"Ahh Canada. Very lucky. No wars on your land. Yes, very lucky." That was Mr. Pok’s response when I told him I was Canadian. Mr.Pok oversees the small Cambodian War Museum just outside of Siem Reap, an outdoor mesh of ancient tanks and mounds of deactivated landmines.
"Yes, very lucky," I responded. "We did have the war of 1812 and we have fought in many wars abroad…."
"Canada. Very lucky," he said. I realized how ignorant my response must have sounded to a man whose country has seen 3 decades of war in its recent history, with nearly 50% of the Cambodian population killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide. "Fourteen years old. That’s when I joined the army. To fight the Khmer Rouge. Fourteen. I was hungry and the army gave free food.”
He tapped his fingers on his left leg and a hollow sound resonated from it. “Lost my leg in the war.” He gestured toward his right eye. “Lost my eye.” He raised his shirt to show a series of scars scattered across his stomach. And he fiddled with the bits of shrapnel forever imbeded under his skin. “Shot 4 times.” "Yes, very very hungry."
Cambodia was an eye-opening experience in many ways. I ascended into the realm of the gods atop Angkor Wat (Indiana Jones style) and sped through the jungle aboard a bamboo train. I mingled with the locals amid the narrow canals of their floating villages and chatted with the artisans at the night market. But the most memorable part of my time in Cambodia was the conversation I had with Mr. Pok. Cambodia’s history was both inspiring and heart-wrenching. Hearing first-hand accounts of the Khmer Rouge bloodshed and the difficult recovery that followed was unforgettable. If you ever find yourself in Cambodia, after you relish in the landscapes of Angkor Wat, go visit Mr. Pok at the War Museum. He’s a man whose story is worth a listen.
“…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”—Jack Keruoac
I started today in a funk. I knew it the moment I woke up and couldn’t decide which mood to tune into on stereomood.com (p.s. check out that website…it’s a gem). Lost-in-thought or Vintage? Lonely or Total-Improvisation? Alas, I got ready for work in silence. And to top it all off, the sky was in a beautiful state of pathetic fallacy. I took comfort in the presence of its dark looming clouds.
My task at work today: flagging (which is really just a fancy word for the-person-who-flips-the-STOP/SLOW-sign-during-road-construction-to-direct-traffic-safely). In my infinite boredom and peculiar state of mood, I decided to start a social experiment.
If you wave at strangers passing by, with a genuine smile on your face, and the occasional salute, what will you receive in return?
The response was overwhelming. By the end of the day, I was bursting — BURSTING, I tell you!!! — with complete and utter love for the kindness of strangers. With a big ol’ grin on my face, I waved to hundreds of passing motorists. And what I received back was more than I could have ever hoped. I found myself laughing out-loud at the drivers who dared to do the two-handed wave back. I saluted to truck drivers as they honked and tooted their horns. I gave cheeky grins to groups of young guys who blew kisses at me. Some responses were muted: the two-fingered wave from businessmen. But as I watched them pass, and saw a smile tugging at the corners of their mouth, it made my heart sing. Some people hesitated. But I waved relentlessly as they passed, and soon they began to chuckle to themselves and waved the biggest wave back. As an elderly couple passed, the wife in the passenger seat (who, by the way, was the cutest little woman that you ever did see) rolled down her window and exclaimed, “Sweetheart, you just made my day.”
And all those strangers out there on that country road today just made mine. In all the hours out there, I can count on one hand the number of people who didn’t wave back, or smile, or give a nod. One hand. Humans are remarkable.
“I walked over to the hill where we used to go & sled. There were a lot of kids there. I watched them flying. Doing jumps & having races. And I thought that all of those little kids are going to grow up someday. And all of those little kids are going to do the things that we do. And they will all kiss someone someday. But for now, sledding is enough. I think that would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn’t.”—The Perks of Being a Wallflower
I’m not referring to the oh-so unfortunate trend amongst the kindergarten boys and their doting mothers: the mullet perm.
And I’m not talking about the country’s obsession with kimchi (a sort of pickled cabbage infused with red pepper paste) for breakfast, lunch AND dinner.
Nor do I mean matching couples’ outfits, inch-thick coke-bottle glasses, the peace sign or the 4-inch heels sported by all korean women, all the time.
I suppose all of those things would fit into the collective category of “Korean style”, but what I’m referring to is the overwhelming displays of love and compassion shown by Koreans on a daily basis.
Koreans are portrayed in popular media as a sort of stoic, emotionless culture. Incapable of showing emotion or expressing their inner-most feelings.
In fact, it’s the opposite.
I have learned a lot from Koreans. About emotions and the human condition.
My first week in Korea, standing over my desk in the teacher room. Stressed. Scribbling out lesson plans. I felt two arms wrap around me. Bear hug. I turned around only to find it wasn’t one of the kindergarten kids that I had been expecting. It was my boss. “You look stressed,” she said. She gave me another hug and smiled. “It’s the Korean style.” she said. And was on her way.
My kids were the same way. They had the remarkable ability to show me (and all those around them) unhindered displays of affection everyday. I left my classrooms to a chorus of “Goodbye Auburn Teacher…I love you.” The first time I heard it, I was taken aback. But soon, without thinking (though I whole-heartedly meant every word), I responded, “Goodbye! I love you, too.”
But this “Korean style” of affection and compassion went beyond the boundaries of my school. On a rainy Saturday, an older Korean woman saw me struggling with my bag of groceries and, without a word, grabbed one of the handles of my grocery bag. We walked in tandem the 5 blocks from the store to my apartment, exchanging smiles, both realizing that we were incapable of communicating much beyond that. It’s the Korean style.
I expected to come to Korea, experience a new culture, meet eccentric new people, indulge in tasty new treats, and learn the quirks of our impossibly complicated language. I would stay for a year, bask in my new-found freedom, and walk away to never look back.
How wrong I was. My experience in Korea was a sort of crash-course to adulthood. We worked hard, serving as surrogate parents to classrooms full of wide-eyed children. We marveled in the sweet ambiguity of the future. We ached for family and friends and did our best to stay close to those we cherished most - no matter the distance. We filled our weekends with going-away parties and spontaneous trips abroad. A life always in transition.
Days ended with tired eyes, new perspectives, hands and cheeks adorned with stickers of Hello Kitty and Pokemon, and frequent visits to the websites of discount airlines in Asia.
Sometimes I wondered if it was all worth it. Countless hours teaching English, making worksheets and correcting homework only to have a handful of children from each class actually use the skills I taught years down the road. In the back of my mind, I was always painfully aware of the fact that the vast majority of children I will forget everything in a few short years. And their English skills will only show themselves in loud, unwarranted outbursts of “HELLO!” towards unsuspecting foreigners.
However small my impact may have been on my children, I learned to cherish the smalls triumphs, those ‘aha!’ moments in the classroom, and the love notes my kinder students gave me at the end of class. The little things.
Now, back in Canada, I find myself craving the Korean style. Trips to Toronto’s Korea Town to relish in the glory of Korean karaoke. Broken conversations with Korean immigrants on the street. Dinners at the local Korean restaurant to savour bibimbap, kimchi and bulgolgi. Anything to remind me of the culture I left behind.
Someone once told me that my journey to Korea would expose me to a new kind of learning. The kind I couldn’t possibly experience in a classroom, but the kind that would be incredibly life-changing. She couldn’t have been more right.