Archive for May 12, 2010

Wednesday, May 12:  Today, all EPIK teachers in Gyeongsangbuk-do province met in Gyeongju for a co-teaching seminar.  My co-teacher, Coffee J, told me a month earlier to put it on my calendar; however, a couple of days before the seminar he informed me he had to attend a number of business meetings elsewhere on Thursday of the seminar.  So, I hitched a ride with Myrna’s co-teacher, Mr. Smith, and several other teachers from the Seongju English Village, and we were on our merry way.  Thursday of the seminar was booked with meetings between the native English teachers and their Korean co-teachers, but I was left to fend for myself as Coffee-J was a no-show.  Everyone else seemed pleased with their co-teacher interactions, while I attended makeshift meetings for “those with no co-teachers.”

Thursday evening I went out with Jarrod and Virginia (& of course their co-teachers) to stroll around Bomun Lake and drink some beer and soju at water’s edge.  It was quite pleasant but a little chilly, so we went into a bar with other EPIK teachers.  Jarrod and Virginia, who are incredibly kind and fun, left because their Korean co-teachers didn’t feel comfortable coming into the bar. But I stayed because it was too cold to continue hanging outside!!

Jarrod's co-teacher, me, Jarrod, Virginia at Bomun Lake

Jarrod’s co-teacher, me, Jarrod, Virginia at Bomun Lake

Times like these are when I feel more than a creeping suspicion that I don’t fit in!  The EPIK teachers were hanging out, playing drinking games, joking among themselves.  I felt totally on the outside, as I often do in these groups, since everyone is so much younger than me.  Cliquishness is pervasive.  So, I didn’t stay long, but took off to return back to the hotel alone.

Funny thing, this.  I have a lot of time to think about attitudes toward age here in Korea.  It’s always in my face that Koreans look at me as old; this is now unsurprising to me based on their culture; the fact that no matter how old they are, they dye their hair black in order to “look younger” (which they DON’T by the way); the fact that they are expected to treat their elders with deference.  Koreans will never hesitate to openly ask me my age.  Even my students ask me this all the time.  I have now started responding with random ages: I’ll say variously 25, 30, 35, 29, 39, 40, 50.  I have tried to fight this perception so much since I’ve been here.  But now, I’ve given up trying.  I now just accept that I will never truly fit in here because I refuse to succumb to their perceptions about age.  I am young at heart and I hope to be this until the day I die!!  So let them think me old.  I know I’m not and so will continue to live as I have always lived, exploring life, looking for adventure, laughing, sticking my neck out into the crazy world.

Of course, Koreans aren’t the only ones who view me as old.  Since I am here in Korea with mostly 20-35 year old Westerners, I encounter this among them as well.  But this varies with the person.  Some people (who I adore, btw) are age-blind.  Some are not.  That is the only way I can describe what I encounter.  If they are age-blind, they don’t look at my age, but they see me as a person.  And when they see me this way, and act as if my age doesn’t matter, then I open up to them and they can know me for the young person I really am inside!!  They can hear my crazy stories (of which I have aplenty), and they can tell me theirs, and we relate as friends.

Me with my boyfriend Paul at age 19.... I am STILL that person!

Me with my boyfriend Paul at age 19…. I am STILL that person!

As for the people who look at me and see “old,” then they miss out.  They miss out on enriching their lives by knowing someone different from them.  And in turn, I miss out on knowing them, which is sad.  What these people don’t see is that, wrapped up in the person that is me are all the ages I was once and now am.  I am Cathy: I am the 11-year-old who used to play horses in my backyard; I’m the 18-year-old who went streaking in Virginia Beach when “streaking” was in vogue; I’m the 24-year-old who took a 3-month vagabond trip around the USA in a van with two pugs and my new husband; I’m the 25-year-old who packed up everything and moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; I’m the 27-year-old who rafted down the Salmon River in Idaho for 7 days; I’m the 30-year-old who went through a divorce and then the 33-year-old who remarried and then had two kids.  I’m also the 50-some year old who went back to school and got a Master’s degree in International Commerce and Policy, who traveled to Egypt to study Arabic and who lived a number of hilarious stories in the process.  I have done as many or more crazy things in my lifetime than they have.  Yet, they sadly see me as someone they don’t want to know because I’m older!! Ahhh, such are the perils of age!!  Strange thing, though, this aging stuff.  All of us will age.  Those people who stare vacantly through me as if I don’t exist…. just a sweet reminder.  You WILL be here one day.  Either older or dead….LOL 🙂

Me at 24 in Yellowstone

Me at 24 in Yellowstone

It’s funny, soon after my good friend Ed from the State Department read this column, he sent me an email with a wise observation about the age issue.  He said, “i dont deny my age but i really have no idea how to be 54, and i dont want to be defined (or confined) by someone else’s idea about it.”  I LOVE this… Neither do I want to be defined ~ or confined ~ by anyone else’s idea about how I should be my age!!

Anyway, I left the bar where I felt quite invisible, and met my really young friends Anna and Seth, the married couple in their early 20s who seem blind to my age.  I met some of their friends, and all of us strolled pleasantly around the lake.  While walking, my phone rang and, lo and behold, it was Coffee J, who had finally arrived in Gyeongju for the seminar.  He said, “What are you doing?  Do you want to go out and have some drinks?”  I declined b/c I’d already been drinking enough.  I continued my walk and then went back to the hotel to relax.


Wednesday, May 12: One day I was walking down the street near my apartment and an older Korean man caught my eye.  He pointed to my hair and shook his head, then he made a gesture with his hands: he formed a cup with one hand and then he dipped his other fingers into the cup.  Then he wiped his fingers on his hair.  The gesture obviously meant he thought I needed to dye my hair black, like most Koreans do.  He had a kind of disgusted look on his face; he was not at all happy that I was walking around his streets with my whitish hair so indecently exposed!

I refused to take this insult lightly.  I shook my head vehemently and said “NO!” accompanied by the Korean style NO gesture, which is crossing my forearms in the shape of an “X.”  I then said, “I LOVE (making the sign of a heart with my fingers) my hair (pointing to my hair)!” And then I promptly turned my back on him and walked away.


OMG, she has white hair, a big nose and fat arms!!

OMG, she has white hair, a big nose and fat arms!!

The attitude toward age in this country is infuriating.  My experience has been that basically if you are over 25, you are considered old.  I have two young Korean lady friends in their late 20s who truly believe they are old because they are no longer in university.  And, heaven forbid, they are not married!  I find this attitude really irritating.

Clara and Naree..."over the hill" in their late 20s!!

Clara and Naree…”over the hill” in their late 20s!!

One day I was in the carpool, sitting in my designated backseat, with Mr. O in front.  He said, “Mrs. Cathy (as he always says), do you find that you have problems with memory at your age?”  I said, “No, Mr. O, I don’t have any problems with my memory.  Besides, I am NOT old!”  He said, “I have seen your papers and I know your age.”  I said, “Mr. O, I am NOT old!”

Another day, Mr. O said, “Mrs. Cathy (keep in mind, Mr. O is older than me in body and MUCH older than me in spirit!), do you color your hair?” I said, “No, Mr. O.  I don’t believe in coloring my hair.” He said, “Well we Koreans people, we color our hair because we think it makes us look younger.”  I said, “No, Mr. O, coloring your hair black does not make you look younger!  It actually makes you look older.  Because when you get older, your skin changes and black hair does not look good against aging skin.” This I truly believe, because up until 5 years ago, I myself colored my own hair dark brown.  When I finally removed all the dye and went natural, people came out of nowhere to compliment me on how much younger I looked!

Another day I was hiking up to Gatbawi, the Buddha with the flat hat, and an older Korean man pointed to my hair and said something nasty to his wife in Korean.  I could tell it was nasty because of the perturbed expression on his face.  Again, I think he was really disturbed about my hair!

Then there are my students, some of whom are rude beyond belief.  I have one student in particular in the 4th grade.  Every day, she wears the same pair of knit pants with wide black and gray stripes.  They look like jailbird pants.  One day I wore a ribbed knit tank under a cardigan.  She grabbed the bottom of my tank and asked in Korean if I was wearing my underwear.  Coffee J laughed about this as he translated it for me.  I actually found this rude of him — that he found it funny and translated it so lightly, without reprimanding the girl.  I said, “No, this is a tank top, not underwear!” Of course, the girl couldn’t understand me.  But what I really felt like saying was, “No, this is not underwear, but are those your jailbird pajamas that you wear every day?? Do you ever wash them??  Why are you here?  Did you escape from prison today?”

Little Miss Jailbird and the Pig Farmer's daughter

Little Miss Jailbird and the Pig Farmer’s daughter

I went on a field trip and sat beside another girl in the same 4th grade class.  Funny thing is, this girl’s father is a pig farmer.  She pointed at my nose and made a funny gesture on her own nose, touching her nose and then lifting her finger in an arch away from her nose.  I wasn’t sure what she was trying to say, so I asked Coffee J what she meant.  He said she thinks I have a big nose.

Later in this same day, Miss Jailbird Pajamas pointed at my nose and made the same type of gesture.  Again, Coffee J translated this to mean she thinks I have a big nose.  Do I have a big nose?  Do I have a PIG nose?? How has this insult escaped me my entire life??  I have been insulted for things I know to be true before, but this?  Maybe people have been dying to tell me this my whole life but have kept it all bottled up inside.  Maybe this insult to my nose has been gnawing at people’s insides, churning and burning away!!

I’m not the only one who has gotten the big nose gesture.  Anna Schuett said she was walking down the street one day and some kid came up to her, pointed at her nose, and started making pig noises.

Finally, Miss Jailbird also had a comment about my arms.  Granted, my arms are my least favorite part of my body.  I wish they were thin and graceful, but alas, I have the German body!  So, the first day I wear a short sleeve shirt, little Miss Jailbird comes up to me, puts her hands around my arms and then expands them, showing me she thinks they are fat!!  OMG!  How can I shut this girl up???

OK, OK, I admit my arms are chubby...

OK, OK, I admit my arms are chubby…

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