The Legacy – The Move Day 1

The last view I had of my classroom over the past four years.

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
– “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

One of my favorite poems to teach during my tenure at Korea International School was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” especially during the year where the ones in charge came up with the theme of “Leave a Legacy”. I have always thought this poem gave a truth about life and the legacies that we leave behind, and I have been thinking about these things a lot during my last couple of months as I wrapped up my time there. Is it possible to leave a legacy behind? How long will it be before my name is no longer mentioned in the hallways of the school that I had spent four years at? Should I feel offended that as soon as the last students I taught there, I will quickly be forgotten?

The last view of my apartment I had lived in for the last four years.

It made it even harder as I packed up all of my stuff and took all of artwork off of my bulletin boards that everything was returning back to the way it was when I first arrived in Korea, stark, undecorated, and sanitary. My last look at my classroom, and the last look of my apartment had the same feel, all traces of my impact had been washed away so the next person that came in to take my place could start to make their mark. As I prepared to get ready for my next adventure in Thailand, I couldn’t help but looking at my time here and wonder if it had been worth the time and effort that I had put into it.

Life in Dongcheon-dong continuing on.

As far as the greater impact my presence had to South Korea as whole, it was hard to make me believe that I had actually done something. The society still moves on like a well-oiled machine. People continue to work jobs to try to get a little ahead, and students still work themselves hard to try to become a part of this cycle. Words of a madman to the north passes the lips of the people from time to time as they wonder how their relationships with larger nations from the west affect what is going on. Poor air from the east mingles with the exhaust of the big city to make some days unsafe to venture outside, but on the days you can, it is a beautiful experience to watch the blooming of spring, the green of summer, or the melancholy of autumn. The year comes and the year goes, and we get mixed into the grind.

Knowing all of this, how can I look at the empty classroom and the empty apartment and believe that I had an impact?

The last moment before getting in the cab to depart South Korea forever.

It was while I was riding away in the taxi to the airport, spending those last moments in South Korea that the answer came to me. I could not worry about making a huge change in society. What I did would eventually be returned to a state as if I had never been there. My legacy should not come from the programs I made or the mark I left behind; it should come from the connections I made with the people I came across. This is what made my time in Korea worth every moment. I do believe that every student that went through my class now has a different perspective on the world, and will think about what they witness more instead of just accepting it as the truth, while challenging the truths that I always believed to be true. I do believe that the colleagues that I worked with in my four years grew because of my influence almost as much as I have grown as a teacher because of their influence. And more importantly, I do believe that the society has felt a minor shock wave because of the slightly punk rock hippie that invaded their world for four years, as I learned to look at my world with a more international perspective.

It wasn’t all about my legacy. It was about their legacy as well. I hope the people I came in contact with during these four amazing years have somehow been changed by presence, because I know I have been changed by their presence.

Thank you Korea for four amazing years full of happiness and heartache. Each moment has allowed me to grow as a person, and even though I may no longer be living and working out there anymore, your legacy lives on with me.

The North Seoul Tower – Itaewon Day 3

If you look over the stores and restaurants in Itaewon, you can see one of Seoul’s most iconic structures, the North Seoul Tower. It stands on one of the mountains that surrounds the city and looks over the action from all of its neighborhoods. During the four years I have lived here, I have seen this needle guarding the city, and I have always talked about eventually making it up there one day. I waited until yesterday to finally make that dream become a reality, and I discovered that after all of the palaces and the Buddhist temples, and tall buildings I have been to while out here, that this is, by far, the most touristy thing that I have visited in Seoul.

Getting to the tower is not that difficult. You just take subway to the Myeongdong Station, and get out through exit three. Find the Pacific Hotel, and take the road to the right of it up the hill, and you will eventually find the mountain that the tower is on. There are two ways up the mountain, you can take the stairs up or you can take a cable car. I took the cable car, and I would recommend taking the stairs.

I went to the tower yesterday because I thought that a lot of Koreans would be at home preparing for the Lunar New Year holiday so it would not be that busy, and this might have been the case. It was still really busy though, except not with Koreans. Apparently when people from South-East Asia celebrate this holiday, they decide to go the touristy thing in Seoul. February is not the best time to be in Seoul. It is really cold, and there are no leaves on the trees. Yet they were all here anyways. We stood in line for twenty minutes to buy tickets to stand in another line for forty minutes to get on a cable car that was way overpacked with people to take a ride up a hill to see the views from up top. It would have taken fifteen to twenty minutes just to take the stairs up to the top, and the exercise would have been worth it.

Once up there, the views were really worth it. The North Seoul Tower sits in the perfect spot to walk around and see all the different nooks and crannies of the city. There are also a lot of fun things to do that highlight the Korean culture, from looking at old structures from the Joseon Dynasty to a lot of booths that teach people how to play the traditional games from tuho to yunnori. There were plenty of things to keep me occupied up there.

Of course, it is also a big tourist destination, so there are a lot of companies that wish to take advantage of this fact. There are plenty of restaurants to eat at, and a couple of bars as well. There are numerous statues of Korea’s favorite cartoon characters so they can take pictures of them with their children. And of course there is a whole wall dedicated to love locks. This tradition that started in Paris has found its way all around the world. Young lovers will buy a lock and attach it to this wall then throw away the key. The idea is that the lock represents their love, and by throwing away the key then their love will always be eternal. It is a romantic idea, but it loses its power when their is a vending machine selling locks, and everybody believes that they have to do it. The idea starts to drift over to that love of capitalism idea instead.

Despite it obvious tourist appeal, visiting the North Seoul Tower was worth the adventure, and I am glad that I took the time to go out and do it while I am still living out here.

How is This Not a Thing – Itaewon Day 2

One of the things I have learned while living in Seoul is that South Korean look at the world differently than pretty much any other culture I have experienced. For example, right now, it is very popular with the youth of Korea to wear clothes that depict the death of the beloved Sesame Street characters. I don’t know if they even know what Sesame Street is, but they really want to see all of their characters dead. In a way, it is disturbing, but I think that they think it is endearing.

Not all of the things that they enjoy are as creepy. They are definitely a coffee culture, even though this is not traditionally what they were. There are numerous cafes out there, most of them, the typical cafes you would find in any other place in the world, including the over-saturation of Starbucks, but they have specialty cafes as well. There are board game cafes where you can go and play any of the games that they have on the shelf. They also have ones that allow you to play with legos, or rest in a fake indoor garden. These are all popular, but the most popular of them involve animals.

There are cafes where you can hang out with dogs, or cats, or even goats, but the one that I went to yesterday let you hang out with meerkats, Meerkat Friends. It is not in Itaewon, but it is only a fifteen minute subway ride over to the Hongdae neighborhood. It is the perfect way to spend a wet and rainy afternoon, and it is a thing that is typically Korean. It costs 12,000 won to enter the cafe, and they serve a variety of drinks there even though nobody really buys any of them. You then get the opportunity to sit in a pen with a herd of meerkats that crawl all over you, and nestle close so they can get in a quick nap. They let you stay in there for ten minutes at a time, but then there are other animals roaming around the cafe that allow you to play with them as well. They had a couple of cats, a couple of foxes, and a couple of raccoons. It was a fun experience, and we quickly lost track of time as we played with the animals.

If you do come out here and want to visit one of these cafes, I recommend that you do your research on the places first. There are a lot of cafes that house animals, but not all of them are kind to the animals that they have. Meerkat Friends does a great job of caring for their animals, and it is almost as if they twenty pets that they get to play with every day. If I wasn’t a teacher, this is the kind of place that I would look to work at because it would be fun to go to everyday. It was fun to go to just for one day, and it is a place that everyone should seek out if they ever find themselves in Seoul.

Escaping the Grind – Itaewon Day 1

I know it is going to sound like I am the laziest person on Earth when I title my post “Escaping the Grind” three weeks after just having a long Winter Break. How much of a grind could I have been through in that short of a time? It is true that the semester has just started, and we have just gotten into the work that we need to do, but a very important holiday, Lunar New Year, has come to Korea, and the school has given me a five day weekend. Of course, I will take advantage of it, and go to downtown Seoul and see some of the sights. I am also an English teacher, so I never get to completely away from the grind. I have brought a stack of papers with me that I need to grade, and there is some lesson planning I need to do, but I do get a little extra time to enjoy life a bit.

I am not the only one getting away from the grind either. Everybody in Seoul has travelled to the smaller towns and quiet corners of the city to celebrate the holiday. Lunar New Year is a huge family holiday in South Korea, and people will travel to the locations where the head of their families reside. That location is never inside the city itself. In fact, Seoul clears out quite a bit, making it the perfect time to go downtown and see some of the sights. One of my favorite places in town has always been the neighborhood of Itaewon, and I have made this my little destination for the next couple of days.

Itaewon is probably the most international location in Seoul. It is close to Yongsin Military Base, and because of this, many of the soldiers and people who work there come to this spot to unwind and have a good time. There is a plethora of restaurants that range from Italian and Mexican, to Middle Eastern and Thai cuisine. There are lots of shops selling sports gear from the States, a variety of vinyl records and English books. It is also close to the Korean War Museum, Bukchon Cultural Village, and the Seoul Tower. It is the perfect central location to see a lot of Seoul and still have a lot of fun.

I didn’t get into this part of town until later in the afternoon, so I did not have a lot of time to explore, so I went to my favorite place right away, Vatos Tacos. This fusion restaurant takes the parts of Korean food I enjoy and blends them with Mexican to make one of the best meals you can get in Seoul. There are a few locations in town, but Itaewon has the first location. Usually I go down to this location and even at 5:30 in the afternoon, I have to wait a good thirty minutes before I am able to get a table, but because of the holiday, I was able to walk right in and find a spot at the bar. There was a steady stream of people who came and went throughout the time that I was there, but it still never filled up the way that it usually does.

Even the roads were quiet. Usually the sidewalks would be packed with people, and the roads jammed with cars and taxis. It is the perfect time to come and visit this place, and get the most out of the experience. I am excited for the days to come that will allow me to try some of the other food that it offered, and see a couple of the sights. It will be a nice break from the daily grind because Itaewon is also experiencing a break from its usual grind. Lunar New Year offers a lot of advantages to this part of the world, and I am glad that I am here to experience them.

Art is Better in the Rain – Back to Busan Day 2

One of my favorite places in South Korea is a neighborhood that can be found in Busan, Gamcheon Cultural Village. I went to this place a year ago at the end of my trip to Busan, but did not plan for enough time to really enjoy it. This time, I planned to get there early enough in the day where I could really explore this neighborhood, and not worry about having to get back before it got too dark outside. I am glad that I planned for this because it made for a really fun day in an artistic corner of this otherwise very serious part of the world.

Gamcheon was built during the Korean War. Many people flocked to this corner of the country to escape the turmoil that was happening further north. The people of Busan put together this concrete village so the people would have some place to live, and the houses that are stacked on top of one another with tiny pathways in-between them still exist in this part of the city. When the war wore down and people could return to their normal lives, the village still existed, a mass of grey concrete that became a sore sight for the people of Busan. It remained this way until the art department of a local college saw something different in the village, and they brought paint, and art supplies to turn it into South Korea’s largest art project. People still live in the tiny buildings, but many of them have been turned into an expression of someone’s creativity, and what was once bland and boring is now a pastel masterpiece that draws many crowds.

Normally the little side streets are packed with people looking around to try and catch what they hope would be the perfect picture in this place, but a constant drizzle kept many of them away on this Saturday. It made for the perfect time to go and explore this place. Yes, it is neat to see all of these things without having to worry about getting wet, but the art seems to hold more significance when a cloud hangs over it all. Art was never born in a moment of happiness. All the best art comes from those moments that we are struggling against nature somehow, and the rain just added to this expression.

It also took away from the long lines of people waiting to get their picture at some of the more famous 3D art pieces that can be found around every turn. The art turns into something that you can appreciate when you do not have to fight with other cameramen as you try to look on to what could be something great. You also don’t have to feel bad that somebody else is waiting for you to get out of the way so they could have their 30 seconds with the piece of art. Because of the rain, we were able to laugh and really enjoy the art the way I think it was meant to be enjoyed.

It is a great experience to have a part of town like this to yourself. It makes the day contemplative instead of touristy, and I have to thank the rain for this experience. It is not everyday that this gets to happen, so the next time that I start to think that I should stay inside to avoid getting a little wet when there is an opportunity to see something great, I am going to take that chance and go out in the rain. I will get to have the place more to myself, and really get to experience the place the way it was meant to be experienced.

Escape – Back to Busan Day 1

Okay, I usually do not post things that are inappropriate, but this person I saw on the subway in Seoul the other day represents the way I feel about this big city right now. This guy on the subway and pushed his way through the people so he could position himself in a prime spot. I probably wouldn’t have noticed him because this happens all of the time in South Korea, but his coat brushed up against my hand, and I couldn’t believe that I had felt a fur coat in this day and age. But there it was, and when I saw what was printed on the back of it, I had to chuckle. I do not know if the guy knew what it said, or believed the sentiment. But he did pull out a fan, so he could cool himself off as he took the train back to his neighborhood. He was basically just trying to look good in front of a bunch of strangers. Why else would he show off the amount of money he was willing to blow on a coat that he could have easily taken off to cool down. He also wanted to highlight the fact that he was able to wear the trendy English that is all the rage in Seoul right now. I just shook my head at the absurdity, and realized that I needed to get out of town before the never-stop pace consumed me.

Luckily, there is a city a short two hour train away that has a completely different vibe to it, Busan. I was also given a couple of days off in order to celebrate an American holiday, Thanksgiving. I took this opportunity to get away from the I need to look good, I need to show off my money, and I need to make mark on society attitude that permeates through Seoul. Busan has a feeling to it that is more like a beach. If it happens today that is great, but eventually we will get around to it. In the meantime, let us enjoy the moment.

I am not quite sure if this is always the case here, but both times I have been down here, I have felt like this was the case. I instantly felt it when I got on the subway. Whereas, just two days earlier, I was pushed out of the way by some guy wearing an expensive coat that expressed how much he loved people, I was greeted by a Korean wearing a worn-down hoodie and greeting smile. People are not in a rush here. They are not trying to show everybody how great they are, or how much money they make. My sanity needed this change of attitude, and it allowed me to enjoy Black Friday the way that I know how, ignoring the shoppers, and eating at as many establishments as I can find.

Busan does not really buy into this crazy shopping day anyway, but I feel like I took something back from a society that demands that I spend money to make other people happy. I would rather get together with my friends and enjoy good beer and good food. The best way to do this if you do not have a stove big enough to cook a turkey in, or live in a culture that doesn’t even really sell turkeys in the market anyway is to hop from restaurant to restaurant, grabbing a bite to eat in each one. It allowed me to feel that there are more important things in this world than having a look that makes everybody turn their attention over to me. It is not about what others think about me, but instead of what I think about the moment, and I am going to make sure that it is a great one.

A Free Market Look at Education

I am going into my thirteenth year of being a teacher, and as the demand grows for teachers grow in the United States, I am amazed that the government does not try to make this job more appealing for people to pursue as a career. I know that many people think that teachers should not receive much benefits because they do not work as hard as other professions do. I could sit here and tell you that this is not true, but those people will not listen to me as they have already made up their minds that teachers are overpaid people that don’t work much to begin with. And if that is your perception of education then you are correct, teachers should not get the raises that they are begging for right now. So I have decided to look at this from an economic, free market perspective as this might be a better way of reaching those individuals who believe that we should not be taking care of our teachers better.

In order to make this argument, I first need to establish that education is important for the future of the country. Any community needs an educated workforce, and the more educated a community is, the more powerful its economy becomes. If there are a bunch of people that don’t know how to count money, communicate properly, or work the ever evolving complicate advances in technology. An educated workforce is the foundation for any thriving economy. Just look at South Korea. Here is a country that has no real natural resources, and because of their unique relationship with connecting nations, they are basically an island, and need to import most of the food and resources that they need in order to thrive. They do not have anything of significance to offer the world, yet they have the eleventh largest economy. How is this possible? They looked to the one resource that they had, and utilized it to their advantage, their people. They educated these people and then sent them out into the world in order to help their economy grow, and they created one of the biggest turnarounds ever with an economy, going from one of the world’s worst in the 1950s to where they are today. They did this through an educated workforce.

On the other hand, if a government wants to repress a people, the first thing they do is to take away their education. Hitler did this by burning all books he did not agree with. Pol Pot did this by taking the doctors, professors, and lawyer out to the Killing Fields and getting rid of them. Mao did this by promoting the reading of his red book and only that book. I don’t think that anybody would say that these societies weren’t repressed and the people under the control of these ruthless dictators suffered because of the lack of education. These leaders have gone down in history as some of the greatest killers to have ever walked the earth, and nobody within their societies were able to stop them from these atrocities because they did not have the mental capabilities to bring about the change needed. They were not given the education that was needed to start the revolution because revolutions are not started from gun but from ideas, and it takes an educated individual to create the idea that will inspire the masses into action.

I do not think that there would be many people that would argue that a basic education is needed for each individual, and because of that the future of our nation is dependent on the skills of the teachers that provide this education for our youth. There are numerous studies that show that this is true. In fact, it is not technology that produces great results in the classroom, but it is the strength of the teacher and the size of the class that does it. If you have a child and you want to make sure that he or she gets a good education, you want a skilled teacher leading a class of no more than twenty people, so that skilled teacher can give each student the attention that they need. In order to do this, money needs to be put into education to make sure that this happens.

None of these arguments are new to the person who does not wish to raise their taxes to make this happen. They still think that teachers are given enough money to perform their jobs, and they do not see why more money should be given to them to have them stick around. Well, there is one little trade secret that many of these people do not realize that is already have profound effects on the educational system in the United States, and it has to do with the principle of the free market.

To best understand this principle, think of it from the perspective of a teacher. They want to paid fair wages for the job that they are performing. They want a strong health insurance so they can take care of any medical conditions that might arise through their stressful job. They want to make sure that they are taken care of financially after they have retired from their jobs. They want a place with a diverse population that can add to the educational experience with the unique perspectives that the students bring into the classroom. If they could get this job with great working conditions, as well as somebody paying for their housing, and the added perk of being able to travel to exotic locations during their breaks, what would stop a teacher from doing this? Some people would have to ask about these teachers’ children and the opportunities afforded to them from such a place. Well, if those teachers had children, they would be provided with one of the best educations in the world because they would be able to go to that teacher’s school for free.

I know that there are many people out there that do not believe that a situation like this exists because if it did, many highly qualified teachers would be rushing to get one of these jobs. But I am here to tell you that these jobs do exist, and there are so many of them, that schools are desperate to get the best teachers to fill in those vacancies. It is a simple matter of supply and demand. Because of years of painting educators as greedy individuals who spend most of their time sitting around doing nothing more than babysitting children, many people have stopped going into this profession. Because of being vilified, many teachers that are still in the profession are looking to find a place where they can get the respect that they deserve. If the current practices are allowed to continue, it will only be a matter of time before there is a  serious brain drain in the United States concerning this field. The best in the field will take their skills overseas, leaving schools to scramble to find anybody to fill in the spots that they need to fill. There is already a struggle to fill in science, math, and special education positions because there are already other professions that pay better and are looking for these people to fill these positions. For those that truly love the passion of teaching and being able to connect with the future generations, there is now another option made available to them. And there is a huge demand for English teachers overseas because this is the language that most of these schools teach in and the students want to graduate with a strong grasp of its intricacies.

The best education will eventually come from schools that have been exported overseas. Colleges and universities will look to these same schools to find the students that they believe are worthy enough to attend their institutions, and the people that attend will take their education back to the counties that they come from. Some might claim that this is a slippery slope argument, and there is no way that we can predict the future in the manner, but the truth of the matter is that this is already happening, and as the other countries of the world continue to get smarter, Americans continue to discredit their own educational system, and not fund it to the level that it needs to be funded at. I have seen countries like Korea, Japan, and Cambodia take an active approach to education, and they have seen the benefits of this push already within their economies. America needs to take the same approach to their schools if they wish to compete in the future. Education is not about having a certain part of the population given the privilege of being smarter so they can gains the advantages of a capitalistic society; it is about making sure that we are all smart enough to maintain what needs to happen to make that society sustainable. We should not be sacrifice this aspect of our society because of the financial burden that it puts on us because it is a vital part of what makes America great.

It is the government that eventually decides how they fund their school, but it is up to the people to make sure that the government is doing the will of the people. So during this election cycle, pay close attention to the politicians that are looking to take over the positions of leadership and make sure that you choose wisely. The future of America should not be compromised because a few people do not find a value in it. We should all find a value in it because it affects us all.