This entry is a re-blog from my original Facebook note written on 20 Jun 2011 as a form of recollecting my experience and takeaways while volunteering to teach the English language at a Korean kindergarten. This of course, was during my 4 months stint at a premier women University in Seoul – the EWHA Womans University.

At risk of sounding overly-cliche (I already do most of the times, according to my girlfriend), today marks my final day “volunteering” for my 3 months stint at the Ewha-ALPS. Till date, I don’t know what’s ALPS – so don’t bother asking me, it’s an equivalent of a kindergarten. Volunteering is in quotation marks because I had came to the kindergarten on the pretext of teaching the English language but I almost always end up playing with them and recovering bits and pieces of my childhood.

<My class and their form teacher>

Today as I sat in front of my class (level 3, he-sol (mountains, i think)), the teacher spoke to them and I just kept quiet. I looked at each and every single one of them… their eyes wide and brimming with curiosity and imagination. They were so shiny that had the lights been turned off, I could see many twinkles in that familiar classroom. These must be the “shiny eyes” that Benjamin Zander has spoken about.

<I think I shaved that day>

Yet more than that, these children taught me these lessons I probably would not have learnt in my classrooms at SMU, corporate talks, conferences or summits. Perhaps it’s in their naivete and felicity by which they lead their lives that can teach us, purported “adults”, how to take the enormity and complexity of living our own lives… to its simplest denominators. It really needn’t be that tough, or so they have taught me.

1) Boldly in Love

<One of the most enthusiastic “huggers”>

Every time and I really mean EVERY TIME the teacher asks the kids to come forth to hug/acknowledge/thank me – I easily have a troop of them (sometimes, looking kind of delirious) gushing towards me. They shower me with hugs and kisses without any hesitation and reservation. At times, I wished I had longer arms to encompass all of them in this lil’ fountain of love. I like that they are unabashed about their expressions of love and affection.

One moment that really touched me was during my previous session. It was the birthday celebration for three children (a boy and two girls) and they were all dressed up in some medieval royalty-like costumes and were in the centre of the room. The teacher had this stack of mini-cards that had a series of drawings depicting different actions of love. Then the birthday boy and girls would take turns to pick those cards and choose who they would like to “receive” love from. When their friends were chosen, I saw them rush towards (in the same eagerness as they were wanting to hug me, that i assure you) their friends in the middle. One of the birthday girl who was going to be kissed, blushed a bit when her friend gave a peck on her cheeks. That moment was a sure-kill diabetic formula. The boy did not pale in comparison either – his male friends gave him a tight buddy hug and a parting kiss on the cheeks to seal the deal too.

That day, I wondered. It seems as we grow older (though not always wiser), we erect boundaries (physical, emotional or otherwise) and start to be wary. Not that it’s wrong in itself, but sometimes we grow so attached to these boundaries that they become our “second skin”. That in our own comfort and defence of being “safe” and “protected”, we also become comfortable in judging and criticizing the unbridled manners that others express their love in. We become less tolerant and more caustic in the way we relate and communicate how and what we think and feel about those who don’t share this same “skin” as us.

Maybe, sometimes we just need to stop being so right about things, mature about things and proper about every single thing and let ourselves loose.

2) Peel Thy Mask

<Nope, she isn’t crying. Just camera-shy>

No, not the black sesame hot gel mask you get from The Face Shop.

(On a side note, these masks are the poison. I put them on my face, smother for a good 3-5mins and my blackheads are yelling for me to squeeze them out. End result – a nose that really breathes without the yucky white plugs)

I mean the human “masks” we put on to protect ourselves in uncompromising situations or those that we are so accustomed to putting on everyday when we go to school or work, the face that we put on for the external world to see. At times when we are more able and willing, we put on accessories like a “wide cheery smile” and “brilliant pairs of eyes that speak of earnestness” to make our act more convincing in this common stage called our “life”.

<Their interpretation of a Sauna, none of the heat and many balls and company>

These kids of mine – they are free. They are free in being themselves in that they wear on their faces with the emotions they really feel inside. They express themselves in an unadulterated manner because they do not fear being misunderstood or judged. Or at least, not yet.

Being trained as a Coach helps in that I am trained to read and detect the congruences (or the lack of) in body language – for example, when you are feeling uptight about an issue… your mildly scrunched up face with traces of tension despite the above “accessories” would easy give you away.

When I look at my kids, they are almost wholly congruent. Though I don’t understand a word of Korean (ok, I do – kasahamnida), when they are happy, their entire energy as a being, glints of joy overflowing. Like when they receive lollipops from me though it has to be of the right colour and flavour too. When they are upset, it is also telling. They frown, they cross their arms, they pout and squat at the corner. Adults do that and we rightly call them “childish”. The only difference is that adults have more sophisticated coping mechanisms (read: covertness, vengeance, denial, rationalization, justification, suppression and the likes)

In all so many words, the way they express themselves in their world is so uncontrived and uninhibited. It is not scripted and rehearsed. They are not covert and they do not need to be right all the time. In fact, they don’t want to be right all the time – they just want to be happy for most.

And it seems like as we grew older, the equation is reversed. We choose to be right about things than be happy about things (though you can argue they are not always mutually exclusive or that being right makes you happy – but i like to disagree because the source of our rightness or righteousness often stems from our ego needs which in itself, is a unscrupulous black hole that has no ends).

We become actors and take on different roles and recite our lines as per our social script. Some of us take pride and immense satisfaction in always being in the limelight and fear insignificance (or ironically, significance) while others glorify themselves as being the eternal “victims” who weep at their circumstances as written on the script. There will also be a select group who would contend to be a passerby and watch the show unreel in front of their eyes… Only not before long, that when the veils are drawn down and the applause dies down, they realize choosing not to participate is a choice after all.

3) Letting It Go

<Building blocks of Joy>

 One of the hallmarks of adulthood is the ability to hold on to things.

And I don’t just mean hoarding on to physical entities but emotional ones too. Take for example, holding on to an emotion of “anger” for many decades because of a blunder (intentional or not). It becomes all the more puzzling when these people are so consumed and controlled by this anger that they would repeatedly chant the same old incantation to get themselves to the exact same state of anger a few decades ago, or, just to get angry because they can’t contend with being at peace with themselves.

Sadly or not, this is also the same “mechanism” when it comes to gossip or unsettling impressions about someone in our lives in that we hold on to emotions, then notions and then create realities from our own untested constructs. We don’t open ourselves up for the possibilities of truth or otherwise, but we choose instead to clam ourselves up to stand in our self-fulfilling and foolish confirmation biases.

Just today, two boys were fighting in front of me. They were scratching each other faces silly and both were clearly in rage. I went over to pull them apart and got them to cool down. What was most strange and deeply profound was that one of them went over to give the other boy a hug and he reciprocated. Not before long, I saw both of them stacking wooden blocks in joy and building a “kingdom” together with their bare hands.

Though I’m not a Christian myself, I chanced upon a beautiful interpretation of one of the verses from the Bible. It reads,

“But what does it mean to “welcome the kingdom of God like a little child”? In general we take it to mean “to welcome the kingdom of God like a child welcomes it.” That corresponds to some other words of Jesus found in Matthew’s Gospel: “If you do not change your hearts and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). A child trusts without reflecting. Children cannot live without trusting those around them. Their trust is not a virtue; it is a vital reality. To encounter God, the best thing we have is our child’s heart that is spontaneously open, that dares simply to ask, that wants to be loved.”

Maybe it’s because these kids can let things go easily that their bare hands are constantly empty enough to receive the wonders and magic of their world and their kingdoms. Instead as we grow older, when we are all cluttered up and still clinging on to everything in our lives in sheer desperation, we seem to be caught up in this loop and hedonistic treadmill… when all we need to do sometimes, is to stop and really let go and walk out of this cage which we have mercilessly thrown upon ourselves.

I often listen to people (myself too) that it’s so good being a child because there’s nothing to worry about. At times, I agree with this statement. Yet on other times, I wonder is it really because circumstances are that challenging or that we have forgotten how to connect to that inner child from our within and see things from his/her eyes and then act with the moderation and wisdom as expected of an adult. Cause’ if you don’t, then what’s the big deal about growing up and claiming your badge of adulthood?

My final day “volunteering” at this lovely kindergarten with these lot of “wise kids”, I had a simple realization.

<In the pool of life>

Maybe… it’s not that bad being a boy after all.

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