Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why I do what I do.....

Since coming back from America over 2 months ago, I looked long and hard at what goals I can accomplish coming into my 3rd year in Korea. The last two years have brought me inexplicable joy, as I have traveled, endured my ups and downs with teaching, tapped into the acting scene, and made many countless journeys with new friends and by myself. However, it wasn't enough for me. I felt my experience was still left unfulfilled until a couple of months ago when I was introduced to my friend Jessica through a mutual friend of ours. She had recently gotten involved with ATEK (Association for Teachers of English in Korea) which is a not-for-profit group which focuses on supporting both the expat community and the local Korean communities in need. ATEK, at that time, was hardly even heard of, but several months later, it's become one of the more prominent groups that many expats here in Busan have come to know.

When Busan Night Live was finished, I decided to get myself involved with ATEK. My goal after Korea would hopefully involve working in non-profit, and ATEK luckily provided the opportunities that I was looking for. Through ATEK, I have been involved with the Boys Orphanage in Nampo-Dong, helped raised money and toys for the Christmas Orphanage Drive, and currently involved in the city-wide collection drive for the Sae-Gil Women's Shelter.

The latter part of what I've been doing with ATEK reaches into the core of my heart. Korea, much like the rest of Asia, has a deep, disturbing issue of domestic abuse towards women and children. Despite the severity of these issues, Korea as a society has yet to confront these issues head on, and with its silence comes the deadly consequences that many abuse victims here have to face, not only from their perpetrator, but from the society that turns a blind eye and deaf ear to. I've written about this issue in one of my previous FB notes. After attending the Vagina Monologues show in Busan two months ago, I became further aware about the desperate situation that these shelters are in, the new laws that have restricted both funding for the shelter, and the victims who had to escape with little to their name. I knew right then and there, that I needed to help out, and seek other people who are also passionate about the cause, and ensure that the shelter(s) will continue to survive and be a place of proper refuge for these victims.

I became enraged and disturbed at the way many of these victims continue to get ignored by their society. Divorced women, and abuse victims (or both) are being discriminated against when trying to find a job because of the perception that they disobeyed their husbands, and often ignored by their own family and friends. Kids that have been abused and neglected at home have no outlet to turn to. Despite the growing globalization that's occurring here in Korea, it remains a society still fixated on Confuscianism, a concept that men with seniority and high status are the ones best at making the decisions while giving very little regard to those beneath them.

I have taught at the same boys middle school for the past 2 years, but in the past month, I slowly began to understand the reality that several of my students are in. As a teacher, and as someone who's unofficially a part of the community, it's easy to take for granted that we think of our students as "just" students, that we often think about making sure our lesson planning will go over well with the students, and to keep them as attentive and motivated as possible. However, it became more than that for me. I would oftentimes come across my students in my neighborhood (I live like 5 minutes away from my school), and they would often approach me and try to start a conversation. Every now and then, my students would join me whenever I am shooting hoops at the local high school, or try to beg me to buy them soda or ice cream (that never works). So, I knew right then and there, that I was more than just a simple foreigner teaching them English, but that I was living in THEIR community.

A student of mine was in my English winter camp during my 1st year. He was one of the quietest students I've ever had. He never spoke a word during my first year at our school, so I never had an opportunity to get to know him. During that first day of camp, he wouldn't do any of the activities, nor interact with his classmates, and there were times when he was late. I found it very puzzling, and soon, it became very frustrating as Ive tried coaxing him, being direct with him but his reactions were the same---very stoic with a silent nod. This would happen all throughout the 3 weeks of winter camp. I knew right then and there that something deep down was troubling him, but it seemed certain that he wasn't about to let himself trust me or anyone else. Several months later, he started to talk a little bit. He started hanging out with his classmates, and I often joke with him whenever he speaks with the gasping reply of "OH MY GOD...HE SPEAKS!!!!" Then, he had a meeting with his homeroom teacher, again another one of my other co-teachers, and finally revealed something that shed some light into his largely-muted psyche. His parents were recently divorced, but his father wouldn't allow him to see nor talk to his mother, and in the meantime, he would frequently abuse him and his sister without rhyme or reason. He's been begging his homeroom teacher to contact his mother, but to no luck from her end.

One day, I heard one of my students sobbing in the teacher's office. He was sitting just a few feet away from me. His homeroom teacher was quietly consoling him, and trying to investigate what had happened to him. I was watching discreetly, yet intently from my desk. I asked his homeroom teacher, who also another fellow co-teacher, about what had happened. She simply replied, "It's a really long story that I'll tell you for another time." During our school field trip a few days later, she confided in me that he has been living mostly alone in his house with his father making a visit or two each month. His mother simply disappeared from him years ago. One day, he tried entering his house but to no avail. He called the cops, and when his dad appeared at the doorstep, he shockingly told them that he had no idea who the boy was. Much to the boy's shock, he was taken to an orphanage overnight, and later sent back to his home. When it came time for art class, students were to draw their own future; however my student couldn't draw, not because of his artistic limitation, but because he felt that his future was too dark.

Another student of mine has gotten a case of identity crisis. He can oftentimes be the most respectful, loyal, hard-working kid you enjoy being around, and he can, at worse, be temperamental, unmotivated, and troublesome. I told my co-teacher "You know? This is what I think. I think he's got a great mother, but I think he's got issues with the men in his life." My co-teacher replied "You're absolutely correct." To me, it's not hard to notice. When you have a student who can often show charisma and sensitivity, (Sensitivity oftentimes strike the balance between humility and being temperamental), and having a side that is emotionally angry and bothered, then there is a conflict between both personalities. Having two parents who are on the polar opposite of one another seem to best illustrate the identity conflict. His mother, as he once confided in me, is his role model, his "angel", and his father and step-father are nothing close to that. His step-father is oftentimes abusive at home, and this might explain some of his recent behavior problems at school. Perhaps, it's my student's frustration at what's happening in his life. The person he loves so dearly is being abused, the society he lives in has no answers for it, his anger at his step-father for the abuse that he never asked for, and the non-parental role his birth father plays, could very well be linked to his anger and hurt.

It's stories like these that frustrate me over the lack of support for women and children in these situations. As a teacher, I have admittedly offered my support in a way where I'm able to provide some kind of help, but oftentimes, I feel incredibly helpless as I knowingly acknowledged that there are very few support systems for these kids and their mothers. It's too easy for me to try to play Batman or Robin Hood, and rescue them from their misery, but soon after, the reality does settle in, it becomes nearly impossible to be a superhero when you're only a mortal. Heck, I find it pretty darn difficult to play Robin, or any other superhero sidekick.

Despite these restraints and limitations, I am still determined to do what I can to be of some supportive outlet. But being a supportive outlet also means trying to find the thin gray line between my role as a teacher, and as someone who cares deeply about human rights. It also involves trying to reach an understanding with that person, and as stated, you can't be the hero, you can't try to make expectations that are above your reach. However, you can be the small little flashlight that can lightly beam through a dark, and empty cave. When you offer those in need a little bit of that light, then you give them some idea that there is hope. Small or large, it's still hope and it can survive. I still struggle with that role as a teacher sometimes because I truly do care about the well-being of my students, and I want them to live, and make their society a safe haven for themselves and for others.

Whenever I think about my involvement with the women's shelter,

I do it for the women in my life that have been abused (both verbally and physically)

I do it to give my middle finger to the government that dares to keep the subject quiet, while punishing the victims for embarrassing them.

I do it for some of my students who see home, not as a place of safe haven, but as a place of bruises and scars

I do it for those who struggle to find an outlet, or someone that will listen to them, instead of judging them for something that they did not do.

I do it for those who bravely dare to stand up, speak out, and take action against domestic violence in an Asian society that considers the topic taboo.

I do it for my friends and strangers who are passionate about working together to make this an important topic.

I do it because I want to live in a society that takes action against violence instead of keeping it under the rug.

I do it because I want to not have to hear the sound of shouting, crying, and abuse taking place outside of my home in the middle of the night, or when I'm walking into the city on said time.

I do it because I hope to never have to hurt someone who tries to attack an innocent victim.

I do it because I have too much love to give, and there are those that feel that they can't be loved.

I don't want this to sound like I'm specifically attacking Korea or Asia in general, but this is everywhere. It's taboo no matter where you go, but it doesn't have to be. It doesn't take a hero to change things for the better, it takes a team of sidekicks. That requires many pocket flashlights. I got mine still working. Does your work? :-)