Thursday, November 27, 2008

'I am not sure how to pronounce it. It's alphanumeric.'

Bronx Mowgli Wentz. A press release last week announced that Milli Vanilli wannabe Ashley Simpson and her emo husband Pete Wentz just welcomed a healthy baby boy into their family, and that they chose to name him after Jackie Chan’s favourite New York suburb to ‘rumble’ in. Like most people in the Western world, I am confused and amused by the celebrity impulse to treat child names like vanity license plates, though I have a theory that you can feel free to disagree with: we all secretly wish we had cooler names.

Think about it. You can scoff at Frank Zappa or attribute his creativity to substance abuse, but you are quietly jealous that his kids are named ‘Moon Unit’ and ‘Diva Thin Muffin’. Somewhere out there, Nicholas Cage is watching Superman movies with his son ‘Kal-El’, Jason Lee proudly summons his boy ‘Pilot Inspektor’ to the kitchen for dinner, and the talking dude from ‘Penn & Teller’ is teaching ‘Moxie Crimefighter’ how to ride a bike on weekends. The list is endless. We trudge through this world with names like ‘Brian’ or ‘Justin’ or ‘Alex’ and we just wish that a mere introduction or passing of a business card would be intriguing enough to start a lively conversation, but it never is. Our names are just too plain.

As a foreign teacher abroad, I am granted a unique opportunity. Korean students who are proficient in their English speaking abilities will more likely than not have names in both languages, though the majority of my pupils use just one. Last week I gave my students the opportunity to give themselves new names that we would use in our class together, and just as I suspected, middle-school aged Korean students agree with my theory: cool names are way better than the lame ‘typical’ names we give our children.

Put yourself in the shoes of my students for a moment. If everyone could be Men In Black neuralized tomorrow and had no recollection of your current identity, what would you name yourself? Food for thought.

I now have classes where I get to call on ‘Super Mario’, ‘Adidas’, and ‘Big Wow’. Just yesterday, ‘Huge’ and “ABCDE’ were yelling at ‘Menthol’ in the middle of an activity, so I sent all of them out in the hall so that we could better hear ‘Dumbledore’ speak. We even have a ‘Sean 2’. I made a list of my absolute favourite names and have listed them below, David Letterman style.

10. This kid snags a spot on my list with a clever play on words. Get it? I’m all-in? Points deducted for a dated reference; 2005 called and they want their poker jokes back.

9. Take it for what it is, but this kid actually got into a shoving fight later that class with the kid named ‘Canada’. He still makes the list because ‘Obama’ wins over the name of the kid next to him, which was – no joke – ‘Yes We Can’.

8. This gets points for creativity and confusion. Do you have any idea what the heck he is attempting to communicate?

7. “Dave’s not here, man.”

6. If you haven’t seen the Rowan Atkinson skit called “No One Called Jones” I would take this opportunity to familiarize yourself. I would never explicitly reveal a hidden agenda, but I secretly hoped for the exact situation in the skit when I asked the students to name themselves… thanks for getting me closer to my dream, ‘Ka Ka’.

5. Straight up, I just like this one.

4. Always a popular move, this kid dared to break through the ‘catchphrase’ barrier. While it may seem cool now, there is some poor thirty-something out there named ‘Where’s the Beef’ who might have a different opinion.

3. At least he didn’t name himself Kim Jong Il.

2. This name is a disaster. Naming yourself after a questionable role model aside, you have to adore the spelling errors and the promiscuous add-ons to really round out the nametag. I can hear SexyBody running from here.

1. A dual winner, these names speak for themselves. Globalization strikes again.

Honourable Mention… No, he isn’t making a very controversial political and religious statement. Actually, the kid next to him is named ‘God’.

Honourable Mention… The irony isn’t lost here. I am pretty sure that every single Korean girl could potentially be this, but bless her heart, she is the only one who was honest and up-front.

Post-Script: I unfairly generalized earlier when praising celebrity baby names. The single greatest mistake in the history of human history was when Jermaine Jackson named his son 'Jermajesty'. There are limits to freedom, and leave it to a member of the Jackson 5 to flirt with that line. It's not a toy, Jermaine.

Friday, November 14, 2008

what's my age again?

Get this. When a baby is born in Korea, they are welcomed into the world to begin their ‘first year.’ It is merely a semantic difference from the Western tradition of considering a newborn as ‘age zero,’ but needless to say, its an important one when your plane lands and you find out that you are now required to declare your age as one year older than when you took off.

The other age-related fact about Korea that is quite interesting is that the passing of one’s birthday in no way affects their reported age. Regardless of whether you are born in January or December, the coming of New Years Day means that everyone in the country is now a year older – for instance, a baby born this month considers the year 2008 as their first, so when 2009 rolls around, they will naturally be into their ‘second year’ despite being only two months old. Due to my late birthday, I left Canada in September as a fresh faced 21-year-old, and fourteen hours later, I was a healthy 23.

I bring up this subject only because yours truly happened to celebrate a birthday this past Wednesday. The whole experience seemed anti-climactic and a bit backwards, but interestingly enough, it had nothing to do with my own ‘special day’ but rather the one that immediately preceded it. We are well aware that November 11th is a very sombre and respectful day for any country that was involved in The Great War, and as a poppy-wearing Canadian I half expected to do my own trumpet-accompanied moment of reflection and a ritual reading of “In Flanders Fields.” Slight oversight: this country had nothing to do with World War One, and ironically, the eleventh day of the eleventh month happens to be the Korean version of Valentine’s Day. It’s called “Pepero Day,” and gets its name from the popular chocolate-covered bread sticks that Korean children snack on (the Japanese version – Pocky – is the exact same product, which you can get at Loblaws in Canada). Students come to school and exchange Pepero gifts with their friends and their special sweetheart, and unlike our V-Day, it is mostly celebrated by school children but not adults. The holiday apparently started in 1994, and it originated because the date ‘11/11’ looks like four Pepero sticks standing beside each other. That’s creative… I can’t wait for the ninth of June.

My point about the eleventh is this: my birthday typically follows one of the more joyless and contemplative days on the national calendar, and I find that I benefit from the ‘Post-Remembrance Day Effect’ and tend to annually receive an atypical, enthusiastic release of celebration as a result. Not this year. Instead, I now know exactly what those suckers feel like who have their birthdays painfully close to a ‘fun holiday’ like Christmas, Halloween, or Flag Day (I say the word ‘suckers’ with kindness, as my step-mother and little sister happen to be born on the 24th and 27th of December, and my brother on Canada Day). The individual day gets thwarted by the close proximity to collective happiness. This fact aside, I had a fantastic Korean birthday thanks to the kindness of my friends and co-teachers, so no complaints here. As a bonus, November 12th began here for me in Korea and finished in Canada forty-three hours later, which translates into almost two full days of birthday wishes. Now that is some math I can support.

This week wasn’t my first holiday-themed culture-clash experience since arriving here. Two weeks ago, I prepared my special Halloween lesson for my students, complete with video clips from The Simpsons’ ‘Treehouse of Horror’ series and Mr. Bean’s ill-fated trip to a scary movie. One snag. Most students had no idea what Halloween was. I was bummed at first, because I thought I had put together a lesson plan that truly dwarfed the annual ‘recite the Monster Mash and eat Rockets’ version that I was subjected to through grade school (listen to the lyrics of that song and tell me that this so-called ‘graveyard smash’ isn’t depicting someone’s weird drug hallucination). I found my inspiration by going above and beyond, and while wearing a knight’s costume designed for four-year-olds, I tried to demonstrate the real meaning of Halloween – fun – to my students through angry monologues stolen from ‘300’ and ‘Gladiator’. They laughed, I laughed, and we found common ground once again.

A couple of quick things before I sign off. I have received a couple of emails from friends telling me that while they were enjoying my commentary on life and teaching, they had learned nothing from my blog about what I am actually doing here in Korea. Do you go to bars often? Have you gotten hopelessly lost without the ability to communicate? Have you eaten anything ridiculous? Any trips of note, or interesting sights you have seen? The answer to each of these questions is yes, and I pledge to prepare a list of some bizarre or funny experiences I have actually had in Korea for next week. My bad.

Finally, I have had some people ask me if they could send me a package, or whether I could send them hilarious Korean things in the mail. Listen closely. I make a pledge here and now to anyone reading: if you send me something in the mail, I guarantee you that I will send you a package with some hilarious Korean souvenirs in return. This applies to anyone, so if you are interested, I urge you to get creative and surprise me with a quintessentially Canadian (or American, or British, or South African, or whatever country you happen to be in) gift and I will return the favour. Everyone likes mail, especially if it traveled very far to reach you.

Sean Hebert - Sannam Middle School
1216 MaeTan 2Dong, Young Tong Gu
Suwon City, Gyeonggi Province
South Korea
Post Code# 442-372

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

when you can see it coming, but it still runs you over.

My step-mom forwarded me an inspiring quote last week: "The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own." That’s Benjamin Disraeli, and I can’t think of a time in my life that this was truer than right now.

I walked into class this week with a lesson plan that was designed to change the lives of every student in the school. This was a blockbuster forty-five minutes of passionate, engaging, entertaining, and insightful preaching that would either soar straight over their heads or knock them right off their chairs. As a teacher I have quickly embraced the philosophy that if the message connects with just one student, then this should be viewed as a success: a triumph of education over the evils of classroom sleeping and peer distraction. This lesson was no exception. It was my opus.

I entitled the session ‘The Secret to Success in Life.’ You may be thinking that this is an ambitious message to communicate in just three-quarters of an hour, but in second-language instruction, every concept becomes poetically succinct. You must always consider the simplest and shortest way to say anything and everything, and often this can lead to interesting results that go beyond comprehension. We don’t often realize it, but flexing one’s vocabulary can have the adverse effect of over-simplifying a layered and nuanced idea, or worse still, it can add the illusion of depth to a painfully thin theory. There is something very profound about shedding the excess weight of erroneous language and being forced to explain every concept in its most skeletal form. As is often the case, less is more.

The opus begins with a photograph of Barack Obama. Korean teenagers are eager to tell me everything they know about him: he is black, he is handsome, and he is running for President. So I start digging… what is so important about Obama? He is black. Right, so why is this important? No one has ever been black and President. Right, but why is this important? Blank faces, until one student chimes in. ‘Equal.’ Bingo. We recount black history in America on the spot, from slavery to the Civil War to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to Rosa Parks to Dr. King to Obama. In a single generation, an African-American man who was barred from voting for President fifty years ago now watches a young black Senator be strongly favoured to win the nation’s highest office. The students can now repeat the first lesson to me: ‘if Obama can be President, I can do anything.’

American power is difficult to quantify until you see its influence first-hand. This week both Newsweek and the Globe in Mail featured articles on the current election being global in its magnitude, drawing unprecedented interest in Obama’s fate from every country that can receive daily news. I wanted more information, and asked my students why they knew so much about Obama – surely they couldn’t name Canada’s Prime Minister or Mexico’s President, so why Barack? One female student informed me that ‘America’s President is the President of the World.’ When he speaks, the world listens. Where America leads, the world follows. The dots come together pretty quickly: hope within America of racial equality through Obama parallels the hope of entire foreign countries for greater equality, because if a nation as polarized as the States can stand up so symbolically to its dark history then we can all be inspired to be more progressive. Countries observe schism on the lines of class, gender, race, or sexual orientation, but global followers of Senator Obama consider his story as a catalyst for their own salvation from discrimination, hate, and fear. If he can, then ‘yes we can.’

I ask the class if South Korea has ever had a female President – a ludicrous question to ask in a conservative country with deeply ingrained gender inequality. The students giggle. I ask why, but this is a troublesome question for a fourteen your old to put into words in front of a large group. I ask the class to tell me what quality they feel is most important in a leader, and they respond appropriately: intelligence. ‘Okay,’ I announce, ‘I want the girls in the class to tell me if you think the boys in this class are smarter than you.’ Now they are listening. ‘Everyone is the same. Everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, a man, a woman, rich, poor, gay, or disabled… you aren’t better than anyone and no one is better than you.’ That is lesson number two.

The final lesson is written on the board: ‘If you believe it, you can do it. You can do ANYTHING. If you want something, you have to work your hardest. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Your dreams are your dreams, and you choose whether they come true. Never, ever quit.’ They all look up at the picture of Obama.

Each student is given a sheet of paper to write a list of ten things they want to do in their life. Their dreams. For most of them, this lesson is a lost cause. Half of them cannot understand what I am saying, and those who can are often too young to let it sink in, all of which sits on top of the fact that I am teaching the quintessential individualist lesson to an extremely collectivist society. For some, this is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I point them out individually: ‘you can walk on the moon, you can climb Mount Everest, you can cure cancer, and you can be the greatest baseball player in history… if you work your hardest and never quit.’ When I peek over the shoulders of the same students later most of them list ‘I want to make my parents happy’ as their number one priority. I feel defeated, but there is always hope to be found if I look hard enough. Peeking over the shoulder of the last girl in the row, I smile. Beside number one she wrote ‘I want to walk on the moon.’ That’s one.

I delivered this lesson twelve times this week, which made it all the more bizarre that I had trouble the thirteenth time. It was mere minutes after one in the afternoon, and as class begun I refreshed the MSNBC page I had been watching closely all morning and saw the words “OBAMA WINS” staring at me in block letters on the screen. I had spent months reading his books, listening to his speeches, and following his every step daily in hopes that this very moment would come, but it was within the context of my simple lesson that brought all of the emotions rushing out of me in front of forty Korean students. There was so much passion inside of me for his candidacy that I misunderstood, and as I spent the week telling students that Obama being President represents the ability for them to do anything in their own lives, I neglected to turn the mirror around on myself. Seeing those words on the screen validated everything I believed about him and hoped in myself, and for that reason alone, I will always remember where I was the moment I heard that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America.

"The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own." Indeed.