lost in translation
I step through the airport exit doors and I’m greeted by ancestral air piercing my lungs with the peppermint burn of a bracing December day. In tow, my then wife and I have carts laden with luggage stuffed to the gills with personal effects intended to support us for the next year away from our familiar world. My ears are saturated with a cacophony of sounds I readily associate with airport arrival scenes I’ve seen countless times before and yet something is very unsettling about this. One of my normal forms of navigation in a busy public space is not functioning—my ability to interpret human voices. I intensely scan the frantic scrum of activity. Finally, I am relieved as my eyes land on a white piece of paper with my name scribbled on it in black marker in all caps. Attached to the paper is a smiling slightly portly Mr. Kim wearing a white dress shirt with a sloppily knotted tie hanging half-mast. After exchanging a few pleasantries, he escorts the two of us to his awaiting Hyundai sedan to chauffer us to a mysterious new home somewhere at the end of the impenetrable skein of Taegu’s awaiting streets. In a borderline hypnagogic state after being awake for twenty-four hours, I stare out the window as unusually shaped buildings covered in signs featuring unreadable vertically oriented scrawl stained with a dingy gray patina whiz past my wide-eyed gaze. We eventually pull up to an unremarkable beige high-rise apartment building. After being introduced to the relentlessly square-themed concrete-walled apartment with linoleum flooring, Mr. Kim hands over a little Korean Won and says, “Ahh. Supahmahket downstair. You can-uh buy food. Many rés-ta-rant ovah hee-ah,” he says gesturing out the window. “Shee taw bíl-ding wí-tuh shign-uh, ‘ECC YBM Sisayongasa?’ Dát ou-wa school-uh. Shee you Monday.” And with that, he unceremoniously disappears leaving nothing but the slam of the door echoing in this strange rectangular living space we now find ourselves in. I feel a stampede of doubt running roughshod over whatever last gasp of conviction I have remaining that we have made the right decision to have disregarded strong counsel against taking teaching jobs in a foreign country we received from our parents.
I had come half-way around the world to live in a place with a language I couldn’t speak and teach people who didn’t speak hardly a word of mine. It wasn’t unusual for me to be the first Westerner that people in Taegu, South Korea had seen in person. People looked at me like I was some kind of zoo animal that had escaped its enclosure. I marveled at how the simplest routine things I took for granted back home turned into mini-assaults on my dignity—getting stamps at the post office, depositing a check at the bank, getting on a public bus not being able to ask the driver which stop was mine, or standing at a register and not understanding a single word the cashier was saying to me. I felt like I had regressed into being a child and spent the next half-year wrestling with a low-grade fever of embarrassment every time I left my apartment.
It was absolutely fantastic.
I felt more engaged with my world than I ever knew possible. I had to pay attention to details in a way I never had to back in the US. I couldn’t just cruise around on autopilot like I would normally do back home and I found this heightened level of awareness to be exhilarating. I also made a marvelous discovery. I loved teaching and I particularly loved teaching English to foreigners. I also discovered I have a natural gift for it.
The gravitational pull of story
One of my great teachers in life once said, “We are hardwired for story.” I feel the truth of that at a cellular level. Stories have a gravitational pull on me. I love to get pulled into their orbit—to get tangled up in their sticky web. One of my favorite stories is from the time of ancient Greece. The heroic young Athenian heir to the throne, Theseus, courageously volunteers to journey into the darkness of the labyrinth to slay the monstrous half-man/half-beast Minotaur. The beautiful Ariadne, desiring assurances that her beloved would return, gives him a golden clew (a ball of thread) to unwind as he navigates its disorienting crepuscular corridors. It is this “clew” (origin of our modern word, “clue”) that guides him back out of the labyrinth after he accomplishes his dangerous mission.
the golden clew
In following the golden clew across the span of my own life, I can see that since I was little, I’ve had a fascination with encounters with the mysteries that lie waiting in the dimly-lit passageways of the unfamiliar. I had this constant call to find out what was beyond the horizon of what felt like a very small world. One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor of our living room watching my Korean mom take out her old albums. I remember being fascinated by a particular cover photo of some curiously dressed Asian woman against an anachronistic backdrop of a place my sister and I thought was from a bizarre parallel universe. I can still see the needle coming to rest on one of the grooves of the gently undulating spinning black vinyl and releasing melodic sounds of a warbling female voice singing in an indecipherable language–sounds we had no reference for in our little southeast Texas town. Those unfamiliar images and sounds left deep impressions on a part of my soul’s identity that instinctively longed to know what this unimaginable alien place my mom reported coming from was like. My sister and I came from “here,” the “here” that we could touch and reify, while our mom came from a “there” that was from a distance further away than even our imagination could bridge. Unfortunately, the opportunity to finally stand “there,” in that strange place, would have to wait for two decades. Growing up, our family had very little means for traveling so I settled for the next best thing. I read. A lot. Stories about First Nation People, frontiersmen like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, explorers like Lewis and Clark and Ferdinand Magellan and when my child’s mind felt like it had run up on the limits of what could be explored in this world via the four directions, I looked to the fifth, the vertical one, to discover what worlds lie beyond the physical limits of ours—worlds like the ones that C.S. Lewis and his dear friend, JRR Tolkien populated using the inexhaustible resource of imagination. I vividly remember embarking on expeditions into my closet where I would shut the door, knead a towel into the gap of light along the floor, and blindly press through the mysterious blackness of the hanging clothes, imagining them to be branches of a dark spontaneous forest, until I encountered a wall that I hoped would sympathetically yield to my wishes and reveal the illusive portal to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia.
I never would have imagined that twenty years later I would be standing in the scene from that photo. Teaching English in Korea originally served the purpose of being a vehicle that would transport me to where I had always longed to be–in far off lands. Something inside of me had always hungered for adventure. I wanted to feel as bewildered and bedazzled as those kids were when they stepped out of the wardrobe into the snowy other world of Narnia.
finding my good work
That rich five-year period of being abroad gave me the boon (blessing) of an opportunity to awaken and feed my deep curiosity and fascination for all things foreign; be it food, culture, music, language, customs, and differing perspectives on life. Still, when I returned to the US after five years in Korea, I had no intention of becoming a professional teacher. As much as I loved teaching, the primary purpose of teaching in Korea was to provide the means for me to live and travel abroad—or so I thought. I never envisioned continuing teaching once I returned stateside. And for a brief period I didn’t. For a few years, I tried my hand at career pursuits in the business world. I grew increasingly frustrated with the feeling of disconnection I had to my work. I wanted desperately to find what author David Whyte refers to as my “good work.” But just as I ended up in Korea following my instincts, I found my way out of those darkened corridors of my life by grabbing a hold of that clew again—the clew of my curiosity. Having befriended a Colombian guy in Houston who would go on to give me a proper introduction to Latin American culture, one afternoon when we were hanging out he suggested I teach ESL at the local university where he took an intensive ESL course upon his arrival to the US. The next morning, I went to the ESL program office at the university and inquired about teaching positions. I was immediately told there were no openings. Disheartened, I concluded that it perhaps simply wasn’t meant to be. I returned home in the afternoon resigned to what appeared to be an act of fate. And then, out-of-the-blue, my phone rings. It’s the ESL program director. She told me that their enrollment was more than they anticipated and asked if I could come in the next day to sit in on the staff meeting they had just prior to the beginning of every new semester. She warned me that she was not yet offering me a job and to have no expectations. I went to that meeting and upon its conclusion, I felt sure that it had gone well and that I would be offered a position. Instead, she thanked me for coming and wished me a good afternoon. Disappointed, I got back in my car and drove home wondering what went wrong. But once again, my phone rings. It was the director and she offered me a position as an adjunct ESL professor. I remember feeling both excited and incredulous at how quickly my life had unexpectedly pivoted in such a completely unintentional manner. Within a span of 48 hours, I went from not having the notion of teaching anywhere in my consciousness to accepting a job offer to return to teaching ESL. But it wasn’t just a job opportunity, it represented something much larger that I couldn’t grasp at that seminal moment. That teaching experience at the university was nothing short of revelatory. It was a magical encounter with pure joy that enabled me to rediscover how deeply connected my soul was to teaching. Going to work every day was an almost criminally enjoyable act of bliss. And yet paradoxically, as the weeks passed, beneath that reverie-filled surface I felt conflict stirring. I was increasingly struggling with being deeply unsatisfied with the rigid constraints of institutionalized learning—frustrated with feeling that the students were not getting the best product from the program and feeling helpless to effect change in the viscous environment of a bureaucracy. One day, I was in the office of one of the full-time ESL professors, Ann, venting my frustrations and she asked me if I had ever thought about stepping out on my own to work with companies. She pointed out something that should have been obvious to me which is that I was uniquely experienced both with the business world and as a teacher. Perhaps I might be able to harvest both experiences to create a more liberated learning atmosphere if I struck out on my own. It was a revelation that immediately ignited a brush fire of inspiration. Once again, I could feel the tug of the unspooling thread, inviting me to dare to walk its golden tightrope into my next life adventure; asking me to ignore the fact that I had almost no financial resources to start a business; asking me to give no attention to the nagging internal voice dismissing this endeavor as being an ill-conceived fool’s errand.
answering the call to adventure
I left the comforts of my treasured ESL teaching position at the university at the end of that wonderful summer and launched my precarious high-wire adventure into self-employment. To my great surprise and elation, I secured my first corporate client within a month. Buoyed by what I felt for sure was an auspicious sign of a meteoric path to immense financial success, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little dispirited and demoralized to discover that in reality, success would be a meandering path as it took a number of agonizingly slow years to gain traction. There were more than a few moments where I was gripped with terror that my business would be a disastrous failure. But despite the eruptions of fear from time to time, I can honestly say I was never visited by an urge to quit. Every failure (and there were many) and disappointing outcome seemed to increase my resolve to learn and evolve.
Looking back, I am actually very grateful that success didn’t come quickly. The ordeals that were suffered humbled me and provided a doorway to deeper examination of both myself and the organization’s internal processes which led to the cultivation of an immense amount of creativity which I found to be incredibly invigorating and exciting. The delayed success of Premiere Language really helped me to deeply appreciate the struggle that goes into cultivating a generative organization. As I trace the golden narrative clew of Premiere Language, I can clearly see now that the true story, it turns out, was deeply rooted in pilgrimage, a spiral journey to a vitalizing center that often feels like it is moving anywhere but toward a center while one is on the journey. Ultimately, what I discovered is that the magical world of Narnia has never been outside of me in some far-off place. Those far-off places that I so longed to get to (and still do) were actually metaphors for the far-off places within me that were calling. The door to that world of wonder was inside the wardrobe of my curiosity, waiting to be opened. The pilgrimage of this organization has put me in touch with the same vitality I have always received from travel, be it through my students or the countless other peripatetic souls I have encountered through all of the teachers that we have had the honor to work with. Premiere Language may not have been the destination I originally had in mind and yet there is absolutely no doubt it is my true destiny.