Travel, eventually, turns everybody into an insufferable prick. Maybe at home you are the most level-headed person in the world without the tiniest shred of pretension. But spend a long enough time away and it will happen. You will turn into one of those people. You know the type I’m talking about. The people who “find themselves.”
You’re about to go travelling for the first time, but there’s a problem. You don’t know how to take a photograph! You got a book from the library, but upon inspection it had more words than pictures. Who can be bothered to read nowadays? If it’s not an easily digestible YouTube clip, then it’s useless.
Fortunately for you, I exist and I’ve decided to help you out in your conquest to take the most clichéd travel photo possible. So beautiful that you can literally put them on Facebook every 2 hours for all those people who don’t give a shit.
Of all the characteristics of ordinary human nature envy is the most unfortunate; not only does the envious person wish to inflict misfortune and do so whenever he can with impunity, but he is also himself rendered unhappy by envy. Instead of deriving pleasure from what he has, he derives pain from what others have.
– Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
Envy. It takes us all at some point, usually when we’re at our weakest. Whenever I’m miserable or depressed, the sin rears it’s ugly head and poisons my mind. I have envied my friends, I have envied my family. It shames me to say it, yet it’s almost impossible to stop.
When we are children we are all envious creatures. We know little of the world or our own lives, we lack true empathy and are selfish beings. We look at the other children around us and see what they have and if we don’t have it, we want it. If another child has a new toy, we too need a new toy.
As children our envy stems somewhat from perceived injustices. Why should another child have something while we have nothing? How is that fair? Children can’t rationalise that another child getting a toy has very little to do with their own circumstances.
Growing into adulthood we don’t learn much, we are still prone to envy and jealousy and struggle with our feelings, we just find between ways to hide it from others. Continue reading “Modern Envy.”
It was just my second week of working in a hagwon when my headmaster said we needed to talk.
We moved into a small classroom, large Lego bricks scattered on the floor. The only place to sit was in tiny chairs for toddlers. Our knees were pressed up into our chests as we looked across at each other. I would have laughed if the headteacher didn’t look so serious. She stared at me intently, her lip quivering. She took a deep breath.
“I’ve actually been very upset with you this week. Very angry.” Immediately I was taken aback. My mind raced, my stomach tightened. What had I done?
On its surface Bangkok is a city that is defined by its roads and food. In Bangkok it is either rush hour or rushier hour, either breakfast time, lunch time, dinner time or supper time.
Everywhere you go food exists, in restaurants, bars, malls. The city is paved with food stalls. Eating is so intertwined with life that it’s hard to tell when one meal ends and the next begins. Life is like one long feast to Thais, all they seem to do is smile and eat. Smile and eat. And take taxis.
Christmas was approaching. Excitement building. At first the children spoke in hushed whispers, but as the day came closer their voices grew louder. Eventually they were shouting in hysterics “Santa is coming! Santa is coming!”
I wrote about lying to children in my last post. Well the biggest lie of all is Santa. And as Christmas approached it was my biggest problem.
Pity. That’s what I feel for any white male who works in a Korean hagwon at Christmas. Why? Because there’s a very definite possibility that you will find yourself tasked with being Santa. In a school filled with Korean women, the white guy becomes Santa by default.
The best thing about working with kids is that they’ll believe anything you say. To children, anybody over 5 years older than them is an adult. Somebody to be trusted. Somebody who tells no lies.
I love a good lie. Something I can really sink my teeth into. Literally. The first time I lied to the children, I said I’d eaten another child.
One student had left the school to go to America. I explained that he wasn’t in America, he was in my belly. I’d eaten him.
At this point in the lie, the reaction is different based on the child. Some automatically believe it to be true. Some want more details (“What part of him did you eat first?”) Some shout out loud that I’m a liar. Then they say that they’re going to call the police and I’m going to go to prison for lying. Everybody laughs aloud.
Once a month, I look at the school calendar and sigh with annoyance. It can mean only one thing. The monthly kindergarten reports are due.
Each month, I hopelessly search my brain for something to say about how my students are doing. Rarely do I find something satisfactory to say. Instead, I bullshit.
Back when I was a young boy, I got a school report every six months, I never got a report when I was in pre-school though. Possibly because my parents wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Probably because the people at the pre-school realised there’s very little you can write about a child so young.
Still, each month I struggle through my reports for kids aged between 3 and 7. Writing a school report for a 4 year old is hard. Writing a different one every month is impossible. What can you actually say about a child that is so young he could probably still be breastfed?
The challenge of writing my reports is intensified due to my working for a private school. Parents spend their hard earned money to send their kids to my school, meaning the parents and children have to be kept happy. My reports can’t be negative. Or honest. Heaven forbid I say something bad about somebody’s little angel. If Mother gets a negative report, she’ll be unhappy. Maybe she’ll send her son or daughter to another school. We’ll lose money.
Better to have Mother living in blissful ignorance. She can believe her child is a perfect student who comes into every lesson with passion and enthusiam. We don’t have to lie, just bend the truth. That way we’ll be able to take her money each month. The reality of her child will never reach her. Her daughter spends every lesson picking her nose and eating the treasures she finds. There are parrots with a better grasp of English.
After all this time, I’ve started to perfect the art of bullshitting. The key is to be believable. Otherwise Mother might get suspicious. If I have a child who constantly throws temper tantrums, screaming and shouting to get what they want. I don’t write “Your daughter is a little shit and she’s scaring the other children with her constant noise.” I instead write “Your daughter has a lot of energy which she is using in class.” Sure, she’s using that energy to argue with the other children and throw chairs at me…but she is technically doing it in the classroom, so it’s believable bullshit.
If a child is lazy, they suddenly become “comfortable in the classroom”, if a child spends the entire lesson shouting rude words at me in Korean he “enjoys speaking activities”, if a boy can’t concentrate he becomes “imaginative”, if a girl draws all over the desk she’s “creative”. Whatever the situation, there’s some bullshit I can use to spin it. If a child pulled down his pants in class and pissed all over the desk, I’d probably just write that he really feels at home in the classroom.
I’m sure a lot of mothers read this bullshit and believe it. Nobody wants to believe their child is a monster. The truth is a horrible pill to swallow sometimes. We’d all much rather be told we’re an “energetic people person” than a “crazy psychopath”. Parents can easily become deluded about their children. “My child would never come into your classroom and fart in your face! My daughter is an angel who does nothing wrong.” It’s best to just let them keep believing it.
At the same time, no mother wants to believe their child is devoid of personality either – despite the fact that most young children are. You can’t exactly have a deep conversation with a person that can’t understand that 1 plus 1 equals 2. Yet every parent believes their child is special and gifted, so as to not disappoint, I must pretend they are.
“Since last month, Ben has managed to learn the entire alphabet, as well as the words for some colors. Afterwards he also learnt the theory of relativity and independently solved the problem of global warming. He tells me he’s working on a cure for cancer now which should be finished by next month.”
In reality I should be writing:
“Since last month, Ben has learnt absolutely nothing. Every time I ask him to sit down he crawls under the desk and laughs in my face. I tried to teach him the alphabet, but he decided he’d much rather take a box of Lego and pour it over the ground. One positive is we managed to make it through one full day this month where he didn’t poop in his pants!”
Really, I am confused as to why a child that still uses nappies has to have a report card. A report card is used to report on the progress of a child’s mind. How their intellect is progressing. Kind of ridiculous when a lot of my children are so young that they are closer to being vegetables than they are adult human beings!
The downside to my bullshit is that those children that do need improvement inevitably don’t get it because the school and parents would rather live a bubble of ignorance. Even worse, criticism may hurt the child or mother which would only hurt the schools profits as the parents would take their child to a “better” hagwon: a hagwon that is better at lying.
The expectations from parents are completely unrealistic. But over time I’ve started to fall in line with them. At first, I was of the opinion that my school was asking too much of the students. Expecting 5 year olds to memorise long passages of English, read long books and generally be advanced speakers of English. It all seemed too much. Now I get pissed if a 4 year old can’t sit still for 10 minutes to read a text book. Really, a child of that age should be praised for doing pretty much anything. “Hey, you scribbled on a piece of paper?! I’m putting that on the fridge!” Instead the kids are pressurised to the point of exhaustion.
So maybe in a way, my bullshit isn’t just for the mothers, it’s for the kids as well. It gives them a little break. Those kids that spend all day drawing all over their books, ignoring me, learning nothing. Well…good for them. Isn’t that what they should be doing when they’re kids anyway?
By giving them a good report, I allow them to be little kids for longer, rather than bringing the pressure to be perfect onto their shoulders straight away.
Sometimes it’s good to bullshit.
– – – – – – – – – – –
Photo by Jeffrey James Pacres
Until I started to work with kids, I never realised how seriously I could take pooping. Sure, I used to keep a mental list of all the cleanest public bathrooms in Newcastle, just incase the need arose. And of course, I always made sure to go to the bathroom before seeing a movie, even if I didn’t feel the need. But going to the toilet was never an obsession that would be on my mind all day, every day.
I’m positive I’m not the only person in the world that enjoys using the toilet. It’s the perfect escape. A place that’s always quiet, where you can sit back and relax with a good book. You can take your time, forget all of life’s problems and just bask in the moment. Sometimes you can literally feel a weight being lifted from you. Best of all, the bathroom is a private place, where nobody can disturb you, where you can be alone with your own thoughts and feelings.
Until you get a job in a kindergarten.
When I was first given the tour of my kindergarten, the one thing to immediately jump out at me was the bathroom. It’s a tiny box room, with two cubicles, two urinals and not much space between them. One cubicle is so small that even our 4 year olds can peep over the door and look into it. That’s no problem though, it’s for children. It’s not an issue to them because they’re not old enough to appreciate privacy.
The second cubicle is adult sized. Four solid wooden walls with no room to peek over or under. There’s a nice, high wooden door with a lock. That’s important. I always hate going to a person’s house and finding out their bathroom has no lock. How can anybody live like this? I always wonder. You’re living in fear! Any time you’re in the bathroom somebody could walk in at any moment. That’s hardly a relaxing notion.
Fortunately my kindergarten’s cubicle has a lock. Unfortunately the bathroom itself doesn’t have a door. Upon first seeing this my mind couldn’t comprehend it. WHAT THE HELL?! WHAT TYPE OF BATHROOM HAS NO DOOR! Sure, the cubicle has a door, but the bathroom itself?! Hell no. In some places this may not be a problem…but in a Korean kindergarten it’s the biggest problem in the world.
You see Korea is almost 90% covered in mountains, meaning space is at a premium. Buildings use up every inch they can and the result is that my school is composed of lots of little rooms all clustered closely together. The bathroom doorway sits directly opposite a classroom doorway. This leads to an obvious anxiety – when you’re in the bathroom you get the impression everybody in the school can hear you. Gone are the days where I could go to the bathroom and enjoy listening to every little toot and splot. Over many months I’ve tried to develop techniques for a silent poop to no avail. No matter what I try a ninja poop is impossible. Even getting to the poop stage is hard sometimes.
I’ve spent the last year in psychological warfare with my children. The battleground is the bathroom. I’ll wait for a quiet moment during the day when the children are in their classrooms (snack time, just after lunch when the children are playing – each quiet moment of the day is memorised in my mind) and it’s then that the game begins.
I cannot simply walk into the bathroom. First I have to do a stakeout, ensure no children are in there. I slide by the door (or the lack of door) and if the bathroom isn’t empty, I walk by, pretend to be going elsewhere. Most often, I’ll look in to see a child at the urinal who I’ll make awkward eye contact with. Often they’ll wave and call “HELLO, DANIEL TEACHER!” adding to the discomfort.
Since young children lack social boundaries they are masters at creating awkward situations. By the time they’re teenagers they’ll (hopefully) feel so uncomfortable in public bathrooms that they’ll purposefully use a urinal as far away as they can from another human being. When they’re kids though they seem to take an amazing amount of pleasure in public urinating. My brain can’t handle it and I just feel awkward. It doesn’t help that the technique Korean children use for peeing is so exhibitionist. They pull down their trousers and underwear around their ankles. Lift up their t-shirt to show their belly. (At this point they might as well be nude!) They then stand in front of the urinal, thrusting their penis in its general direction. No aiming is involved, they simply lean towards the urinal and hope for the best.
When I’m not confronted by that sight and the bathroom is empty, I glance around me. No child can see me enter the bathroom. If they do, I may as well give up then and there. If they know I’m going to the bathroom, they’ll follow me in due to either their curiosity (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, how strange) or their complete sociopathy (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, let’s fuck with him.)
Once I’ve sneaked into the bathroom. I must be as quick as possible. I pounce into the cubicle, close the door behind me with one hand while undoing my belt with the other. Time is of the essence. There is only a 30 second window. Spend any more time in there and some child will wander in. So quickly, I’ll sit. Squeeze hard.
Nothing comes at first. The moment of elation I feel by sneaking into the bathroom has made me so excited that my whole body has tensed up. I squeeze my eyes, think of calm, flowing images. (A waterfall is my go to image, something about all that rushing out seems to tell my body to do the same.) Soon, I feel myself easing up, feel something start to move. Then I hear a noise. Footsteps.
I hold my breath. Whoever it is…maybe they’ll just turn around and leave. Right? RIGHT?! But then there’s a knock on the door and a small childish Korean voice. I knock back to let them know somebody is there. “Whatever you do, don’t speak…they’ll know its you.”
They yank on the door violently, pulling it again and again. I stare at the latch which once looked so sturdy, but now looks so flimsy. It seems to groan with every pull on the door. “DANIEL TEACHER! DANIEL TEACHER!” A second child arrives and screams with glee “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” Soon three children are hammering on the door shouting my name.
The crowd gets larger and larger. “Go away…” I mumble over the door, without a hint of conviction. All I can think about is how if the door snapped open they’d see me sitting on the toilet, pants around my ankles, my hairy white legs like two albino giraffe necks. I would never survive the humiliation. The children would joke about it every day for years to come – even when I’m long gone and dead of embarrassment. “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING AND HE HAD HAIR EVERYWHERE AND IT WAS SO FUNNY! RIGHT!? RIGHT!?”
By now, I know it’s no use. My butt cheeks have squeezed together so tightly that they could probably snap a piece of bamboo. Still – I reason – maybe all their noise will muffle the sound. So I try to relax. The children continue to yank on the door and with every pull I feel my sphincter tightening even more, becoming a black-hole, sucking up more and more of my butt cheeks.
Suddenly a new voice arrives. A Korean co-worker. She shouts at the kids to get out, but instead they just turn to her and shout “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” I groan. Daniel Teacher is most definitely not going to be pooping now.
I quickly pull up my pants. Flush. Open the door and push through the crowd of children. “DANIEL TEACHER! WERE YOU POOPING?!” Sheepishly I protest. “Er…no…” “DANIEL TEACHER! YOU WERE POOPING!” I’ve suddenly shrunk by a foot due to my butt sucking itself up in the absolute horror of the moment.
Washing my hands, I escape, but they follow me. Taunting me with their toilet talk. Eventually they get bored and disperse. I start to gain back my height. Relax a little. Anxiety seeps away. Soon it’s replaced with that feeling again. The feeling of needing to go. And that’s how I spend the rest of the day, in a state of psychological constipation. Always needing to go but never getting the opportunity due to the children. Those damn children!
Photo by Michel Filion.
Join me as we go for a walk. The walk I take every morning from my house to work.
We start in Strathcona. Historically the first suburb of Vancouver. Colourful, century-old houses stand tall on every block. Each house uniquely painted. Some red, some green. Blue, yellow, purple. The streets are awash with colour, cherry blossom trees standing tall on each corner. They hang over the paths like pink clouds in the sky. The air smells fresh, the sound of children sliding along with the breeze. When the sun shines, it seems to shine a little brighter here.
Old Chinese families open the shutters of their shops. Some placing red lanterns outside their doorways, some assembling tables covered with exotic delicacies. The smell of spices fills the air. My nose tingles with pleasure.
But soon, we find ourselves there. In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The change isn’t gradual – it’s sudden. One moment an old Chinese shopkeeper is smiling at us, welcoming us to her store. The next moment a dishevelled man with dirty clothes and long greasy hair whispers in our ear “Marijuana? Cocaine?”
As we plunge deeper, those cherry blossoms seem so far away. The sky grows darker, the streets dirtier. Barely a thing is living here. No trees. No plants. No people. These people aren’t living, they’re surviving, some barely existing. On a street corner, a man stands twitching, possessions at his feet waiting to be sold – for food, somewhere to sleep, more often than not drugs.
Dozens of sweaty bodies push together to form a line, waiting for a small cup of soup and a stale bread roll. Just another day in the endless struggle. A routine so far from my own:
Wake up. Survive.
Passing by alleys, I see people huddled in doorways, some selling drugs, some buying. Some using. In one alley, a man lies on the floor, screaming wildly into the air, two police officers stand over him, trying to calm him down. He mumbles at them, incomprehensible. His face is an old weathered ball of flesh, distorted by a long grey beard.
In the alley mouth, a man with a torn sweater and spit running down his cheek shakes an empty cup. He speaks so low that he’s barely audible, his old voice worn and defeated. I don’t hear his words, but I don’t need to. I know what he wants. My reply is a shake of the head and an apology, by this point an automatic reflex, my answer to all of the pan-handlers. Shake and apologise. Shake and apologise. Like I’m sorry.
But I’m not sorry, not really.
As I walk away the man mutters under his breath “fucking asshole.” I walk a little faster.
When I reach the end of the street I turn back to glance at the man, only to find myself walking into another. He wears a business suit and talks into his iPhone. He glares at me, continuing his own walk, muttering those same words “fucking asshole.”
Just as suddenly as we found ourselves in the Downtown Eastside, we have escaped. Skyscrapers shoot upwards piercing the clouds. Men and women hurry along, talking into their phones, sipping their Starbucks coffees, eating their croissants. Everybody has a place to be, some cubicle, on some floor, in some building. They jump off their buses and trains, scurrying like ants towards their buildings. More routines. More lives. So different from those lives a few streets away.
Eventually, I find myself in my own cubicle, on my own floor. I wish I could say my journey ends there, but it doesn’t. I sit, staring out of my window at the street below where another man, almost dressed in rags, holds a cup. He waves it at the business people passing by. Some shake their heads. Most ignore him as though he’s invisible. Nobody gives him any money.
For ten minutes he waves his cup. With each passing minute, the feeling in the pit of my stomach grows. The man gives up, leaves. But the feeling doesn’t leave with him. It continues to grow. It comes back stronger every time I walk to work.
This is a feeling so complex that I struggle to describe it. Some emotions are easy to explain, we can justify them with some real-world evidence, or a little psychological analysis, but this emotion is so intricate that no matter how much I search myself for an answer to its riddles, I can never really conclude anything.
The feeling is a cocktail of guilt, anger, hopelessness, compassion, fear, pity, apathy, frustration and confusion. A mixture of emotions for the mixture of thoughts that pass through my head when I’m honest with myself. When I’m really being honest.
Let me start to be honest:
I’ve also started to ignore the homeless.
It’s all I can do to keep myself sane. I see people on the streets desperate for help and I turn the other way. I’ve seen teenage girls turning tricks and pretended they didn’t exist. I’ve seen half-starving men begging for help and I’ve not even sighed. Just walked on by. Shaking my head, apologising.
Yet, no. I’m not being honest. Not at all. Ignoring these people isn’t even the start of it. I’ve not only started to ignore the homeless but I’ve started to think of them as…well…not human.
The world of the homeless is so far from my own, that there’s no human connection for me to make. I can’t (or wont) empathise with the homeless at all. Not because I’m some massive sociopath, but simply because that’s the easiest way I’ve found of dealing with this strange situation which I can’t understand. I’ve fooled myself into thinking there is no connection between their world and mine. That we aren’t just different people, but a different species. I’m in denial. These people aren’t people, so why should it matter if they suffer to me?
One day as I was walking home, an old Japanese man tried to stop me, I just continued to walk, but he called “EXCUSE ME!” so loudly that I finally had to stop in my tracks. The old man looked up at me and politely asked the way to the train station.
Although the whole exchange only took a matter of seconds, it showed me how mistrustful I had become of people on the street. All people. I’ve become prejudice. Judging people not on who they actually are, but on how they look, or how they act.
Oh. I want to be honest. With myself and with you. I am not a perfect person, nobody is, but I’ve always felt that I was somehow good inside. I always thought that if I saw somebody collapse on the street that I would stop to help, but I’m starting to think that isn’t true. I’m instead starting to think I’m the type of person that would keep walking, pretending they saw nothing and fighting back the remorse with the words “somebody else will take care of it.”
Those words are the words that most people in Vancouver must use to sleep at night. “Somebody else will take care of it.” One person ignoring the homeless isn’t a problem, but the majority of the city ignoring it – hoping that something will magically sort it out? Pretending there is no problem. That’s a problem. It scares me shitless. Living in a society where everybody is completely in denial about what is around them.
Still. I try to be honest. Because I feel like honesty is the one thing that can save me. Admitting my faults is the first step towards slowly changing things for the better. Maybe all we need to do is change a little. But I feel that admitting I’m wrong is the smallest step, and every step afterwards is harder, and no matter how many steps I take it won’t matter, because no matter how much I change, the world won’t change with me.
There’s a hopelessness I feel, knowing I can do almost nothing about this situation. One less person ignoring the problem means zip if everybody else in the world is pretending there is no problem.
People find it so hard to admit they’re wrong. Why can’t we all just say: Yeah, we’ve fucked up, there are people in our city, our community that need our help and we’re turning a blind eye and it’s time to change that.
Maybe it just takes too much courage, to stand up and admit to yourself that you’re not as good a person as you’d like to believe. Maybe it’s just too easy to live in denial, to stay at home in your nice warm house and think “yeah, I donated a little to charity this year, they’ll sort it out…I’m doing my bit.” But all the money in the world can’t solve a problem that’s being ignored.
My dad has a saying he always uses. When it’s especially cold outside he’ll shiver and say “I’d hate to be homeless tonight.” At no point in saying this does he actually consider the words. The implication – that there’s another human being out there on the streets possibly freezing to death. Instead, it’s just a thing he says, never really caring to ponder the full meaning. We all do it.
I feel like I might be coming off as high and mighty. But that’s not my motive. I don’t know what my motive is. When I write, and when I think, I try to come up with some reasonable conclusion. I try to find out why things are as they are. I try to understand.
This time though, I can never understand. No matter how much I search. Why we do what we do. Why we are what we are.
I used to think that people who are homeless just made a wrong decision at some point. That I could so easily have made the same decision, that I could have ended up in their shoes. I used to think that it was nobody’s fault, that some people just fall through the cracks and we can’t pull them back out again.
But that’s not it. Not it at all. I want to be honest. Those people fall, and they scream. They cry for help and we hear their calls. Yet we ignore them. And we won’t pull them back out again.
No matter how loud they scream. We won’t pull them back out again.
We just shake our heads and apologise.
Photo is Cherry Blossom by kiuko on Flickr.