How the Other Half are Educated

My home and work place for the next two weeks

My home and work place for the next two weeks

Six months ago, I was teaching in the slums of Phnom Penh, constantly sweating and dehydrated in 35 degree heat. Today, I am writing this post from what has to be one of the most wealthy international schools in Asia, freezing under the aggressive, ever-present air-conditioning. I am blown-away by the contrast of the two settings.

Some back-story: when my co-worker in Seoul asked if I was interested in spending two weeks on Korea’s Jeju Island teaching children in an intensive summer English program, I said, ‘Is a bean green?’ And so, after an interview, some paperwork, a few painful hours wasted in a Soviet prison, ah, I mean the immigration office, and a short plane ride, I am snuggled up in the single bed of my dorm room on the school’s campus.

But perhaps ‘school’ doesn’t quite capture the setting accurately – maybe five-star international education institution is more appropriate. I don’t know what your elementary, middle and high schools looked like, but I bet they weren’t anywhere near as fancy as this two year old international boarding school. Mine sure as hell weren’t. Holy crap. The facilities are amazing and the students who attend this school, run by a British faculty, are unbelievably privileged – the sons and daughters of Korea’s wealthiest families, as well as  a smattering of children from around the world. The campus is so big that after three days of being here, I still get lost. There’s a fully covered Olympic-sized swimming pool, numerous dance studios, state-of-the-art gyms and auditoriums (yes, plural), all kinds of gadgets in the classrooms, which are more like corporate boardrooms. The students’ residences are bigger and nicer than my tiny place in Seoul (and the staff quarters just made me cry). Everything is so gleaming and modern I don’t want to touch anything. Student art work is displayed as if this is the Museum of Modern Art.

The idealist in me thinks that education should be an equalizer, a place where meritocracy thrives, a way for people to develop themselves and gain opportunities based on their hard work. But the students who attend this school are so privileged and have so many resources and opportunities at their disposal, my Cambodian students wouldn’t stand a chance. They represent two extremes.

What is also absurd is that I will earn twice the salary in my two weeks here that the average Cambodian will earn in a year. I don’t want to sound like a communist, but this fact is further evidence that the world is so unfair and fucked up.

Alas, I have a job to do that involves being energetic, present, and positive. Soon, when the children fly in from all over Korea, I won’t have the time or psychic energy to dwell on what’s wrong with the world. The teachers who have flown in from Washington State in the U.S. will keep me on my toes with their Type-A workaholicism, creativity and dedication.

I’ll save my reflections for my nightly swim in the pool.

Why Dirty Dancing Will Always Rule

dirtydancingMy friend brought to my attention this brilliant article exploring the ways in which the classic ’80’s chickflick, Dirty Dancing, is a ‘subversive masterpiece.’ In case you’re too lazy or just not interested enough to read the article for yourself, here are the author’s four main reasons:

#1: “Dirty Dancing” Is About Abortion

#2: “Dirty Dancing” Is Rife With Class Politics

#3: “Dirty Dancing” Gives The Sheltered 17-Year-Old All The Sexual Agency

#4: “I carried a watermelon.” (You really need to read the article to get this one).

This movie was all the rage when I was at primary school. I saw it with my cousin, who just two years older than me, was like my sister. She got the cassette tape of the soundtrack for her birthday and I was insanely jealous. We listened to it on our Walkmans incessantly and knew all the lyrics by heart. That was when I was about seven. Cut to when I’m 17. Dirty Dancing was still a favorite among my female peers. In fact, there was one night in particular that I remember a group of my friends and I watched it at a sleepover. Of course, being so young and stupid, we thought it would be a good idea to also drink (and by drink, I mean binge drink) cheap, nasty gin (sans the tonic) while we watched it. Anyway, to digress, I remember spending the next day at work (at McDonald’s) cowering in the bathroom, vomiting out of my nose…but still Dirty Dancing remains one of my favorite films.

Of course, the first time I saw it, the film was just a simple story about a plain-Jane girl (Baby) who falls in love with a seemingly bad guy (Johnny), who turns out to be good – an ugly duckling transformed into a swan when the alpha-male falls in love with her. All of the subversion and plot intricacies went well over my head. As I matured and developed, I began to identify with the lead character, and probably most girls did – an averagely attractive, awkward yet intelligent girl overcomes barriers to live happily ever after with her diamond-in-the-rough prince.

As the author writes:

Although Baby is definitely fascinated by Johnny [played by the sadly deceased Patrick Swayze] early on in the film, by this point she is just being herself, and to a younger version of me, the notion of a boy just liking you for who you were was kind of mindblowing. And yet here it was! On film!

Also Johnny Castle was so very hot. I mean I don’t even really like romancey movies as a rule, but Johnny Castle’s impact on my adolescent sexual development cannot be overstated. I mean, those pants. And how could it be that the searingly hot guy liked the slightly awkward, opinionated, boundary-crushing girl? How did that even WORK?

(Also, let’s not forget David Bowie in the Labyrinth – my all-time favorite film. Just to remind everyone of his hotness in this film, I have plucked a few quotes from a fan website: Everyone found David Bowie in the Labyrinth sexy – I’m a straight male and I was still attracted to him…I would personally become his slave and do anything for him. And wreck him horribly…“KILF.” (Like MILF, but with a King)…The moment that David Bowie appeared in those tights, he devirginized the whole world).

Before I get too carried away, the point I’m trying to make is that as we grow and mature, as our brains develop, we can see things in a different light and recognize complexities that our seven year old self never could’ve dreamed of. It is seeing the same landscape with new eyes, or peeling another layer off an onion. So, next time I watch Dirty Dancing (and there WILL be a next time), it will blow my mind. In the meantime, there are some Youtube clips involving puppets that urgently require my attention.




Wisdom from Mr. Tiger Woods

golfballMy daily navel gazing session was interrupted the other day by an ‘aha’ moment. I had recently poked my nose into the work of sports psychologist Dr. Michael Lardon who writes a lot about peak performance (sometimes I indulge in reading the Harvard Business Review and sports psychology books in a futile attempt to make myself a more efficient cog in the wheel, but that’s another story…).

Dr. Lardon believes that Tiger Woods is unsurpassed in his unwavering mental strength (let’s not get started on his wavering morals) and one way in which he sustains this is through what Lardon terms ‘instant amnesia’, the ability to forget about what occurred seconds before and remain completely ‘in the Zone,’ unperturbed by mistakes and setbacks.

As Lardon told one interviewer: “To be in the now, you have to accept what has just happened. If you can’t do that, you will be separate from the experience and that is when trouble lurks.

“Instant amnesia is a quality that Tiger personifies and it’s absolutely essential because you’re not always going to hit a perfect shot and when you get up to that next shot, you have to not be thinking about the previous one.”

This golf talk is relevant to everyday life – what if we had the ability to just instantly forget what happened previously, especially when things don’t go our way? This brings to mind the premise of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which you can erase your entire memory of your lover if or when the relationship sours. Maybe that would be too extreme, although I do think it would be good to be able to edit our memories, to cut and paste and get rid of the most painful, heart-stabbing moments that still cause one to wince years after the fact.

Interestingly, Dr. Lardon’s perspective resonates with Buddhist philosophy which states that we can’t just attach to the good memories and try to push the bad ones away, as that is a form of delusion and distraction. Instead, we should just live in the here and now with acceptance. In doing so, those memories that invoke such negative feelings are kept packed away. It seems that it is when we start ruminating that they come to haunt us – we willingly rummage through them, costing us clarity and enjoyment in the present. So, Imma try to make like Tiger and get in the Zone of life.





Celebrating the Transformative Power of Female Friendship

Unity by Nelum Walpola

Unity by Nelum Walpola

I first learnt about the work of writer Emily Rapp after listening to a radio interview about her latest memoir which chronicles the harrowing story of her young son’s diagnosis and inevitable death from incurable Tay-Sach’s disease. What surprised me the most was that Emily had finished her book and was promoting it just a month after Ronan’s death. The rawness and fragility in her voice was palpable and I was stunned that she was able to be so lucid and articulate given the circumstances.

Intrigued, I did some research and found out that this woman was no stranger to heartache. She had had one of her legs amputated, the result of a congenital birth defect and wears a prosthetic limb. She has worked all over the world in various capacities, but particularly in the humanitarian aid and relief field, witnessing firsthand just how unfair and unjust the world can be.

She has also studied at some of the world’s most prestigious universities (and even did a stint in Seoul as a Fullbright Scholar), and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has masters degrees in theological studies and creative writing. It seems to me that a large part of her existence is based on processing and making sense of the world, of heartbreak and despair. And through her writing, she does so with such grace and poignancy.

I was particularly drawn to one article of hers that was written last year about the importance of female friendship and how her relationship with a group of women she met in her formative early 20’s spurred her own development. In it, she chronicles her relationship with three older women she meets when she arrives in Geneva to work as a naive 22 year old. The women refer to themselves as ‘the Wrinklies’, but despite the age gap, they become like family, as all four women are unmarried, living alone and working to help others in need.

Despite their closeness, Emily admits to feeling sorry for them at the time. As she writes:

They weren’t married, they weren’t mothers – and at this time, and up until very recently, I clung to the belief that this constituted some failure on their part. They found me equally mystifying. Was I really worried about the size of my ass or trying to finagle a recent date with a man they thought (from my description) was boring and slightly odious? (He was.) Was it a good use of my time, they wondered, to hang out in bars getting smashed and looking to score and by doing this (they were rightfully doubtful) find “the love of my life” when I said I wanted to be a writer?  

Another thread weaved throughout the piece is the questioning of what your life ‘should’ look like. In her own words:

I was also keen to make my life look “normal” and “acceptable” in some way because I have a disability; if I didn’t get the body part right, I reasoned (irrationally, although it seemed quite rational at the time), I could get the “what your life looks like” part right. While I was obsessing about how I looked and who would love me, these women were helping to save the world – not in a way that would win them accolades, certainly – but the work they were doing was important and life-giving. And there I sat, foolishly pitying them.

Then, she zooms out and considers how female friendship is thought about in the culture at large, the narratives that are inscribed upon it, the stereotypes and myths that are so prevalent, at least in the west. In her own words:

…it also made me realize how much people diminish and poo-poo the real power and strength of female friendship, especially between women, which is either supposed to descend into some kind of male lesbian love scene porn fantasy or be dismissed as meaningless or be re-written as a story of competition. Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.

She then zooms back in on her own life and expresses how her female friends helped her during the time when she found out about her son’s fatal disease and imminent death (when the article was published in 2012, he was still alive, but died earlier this year). She writes that:

My friends stood with me in the middle of the scary, sky-howling road I was on, knowing they couldn’t take away the pain of the experience, but promising to be there when I emerged on the other side of the grief tunnel when my child would be gone. I feel them, every day, standing there as I stumble through the blissful, heart-breaking hours with my son whose brain and body fail him a little bit more each day. It is not an exaggeration to say that I would not have survived – that I will not survive — without my women friends.

And then, back to the Wrinklies. Emily tells us that the youngest of the three had a stroke as a result of a brain tumor. The other two women took care of her, as if she was family (well, they were). When Emily witnesses the ways in which they had taken care of the paralyzed friend on a visit to Geneva, she has a realization.

The unaffected two had learned to understand the other’s few words; they wiped her face, helped her eat and made her laugh. This was a snapshot of what my own deep friendships could lead to: transformation. I saw, on that afternoon, that it’s possible to transcend the limits of your skin in a friendship. That a friend can take you out of the boxes you’ve made for yourself and burn them up. This kind of friendship is not a frivolous connection, a supplementary relationship to the ones we’re taught and told are primary – spouses, children, parents. It is love. When the youngest Wrinklie died, I remember getting the news in my apartment in Berkeley, married, already knowing it wouldn’t last, and thinking she was lucky. And she was.

She then lists all the incredible, above-and-beyond things that her female friends have done for her as she has clawed her way through the dark abyss of the last few years. Finally, she emphasizes the transformative and transcendent nature of these relationships. And her conclusion is nothing short of hopeful.

Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul friends…what women do for one another in real relationships with real consequences in real time, every day, what my friends do for me. We help one another live and sometimes, we watch – and help – one another die. It happens in movies, sure, but it also happens every day, in real life – now, tomorrow, yesterday. It is transformative and transcendent. It is real. It is love.