Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Milk & Bread
This Saturday, I will be doing a lesson with my high school students on food - specifically, vegetarianism.
I do this for a couple of reasons: 1) Food seemed to be chosen at random as a general topic for a syllabus last semester, and it had an obvious route for me, 2) Korea is pretty much the land of meat - mention that you are (or mostly try to be) a complete vegetarian (if not completely vegan) and people pretty much don't know what to do with themselves for the rest of the day, and 3) It's an engrossing topic... at least I think it is.
But back to number 2 for a second - I really can't eat in my school cafeteria anymore. I mean, I can, but it's getting to the point where I can't be bothered to subject myself to all of the commenting about what it is I do or don't eat.
Being that about 75% of the staff population at my school is too terrified at the prospect of speaking English (even the most basic of niceties), I usually sit with 7 others that come from a pot of about 12 teachers who aren't terrified of me. Each of these teachers knows full-well that I am a vegetarian, but they seem to feel the need to comment on it EVERY DAY! On particularly meaty days, my tray can tend to look quite sparse, but I'm good - really. I'm about as chipper as they come at lunch time, and I pride myself on my ability to be one friendly S.O.B. when food is in front of me - so what if on some days my plate is simply minus the batter-fried flesh of a chicken, or my spaghetti is free of the pig-piece & tomato sauce that everyone else seems to enjoy so much.
"Why didn't you eat some soup?" a kind voice will inquire.
"Because it there are floaty bits of animal carcass in it", says my inner voice.
"Because I'm a vegetarian", I say in Korean... which is unnecessary as they have all heard me repeat it in English with body language and obvious visual clues on my partially empty tray, ad-nauseam, since I arrived in March of 2009.
For the purposes of not reading into this that I'm a culturally insensitive ass-hole, just believe me when I say that I do love Korean food. I eat more kimchi than anyone else in the staff room and, save for the the business of life flayed off the bones of other living beings for the sole purposes of our taste fulfillment, I'm all about eating Korean stuff, and I do.
I also save my harshest comments for this blog. In the lunch room, I sit at a table full of Korean teachers and happily do my best to engage in conversation in the best way I can - though it almost always requires at least some translation - both ways - so that everyone is on-board. Most important to this post though is the fact that I do NOT make a show out of being a vegetarian. I'm just there to eat like everyone else. Some people don't dig on the salad, and I don't give them the stink-eye.
I know it's easy to argue that I am making a show simply by opting not to eat what everyone else is sucking the marrow from (in some soups, this is a literal truth), but I beg to differ. Like I said, I am not in that room to impose my judgment on others' eating habits, though somehow I constantly become the subject of meal-time scrutiny. I know... "when in Rome" and all that, but when in Rome, one does not have to change one's belief systems or logical practices. There are countries where marrying 14 year-old girls, abusing them, accusing them of adultery and then publicly executing them seem to be the culturally-acceptable thing to do, but I don't see myself joining in the fun should my travels ever take me to such parts. I'm not equating the two, I'm just trying to say that "When in Rome..." should be done away with as a suggestion of cultural integration.
I could go on about the grief I get for my vegetarianism, but I'm as tired writing about it as I am experiencing it.
Point is, I am teaching a lesson on vegetarianism on Wednesday, and I'm looking forward to it. This is critical reading and writing, and so it often helps to have a look at material near the standard of what I'm asking my students to achieve (minus ESL grammar issues, of course). Case in point this Saturday is an essay by Natalie Portman of Black Swan and Naboo fame. I chose it because it was succinct, because it brings up some strong points, and because (let's face it) she's famous and teens dig on her. We will be using the details to develop some talking points, but also looking at her writing style - how biased is it, and how well backed-up, or not.
This semester, I decided to go the extra mile and actually bring some vegetarian food to class. I thought it would be unfair of me to suggest that my students at least consider what a vegetarian meal would be like without first providing them with an actual sample of a delicious and protein-filled veggie dish.
Buying the supplies was a bit of a challenge. Each week, one of the supervisors brings a giant bag to the Saturday class at the second break time - full of individually-wrapped breads and pastries from a nearby bakery, as well as chocolate, strawberry, or banana flavoured milk. As snacks go, it could be worse, but I wouldn't say it's the healthiest thing the students could be eating - certainly not every Saturday.
I suggested making a dish to coincide with my food lesson, so I called my co-teacher who in-turn called the district office on Monday to see if it would be possible to spend this week's snack money on my veggie offering. They were kind enough to agree. Great, I thought. I'll just buy the supplies at my neighbourhood Homeplus, make the food on Thursday night, freeze it, bring it to the school on Saturday, and heat it up over a gas range at the school before class. I could keep the receipt and be reimbursed on Saturday.
I thought too soon. As it is at my school when I'm trying to stock-up on supplies for English camps, you simply cannot be reimbursed for cash purchases anymore. Instead, in order for me to have access to the weekly snack funds, I needed to get my ass on a subway, arrive over an hour later at the south district office, go and get the credit card, shop for my stuff, return the credit card, head home, cook the food, and bring the food back south of the river on Saturday for class.
To put things in perspective for my Calgary friends, it would be like living in Calgary, right next to a Sobey's supermarket and teaching a class in Canmore on Saturdays, having to drive out to Canmore mid-week to shop at Sobey's in Canmore as opposed to the one beside your house, bring all your shit back to your house, cook it, and drive back out to Canmore on Saturday.
Can you guess why I have to do this? For the answer, have a look at page 84 of a very handy little book in graphic novel format, called Korea Unmasked: In Search of the Country, the Society, and the People. It's written by a renowned Korean cartoonist, Lee Won-Bok (who studied in Munster, Germany - for all of my readers named Douglas) who seems to have a lot of challenging things to say about Koreans. Let me simplify page 84 for you...
You are asked to complete the following sentence: "The Koreans are the most __________ people in the world." You can complete the sentence using a list of the following words: extreme, clever, diligent, unique, aggressive, intense, and fiery. It's no big surprise when Lee suggests that they are all correct, but perhaps the most applicable word on the list is "extreme". I know this is nothing original or surprising to anyone who has lived here for more than 6 months, but it's refreshing to hear it come from a Korean as opposed to a foreigner for a change - understanding too that each of the above descriptors can have positive and negative attributes - depending on the situation.
The decision for Seoul Education to "completely eliminate petty cash reimbursements to all or any employees" became a system-wide initiative sometime in 2008, when cash officers were apparently absconding with the education funds using less then honest methods of submitting costs. Still, I would call this an "extreme" response. The good side of the extremeness of said policy is that they (hopefully) have less issues with insiders pilfering from company pockets. The bad side is that there are financial hurdles in the way of anyone who volunteers to "do a little more" for their classes.
I have precious little time in my week, and while I was willing to take a night off to cook food for my class (it will be a surprise for them), I was, let's say, a little bit annoyed that I had to kill a night with a trek across town and back (in ricockulous line 2 rush hour people traffic) with two giant bags full of groceries. The policy extends to say that only supervisors can sign for the card. When I arrived at the head office to gather one of the supervisors to go with me to the supermarket, neither one wanted to be in what they apparently perceived to be a high-stress ESL situation (shopping for groceries with Teacher Dave), so they let me have the card to do the shopping on my own. As I see it, policy is rigid enough for me to travel way out of my way to complete a voluntary task, but not rigid enough to ensure that the middle managers fulfill their end of the bargain in the great battle of tightening organizational purse-strings.
In the end, I was glad to have their trust with the card. They actually seemed a bit surprised when I showed-up, shopping bags in-hand on a Wednesday night, to buy a whole bunch o' veggies for a treat for the students. Who could refuse that guy?
I really am grateful that they were able to contribute roughly $50 toward the chili which is intended to feed about 20 students. Without their money, I would have been in the hole $80, but in my mind I had already committed to making the food for Saturday, and I wasn't about to back out just because of a subway ride.
It still seems unnecessarily extreme to me, but then again, I'm not in a position where I need to answer financially to a supervisor from the old boy's club who by virtue of years lived in this society is now entitled to all of the extreme authority he wants.
I'm done bitching about it now - whatever. The supervisors do not make the policy, they can only act on it. They were kind enough to let me use the weekly cash, and now I'm all excited that I get to share my favourite Christmas dish with my students in a couple of days.
Most satisfying is that my kind rabbit sneaked into my house today after work to surprise me by beginning preparation on the chili. An hour away for her after a hard day, and she was doing it voluntarily - chopping-away at carrots and squash just because she loves me, and in effect making all of the previous bitching in this post seem pretty irrelevant. It was pretty extreme of her, but in a good way.
Sometimes I have to shake my head at the lack of gray area that seems to exist in this country. But, they key word is "seems". I've learned, fairly recently, that I am capable of making serious in-roads when I really am determined to, and every now and then, the powers that be give just enough leeway for an idea that makes more sense to pass through.
Anyway, tonight my house smells like it does at Christmas time, and serious bike-riding weather is just around the corner, so I've got the best of both worlds, really.