Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Turning Wheels and Pulling Strings

“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think of how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

How profoundly true resonate these words of Dickens, even so many years after they were written. I love his allusion to iron and gold, to thorns and flowers, to these very different but equally binding mechanisms that hold us fast throughout our lives. And it makes me think. As I read this passage I did stop as the passage suggests, and I did think of what had led me here; of the peculiar and confused chain of events which did coalesce to create this very moment in which I am sitting, looking up at a clear blue sky somewhere in Asia sipping a Coke and writing this run-on sentence. It really is quite extraordinary, if you want to know. So I realized something, namely, that I don’t think that things change because of time and place, especially if those things are truths. For instance, Dickens’ basic observation, however rudimentary in its composition, is nevertheless profound and true, despite when it was written or what it was written in direct reference to. And regardless of who one believes has orchestrated such events, one cannot deny the truth that a chain of events has been set in motion, from farther back that we can know, and that those events make us who we are, shape what we do, and guide us to who we become. It is interesting for me to remember, a conversation I had with someone a few weeks back who works at the US Embassy in Seoul, and he was remarking of the nature of life and its habit of following a certain course despite an individual having no idea what course that may be. He was talking about his prestigious position at the Embassy, and the path he followed, (rather inadvertently,) to get there. He said that it was funny how things had worked out so well, and the whole time he had no idea that he was bound for such a position, nor that what he had done would work so to his advantage in his current career. “Its as if something is up there,” he said candidly to me, “turning wheels and pulling strings, pushing people towards certain places, and others toward different places.” He took a sip of his beer, looked away from me and at the rain falling gently beside us, shrugged, and turned back. “Its strange” he concluded. In a way, I agree. I doubt very much that this individual thought that the person “pulling strings” was anything divine, instead perhaps fate or some concept even more abstract, but what he said I think is true, as I have witnessed some such guiding presence in my own life, and I am certain I will continue to. I am not trying to make any kind of a statement, but simply an observation. And it makes me wonder if I will be looking back on this time years from now, marveling at how each event and each subtle influence somehow shaped what I will eventually do. But the interesting thing about this whole idea is that it mostly operates in retrospect; one cannot foresee the future any better than one can see through a perfectly dark room. As frustrating as this is, maybe it is good, after all. Maybe it forces us to live with some kind of faith that things will line up, that things are lining up, although all seems confused as of present. Maybe it forces us to believe something uncomfortable, to exercise a muscle seldom used, to force us into comfort when there seemingly is none. I am stubborn, I will tell you that, and it is hard for me to learn from things the first time through. But as I look back I am able to see something undeniable, something that I would do best to learn from and understand, something that would make my life easier if I were able to comprehend. Again, it is not my intent to make any kind of statement regarding the state of my existence or yours, I am not sure I am qualified to, there are simple observations from a simple man.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Cause, a Protest, and Violence

So I find myself with internet for the first time in several days, and oh my so much has happened. Indeed it would seem unfair to relate all that has happened/is happening in one short post, so in an effort to do justice to the recent events I have experienced, I will devote this post to one event in particular.

*Note: the picture to the left was take not 50 yards from where I was standing on the 15th of August in Seoul. Note the green dye from the water cannon on their arms, this dye was used to mark protesters for later arrest.

My friend Billy and I arrived in Seoul with the rest of our Fulbright group last Friday, and decided we wanted to see the town. We thought that Friday night was as good a time as any, and besides, it is only a city of 20 million people, so I was sure we could see most of it in one night. Anyway, so the two of us decided to do a few touristy things, like go to a palace and walk around the city hall area, and as we were doing so we saw riot police almost everywhere we went; not doing anything in particular, just standing around and looking bored. But nevertheless, everywhere we went we saw these guys, hundreds and hundreds of them in their black riot gear. So as night approached we were down by city hall, trying to find a sushi restaurant, and we ran across a large number of protesters, lighting candles and holding signs. A few people were making speeches to the crowd, and we stayed a few minutes as we tried to understand what they were protesting. We soon found out. As we were leaving, we were walking down a street and two lines of about one hundred riot police ran in front of us and completely blocked the road. The lined up with their shields in front of them and stood, staring at us, expressionless, waiting. We were obviously a bit confused, so we just stood there, about ten feet from these gentlemen clad in black, and waited to see what would happen. After a few minutes, several of the protesters came over to the line of police and started heckling and yelling at them. As the situation escalated we stepped back a few feet and tried to go around the line of police, and as we did we began to hear screams, and sirens, and yelling, and what can only be described as chaos. So we ran towards the sounds and as we did a truck with a water cannon passed us, its contents bound for unforeseen victims, and we began seeing more and more riot police, until they were everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Once we rounded a corner and a huge intersection came into view, we found the source of all the chaos. Thousands of people were running and yelling, many trying to evade capture by the riot police, many trying to escape the fury of the water cannon and tear gas that had recently been fired. The scene was complete and utter chaos. So, after a moment of deliberation I turned to my friend Billy and said, "Billy, we can stay here and be safe, or we can risk our safety, run into the this, and be in the middle of something we won't ever forget." With nothing more than a simple nod and smile, Billy and I ran towards the confusion. As we ran into the square, we were literally forced to dodge protesters and riot police as they ran around in a strange game of cat and mouse. We could see the water cannon, spraying the protesters and fleeing the scene, and we could see protesters yelling and fighting with the police. It was insane. As we tried to run across the intersection lines of police (50 or more in each line) would run at us, clubs drawn and shields raised, and we would dodge them as best we could and move on to the other side. Shortly after we entered the square, the police shut down the square completely, sealing off every possible exit to ensure that no one could get in or out. In between chaotic moments in the square we had a brief chat with a korean protester who informed us that the protests were against their President, and the fact that it was the Korean independence day made it a perfect day to protest and make their point. She said that they had been protesting peacefully with candles when the police came down on them, first with the water cannon, then tear gas, then beating them with their batons. She told us that there were around 10,000 riot police in and around the square, and maybe 5,000 protesters; not a fair fight if you ask me. Our conversation was funny in that while she was telling us this she would occasionally stop to yell at the police and call them names, or sing a song with several others about the police not being able to marry and how they are shameful, then return to our conversation with a completely normal tone of voice. Anyway, our conversation came to a brief halt when tensions among our group escalated and the crowd began to yell and push the police, who pushed back, which devolved into a mess with us at the center. As we were pushed towards the violent scene, we decided to try to use the chaos to our advantage and make our way beyond the square where we could comfortably stand (as we had been in the square for a half hour or more). So we were able to slip out and watch at a distance as the violence dissipated.

After we grabbed dinner and proceeded to walk around town a bit more, we continued to see riot police running in one direction or another. We ran across the water cannon truck re-filling at a fire-hydrant, and saw tons and tons of undercover police in plainclothes, (although they were anything but subtle, they all wore close to the exact same clothes and all had the same green plaid fishing hat, as if it would somehow make them blend in) always following the police at a not-so-discreet distance. Anyway, the night was wild and shocking and eye-opening and really made me think about the role of an individual in society and the role of police and government and....well maybe you should just ask me about it sometime. The final tally was 156 protesters arrested, which isn't bad considering all the people in the square. Here are some pictures from earlier in the protests, taken from a Korean newspaper:

Saturday, August 2, 2008

teaching, philosophy, and hedonism

I have spent the last two weeks teaching for the first time in Korea. I only taught three times, but each time I learned a bit more about myself, about teaching, about humility, and about what I believe good teaching is. Ok so let me start by saying this, I believe that if we take a step back and look at education from a broad perspective, really examine it and its intricacies, I think the only honest conclusion I can draw is that the burden of education should be placed on the individual, not the institution. Let me explain this. I was talking about this with a good friend of mine, a guy who is brilliant in so many ways, and he was talking about how, in a perfect world, it would be recognized that knowledge and education are paramount, even irreplaceable, within the construction and growth of any thoughtful autonomous individual. He went on to say, and I’m paraphrasing here, that if this could be realized, then there would be a radical and wonderful shift within communities, as people took ownership of their education, their future, and their lives. After all, the institution can only motivate through bribery, ultimately, and that can only go so far. Eventually students conducting their cost/benefit analyses will discover that this institutional bribery is only so fulfilling and can take them only so far, and that is where their contrived education meets its end. So the purest form of education and learning is one that is done for education’s sake, for the love of knowledge, for the love and desire of bettering oneself. Ok, so my utopian paradigm sounds fine, but it obviously has some serious flaws, and in terms of questions we might as well start with the elephant in the room, namely: if the highest and purest and most desired form of education takes place when the individual is motivated and takes ownership over his/her own educational destiny, how in the world do you motivate someone to be self-motivated and actually want to take the burden of education on themselves? And the answer is: I have no idea. Please, if you know the answer, let me know. So all this theorizing was just so I could make the point that, although I have these grand notions of what education should be and can be, I am at a loss as to how to implement them if the students have no innate desire to better themselves.

Ok so back to what I was saying about me teaching. So teaching is in some ways easier than I thought, and in some ways harder. It is easier in the way that I feel more comfortable than I thought I would in front of the kids I was teaching, and it is harder in the way that I am constantly wrestling with the dichotomy of wanting to be their teacher and also wanting to be a friend. I suppose this division could better be described as my desire to be firm and respected, but also do fun things and have my students like me. Yet even as I write this I find it funny that I can see what I am saying stems from some form of insecurity, some desire to be liked, loved. That reminds me of a conversation I was having with a friend of mine the other day, we were talking about what we thought God was, and we were discussing the idea of everyone in the world wanting one thing, that is, to be loved. And it made me think of how silly it was, how silly it is, that everyone seems to be looking for the same thing but is afraid to admit it to each other, like some dark secret that everyone shares but hides away. And here I seem to have provided a prime example of what we were discussing, that is, my inherent desire for love and respect and someone far from perfection telling me I am special. The other day I read this great quote from C.S. Lewis, and he was talking about how the problem with people is not that we seek pleasure, but that we are far too easily pleased. How profound. I see a parallel between his thinking and my hedonistic desire for love.

Alright, pardon the digression.

So the classes I taught had a good time, I think, and I was glad to see that. There were times when I felt a bit like a monkey dancing for change, but overall I think they learned something. The peak of my teaching experience came last week with a friend of mine, Billy, who is actually going to the same town, Chongju, with me in a few weeks. So we decided that, since the camp these students were attending was almost over, we would give them a fun lesson, something they could relax and have fun with. Our lesson was on “X-treme sports,” and ever time we said the word “X-treme” (which was a lot) we would cross our arms in front of us and yell it out again “X-treme!” So soon the kids picked it up, and for the last few days of their camp kids were coming up to me, crossing their arms and yelling “X-treme!” (ah let me tell you, it’s nice to see you have had an impact on a kid’s educational development.) Anyway, we played a few extreme games that culminated in a giant human pyramid that almost ended in disaster (you can watch the video on this page.) So it was fun, and the kids loved it, and I made a lot of small middle school Korean friends.

So now its on to surviving the last two weeks of language classes, which have definitely intensified as of late, and then its off to Chongju, the magical place I will spend the next year. Let me tell you, every day in Korea I feel humbled because of the significant, changing, and profound events that are taking place around me and to me. Just a couple of days ago, when the announcements were made for placements, Ms. Shim, the Fulbright director said “and now I will make the announcements as to where you will be spending the next year in Korea.” Woah, that statement alone absolutely blew my mind. My fate would be determined in the next few minutes, for the next 11 months, and I was utterly powerless to affect it. Like I said, humbling. But its good, it makes me appreciate things more, like the monsoons that have been sweeping through Chuncheon lately. Sitting in class, the storm announces its presence with a loud clap of thunder and the sound of rain dancing on the roof above us. And I find it so incredible that I can stand outside, just out of the rain’s reach, drinking warm coffee and staring into the furious rain as it pours itself out over the hills, the trees, over all that beauty. How perfect.