Two Weeks

“Bullies never prosper,” I say aloud in class.

“Unless, that is, you want to be President.”


It’s two weeks since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America. It’s high time I said something about it. I am running on approximately 600mg caffeine, 2 hours of sleep, nine teaching contact hours, and 1 kilo of kimchi. I also bought myself the present of a Chinese tuocha this evening. It’s like a pressed cake made of tea.

I’ve been an incoherent ball of unpindownable emotions since Wednesday the 10th, my time. 13:30 Korea Standard Time found me glued to the NPR livestream on my borrowed smartphone, heart beating painfully out of my chest. Hands shaking. Inability to teach confirmed. It didn’t help that I was to do yet another godamned singing lesson about the storybook ‘Ali Baba (Jr.) and the FOUR Thieves.’ It all broke loose then and basically hasn’t been right since.


“You might see some scary news in the coming weeks,” I say to the eldest of our kindergarteners, gathered near my knees.

“Scary things might happen. It is an emergency. That’s why teacher needed to look at her phone, ok?”

“I’m going to call the police and tell them that Coleen Teacher was using her phone during class!” says, Daniel Lee.


I just can’t bring myself to wear the red, white, and blue skirt I wore on Election Day in the hope of unity. I feel like throwing it away.

I vacillate between wondering whether anything has really changed or if it all has, and wanting to tear my hair out every time I hear the words, ‘President-Elect Donald Trump’ and thinking surely I’m over that by now. I mean, it has been two weeks.

It’s a good thing that I listen to All Things Considered in the shower in the morning; the only moral response to such words is immediate vomiting. Obviously it’s cleaner to have placed oneself directly under a stream of hot water to avoid any unsightly bits of dignity or stench when trying to appear a professional at work less than an hour later.

On the night of 10th November, I was in my ninth class of nine at 17:30 local time. I checked my phone for the last time that night, praying against hope that it was some horrible joke.

DONALD TRUMP ELECTED 45TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES

I don’t remember which group on my Twitter broke the news. I know that I immediately redirected my anger and despair onto an undeserving student. She’d been talking in Korean all class, even when I’d expressly forbidden talking during the quiz. I walked over and picked up her paper. I tore it up.

She cried.

I cried.

The pointless and unrecorded quiz was put back together with brown packing tape because our school is too cheap to buy any supplies at all.

I was obviously just some arsehole American.


‘Trump won. I don’t know where to start.’

‘I went to the temple up the road and lit a candle. Then I bought a bottle of soju. Now, I write. I couldn’t muster going to Home Plus and I can’t see up here in the clear night. Half a moon is up there, grinning.’

‘I knew it. To be honest, as soon as he was the nominee I knew we were fucked. Brexit on last June 23 showed it. The stars aren’t laughing at us. They just don’t care at all.’

In case anyone cares, I did in fact hold my nose and vote for Clinton.



In 2012, people yelled ‘Let him die!’  at a Republican Primary debate. I was studying in France. I was shocked. I thought that was as bad as it could possibly get in US politics.

Hubris.

Sheer disbelief that all the facts and well-reasoned arguments in the world could win over the blind fucking racist idiots with lethal force in hand, who decided that the best thing to throw at a powerful female candidate for the Presidency was SHE’S A WITCH in the closing hours of the election campaign. I shit you not. Reading the hashtag feed for #SpiritCooking on any social media may be capable of producing immediate frontal lobe cancerous growths, but it was worth it. There is no secret recipe to why Clinton lost. It is all the worst possible things it could be. Everyone would do well to stop trying to explain it all away as some fluke. Some mistake. Some accident.

This is no accident.

This is who we have become.


Clinton’s concession speech was brutally painful to listen to. I was, pre-emptively, in the shower on Thursday morning Korea Time.

‘“I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but some day someone will, and hopefully sooner than we think right now.

And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful, and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.’

All I could say was, ‘Bullshit.’

As eloquent in defeat as she was, Clinton was not reassuring me in that speech. I don’t believe her. I don’t think she believes her. I now believe that women cannot do everything. That we will be judged on our possession of a vagina alone. That we are reducible to the sum of our genitalia when it comes to the most powerful office in the world (barring Russia, but who seriously thinks that Putin will be giving up power to a woman anytime soon?).

Women can’t have it all. And maybe we never can. And maybe everything I’ve believed my whole life has to change. And maybe people aren’t inherently good. And maybe I’m suddenly wishing for more Leviathan. And maybe I’m crying.


‘If this were a movie, that would be foreshadowing.’

TrumpWorld tower in Busan looms next to the big bridge opposite Gwangalli Beach in the gathering darkness of twilight. I squint to look at it. Sure enough, that’s what it says. It is the 5th of November, 2016. I carry a Trump effigy made out of a toilet roll in my backpack.

Instead of The Guy, we burned a Trump on the beach that night. The effect turned out just a tad gruesome. Fittingly, the first part of him to burn was his crotch. Grab him right in the…


If this all seems a bit disjointed and unhinged, that’s accurate. I haven’t been able to sleep properly since the election. I keep seeing the images of Trump’s orange, smug-arse face behind the podium. I keep seeing Nigel Farage, the architect of Brexit, in that golden fucking elevator. I keep thinking mildly violent thoughts, which basically chicken out at hoping some vaguely horrible accident might befall the president elect before he could be elevated to the Oval Office.

But it’s too late anyway. He’s already installed trolls, misogynists, white supremacists, and openly-racist fuckers. They would just continue what he has started.

One good thing: I have every right to comment and analyse. When everyone was/is so wrong, there is space for even an overworked, insomniac TEFL teacher in Busan at the table. I did my research last summer. I courted the crazy on Twitter, asking Trump supporters questions about their stances. They offered me nothing of substance. A fair few told me the now-common line, ‘I want change. I voted for Obama in 2008, and now I’ll vote for Trump.’

I dismissed them as batshit at the time.


The rooftop is my escape. No CCTV with hawkish moms watching my every breath in the classroom. No bank tellers helpfully stepping away from my foreign arse at the counter and refusing to serve me for the crime of speaking in English. No Trump. Right? Right?

I went up there twice the night he won. Once to scrawl angrily on my journal.

Once to weep.


I don’t trust myself to write anymore.

I don’t see the point of writing in the post-fact age. Maybe I should just retreat into lies on this blog and wade into the wide river of bullshit that is the American Psyche at the moment. It’s the hot thing right now. Lying.
Some would spin it as fiction. And I am suddenly retreating into fiction. News, commentary, and writing about my grinding day-to-day existence are too painful.

My idealism, more ironic than dear-held since at least 2010 is drowning in cynicism. Or perhaps burning away is the more accurate metaphor. I think that I’m over it and moving from anger and automatic vomiting to something approaching acceptance. Then I see something like this:

And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel like I’m the one burning up on the beach in effigy, slowly consumed by a fire started by someone who thinks it’s ok to grab me by the pussy. An Attorney General who doesn’t believe that grabbing someone’s gentials against their will constitutes sexual assault. A family that will invariably enrich itself and peddle Trump Steaks all over the world in exchange for favour, while they laugh at us for speaking the words ‘conflict of interest.’

I dissolve into the stream of ‘FUCKs’ plastered all over my social media for the last two weeks, which my friends and family must surely be tiring of. I collapse on the floor of my tiny-arse kitchen here in Busan, stomach in knots. I try and fail to sleep well for the 15th night in a row.


I have decided that the part of me that believed people could make informed democratic decisions that hold lasting ramifications for themselves, their global neighbours, and posterity has to die. I’ll hold a nice funeral and all, but she has to go. There is no more room for her in this brave new world.

Memes will not save us. Protest songs will not save us. Knowing the words that the alt-right calls people like me won’t save us. We (probably) will not save us. My guess is currently that nothing will save us.

It is now the Trumpocene Epoch. There is no going back two weeks.

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More New Pages!

Puerto Natales 2011

Puerto Natales 2011

Reverse Retrograde is undergoing something of a professionalism upgrade. Here’s a juicy look at the added Black and White Photography page and the newest addition, Writing! I hope to add to my professionally published articles soon, so hit me up for freelancing if you’re keen.

Also, I’ve started a nerve-wracking page on the site that will help me to overcome my fear of sharing my poetry. I’ve been a poet since before I knew what the word even meant, and I once spent a whole semester writing notes for classes in Haiku (in high school). I hope to force myself to publish some of the work I consider my most private. I’m not certain that I will update it very often, but the idea is there and it’s ready for viewing just in time for Valentines’s Day.

Expect many more posts in the week to come, as this is a key transition point for me. Korea is coming to an end, and India is beginning. It’s fitting that the lunar new year falls in mid-February…I always seem to be picking up and moving on at this point in the year.

Check out the new pages and thank you all for following this blog!

 

South Korean Education: Filling the Pail

South Korean students are arguably some of the best in the world. They consistently score highly on standardized aptitude tests and out-perform many other developed countries in Math and Science. Where the USA scored 17th in reading, 31st in Math, and 24th in science on the PISA test, South Korea scored 2nd, 4th, and 6th respectively (source for 2011 data). University enrollment is at an all-time high. Children as young as three are in English-language kindergartens. 97% of students complete secondary education (an insane number when one considers that at least 25% of US high school students drop out before graduation).

It would seem that South Korea is doing everything right when it comes to education. Indeed, many western newspapers have suggested that the United States and others ought to follow in the footsteps of South Korea if they want to garner a competitive advantage in the coming century.

I’m not sold.

I can’t speak to the global implications of pitting students from hugely different backgrounds against one another solely through a multiple-choice test administered to 15-year-olds every year (and since I am a teacher of students of the same age, I can honestly say that they probably take it way less seriously than the OCED does). I can’t talk about the public education system in South Korea, as I’ve never set foot in a public school. I can’t truly understand the motivations of parents, seeing as I can’t even call them for a chat if their child acts up in class due to my personal massive language barrier. Yet I’m still against adopting South Korea’s education culture.

Let me put it this way: in the nearly six months since I moved to Suwon, I’ve collected enough anecdotes to tell me that I would not send any child of mine into the Korean education system. The pressure is far too high, the returns for the years spent sacrificing and living to study are low, and the whole system stifles the skills that should be the very core of education.

1. The Pressure

In South Korea, it is not uncommon for students as young as eleven to commit suicide. I would let that sink in a moment, but it bears mentioning just how common student suicides are in this country. 353 student suicides were recorded just in 2011. That’s nearly one per day, every day.

Given the high numbers of suicides in general in the ROK (Republic of Korea), this may be more culturally normal than not, but those very numbers doubled in the years of economic boom and the advent of South Korea’s role as a global education and business leader, reaching their current level of 40 per day for the general population.

For a country this small, it’s insane. As a teacher, I see how miserable the constant pressure to perform, memorize, and achieve makes most of my students. Many times when I ask them to come up with something that would make them happy, they write either “Explode Avalon” (my academy) or “No more school.” I’m terrified that one day I’ll give a student detention and that will be the final straw. I’d feel that the blood was on my hands.

Suicide aside, the joy is sucked out of my students. They don’t have time to enjoy things. Their friendships grow and fade not with the tides of adolescence but the competition within classes to be the best. They say things like “I don’t believe in free time.” They don’t like to waste time drawing pictures and even the young ones sometimes go to school from 8AM-10PM (for those of you keeping score at home, that’s up to 70 hours per week without including homework). Some of my students tell me that they only get to speak to their parents ten minutes per day due to their study and work schedules.

An entire generation is growing up visibly miserable, and it’s mostly due to the fact that they aren’t allowed to simply be kids.

2. The returns are low

The huge cost involved in raising a child in this education system has pushed the birth rate in South Korea to plummet faster than in any other country in the world. In 1960, the average South Korean woman had six children. These days, they have 1.15. The cost of sending one child to school, and academy, and eventually university is simply too high. Add in the time and (dare I say) childhood cost, and it becomes clear that this is a country that invests a huge amount in education.

That should be a good thing, but it’s not possible to build a whole country of doctors/dentists/opthamalagists or the market gets saturated and over-education ends up making it extremely hard for even the highly-educated to get by. Most ROK citizens believe it is hard to get any job without a degree, leading to 82% enrollment in colleges after high school. That’s up from only 5% in 1977.

In the economic collapse, those with degrees have suffered as much as in any other country, but considering the massive investment of time, money, and energy on the part of themselves and their families, the net cost may be higher. Up to 43% of graduates are unemployed, leading some to question what the point of all the sacrifice and hard work was.

3. An Education, rubber stamp or ongoing process?

All this pales in comparison to the way that the culture of rote-memorization and overloading students from the time they enter the world with study and pressure destroys the true meaning of education. The real reason that I would never want my own child to be raised in the system of South Korea is that I want them to have a different education. I might argue a “real education.” Social, cultural, philosophical, and imaginative development all bow to the great gods of test scores and class rankings here. My students fight amongst themselves all the time, thinking that the stars I draw on the board have some intrinsic value other than keeping track of who participates.

The point of education is to develop young minds into the kind of citizens that can support their country and our shared world. Ask almost any foreign teacher in the ROK education system what activity is the most difficult for their students, and the answer will almost always be “Problem-Solving.” Second hardest in my mind are lessons about things without immediately obvious value…art, music, poetry, dance. It’s as if anything that doesn’t help a student to gain the next rote rung on the education ladder isn’t worth the time wasted thinking about it. Besides, who cares about philosophy when there are English definitions to memorize from my vocabulary book?

The product of this type of education system may have been rapid economic growth, but the roots are beginning to unravel. People who lack critical thinking skills and at least some appreciation for intrinsically important but memorization-incompatible knowledge are not truly educated. In my mind, pushing so many so hard only serves to cheapen the results of the system as a whole. 

When I lived in Chilean Patagonia teaching English as best I could to wildly unenthusiastic middle-schoolers, I caught a glimpse of a wildly different education culture. I was disturbed by the lack of focus within my school and the overall inequality and confusion of the Chilean education system. I often felt as though I was fighting a Battle of the Blackboard, trying to eke out an inch of serious academic work. I tried to fight that system, mostly fruitlessly. I learned to know better than to believe that my tiny opinions, served from an outsider’s perspective and tempered with my own biases, could truly make an impact on the system itself. Yet in my classroom, during my limited time with those students, I gained something of a reputation as a hard-ass.

In South Korea, I’m considered an easy teacher. I don’t always push my students hard enough, in favor of a tangential talk about something that really matters in the lives of the little minds in the room. I often don’t hurry them hard enough to finish all the book work. They see my system of strikes as a cakewalk compared to the gauntlets their parents and teachers put them through daily.

I’m just fine with that. After all, these are only children. Fourteen years old at most. I’m happy to subvert my tiny corner of the Korean education system, and in my tiny way make some tiny impact on the lives of my few students. I may not be able to convince them that education is more than what they’re told it is, but I may be able to give them a tiny glimpse that it’s not the same everywhere. Maybe that will make all the difference.

Powerless

I’m sitting here, trying to Google Translate “Please help! My neighbor is beating his wife. I can hear her screaming.” I can’t speak Korean, not under the circumstances. I want to call the police. I can’t. I’m powerless.

I consider the absurd notion of playing the Google Translate robot into my cell phone.

I yelled out the window, “Oye! Basta!” It ripped forth from my lungs in my language of confrontation, Spanish, nonsensical in Korea but universal in its tone. I aimed the hardest edge of my voice at the illuminated window below, one floor down and across the alley. I could hear him hitting her. I could hear the blows landing on soft flesh. She screamed.

I couldn’t just leave her there without even trying to call the police. 112.

“Yoboseyo?” came the Korean, thick and impenetrable on the other line. I tried a “hello,” hopeful that the dispatcher might speak English. I can’t even say my address, much less explain what I am hearing. The dispatcher asked me if I spoke Korean. I hung up.

I can’t even be sure that anyone would consider a woman being beaten to be a police-worthy situation in this country. It smacks of the sense of futility I felt in Chile, where pointless suffering and powerlessness often interrupted my sleep. There’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to close my eyes tonight. I feel as though I have to keep vigil, to stay awake for my anonymous neighbor. I have to bear witness.

Eventually, all I can do is weep with her.

Holy Kimchi, It’s Been a Month Already

“And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time…” -Death Cab for Cutie, Plans 2006.

All copyrights to those who own them.

Six years ago, I wore that CD absolutely to the bone. I mean that literally. My red portable CD player could no longer read the worn grooves in the disk. I remember laying in my parents’ backyard, watching the night slowly come on and the magical agitation of the trees, black silhouettes against the graying sky of storms.

I’ve been in Korea for one month already. Holy Kimchi, how did I manage that?

There’s an inevitable push and pull to time’s unceasing flow, which at once makes life seem long and short. Travel sometimes accelerates the current to breakneck speeds at which a year passes in an instant, and sometimes slows the saunter toward the future to a pace normally reserved for Mythbusters’ explosion replays. I feel time less linearly these days, replaced with the jerking speed and brake of a taxi in traffic. A recipe for carsickness, if you ask me.

Fighting through the time-induced nausea, I strive to become wiser as I grow older, but lately I feel as though my brain is atrophying due in part to the necessarily basic nature of my lessons. Can’t talk Kirkegaard and Foucault with fifth graders. Especially in their second (third? fourth?) language.

It’s easy to slip into feeling somewhat stagnant, despite having moved across the world (again). Travel is everything I’ve ever wanted, but it can feel like postponement of “normal” life at times, a break, a dash in the opposite direction. I’m beginning to wonder what it is exactly that I’m seeking from my travel and from my life. What will I be in another six years? Where? How? Do I care, or should I just let circumstance draw me from one new home to the next and drift like a jellyfish in the Gulf Stream?

For a few days I’ve wallowed in the disorienting feeling that this is all there is. That I am not progressing. That I’m locked into a year in a job that doesn’t particularly challenge me mentally, even though it certainly challenges my vocal stamina and ability to define words without using even larger ones. I’ve been rabidly chasing strange and new experiences as a way of proving to myself that I’m not stagnant, holding up live octopus and visits to shamanistic shrines and saying inwardly, “See, Self? See? See?!”

I need to ask myself the big questions. I need to take account of what is truly important to me, what truly defines me, what I want in life, and how I will thrive. Then slowly take small steps in the direction of my dreams. Once I figure out exactly what those dreams are.

I took a tiny, symbolic step in the direction of having defined ideas about my life today: I started organizing my life with Google Calendar once again.

In college, I had every detail of my busy life planned out in it, with email and text reminders to boot. After graduation the busy life dwindled, then fell away completely when I went to the Land of the Flexible Calendar (Chile).

I could only find four things to put into my calendar. Four tiny points with which to  anchor myself to my future. One was as simple as my next payday. It sounds ridiculous, but when I get lost in the often-dense fog of constant instability in my twenties, just having a date when something will probably happen a little over two weeks from now is edifying encouragement. Something to hold up to those more critical parts of myself and say, “See? Told you I have a future! It’s even in Google Calendar; it’s official.”

I will likely listen to the music blaring from my Spotify in six years, and wonder at the life I’ve created. Or wonder still where the hell I’m going. Or some great life-altering circumstance will pop into my life unannounced and change everything. The only attempts at undefined definitive answers lie in self-examination.

Am I wiser than I was at 18? Yes. And I’m still the same person I was then. The most important parts of my personality have only grown. The parts that no longer serve me have been pruned away, or burned off in the crucible.

I’m coming, little-by-little future. One day, we’ll meet before we even realize it.

“When you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born in, it’s time to go…And define your destination, so many different places to call home…” -Death Cab for Cutie, Codes and Keys 2011