Friday, May 13, 2005

postal scrotum: more on Z

Max writes in:

Hi, Kevin.

I liked the piece about student "Z." If I may offer my own two cents: my assessment would be that she's not a terminal psychological case. In my experience at SMU, loads of students lack common sense or social graces.

My own personal theory about this is as follows. A lot of students in modern Korea (perhaps especially those from the privileged social classes) don't have to do anything but study. They don't have to do dishes, they don't have to do any housework; they don't even have to clean their own goddamn rooms. They can be rude to their parents. They don't know the value of a dollar (or 1,000 won), having never had a part-time job, never mind mowed the non-existent lawn. This unfortunate phenomenon produces social ineptitude and gross egotism on a widespread scale.

Here is a (semi-embellished or collated) incident from SMU that I have to relate.

I'm sitting in the office and a student who I don't know from Adam (from the other side of the campus), waltzes in and asks me to help her out. I answer that as I am about to leave, I don't have time. "It will only take a few minutes," she answers in a half-snarky manner. Handing me a piece of paper with English written on it, she says, "I want you to read this and I will record your voice." I am doing this for my friend. I glance at the paper and respond, "This contains English mistakes. In order to record my voice for you, I would first have to fix the mistakes. Sorry, but I don't have time today." She walked out in a resigned semi-huff.

The lessons:

- Ever heard of calling ahead of time and making an appointment?
- Ever thought that other people's time just might be as important as yours? (I absolutely cannot stand the egotism of people who think their time is more valuable than mine--especially when they are younger, in other words, less educated and less experienced).
- Ever heard of maintaining the appearance of being polite?
- Ever heard of doing things yourself instead of having your friends do them for you?

Here's another incident:

I was talking to the cleaning lady in Korean. I enjoyed chatting with the cleaning ladies. At a particular point in my conversation, I was momentarily at a loss of words when, without warning, a student I didn't know physically placed her body between me and the cleaning lady and asked in English, "Can I help you? Can I translate for you?" "No thanks, babe," I wish I had replied. "Take a hike."

The lesson:

- How out of touch you must be with reality to let your ego run amok like that. The world does not revolve around you.

And something I hear every semester in class:

TEACHER: You need to have this book by next class.
STUDENT: How much does it cost?
TEACHER: Uh, let's see...16,000 won.
STUDENT: That's too expensive!
TEACHER (what I wish I could say): What the fuck are you talking about? And you call yourself a student? Do you complain about the price of soju, beer, or fried chicken? A lot of intellectual labor and worth went into this book.

So there's my rant for Hairy Chasms. And there've been other social faux-pas. But like I've said before, I don't want to be too negative. I've also had a lot of nice and polite students at SMU.

Some parting wisdom. You can't legislate common sense. So we can put an end to signs that say, "Please keep the bathroom clean" etc. If you didn't learn etiquette when you're young, you'll probably never learn it.

Max in Japan

My own experience matches Max's: plenty of students are clueless here, often because they have everything handed to them on a platter. There are good cultural reasons for this platter-handing, but I also think that "culture" can become an excuse for excessive behavior, whether in Korea or elsewhere.

Z, however, needs to be seen to be believed. To put it bluntly, she's not normal. I'm sure a lot of my students fall into the "overprivileged and clueless" category, but they at least manage to react normally to conventional stimuli.

I may have been mistaken in describing Z's behavior as a manifestation of emotional detachment. Perhaps it is; perhaps it isn't. Z's Thursday monologue writeup sounded like the scribblings of someone who's well aware she's different, and who's been hurt. To that extent, I feel like a bit of a shit for making light of her condition (if "condition" is the proper term) on the blog.

So I waffle between the idea that she's emotionally detached and the idea that she's hypersensitive underneath that strange exterior.

We did a particular "trust exercise" last week. Perhaps you, Dear Reader, have done this one, too. One person stands in the center of a very tight circle of people. The person closes his eyes, hugs himself tightly, and then relaxes his ankles, basically "falling" like a downed tree toward one part of the circle. The ankles should remain loose, and the feet are rooted to the same spot at all times.

What happens next is that the "falling" person gets gently pushed back into the center/upright position. If the push is strong enough, he begins to fall in the opposite direction, so another part of the circle has to push him back. Should the person start to fall sideways, he finds himself getting "passed around" the rim of the circle.

If you're the one in the center, and if you trust your companions and they trust you, it's an amazingly relaxing experience. But you have to be unworried about the consequences of falling, otherwise it doesn't work.

It was very telling that Z couldn't bring herself to loosen her ankles. Tilting even a little bit from the vertical, she'd lock up and stop her own fall well before any one of us could push her. That's evidence in favor of the idea that she's not emotionally detached at all, I think: she simply doesn't trust us, probably because she's very aware that she's not exactly normal.

I asked Z where she'd been when she traipsed into class 40 minutes late. "I was in the library," she said vaguely. I didn't pursue the matter, but my suspicion is that she was out-and-out skipping. She hadn't done the homework, after all, and my phone call probably startled her into hanging up on me.

In other respects, Z seems a nice enough person. She does like to smile, though the smile often comes off as a defensive reflex. I think her friendly, time-delayed good-byes at the end of class are sincere and warm-hearted. The people who work in our department's main office are familiar with Z and know she's an oddball; they seem as amused as I am by her bizarre behavior, but they also express a lot of compassion for her. "She needs a class like yours," one lady said. Maybe she's right. Z does seem less timid now than she did when she first arrived. Her classmates keep their expressions unreadable when Z is faltering in her pace and delivery, but I get a feeling that they're also sympathetic (which means I'm the only shithead failing to mask my impatience around Z).

I believe in the therapeutic power of acting. Most of my students are convinced I'm an extravert, even though I'm INTJ off the scale. Although Z's English might not improve that much by the end of the course, I'm hoping she'll have gained some level of self-confidence, and perhaps even some new friends. I just have to keep my own desire to speed things up under control.

Whoa-- Jason W. writes in:

I'm no psych major, but Z sounds like a great choice to play the main character in "Rain Man 2: Wapner's Revenge." Mild autism, maybe? Maybe you could throw a box of toothpicks on the ground and ask her how many there are.

(oops... Was that evil of me to say?)


You gonna burn, Jason. Satan gonna squat over you and start lightin' farts.


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