself when he sees really good speakers by thinking to himself that ‘they must have HUGE deficiencies in other areas’), many about MOTHERS (who are the agents pushing their kids to study English (one girl reported on her mother telling her that friends are nothing but a waste and that after she learns English and attends a top-rate school, that then friends will flock to her), and many about the trauma of not speaking/understanding English in spite of the enormous time/energy they have invested. There are 5 native speakers in the classroom and the others explain that there is no way that we can understand, as one girl put it graphically, the “English coffin that trails behind them.” Now the course will turn to examination of Korean families in film and ethnography which is the focus of the course. I really like the students, know all their names, and can’t wait to listen to them on the films and readings we have chosen. I am so grateful that I get this opportunity. And the teaching days have an added perk: Haejoang picks me up at 11 and we head for the Seoul Hilton to swim (it is in the neighborhood, empty, and beautiful). So, as it turns out, the teaching days are my slow days and it forces me to not “schedule” them which is good. I have so loved putting on Craig’s CDs (and he just supplied 2 new ones!!) and quietly enjoying the empty apartment before Haejoang arrives.
So, some of my own personal highlights. A visit to the National Museum of Art, Deoksugung for “The Modern Korea Rediscovered” — gorgeous (mostly realist) paintings from the 20s to 60s. It closes the 22nd and I am determined to go back. Especially because this week we begin to put paint to canvass (We being Simone and I). I love our teacher but am already deeply humbled. An amazing morning with Kang Shinpyo at the National Folklore museum: thanks to his connections it felt like I met the entire staff including the director who spoke about the museum needing to come into the present and anticipate that someday a Vietnamese (or some other) Korean will become president (I was impressed). And now I will be on a panel in May on multiculturalism and folklore museums — I insisted that I was not the idea candidate for the job but so it goes. Among many other fascinating projects, they have web captured ALL the contents of several contemporary farm houses (opening every single drawer); also they have on display a 70s apartment (great idea). I joined the Social Inequality group and enjoyed a first meeting at an amazing café, Etoile, close to Hapjong station (past the Xii gallery and down the street 100 metres; one of those large homes turned into a café).Had such a nice family gathering with Kyungjin Cho and family: always fun when kids connect! Andy was fascinated that evening to learn about some of the WHY as to why Seoul has developed the way it has: Doyoung explained that Koreans have the land mass of a smaller European country but the American mindset, wanting bigger, bigger… and hence this sea of apartments with everyone seeking ever bigger abodes. I had lovely gatherings with old friends from Urbana: Hyunju Park from linguistics who is willing to translate my recent book into Korean (wow) and shared so much about the trials of teaching in English in Korea these days; and Charse who I met with Isaac for the nicest couple of hours together. And when Andy was gone the kids and I joined Alex and his mom and grandma for pasta and headed to Peter Pan (our favorite bakery that So Jin put on our map) for ice cream (frozen pops that are to die for that the kids softened by holding them up to a ceiling held space heater while the grownups among us dipped them in coffee); when I went to that bakery next (with Haejoang who always figures out a way to stop somewhere so that I can pick up bread for the family) the woman there asked me if Alex’s grandmother had been my mother-in-law — I got a kick out of that because indeed Alex’s grandmother (the protagonist of my book on Korean women) is such an old friend. And then there are new friends: Ho Jin, a film maker who Haejoang put me in touch with — and who knows we might make a movie together (Ho Jin is sitting in on our class, just back from an MFA at CalArts and a smiley lovely person\. And Yong-gun who was on military leave for a few days and joined the kids and I for pizza when Andy was away (Yong-gun got in touch with me about 18 months ago to say that he was a Korean permanent resident who had never lived in Korea and was about to serve in the military; the dinner was fascinating, but most of all he has a real talent with kids and somehow helped us to end that first hard week of school in a joyous mode: pizza and the dry ice that came home with the ice cream we bought on the way home helped — the dry ice made Isaac laugh for well over an hour and he then broke out in song, “I love to laugh” from Mary Poppins and honestly I have NEVER seen the girls more charmed by their younger brother! And Angie Chung, fellow Asian Americanist whose book I had recently reviewed and is here teaching at Yonsei in sociology (we share so many interests!). And then there was a really old friend, Joon Lee who I knew from her undergraduate days at Harvard over 20 years ago, who out of the blue invited me to lunch (via Jun Yoo whose network never ceases to amaze). This is what amazes me about Seoul — everyone seems to come through or be here. Mike Robinson is here just now too with a group of students — waiting for a call from him. Also, speaking of old friends, I gave a talk at Yonsei and Kim Chin Woo and his lovely wife joined — and for lunch. Talk about feeling “at home.”
OK, it is Monday morning, the third week or school. Andy is back so my morning doesn’t need to be as crazy and Ho Jin comes over this morning so that we can talk about my “movie” (the one I want to make but still can’t quite describe!) I braved not 1, but 2 shopping trips with the girls this past weekend: very cute stuff, if I say so myself. And on Saturday we hiked up Ansan mountain opposite us, and down into the Yonsei campus and then into campus town for bagels and drinks. It was cold, but the clearest day imaginable (after a big rain on Friday) and we could see everything: Seoul is SUCH a pretty place really with all these mountains. Hee Jung’s Dad told us about a peak that we will do soon.
A couple of asides. In one of my encounters Isaac overheard someone tell me about G-d crying with him — it was a beautiful story of reconciliation — and Isaac spoke of it later; he takes it all in. I made a terrible email error this week: wrote a woman who directs a center I want to visit (for my “project” here) who then wrote me back a LOVELY letter that detailed everything she was up to and how busy she was and that I might call her as late as 11. I thought I was sending a note to Jiyeon and forwarded the letter and a little note saying something like, “WOW this woman is really busy telling me to call her at 11 — looks like we won’t meet her till April.” Turns out I sent it to her and she wrote back a VERY perplexed note. So I called and explained the whole thing. We laughed and enjoyed a great conversation and she invited me to visit and give a lecture – all that in Korean but she ended on an English note: “You owe me one.” I thought that was so cute.