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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Peace Corps 1: The Other Path not Taken

Applying for the Peace Corps was in itself a kind of trial.  A long application, hunting down documents and references, medical check up, background checks, essays, an interview.  My current job actually had a similar process, but at the time I was convinced that I was going through a kind of gauntlet to test my endurance, like a weed-out class: if you can't hack the application, you don't have the determination to be a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).  Determination and patience, that is.  It was almost a year between when I applied and when I left.  It could have been sooner, if I had known then what I later found out.

My interviewer was a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) who projected the Peace Corps vibe from her frizzy hair and ethnic shawl to her tanned, Birkenstocked toes. At my interview I was asked what sort of position I would like, and I asked what she thought would be best?  She told me that more than half of PCV positions are in the education sector, so that was the best way to get in quickly.  She was correct, in a general sense:  For most people, with non-related degrees, education is the best avenue into the Peace Corps.  But for specialists it is different.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had no interest in doing engineering at this point.  I assumed that doing engineering would be like taking engineering classes, many of which I had not enjoyed.  One reason is that I am not a detail-oriented person, and engineering seemed to be very dependent on having every detail be absolutely correct.  The consequences for failing to do this could be catastrophic, and I couldn't imagine putting myself under that kind of pressure to do something I'm not really that good at.  So I didn't bring up engineering in the interview, and didn't even imagine trying for such a position.  I don't remember her bringing it up, either, but that could easily be my brain remembering myself in the best light.  I remember it as playing the percentages: 50% of postings are education, 5% are engineering.  Lower chance of getting one of those.

Once I was in country I met the group of PCVs doing engineering work: urban design, and drinking water supply systems.  The people doing these programs were in a program parallel to ours, occasionally in the same training facility, but mostly elsewhere.  When they found out that I had a degree in civil engineering they wondered why I wasn't in with them.  After all, the Peace Corps needs all the engineers it can get, since very few people with such a high potential income generating degree volunteer to go overseas working for $150 a month, plus travel expenses.

I made some connections.  I found out a bit about what they were doing, and sort of wished that I had taken that direction.  But once you are in a program, heading in a certain direction, it is difficult to make a change.  Unless you cheat.

At the end of my first full year I was in Kathmandu and spent some time talking to Ed, a fellow PCV who was working on a manual for designing downhill drinking water supply systems for delivering water from springs to distant villages in pipes to avoid contamination.  The old manual was very old, and needed updating, and he had taken it upon himself to do so.

He easily convinced me to help by just showing me some of the chapters of his book.  Ed was a good engineer, but a terrible writer.  I had taken classes in water systems design, so I knew the basics of what he was doing, but I found it very difficult to understand his ideas.  I knew that I could help him to improve his manual, even though it wasn't in my job description.  In fact, staying in Kathmandu wasn't in my job description.  So I was careful not to be seen by my manager.

Chastise 1996 Rob all you want, but he can't hear you.  Or me.  I wish that I had tried to do this in a more appropriate manner, but I'm not sure if it would have worked.

As it was, I helped Ed for about three months at the beginning of the year.  I was discovered when my manager showed up at my district center (my official posting) with a case of beer to help me celebrate my birthday.  I understand that the PCVs in the area had a good party.  Not my proudest moment.   Ambika Joshee, if you are reading this, please accept my most humble apologies.

Though I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing, I was doing something that I became very good at: editing a tech manual.  I was putting in full days in front of a computer and consulting with Ed, trying to make the ideas and procedures in his head comprehensible.  Sometimes I could figure it out from the context, but at first I had to have him explain in person before I understood well enough to pass the idea on to another.

After a few weeks of working a funny thing happened, though it didn't seem funny at the time.  I opened up the first chapter I had worked on to reference something and was shocked at what I found. Somehow the original version had been saved, rather than the complete edit I had worked on!  I took it to Ed, and we did some digging into the files.  We eventually figured out that no work had been lost.  The original was still there, and the version I saw was my final edit.  But in the intervening weeks of working with Ed, both of us had improved so much that our original writing was unrecognizable.  Ed's current output was on a par with what I was originally doing, and my current standards were so high that my original work looked incomplete.

It was the first time that I remember being seriously impressed with my own improvement.  Our dedication to the project and honest feedback had taken both of us to higher levels of performance.  It was hard work, but I was having fun, and producing something that I could see being more useful than any of the teacher trainings that I had not yet organized or participated in.

That's when Ambika came back from my birthday party.  I pleaded my case, Ed and his manager both asked to have me reassigned, and I went back to my post.  I simply was not up to openly defying my manager, especially after doing it in such a sneaky way.  He had a point, that I was not doing the job I was supposed to be doing.

It is so hard to write this without blaming Ambika.  Looking back, I am sure that if I had played my cards differently I might have been able to work with Ed, maybe while marginally participating in some education objective.  But I had made him look like a fool, and made his job harder, as well as doing work that simply couldn't be accounted for in my file.  The only way to make it right was to go do the job I signed up for.

I later heard that when I left Ed was really brought down.  He had only three months left, and that was after extending his service six months.  He finished the manual, but it was never really finalized, and as far as I know never published.  It was some of my best work, and one of my most ignominious failures.

Time to play "What if...?"  Where would I be now if I had made that project work?  I don't play this game very often, as it tends to sow regrets.  But it can also provide a crop of lessons, so I will attempt this crop, just this once.

December, 1995, I talk to my supervisor, Ambika, and convince him that I need to change jobs.  I work full time with Ed to produce a water supply manual for use in Nepal.  We successfully complete the writing just as Ed leaves the country, and I usher the new manual through publication, dissemination and training from June through December.  I am having such a good time with it that I extend my service for six months (after a break in Thailand, of course) to produce a revised edition.  This is based on feedback from Nepali and Peace Corps engineers using the manual, and my own observations after visiting projects in different parts of the country.

I mail Ed a copy of the revised version, to follow up the first that he took a year previously.

When I COS (Close Of Service) I still visit Andy in Korea, and have a great time, but the prospect of finding work as a tech writer/editor in the Land of Plenty is too strong to resist.  I return to America and get a job at (an engineering textbook publisher?  a tech firm?) earning good money while getting better and better at doing what I do: writing.

Would I take that path if I could choose it now?  Of course not.  Sure it would be nice to have a nice house and job in The States.  I'm sure I would have still met interesting people, as they can be found anywhere.  I probably would have been happy, as well.  I might have met someone who was as perfect for me as Horyon, and I might have had children as amazing as Maxine and Quinten.  But I think part of me would not have been satisfied staying in America after experiencing Nepal for two years.  I would always have been hungry for something more, something different.

Or worse, I would have learned to ignore that hunger.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

On Moving to Korea

Today (March 24th) I spent about an hour and 40 minutes talking with my new coworker, John Bocskay.  He is doing research for a book about the experience of Americans who move to Korea, and asked some very insightful questions.  It occurred to me later that it would be worth my while to sit down with the same questions and compose some slightly more thought-out answers. A friend also been recommended that I should set goal lengths for my posts (Thanks, Kendra!). This time I tried for 1,000 words (Total=1,006. Feel free to ignore your choice of six words.)  The Roblog is not usually this goal-oriented (or obsessive compulsive), but I am trying to be more so (goal-oriented). As always, your comments are appreciated. Here we go!

I am an American living in Korea.*  It doesn't seem strange to me, because most of the people I work with, and go to church with, and hang out with** are also from other countries.  My friends and family back in The States haven't asked about this decision for a long time. I assume this is because I moved so long ago that they either know, have forgotten, or just assume that I've always been here. The truth is, that like any other object in a place, there is a story that put me in mine.

I do not come from a family of travelers. My parents and grandparents are all from the Midwest: Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma. You have to go back to my great-great-aunt Maxie, my Maxine's namesake's namesake to find a traveller. Grandma Euler took me to visit her when I was very young, probably not more than five years old. I only remember Aunt Maxie as a thin, frail woman, older than anyone I had ever seen, with wispy, snow-white hair and soft, liver-spotted hands, the bones clearly outlined. We would feed her ice cream because Grandma said it was her favorite. I remember her smiling a toothless yet cheerful grin, but not saying anything that I could understand. My generation has spread out a little, but I'm the only one who has ended up living in a foreign country.

It took me a long time to make the connection between the ancient woman in the nursing home and the young woman who lived in China back in the days when it took weeks to get there, and there was no Lonely Planet.*** By the mid 1990s going abroad was a matter of applying for a passport, getting a visa, and going. This idea had crossed my mind once or twice, but it hadn't really left tracks until the fall of 1992.

[I probably didn't make that connection because that woman was not my great-great-Aunt Maxie, she was my great-grandma, Becky Stewart.  Thanks Erin Sack, Bob Euler and Becky Duncan!]

As I look back from this vantage point, two days short of being 45 years old, the Rob Sack of 1992 seems like a different person. I remember him, I was him, but he and I are not the same.

He was going to graduate in the spring of 1993 with a degree in civil engineering that he thought he was incapable of using, but had pretty much paid for by virtue of being good at taking multiple choice tests (the SAT and PSAT). He didn't know what he wanted to do, and was not trying very hard to figure it out. But he was starting to realize that he was very fortunate to have been born where and when he was. Maybe it was the “Women in World Religions” class.**** Maybe it was just being on a college campus where people talked about such a wide variety of topics. Our home town, Leavenworth, was somewhat homogeneous, but Fort Leavenworth brought in a few people from around the country and world. Our college town, Lawrence, had an even larger and broader international flavor, with many students from all over the world. Maybe it seemed logical to experience international directly? Whatever the process of his thinking, he decided that it was a good idea to pass on some of those blessings and find out more about the world.

When you think of helping people who are less fortunate, and getting out to see the world, the Peace Corps should come to mind. It came to his, and he latched on to it.

Of course, I knew nothing. Absolutely nothing. Twenty-three year old me had tasted variety for the previous five years, and thought that it was time to plunge into some seriously new experiences. He was right, but for the wrong reasons. After all, a broken clock is right twice a day.

And so he filled in application for the toughest job you'll ever love. After that the story gets boring. But then it gets exciting and excruciating and exhilarating and way over 1000 words.

To be continued.

* The name of my home country is The United States of America, and I find it somewhat annoying that citizens of the USA are referred to as "Americans".  Other denizens of this fine continent must take exception to this.  However, I am loathe to type "U.S. Citizen" instead of "American", because I don't want anyone to stumble on this site and believe that it is a dot-gov.  It's even more awkward to refer to us as "Unitidians" or "Stations", and "Usians" sounds too much like a cross between Russians and Asians.  So I am an American, by virtue of linguistic momentum.

In a similar vein, I am now living in the Republic of Korea, a.k.a. South Korea, not to be confused with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea.  (Confused?  Just remember this handy rule: the longer the name of a country, the more repressive the government, but only when “Korea” is in the name.)  So when I refer to "Korea", it means the not crazy one.

** I hang out on average twice a year.  In a good year.

*** I don't have much on great-great-Aunt Maxie right now. Perhaps later.

**** He would have been uncomfortable in any conversation involving female genitalia, but adding the word “mutilation” took uncomfortable to new levels.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Newish Job

This month marks my return to Kyungsung University, where I worked for four years (2003-2006).  Things, myself included, have changed enough that it feels like a completely new job.  This is mostly a good thing.

The most significant change is that class sizes are now limited to 15 students.  I believe that the previous limit was 50, though it may have been 60.  The difference this makes in teaching is similar to the difference between carrying 15 and 50 marbles with nothing but your bare hands.  I now have six classes, with a total of about 80 students.  My first semester at KIT I had a total of 350 students.  Last fall set my record for fewest students at 136 enrolled, and just under 100 regularly attending.  Even then, I did not learn many names.

I am now teaching only 2nd year students, whereas at my previous job I was teaching 1st and 2nd year students.  In keeping with the marble theme, 1st year students are more slippery marbles.  They have just finished high school in Korea, which is a challenge the likes of which most of my readers never have faced, and they are ready to avoid work of any sort.  To them, college is like the steps you take after crossing the finish line in a race, but before you settle down and put your nose to the grindstone at work.  Second year students are more like jagged marbles, easier to hold on to, but sometimes more painful.  They will work if they have to, but are less likely to put up with what they perceive as bad teaching.  The more English teachers they've had, the pickier they get.  I find it especially bad if they have had a very lazy teacher who demanded nothing and let them leave early all the time.

In general, English classes at Kyungsung University (which I will from here on out refer to as KSU, which will no doubt be confusing to my friends who fans of Kansas State University, and thus have difficulty processing change) are better optimized to actually teach students.  Though both KIT and KSU English Conversation Classes are two hours per week, at KIT the classes are all in blocks, so they meet one time during the week for two hours.  KSU has what I think of as a more traditional structure, meeting on two different days for one hour each day.  This offers two main advantages: less time to forget what was learned between lessons, and a lower likelihood of reaching English fatigue during class.

If you have not learned a foreign language, it will be difficult to understand foreign language fatigue.  Speaking and listening to a foreign language takes a lot of mental processing power, the same way walking is harder with small children fastened to your wrists and ankles.  Some people can talk in their native language for hours with no problem, while some of us get tired of it relatively quickly.  In a foreign language, that threshold comes much sooner.  The lower your level, the sooner you burn out.  With apologies to my bilingual friends, this is my empathy attempting to better understand my students:

Imagine that you are in class, listening to trying to listen to the teacher talking, while half a dozen other conversations are playing in one earbud in your left ear.  The teacher is from a country that claims to speak English, and considers your language to be a perversion of the Queen's English.  From time to time the teacher uses words which you simply do not recognize, and every word sounds different from what you are used to, sometimes subtly, sometimes unrecognizably.  In addition, this person has a bizarre sense of humor, making jokes that you do not even recognize as such.  If that doesn't sound so bad, it is because you are not imagining well enough.

So I like the small classes split into two different days, though I do have one class that only meets for two consecutive hours on Friday.

I also like my schedule in general.  It is not vastly superior to the schedules I've had at KIT, but there is one significant difference: no night classes.  I am home every evening to enjoy the company of my children.  I have a total of eight hours of gap in my schedule, but it's in only three chunks.  Some of my coworkers have that much in six or seven chunks: an hour here, an hour there.  I have two three-hour breaks and one two-hour break.  Even two hours is long enough to walk home and have an hour to waste time on Facebook do the dishes.

The biggest positive right off the bat for me is how close KSU is to our home.  I can walk to our office building in 20 minutes without pushing too hard.  Granted, I have to leave home 35-40 minutes before class to either avoid the elevator crush or recover from hiking up the hill plus ten flights of stairs.  Not wimpy apartment flights, but big, extra half-floor flights.
There is room for one of these on every floor!
(Yeah, that's the 7 1/2 floor from "Being John Malkovich")
I don't think there's anything as cool as an extra floor between the regular floors, but between the 5th and 15th floor there is a gym membership worth of free exercise.  All I have to do is come early enough to not be sweaty and panting when I get to class.

So not only am I exercising more, I am hardly ever riding the subway.  I work two days a week at Apple Tree Elementary, where Maxine goes to school.  It's about a 40 minute walk from my office, through pleasant neighborhoods with shops and places to eat, as well as the U.N. Memorial Park.

Of course, all of these walks are easily converted into much shorter bike rides, which I want to do.  That will free me up to take longer rides during the week, maybe even during those long breaks.  I am also hoping to bike with Maxine to and from Apple Tree three times per week.  She got a new, grown-up sized bike for a late Christmas present.
I like the old school lines and colors.

It's a bit heavy, but she manages.

I think the basket was what sold her on it.

My biggest problem will be sweat and stink as the weather gets warmer.

Wait, my sweat and stink won't be my problem, they will be my students' problem!  I'll just offer them extra credit to not notice my stench.

A few other details make KSU a better fit for me:  though both jobs have shared office space, at KSU I share with only about 12 instead of all 25, and the office is on the same floor of the same building as all of my classes!  At KIT I would go days, sometimes weeks, without visiting the office because it was far from my classes.  Now I have to be careful to be productive during my office time, because there are a bunch of fun guys in there most of the time.

I like my new coworkers, I miss my old coworkers.  In that respect, this change is a wash.  But almost everything else is an improvement.  It's taking me a while to get into it, and I am considering a big shift in my teaching style, hence my lack of posting recently.  It may get worse before it gets better.

Oh, and one more huge advantage: at the bottom of the hill is a movie theater, and I have time to go!  I saw two movies last week ("Imitation Game" and "Welcome to Yesterday".  Science/History and Time Travel/Teen), and plan to go once a week this semester.  It will not necessarily improve my writing, but it will be fun!  $6 for a morning ticket, which I can easily swing on Wednesdays and Fridays, sometimes even on Mondays!  If I can just resist the popcorn and cola, I think I will be all right!

I am excited about 2015!  Sure, my jacket doesn't talk and dry itself, and there are no hoverboards or flying cars, but I am already enjoying my job, my parents are coming to visit in November, and I get to resume my movie habit!  If I can just get my kids to be nice to each other, this will be an awesome year!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Wrapping Up the Ski Trip

No letter theme today.  Many apologies if you were wondering which direction my Sack-phabetical order would take next.

I just realized that tomorrow it is already a week since my last post, so here comes another rush job.  This week I started back up at Kyungsung University after an absence of eight years.  It has not been terribly hard, but it has kept me from writing.  I'll tackle that in my next post.

Skiing was fun, but I am getting too old for it.  Not because I got hurt, or couldn't learn the skills, but because I was absolutely unable to think about how much it would hurt if my meager skills proved insufficient.  Another factor is the cost, which is something between kind-of-expensive and ridiculous.  I would have gotten more satisfaction out of buying a new t.v.

Quiz time!

Math:  When is 15 divided by two equal to zero?  Answer: when you buy a $15 pair of ski gloves and lose one the first time down the hill.  The gloves were too hot, so I put them in my pockets and wore by biking gloves.  By the time I got to the bottom of the slope, I had only one glove.  What's the value of one new ski glove?  Just about zero.  It joins the other single right-hand gloves in my drawer nonetheless, because someday I will lose a right hand glove and be ready to have a mismatched pair.

Literature:  What is irony?  Answer: when you laugh at all of the ski poles, gloves, hats, skis and other stuff on the ground under the ski lift, only to realize that one of those gloves is very likely the missing left hand glove from the pair you bought that day.

Physics:  Which will go downhill on skis faster, a little girl, or her too-large-to-fasten-his-snowpants daddy?  Answer: the person who is slowest to learn how to snow plough.

History:  When was the last time I went skiing?  Answer: pre-kids, pre-wife, pre-Korea, pre-Nepal, pre-graduating from K.U.  I went skiing in Colorado with my then-girlfriend.  She grew up skiing, and was very patient with me in this regard.  I got a touch of altitude sickness halfway through the day, and don't really remember much about it.

Physical Education:  List the muscles which do not tense up when learning to ski.  Answer: This is a trick question.  There are no such muscles.

Music Appreciation:  If your child sings the same song repeatedly, how many times must you allow it before you make them get out of the car and drive away?  Answer:  This one was kind of surprising to me.  You are actually not supposed to abandon your children by the side of the road, even when they do this!

Economics:  If you pay $10 for pork soup at the ski resort, compared to $6 in town, how do you expect the food to compare?  Answer:  The resort food will have smaller portions and taste terrible.

Ethics:  You lose the ski poles that you rented for your youngest child.  You would expect the ski instructor (who works for the rental company) to:
a)  assure you that they will be returned eventually, and not to worry about replacement costs.
b)  urge you to try to find the missing poles, as you will have to pay the replacement costs.
c)  offer to let you pay half of the replacement costs now, to avoid the full fee later.
d)  pick up a random set of ski poles and tell you that they are all the same anyway.
                         Answer:  The answer is d, the one I couldn't imagine on my own.

Chemistry (sort of):  When does a beer taste best?  Answer: after a hard day's driving to a new place, learning to ski, then soaking in the hot tub for an hour.

World Religions:  In which religion is it considered a blessing to hang a dried fish over a doorway?  Answer:  Dude, that's not a blessing.  They're just saving it for later.

Enjoy the pictures.
Find the Dried Fish!
My favorite part of skiing.
So calm and quiet.
The view from the top.
My favorite snow bunny.
My favorite snow player and snow avoider.
Quinten pushing on through.
I think Maxine is in this picture.  Good luck finding her.
Quinten with his day 2 ski instructor.  They got along great!
The surly waitress made Quinten behave.
Dinner with friends we happened to bump into.
Dinner was good, but the kids really liked the dogs chained up outside.

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.