Monday, July 8, 2013

So, what if the hokey pokey was really what it's all about?

Some necessary background information:

1. I teach at an all-women’s high school.
2. South Korea has their final exams at the beginning of July, and then three weeks before the end of the semester. Don’t ask me why; I have no idea.
3. My main goal for this semester has been to bust through stereotypes given to my students merely because they were born as girls. I have tried my damndest to teach critical thinking, creativity, and empowerment. I have tried to teach them that they do not need to work within the binary of male or female, but under the umbrella of being a human.

We good? Okay.

So, today, I gave my students the options of watching a movie or practicing for their pop song contest on Friday evening. They unanimously voted to practice. I said, alright, have at it.

One student found an instrumental version of the song “Mercy” by Duffy. My students were sitting and singing beautifully and sweetly. I asked if they would want some pronunciation help or idea help—a little timidly, since I may or may not be a judge at the contest. They accepted, and I corrected some of their pronunciation (“beggin’” instead of “beggING,” etc).

Then, on a whim, I asked them if they knew what the song meant and what it means to them. They explained it to me in rapid Korean, which of course I didn’t understand. But, with their motions and the words “namja” (man) and “yeoja” (woman) and “upsaiyo” (not or no or without) showed up, I figured that they understood the basics.

My students sang it again, and their words sounded great, but they were still not really singing like they understood the gist of the song.  When they finished, I praised their pronunciation, then I asked if the singer was happy, sad, or angry about not being with her boyfriend.
They said, “Sad teacher. She is sad and angry.”

Then, together, we dissected the line, “Now you think that I/ will be something on the side. / But you got to understand that I need a man / who can take my hand.”

I asked if they knew what “on the side” meant. They shook their heads, so I created a metaphor with a chair and two desks, and that the chair was dating both of them at the same time. I asked if they thought that was okay. They shook their heads, but one student said, “Not really, but there must be a reason for him to do that. It is important to have a boyfriend.”

After I collected my jaw from the floor, I looked at each of my quietly nodding students and settled on her. I said, “No, honey, you do not ever deserve to be on the side.” I turned to the class, "You are so smart and so creative. You have so many qualities that are perfect, just as you are. You do not ever deserve to be less than your partner’s number one. And, frankly, you do not even need a partner. You are whole and important just by yourself. The only person you should want to be sexy for is you. When you love yourself wholly and truly, that is when someone will come along, and together you will grow into the best versions of yourselves. You are nothing less than amazing. Please, bring that attitude when you sing this song.”

It was their turn to drop their jaws. When we sang the song again, their voices were so much stronger. They started moving their bodies to the beat and giving meaning to the lyrics.  I watched this instantaneous transformation in my students. This realization of self-worth took me months, years to figure out. For me, it was slow and painful. But, in one minute, these children stopped being girls or women, but became human. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Afterwards I told them, “I have never been more proud in my entire life than I am right now. That was perfect. You are perfect.” I paused, “I want to teach you a dance—a dance that we do at weddings.”

“Teacher, can we show you our dance first, then we learn yours?”

As they ran through their routine, it started as “K-Pop Sexy.” By that, I mean to say, that is was about the provocation and sex appeal. But, then they kept practicing and speaking in Korean, pointing at me. They changed some dance steps and their posture, which made it much more about respecting their bodies and internalizing their “sexy,” not enticing the audience. The understanding of this change and what it meant to my students settled around me. It became a manifestation of empowerment and strength.

Afterwards, they asked me to teach them my dance. I lined them up in two columns, facing each other. I said, “Okay, this dance is all about self-expression. When it is your turn, you dance through the column with the person across from you. This is a safe space, and you are free to dance however you want. Then, go to the end of the column, and cheer on your classmates. Okay? Okay.”

Obviously, as a certified attention glutton, I went first and danced through the two columns of my students. The next two came, timidly, just walking through the columns. But, as I started dancing with them, they became more comfortable. As the song continued, the students danced through the columns. The lines sort of collapsed upon themselves, and it just became a dance party in the back of the classroom. One brave student came up to the front of the crowd and danced with me while her friends kept singing the song. I drowned in singing, dancing, and joy in its purest form. It was one of those moments that everyone was living 100% in the moment, dancing without abandon.

After class, a student, with whom I had never had a full conversation, stayed behind until the classroom was empty. She looked at me, carefully crafting a sentence; “Kathryn, I thinked a lot today. Thank you for telling me perfect. I will remember to dance only for perfect me.” I took her hand and squeezed it, because, in that moment, words could not express any of the emotions I felt.

So, what if the hokey pokey or dancing was really what it’s all about? What if I reached students on a level that no written or spoken word could obtain? What if together, my students and I, created a moment that has never been nor will ever be again? What if that was true perfection?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

So, this is what democracy looks like

I have tried my absolute hardest to not bring religion, politics, or Boy Bands into this blog, as I do not want to isolate any of my audience. But, sometimes things happen, and I refuse to stay silent.

Every generation has their question. Where were you when you heard about JFK? What were you doing when the Berlin Wall fell? Who were you talking to when the Towers collapsed?

Where were you and who were you with when DOMA died and Proposition 8 choked?

In a week where there were more sad panda moments than happy llama moments (and one very stressed wallaby), DOMA's death served as an excellent reminder of the proverbial silver lining.

After a dinner at a microbrewery near Gwangalli beach, my friends and I snagged a beer and settled in the sand for conversations steeped in salt water. I checked the time on my phone, and it buzzed with breaking news from The Washington Post concerning DOMA. The link didn't open and all I read before the screen went blank was 'Superme Court Ruling on DOMA is...' I speedy thumbed my way to the BBC news site and got very quiet.

Quiet Katie can mean one of two things: I am so happy that I have no words, or I am so angry that I cannot even engage in conversation. Without acknowledging the fact that M was in the middle of a story, I whispered, "Hey, guys. I can get married. To whomever I want. DOMA is gone."

My friends had the response I should have had. M screamed a scream that only the oppressed have known. An unadulterated sound of humanity finally getting their shit together. She folded me in a hug, "Yes! We can get married! Not to each other, though. That would be weird."

Immediately, I checked Facebook to send a message to the most amazing man I know, T. He helped me and so many others in their coming out process. He had already posted, and I made sure that he knew how important he is to me and our community.

I put my phone away again, and spent some time being an introvert. The Diamond Bridge's lights slinked through the hazy clouds. Thoughts slid through my mind, some good, some bad, most apathetic. I went to bed that night as an equal in the eyes of American law.

Now, I am just a kid with an oversized ego, writing as if I know everything there is to know. I mean, I was a literature major with a minor in pretension and douchebaggery.

With that being said, I will continue pompously shouting from my soap box.

I would have given anything to have been in Minneapolis, Boston, New York when this news broke. But, I wasn't. I was here, in South Korea, where oppression based on sexual orientation still happens. The dichotomy of "pants vs. pumps" lesbians consistently astounds me. You can be masculine or feminine, but never, ever both. But, I am neither pants nor pumps. I claim androgyny. I identify my sexuality as something more than boat shoes or mini-skirts. I love whom I love based on many things other than gender and appearance.

Because of that, I feel a need to be present in the gay community here. There are thousands of people here repressing a very central part of their identity because they were taught it isn't right. There are thousands others living a secret life, sequestered from main stream society. I want to show this community that it is okay to love whomever you want. I understand that I am more liberal than not, and the rules of the west are very different from the rules of the east. I respect it. But, there is a very severe need for change. In terms of sexual equality, South Korea is about where the States were in the fifties. However, they progress with a remarkable rate.

I want to be a part of this progression. I want to spread my idealism, my hope, my passion for equity. I want to tell my student who wrote a pro-gay marriage newspaper article that I am proud of her, and that she is so brave to address this in such a public forum. Instead, I have to check grammar and leave my ideas of subject matter out.

I want to be a part of something bigger. I wasn't able to be this voice of equality while a leader in my college. I was too afraid being gay would taint my image, my job security, my life that I had created.  I cannot begin to write about how influential T was in the LGBT community at St. Norbert College. He is a hero and paved the way for so many young men and women.

Lucky me, I get a redo- a chance to show people (foreigners and Koreans alike) that there is nothing inherently wrong with gay people. That being gay is just a facet of who I am. I am a better teacher, daughter, sister, friend, writer than a lesbian. I mean, I just started watching 'The L Word' for goodness sake. Stereotype? Too soon?

At any rate, I am not so naïve to think that the death of DOMA is the 'be all end all' of orientation discrimination. It doesn't abolish the crimes still happening against gay men and women around the world. It really just protect same-sex couples already married in states where it is legal. However, it is a huge, giant leap for America to recognize the legality of same-sex marriage. I do not need a piece of paper to legitimize my love for another human. But, I do want to hold my lover's hand while we watch our children graduate high school, while they marry the loves of their lives, and- in the final moments- in a hospital promising her that everything was perfect, and I will see her real soon.

Steps down from soap box, dusts off vest, re-velcros Tevas, and leaves you to your peace.