Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Paradigm shift: men wear skirts here

The last two weeks have been a lot of transition. We traded a small mountain village for a huge city; a freezing climate for a sweaty one; a team we had come to feel very comfortable with for a decentralized group we’re still trying to get used to. We have different roommates, different clothes, and an awful lot of mosquito bites. But God is good, all the time.

Our new location is wonderful and annoying at the same time. The food is different, the house is different, the people are different, the activities we do are different. Since I was so obsessively in love with Seoul, I assumed that I’d feel the same way about being in this big city, but that has not been the case. It’s not that I hate where we are; I just could never see myself living in a place like this long-term. It feels like nothing is easily accessible, and there simply aren’t enough Koreans here for me to feel at home.

One of my favorite things that we get to do here is working in a preschool. The slums we’ll be working in have hundreds of thousands – did you read that? hundreds of thousands – of people living in them, but there are only enough classrooms for two to three thousand children. One of the things the team here has been working on is setting up daycares for families in the slums so the parents are free to go out and find jobs. The slum we’ve been working in this past week has a WorldVision office, and the daycare had some gift boxes from Operation: Christmas Child. It’s surreal knowing that the kids we sing songs and play games with are the same ones that people in America see on commercials and have pictures of on their refrigerators. The world seems smaller, yet somehow America has never felt so far away.

The daycare is one of the most fun places I’ve ever been. Since I’m the only one who has any experience with preschool kids aside from the leaders, I was basically tossed in the room with a hardy “you got this!” It’s a teensy bit different teaching fourteen in my class in Korea to the forty-three we’ve got here, but the same basic principles apply; the sillier I act, the more they pay attention; the more they pay attention, the more they learn. The rest of my team stood around the room and helped when I asked for it, but it was mostly up to me to implement any kind of structured lesson. And I loved every single minute of it. When I left Korea, I thought that would be my last opportunity to teach little ones; I love that I’m getting this tiny reminder of how much fun it is to sing songs and be silly and call it a “job.”

While we're here, we'll also have the opportunity to work at some other really exciting places, like an AIDS orphanage, a leper colony, a restaurant, and a few other slums. I haven't been on any of the teams that have gone to those places yet, but I've heard really cool stories from all of them. Life is a little bit slower here; rides and translators don't show up until an hour after they said they'd arrive, but I'm learning to hold plans loosely and just see what comes next. I don't want to miss out on this season because I was constantly checking my watch.

In other news, I’m going to get glasses soon. When I was in Korea, my vision started to get blurry, so I asked a friend of mine to take me to the optometrist. Every test the doctors did came up just fine, and they sent me away with some eye drops and a question mark. Whenever my vision has started to blur in the last eight months, I’ve put in my drops and told myself there was nothing wrong. I’ve noticed it a lot worse here, but I’m stubborn and didn’t bother mentioning it to anyone. The other day, we were rehearsing for a skit where I play a nerdy bookworm (I think I was typecast), so I borrowed a pair of glasses from one of the girls on the team. The second I put them on, the whole world became clearer. I ran through the house, reading labels and looking out windows while my friends all wondered how I could have possibly not known that I needed glasses. I’m really stinkin’ excited to get my glasses and not have to walk up close to things to be able to see them anymore. Luckily I discovered this in a country where glasses are less than thirty bucks a pair; if I had to pay hundreds of dollars of them in America, I’d just go right on not being able to see far away.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Violence, lust, and other hard things

I don't want to write today. I want to sit in bed with my journal and watch the sun roll across the sky. I want to be in my classroom today, singing that cursed lunch and snack song they made me sing three times a day. I want to know tonight I get to see Taesun and ride the subway back to Gangnam with my iPod in. I guess today I miss "home."

I went to a Korean restaurant for lunch yesterday, and I nearly cried when I saw hangul on the menu. My friends spent the whole meal trying to convince me to go talk to the woman in the kitchen, but the only word I could muster up the courage to say was "thank you." We left and I took a picture as we walked away.

It doesn't help that I've had a hard week. As Jen says, the "grace goggles" have come off, and we're starting to become annoyed with the little things we used to find amusing. I remember when that happened in Korea, and I know that if I push through, I'll enjoy it here again. But right now, I'm frustrated, cold, and awfully lonely. I know I'm here with fifteen other people and it's nearly impossible to have a second alone, but just as I was after those first few honeymoon weeks in Korea, I'm lonely for people who know me. I'm lonely for people who know that mandu is infinitely better than momos, for people who know euchre is the best way to pass the time, for people who know Miami isn't just in Florida.

The kids at the camp are getting more comfortable with us, and that means they're acting the way they do with each other. It's beautiful that they know us and anticipate when we come to spend time with them, but with familiarity comes violence, apparently. I started to notice it earlier this week when I had a baby on my lap. A teenage girl was standing beside me, and she decided to show me how to play with the baby. She swung her arm back and slapped him across the cheek; when his face turned, she slapped his other cheek. I smacked her hand away and told her that wasn't nice, but I doubt she understood my English. She laughed and tried to show me how to play again, but I pulled the baby away from her. I didn't have much time to explain why, though; I had to rush across the path to stop a little boy from throwing rocks at his friends. The next time we went to the camp, my stomach fell out when I saw a little girl shaking a tiny, tiny baby to get him to stop crying. This world is so broken, and it hurts so much.

Time outside the camp hasn't been much better. Having been outside America the majority of 2011, I'm somewhat familiar with the stares that come with being Caucasian. As a group, we've had entire tour buses pull over to take pictures with us, and it's not uncommon to have people pretend to pose for pictures but really angle the camera to capture us. For some reason, this week I've lost my patience. We went to a temple next to a beautiful waterfall to pray, and I sat on a low stone wall a few yards away from the group. Two men approached me and asked for a picture, and before I realized what what happening, I had a line of men waiting to sit beside me. Each one inched closer than the last, and after very little time they were practically sitting on my lap, wrapping their arms around me. I frantically tried to catch the eye of our translator or someone on my team, and finally one of the girls saw what was happening and started pushing the men away from me. A handful of the ones who were still in line followed us away from the temple, but the men in our group stayed behind the girls so they couldn't get close to us. I noticed every glance that lingered a little too long on the way back to town, and I wished I could just melt straight into the road.

Please don't read these stories and make up your mind that this nation is terrible. My frustration with the culture doesn't in any way mean these people are less deserving of the love we came to show, of the medical care and English lessons and prayer we spend our days freely giving out. It just means I can't love as unconditionally as God can, and I'm learning to put myself aside so that others matter more. It's a tough road to walk, and I'm sometimes a terribly slow learner.

We have had some moments this week that I'll cling to forever. One of the girls in the camp chased me down to draw henna designs on my hands with a marker; when she turned her own hand over, I saw she had written my name in the center of her palm so she wouldn't forget it. We spent New Years Eve watching one of the most delightful movies I've ever seen, and when the calendar page finally turned, we gathered around a bonfire and danced for hours. Lemme tell ya, these people can dance. There are moments almost every day that freeze time for a second, and I recognize how incredibly lucky I am to be here in this place, with these people. Just like we have to do in every situation, I'm choosing to focus on the beauty instead of the frustrations, to focus on what can one day be instead of what is right now.