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Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Best Birthday Present

My second best birthday present this year was a pocket watch. It's a bit sad that it came in second, especially since I picked it out myself. And paid for it myself. And opened it all by myself. It is mechanical, with crystal front and back so you can see the works, and a wood ring in the cover. I made the mistake of searching for an online photo instead of just taking a picture myself, and found that I could have purchased it for much less than I did. Thanks, China.

It's a wind-up, so no battery to replace. It looks nice, but the face is too busy, and the hands too scrolly, making it a bit hard to read, especially in dim light. It's really more of a show piece than a time piece, so I'm not sure how long I will use it. But it's nice, nonetheless.

The best birthday present this year will stick with me quite a while. Though it is impossible to say whether it will outlive the watch, I suspect that it will still have life long after the watch and I have parted company. My birthday was on Tuesday, and I was teaching a class at Kyungsung right after lunch*. This semester Tuesday is my first day with classes at the university, so it has a Mondayish vibe to it. Not as bad as a real Monday, but I still had that just-woke-up feeling, compounded by making a cross-town trip to drop off library books during my two-hour lunch break. One of my best students in that class, I'll call her Jackie** was sitting in the front row drinking a soda in class. Something about that soda was nagging at my Mondayeque mind as we worked through the vocabulary for the lesson. At one point in my powerpoint, there was an example sentence: "The students cut class to drink beer. Bad students!"

That's when the lightening struck me, right in the figuratively: that soda was not a soda. It was a can, like soda, but much taller. I stopped teaching, and pointed at it, and asked the traditional question for seeking clarification: "Whaaaaaat....?" Quickly followed by, "Is that......?" I picked up the can, observed that it was about 2/3 full, and smelled it, on the off chance that she had rinsed it out and filled it with cold, pure, innocent water. It smelled more like debauchery.† In my classroom. On a desk. In the front row. I then moved in for the verbal kill. "Why do you have beer in my class?"

Jackie informed me that she was thirsty.

This reminded me of a lesson which I constantly drill into my students: you should construct your question based on the answer that you are hoping to hear. Of course, I had had no such answer in mind, and cannot even now imagine an answer that would be satisfactory.††

One key to being a good teacher is having an automatic set of responses to given circumstances. When a student is playing with their phone, I first make eye contact or tap their desk, going for subtle, then mention it in front of the class for the second offense, then take it away if they do so again, forcing them to come talk to me after class.‡

Somehow, in my fifteen years of teaching in Korea, I had never thought of how I would respond to that particular circumstance, so I'm afraid that I may have been a bit incoherent in dealing with it. Eventually it occurred to me to move the offensive can out of site, so I did. Then I continued teaching, with no more than a dozen call-backs to the beer in class during the final twenty minutes of class. When class was finished we had a little talk, which included promises and apologies: she apologized for ruining my birthday, and I promised to show up drunk at her next family reunion by way of returning the favor.‡‡

The gift that keeps on giving is a good story. I love this story because I spent the afternoon of my birthday laughing about it, as well as a hefty portion of that class time. And if you, dear reader, have laughed at any point in reading this story, then it was definitely the best birthday present ever.

* For some reason, the university still refuses to make my birthday an official holiday.
** A bright, bouncy name, which matches her personality, but has no phonetic similarity to her actual name, for reasons which will become clear in the next paragraph.
† Which smells remarkably like beer and lip gloss.
†† "That's not mine!" would likely come the closest, followed closely by, "I thought you were thirsty."
‡ Because who would leave behind that significant portion of their soul?
‡‡ No, I didn't.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Return to Korea

The plane lands, and taxis to the gate. At the moment the fasten seatbelts light turns off, a man sprints past me. We are sitting in the fifth row from the tail of the plane. He makes it forward about five more rows before he is slowed, if not stopped, by everyone else springing up to get their luggage from the overhead bins and secure their place in the queue to escape the flying death lozenge.

We are definitely back in Korea. This is our sixth flight, three to get to Kansas, three to get back, and this is the only time I've seen the passengers go nuts as though there were special prizes for those first off the plane, rather than the same interminable waits (immigration, baggage claim, customs) that we will all endure. And this is after the announcement that we will be taking busses through the rain to get to the terminal!

I don't even wake the kids up until the people behind us are starting to move. We're the last ones off the plane, exhausted, red-eyed, stiff and sore. But the flight crew doesn't seem to mind. They know how far we've come, why we act like zombies, eyes laced with sand, bodies beaten down, tears of departure dried on our cheeks, and stomachs heavy yet jittery with airline food and too much coffee. They know for the same reason the crews of the two previous flights knew: I said so in our thank you card.

While preparing for this trip I found myself with a small problem: I had purchased a ton* of hard candies to give to my students after finishing their oral exams. I then neglected to bring the bag of candy with me on the two days with the most testing, so I was left with a lot more candy than I like to have around.** So I bought some gift boxes on which were written some clever thank you puns in Korean.***

On the first flight, I gave it to an attendant at the very end, then we went off to find our next flight. But on the 11 hour haul from Tokyo to Dallas, Quinten and I went to the back and handed it to some of them in the middle of the flight. I explained the Korean pun on the package, and told them that I really appreciate how strenuous their job is, and how it often appears thankless. Then we sat back down.

Some time later they brought me ice cream. The kids were asleep or they would have gotten some, too. Real ice cream, with hot fudge sauce, in a glass cup, a little taste of first class, I guess. Later they brought me four little hospitality bags, the kind they used to give to everyone who flew. There was a little toothbrush and toothpaste, socks, a blindfold, lotion, mouthwash, and a pen. The bag itself was real, if a bit cheap. It made a good replacement for the ziplock I had been using to carry our little medicine kit.

And that stuff was nice enough, but what struck me most was that at some point I think every member of the flight crew stopped by to say thank you. This happened on every flight in which I gave our gift early, though I can't be sure that every crew member talked to us every time. On the Tokyo to Dallas flight, the lead crew member herself came and talked to me, close to tears. She told me that people like us are the reason most of them get into this career: they like to help people get through a time that can be stressful and unpleasant.

I didn't witness any horror stories on our six flights, but we all know that they happen. I remember only one crying baby from the entire trip, but I've been on long international flights with children who definitely did not want to be there. My kids both hurled on the Tokyo to Dallas flight. I managed to mobilize the airsickness bags in time, but you know that there can't be a 100% success rate with that sort of thing. People on planes are sometimes deep down scared, which leads them to make poor choices. And even if everything else goes well, the crew is working an eleven hour shift, with nowhere to be away from the job.

Before the return flight I bought a mix of American candy, and had the kids prepare cards to go in the gift bags. In fact, I'm planning do this on every international flight we take. Not for the ice cream, or the thank yous, but because it feels good to let people know that they are valued, and this is a behavior I absolutely want to model for my kids.

I hope that you will take the opportunity to make someone feel valued. And for what it's worth, you could do a lot worse than giving them candy!

* Assuming that each piece of candy weighed about five pounds each.

** I will happily eat chocolate every day for the rest of my life, but I cannot easily set aside the fact that a hard candy is basically a little lump of refined sugar.

*** A picture of four persimmons, which sounds like "thank you" in Korean if you fudge the grammar a little bit.

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.