Archive for October, 2010

The Great Flood, Part 3

by on Friday, October 22nd, 2010

The Xavierville I pool with a friendly pool guy

In September 26, 2009, my housemate Mary and I were flooded out of our home in the subdivision of Xavierville I, Quezon City in Metro Manila. I posted an account of our experience on October 11 and 19—both available in the archives via the link at the right. Now, a little over a year later, a typhoon has just struck the Philippines, but at least 200 miles to the north. I’m high and dry in my second-floor study in Xavierville II, which was not flooded last year. Still I’m monitoring Typhoon Megi—called Juan locally—and empathizing with its victims in Baguio. (See link at right, “Super Typhoon Megi hits Philippines.”)

When I was in the States this summer, I went to an outdoor theater with some friends. Right before intermission, the sky opened up and we were deluged. The audience began to leave, but one of my friends announced that she wouldn’t mind watching in the rain, while I expressed concern about the Canon EOS 50D which I’d bought to replace the four cameras I’d lost in the flood.

“You were more than just worried about your camera getting wet,” she told me when we were safe in the car. “You’re still traumatized.”

Fe hoses down the living room.

What could I say? She’s a good friend of twenty-seven years and an excellent therapist. She probably knows my state of mind better than I do, in the same way that I as a college professor could tune in to the mood of my classes—what they felt about the class work, whether they grasped the basic concepts, whether I was giving them too much homework. So I probably am still traumatized.

Mary and I were definitely still traumatized when we rented the post-flood house. I remember feeling grateful, relieved and humbled as we sat in the new landlady’s living room, with that deeply-shaded, interior cool you find in the tropics, admiring the beautiful antiques and the greenery and feeling like a refugee in donated clothing. I was anxious to get out of the expensive “student condo” and back to normal life.

Otherwise I might have reacted differently to the house she showed us—half of a huge duplex, with office cubicles built for a previous tenant running all down one side and meager windows set high in the concrete walls. In my traumatized state I thought the office space was “a sign” I should use it for teaching, although without analyzing how rows of cubicles could make a classroom. The first floor was huge, but it looked a bit like a basement. Downstairs the tile had been removed from the living room and dining room floors, upstairs the wooden floors were warped with water damage. There was plenty of light upstairs, but the shutter-type frosted panes let the expensive air-conditioning out and the polluted air in. When the windows were closed, you couldn’t see out–driving the cats crazy–and when they were open all you could see was a metal roof. At night it was like sleeping near a campfire. There was a lot of old furniture discarded by previous tenants but stored there by the landlady because she had no place else to put it. For what you got, the rent was high.

My housekeeper’s reaction was saner than mine. “What kind of place is this?” Fe said. “I asked the landlady why she didn’t donate those single beds in the storage room. Some poor people could use them. But she said they were too big for their houses. How would she know?”

I was learning that holding onto possessions, hoarding, was part of the Filipino stereotype of the rich, which is what you’d expect in a highly stratified society with such enormous differences in income levels.

The neighbors on both sides were large, evangelical Christian families. Ironic, I thought, to come halfway around the world and find myself sandwiched in by Americans, my mind in a culture war. In Pittsburgh I’d seen my students overcoming the national and ethnic differences they arrived with: mainland Chinese becoming friends with Taiwanese and Koreans with Japanese. But here—early in the morning when the piano next door banged out hymns, I responded with Herbie Hancock or Stan Getz, although not cranked up as high as I would have liked.

We had moved in in October. In mid-November Mary went back to the States to be with her children. I stayed, mostly sequestered in my study, laboring away at the novel and wondering why I was still in the Philippines.

Jessie (right) supervises the loading.

I moved as soon as the lease was up. I don’t mean to be ungrateful for what was indeed a refuge from the storm, but that house probably wasn’t the only possibility. It wasn’t until I was seated on the lovely balcony of my new house, admiring all the trees, that I realized the interim house—the rebound house, if you will—was just sad. And sad in so many different ways. Deserted. Decaying. Built to be utterly without charm, exclusively for a function it no longer served. Fe told me the new tenant had three cars and planned to park one in the garage and two inside, in the office space near the living room. This seemed oddly appropriate.

It was a good move. Almost everything but the furniture was boxed up in my Korean packing crates. One day Fe hired a jeepney and crew to move boxes, and my friend Ken drove up from Makati to haul boxes in his SUV. The next day the movers we had hired–and contacted many times–failed to appear. We located another company with a 24-hour answering service, and that crew showed up at eight the following morning for the furniture and appliances. Fe hired extra men to do any additional lifting and to clean the old house. The new house was clean and freshly painted when we moved in.

House with balcony and porch/garage

I’m now living in Xavierville II, the subdivision across the street from the old one, but on higher ground. Fe recommended the house after seeing it with the same real estate agent who handled the house in Xavierville I. Downstairs it has a combination garage and front porch, a long living room-dining room-kitchen with a lovely marble floor, a laundry room and a bath. Upstairs there’s a wooden floor, a small maid’s room—Fe and her husband Jessie say it’s sufficient, given that they also have their own house—a bedroom and a large master bedroom with bath which has become my study and exercise room. It opens up to the balcony with the trees. The house is well-designed, with built-in closets and cabinets and little waste space. The walls are dark cream or light beige, with light gray doors and white trim. The use of three neutral colors is really clever, as I discovered when I realized I could use both my pearl gray drapes from Korea and my pale yellow drapes from Xavierville I.

The transition isn’t entirely over. The garage/porch area still contains stuff from the old house that we’re trying to sell or give away. (If you’re interested I can give you a really good deal on an air-conditioner or electric stove.) Hopefully, it will soon be cleaned out. We’re adding a grill on the balcony so the cats can share it with me. It will also provide extra security, although there are two armed guards at the subdivision gate 100 meters away. We’ll line the downstairs porch and the balcony with plants like the neighbor has. Not an hour goes by that I don’t catch myself admiring something in my pretty new house.

The new subdivision has a pool which I’ll try after the weather settles down. If I prefer I can walk across the street to my old pool. There’s peace. There are coffee shops and restaurants within walking distance. The new neighbors keep the noise down. Finally, as I sit on the balcony memorizing Tagalog vocabulary, I have the feeling that now I’m really beginning to settle in.

Sitting above the Green Elephant, Part 1

by on Saturday, October 9th, 2010

Dongguk University elephant statue, now removed

On a gray, wet day during the summer season of 1989, I took a cab up the steep hill to the Seoul campus of the Dongguk University. The name, approximately a rhyme with “sung book,” was derived from Chinese dong guo, or Eastern country, which to me meant Bodhidharma bringing Zen Buddhism to East Asia. The temple and shaven-headed monks in traditional monk’s clothes reminded me of China, where I had been happy and content. Also, nine years before I had begun flirting with meditation practice, reading books and occasionally talking with someone. (See the post entitled “The Monk’s Tale.”) I longed for more, but had begun to understand that serious meditation was too difficult to do on my own. Perhaps here my professional life and my spiritual life could come together.

The English Department was interviewing me for its position as the native-speaker Visiting Professor, which required twelve hours a week in the classroom—possibly with paid overtime. There was five months’ paid vacation. My previous gigs had all been at universities, except for the current job at a private language school, where I was teaching a split shift of twenty-five hours a week, ten months a year, and tearing my hair out over decisions made with an eye to the bottom line, not language learning.

Myoungjin Building at Dongguk University, the first building

Years later, I came to understand that at least the language school gave me was a bit of empathy for my sisters and brothers who were then laboring away for thirty-six hours a week in the classroom, usually without legal recourse should the school owner decide not to honor the contract. Their salaries were lower and taxes higher than at universities.

“You are our top candidate,” my future colleges informed me.

I said that although I already had a Ph.D. in a related field, I needed to finish my master’s degree in linguistics and Teaching English as a Second Language. I’d planned to return to Pittsburgh after a year in Korea, but it would be possible to write the thesis in Korea.

“Why don’t you send a telegram to your thesis advisor?” they asked.

I did, explaining that although I didn’t think this was the job of a lifetime—little did I know—it looked pretty good. Could I anticipate graduate student employment back home? A response came immediately: Take the job. I took it.

The university temple with cherry blossoms

The language school job had come with a small furnished apartment. The Dongguk job offered no housing, but Prof. Kim Han, my new department head and a warm, motherly woman, made arrangements for me to live in the International House in the Korea Research Institute, where for several years I had a quiet double room with bath and maid service for about $220 a month.

The English Department office was staffed with graduate assistants who could look after me and take care of whatever routine tasks presented themselves. My colleagues proved to be friendly and supportive, and I developed the same sort of professional relationship with them that I’d had with colleagues in the States.  I was given a private office larger than the apartments of a great many Seoul inhabitants, where I could look down on to the beautiful, lifelike bronze-green statue of a baby elephant perched on a four-meter-high pillar.

The students turned out to be friendly, very bright and highly-motivated. Half of them worked hard, and half were somewhat lazy. Class size could be a problem. My first “advanced conversation” class had eighty students in it, with students at the back of the crowded room hiding under their desks when I looked their way. It was a circus. The textbooks I chose before classes began didn’t really meet the needs of the students. So again I realized that, like I had in China, I was going to have to put together the materials myself.

The temple bell

At that time, Korean universities had not yet begun to resemble American universities, top-heavy with administrators who made most of the decisions, despite never having stood at the front of a classroom. Dongguk seemed more like the German universities where my father had taught and where most of the decisions were made at the professorial level. Clearly, if I wanted to control class size and institute placement exams, I was going to do it myself. On the first day of the next semester, I stood in front of any over-crowded class and said, “Okay, everybody stand up, take your books and follow me.” Then I marched them over to my office and let most wait outside while one at a time I administered a brief conversation test. “What is your major? How did you get to school this morning? Why are you attending Dongguk University?” I listened to the answers, of course, but often I knew whether the student was advanced conversation material before she or he said a word. The comprehension in the eyes—or the lack of it—was enough.

Inside the temple

At Dongguk there was less culture shock than in China. My classes met at the same time every week, there seemed to be a set number of people in the department—no strange individuals breezing in—and communication was relatively easy. I had already become used to metropolitan Seoul, a huge fast-paced city of concrete and subway lines and computers. If anything, I had begun to look beneath the modern surface for the Asian culture I’d found so intriguing in China. Perhaps the Buddhist side of my new circumstances would reveal it to me.

But there were rough patches. While Westerners tend to plan excessively, Asian establishments are much more likely to build the airplane in the air—just try whatever seems like a good idea at the time. I’m thinking of an incident several years later, after the administration had decided to run things. Someone thought it would be nice to remove the restrictions on “advanced conversation” classes in foreign languages. On the first day of class there were maybe 200 students seated in my classroom, 150 people standing with no place to sit and others out in the hallway. I turned to two of my former students and said wryly, “Why don’t you go over to the English Department and ask Prof. Choi what I’m supposed to do now?”

Then I passed around some papers so the students could write down their names and ID numbers, which told me what year they were in. I eliminated all but the seniors and promised the others priority for the following semesters. That gave me 45, which with my usual drop-out rate became 32, or eight conversation groups of four. Quite manageable. I let the two juniors who had helped me stay in the class, but I spent the entire semester battling the administration. Some pencil pusher had seen the pattern and wanted those two juniors out. Eventually I had to tell the kids that if they enrolled the following term I would give them their grades at the end of that term. When the official class roll finally arrived, it had 595 names on it. I heard the Japanese native-speaker had three or four hundred in one class.

Anyway, at the end of the first semester and in typical Western fashion, I wrote a memo to my department head outlining a series of changes I wanted to make. The first thing would be for me to take over all the conversation classes. That would also save her the worry of trying to find a part-timer to take my overload every semester.

“I was pleased that you’re ready to take on the whole program now,” she said.  “But are you sure teaching nineteen hours won’t be too much?”

I had been feeling elated, but slightly guilty at putting in an estimated twenty hours a week at my terrific new job.  I only had to show up three days a week. On weekends I explored the Korea I hadn’t been able to see while working at the language school.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

The advanced students were given placement exams during the first week of class.  For them I put together a booklet of short selections on a variety of issues to read before class and be ready to discuss-Korean reunification, drunk driving, moral issues, wilderness survival tactics, human rights, male and female roles. There were decision-making problems which could only be solved by consensus.  The idea was to keep them interested, keep them talking, give them a wide range of things to talk about and a diverse vocabulary to learn.  I planned to change the materials every semester since a large percentage of students took the class more than once.

By this time I had learned that most Korean students would not talk to the class as a whole, which is considered speaking “in public,” and therefore arrogant. But they would speak to each other in small groups. Unlike Japanese students and some Chinese, my Korean students hadn’t been intimidated into excessive shyness. And like most Asians they were socialized to be very curious about each other. As long as they had the language skills and appropriate topics, there was never a problem getting them to talk.

At the end of my first year, my department head said she’d like to take me to lunch.  She drove me up the hill to a nice international hotel which served kalbit’ang, or beef rib soup, which she knew to be one of my favorite dishes.  After we’d ordered lunch, she handed me an envelope.  “This is not very much,” she said, “but I want you to know that with it goes the heartfelt thanks of every member of the department. Some of the changes you’ve made we should have done years ago.” In the envelope was fifty thousand won, about seventy-five dollars at that time.  It seemed a bit strange accepting a bonus, particularly since I had felt what I was doing was only making my own job easier. But I knew this was the Korean way, and the emotions behind the gift were very clear. It gave me a wonderfully warm, somewhat choked-up feeling.

“Thank you.”

“I gather you’d like to stay on for another year or so?”

“Yes, I would. But sometime when it’s convenient I’d like to talk to you about the promotion schedule.”

“We’ll do what we can, but you know that the new Private Education Act gives the Board of Trustees the power to make decisions that were once made by the professors.”

“I know.”

A few months later my department head and my friend next door battled the administration, successfully, to get me a substantial raise. When the possibility of moving up to a higher-ranked school presented itself, I considered it seriously for about three weeks. I finally said to myself, “Look, you have everything here that you want-good students, supportive colleagues, control over class size and everything you do in the classroom.  Your working conditions are better than those of anyone else you know teaching in the country.  There ought to be a limit to what you are willing to sacrifice for prestige and money.”

Meditation class with our monk and nun