Saturday, October 27, 2012

Let's talk Korean volleyball

Volleyball Wednesdays. A Korean tradition of bonding and sportsmanship wherein public school staff is encouraged to play a nice, cutthroat game of volleyball each week after school.

When I first heard this, I thought it was a joke. A mean joke told to a petite American with little to no athletic ability besides running. But it seems it's true. Because here's the deal, in one sweeping generality: Koreans love volleyball. When my school heard I'd be coming here to teach, I believe there was excitement in the volleyball-charged air. They imagined, perhaps, that I'd show up like this:

Instead, this is what they got:


Big-time. I haven't played volleyball since my Catholic high school days in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As it turns out, I still suck. Time has made me wiser and more mature, but it has only made me an older sucky player on the volleyball court. 

And there's been no hiding this from my Korean co-workers.

The first time I played volleyball with them was my second day teaching here. I knew it was coming. My predecessor told me about it. "Don't worry," she said. "You don't have to do it. I never did." But I couldn't refuse. I learned to eat (and eventually really like) kimchi and I'd be damned if I wasn't going to play volleyball, too, if it was called for in this new surrounding culture of mine. 

Bring it. 

All day long on that first Wednesday, co-workers greeted me with a mock volleyball move- arms extended, palms shown flat. An imaginary ball would get whacked and a questioning look directed my way. "Yes," I'd announce proudly while mimicking the gesture. "I am playing volleyball with you today." What they didn't know is I. was. terrified.

Here are 10 things I've figured out about playing volleyball in Korea with your co-workers on Wednesdays. I hope they prove helpful to you, if you find yourself in the same position. 

1) If you, with a nervous stomach and sweaty palms, go into the staff bathroom, look at yourself in the mirror, and repeat, "You ARE a volleyball player. You CAN do this!" over and over again, it does not actually make you play any better.

2) Volleyball is a chance for the crabby co-worker who usually looks disgusted by your presence to finally acknowledge you by yelling "HEY YOU!" and then direct you to stand in a certain place on the court. These are the only two words he has and will ever say to you, and they are in English, so you ignore his grimace and flash him a smile. This makes him growl. 

3) If you forget your change of clothes for volleyball, you will be encouraged to walk the 3 mile round trip home to retrieve them. This will be suggested to you as though the suggestion itself were some kind of gift or favor. You will be confused the whole way home and the whole way back. 

4) If you forget your change of clothes on another occasion and do not have time to go home, your principal will advise you to just play in what you are wearing: a black dress and black flats. 

5) If you attempt to spike the ball and you are wearing a dress (see above) you may unintentionally flash a sight of your bright red underwear to your principal, the creepy whistle blower man, and the lunch ladies. If this happens, one of the lunch ladies will whisk you off into the cafeteria where she will strip you of your clothing and throw an unsightly substitute for athletic gear on you: a white baggy long-sleeved shirt and some blue shiny nylon pants 2 sizes too big. These pants will have a way of trapping every ounce of heat and sweat in and within 5 minutes of wearing them, you will have the unpleasant sensation that you pissed yourself.

6) You will notice within the first 5 minutes of your first game that you suck and your co-workers do not. This will be evident by their jumping and slamming the ball across the net, high fiving each other, and otherwise performing miraculous aerodynamic stunts during plays. Your suckiness will be evident by the way you cower when the ball comes near, and by the way the ball makes contact with parts of your body other than the designated volleyball contact spots, like the wrists and insides of your arms.

7) You will be thrilled each time shy girl, whose name you don't know but you refer to her as "shy girl," has to serve the ball. She is perhaps suckier than you. As is the chubby guy who is very nice but a little nervous. You may try to bond with them by giving them a thumbs up after each of their failed serves, but they do not want to align themselves with you.

8) You will be spoken to, barked at, congratulated, and chastised in a language you don't understand. Sometimes English will be thrown in in such a way that what was at first confusing is not utterly insane. 

"Auntie B!" (they will call you "Auntie B") "Auntie B! No touchee ball!" 

" want me to...not touch the ball? I don't get it. Am I supposed to...wait...what?!"

"Auntie B! Hit ball! No touchee!"

"Wait...what?" Hit it? Or don't touch it? What do you want me to do? I'm so....wait....what?"

This conversation will be with your principal. You will ask him not to fire you when your head makes contact with the ball, costing your team a point. He will not understand, despite your best attempts to act out "don't" and "fire." 

9) If you super-suck, like I do, you will be asked to do additional practice serves with shy girl and chubby boy while everyone else eats oranges on the sidelines and watches you. This will leave you with bruises in your left hand and wrist, further evidence that you suck, as this is not where the ball is supposed to make contact.
 10) Even if you super suck, you will be encouraged to join in the chow-down festivities that take place after each Wednesday game. This part is the sweet reward for the public humiliation you've just endured. Here, you will climb the small wooden steps to the gymnasium stage, where you will crowd around a ping pong table (center stage) filled with food: chicken wings, stuffed peppers, boiled pork, pickled radishes. You will hold chopsticks in hand and peck and peck and peck as one of the flock until at last the surface of the table is bare save a few crumbs and empty bottles of soju.

You must learn how to say "It's been fun. See you next Wednesday."

And you must learn how to mean it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

To You, My Student Who Hates Me

Today I slid a note into your hand as you were leaving class. "Thank you for being a good student in class today," it read. Scrawled below that was the translation written by my co-teacher after I'd asked her to do so. "I cannot make it exact words," she told me. I figured as much.

The thing is, you weren't really a good student as I'd choose to use those two words together. But today was much better. Today you didn't ball your fists by your side and visibly shake with rage as I was speaking to you. Alone. In the hall. Because you had been a total jerk in class.

Today I didn't humiliate you in front of your friends by pulling you out of the building to walk the school grounds with me, chastising you in a language you barely know. I didn't try to make you shake my hand today, an offer that made you fling your arms to your sides and spin violently away from me, brushing knuckles across the wall.

You want to hate me. The new teacher. The one who taps your head when you put it down in class. The one who bounces around the room like a monkey. A white monkey. I see you jeer at me. I hear you mumble under your breath when I come near. I don't need to know your exact words to understand what you are saying.

But it is what you do not know that I saw that makes me have a soft place in my heart for you.

I slid that note into your hand today after trying to pass it to you discreetly behind my desk. I did not want to embarrass you in front of your friends. But you did not understand what I wanted. And you jerked your arm away and yelled out in a way that had all eyes on you. Now, instead of a gentle passing of a few kind words on paper, I was forcibly grabbing at your hand. Prying your fingers out of their angry clenching. Take this! I yelled. Take this paper! Now we were absurdly dancing towards the classroom door. Arms pushing at arms. Dang it! Just take this note, will you?

When at last you figured out what was happening, you unfolded my message immediately.

I left you there to read my words while students filed in around you, bumping your shoulder and knocking the pen from your hand. Thank you for being a good student in class today. The corners of your mouth turned up slightly. I had yet to see you relax the tense muscles in your face until that moment. But you did. For the smallest amount of time.

But I saw it.

Then, it was if you remembered your commitment to rage, and the corners of your mouth slid- no, forcibly returned- into the scowl you seem to prefer. You crumpled up my note and tossed it in the small green trash bin by the door and quickly exited the room.

I saw you today. I saw you today. And I saw you smile.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Who We Are

I am white monkey.
I am baby face.
I am big eyes.  
I am ghost teacher.

You are fingers reaching out 
to lightly press a freckle on my upper arm.
You are a palms brushing past
to tickle the hairs on my lower arm.

You are "HELLO!" 
followed by immediate giggling
indicative of a dare completed. 

You are 
"I'm fine, thank you. How are you?"
"I'm fine, thank you. How are you?"
"I'm fine, thank you. How are you?" 
You are stuck in reverse.

You are sparkling eyes 
of an elderly woman
responding to my respectful greeting
a nod
a bow
followed by one of the few
phrases I know.


Solo hike in Hadong-October 2, 2012

fold me into your waters
running across spotted rocks
symphony of sounds

carry me down this mountainside
hold me along the way
gentle hands of ferns

tell me of the rough-soled feet
that have flattened your grasses
subtle path underfoot

swallow me in the deepest part  
of your belly
curtain closing
sun going down

retreating slivers of light between  
your tall trunks
a slow sweet blinking
a kiss on my face