Wednesday, February 25, 2009

I can't decide if I'm wishy today

...or washy.

I go back and forth several times a day on whether to sign up for the next round of Korean lessons. The 'net says people of a certain age can't pick up foreign languages. Wait, it says they can! I'll never get this. Maybe I will. I'm not getting this. I don't want to be a quitter. The teachers aren't that good. I'll never pick it up on my own. A hundred thousand Won is a lot of money. You gotta invest in your future. It's three hours out of every Saturday. It's a chance to be with people...

The monkeys in my monkey mind have escaped the cage and they're flinging... well, they're being obstreperous.

Right now, I'm thinking no. I think. I think I'm thinking that. I think.

Speaking of the Wonder Girls, meanwhile, have you ever heard Korean, really? Watch this: this is the language I'm trying to learn, and that's leaving out the written part:

(They lose me after "one... two... three... hello.")

I need a babel fish.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Stranger than a strange land

It occurs to me that it would be easy to read my blog as some White Man's Burden exercise, as if I think I'm a visitor from a "superior" culture who's over here to see how the funny little Asian people live. If it seems that way, I'm sorry. That's not how I feel. I am intentionally passing everything through a filter of Americanism (and flippancy) and writing for an American audience, so I focus on the differences between the Lands of the Morning Calm (them) and the Free (us). But I'm seeing Korea as a detached, somewhat bemused but sympathetic visitor. Aside from the dog and cat thing, which is so far out of bounds I try not to think about it, the local culture, I think, has both good points and bad compared to America's.

It also occurs to me that a lot of Korean culture that I find odd isn't so much odd as it is the polar opposite of my own quirks and oddments. The social system is founded on Confucianism, which involves a very strict class structure and prescribed ways to speak to people of higher, equal, or lower status; I'm pretty nearly totally classless. (Wait, let me rephrase that.) That is, I make a real effort to give a clerk at the 7-11 as much respect as I would a president (and quite a bit more than I would a certain recent president). Also, I inherited a lot of flower child/Ithaca casualness. Plus they work their butts off and I... don't.

Koreans bump into each other all the time and affect not to even notice it, and they have a very small definition of personal space, both physically and socially; I hate having strangers touch me and I feel my private life is closed but for a very few. (If you're reading this, I guess that's you.)

The press is very conservative and limited in what it can say; I passionately believe in free speech and free thought. I was told by a new Korean friend that vegetarianism is so rare here that nobody will know what I mean when I say "I'm a vegetarian" in Korean, unless I add "I have a diet like a Buddhist monk's"; I, well, you know.

Whenever someone interacts with anything, what the person sees is as dependent on his idea of the world as on what is in front of him. My reactions, positive and negative, are as much about me and my quirks as they are about the Koreans and theirs. Every entry on this blog is as much about SJC as it is the ROK. The see-er and the see-ee are separate but equal.

But I'm taller.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Tiki can lick any guy in the house. (This picture is, of course, almost completely irrelevant to this post, but note the clipped left ears, more visible on Tiki; vets do that to cats upon neutering, as a symbol that the cats should not be killed or molested.)

This post is rated F. (Frust-rated, that is.)

There's one more Korean language class to go and I have to decide whether to invest another 100,000 Won for 12 weeks at the next level. The thing is, I don't feel I'm making a lot of progress. Part of it is that I don't practice every day, but also, the instructor, while very nice, manages to both go too fast and not cover enough. Her English isn't great, either. The class, which has 20 students, has had only about a dozen show up each of the last few weeks, so I suspect I'm not the only one who's a bit disenchanted.

The other thing is that taking the series of classes from entry to advanced takes a year and costs over 500,000 Won in all. The other other things are that it gets me up too early and takes three hours out of every Saturday, which is a working day at our school. I have the book and CD from the course, another book and CD I bought months ago, the (useless) Rosetta Stone program, and an online flash-card program called Before You Know It. Whether I sign up for the next class or not, I won't give up on Korean.

But, oh my gars and starters, guys, it's hard. For example: for some purposes, you use Korean numbers, for others Chinese. Also, when you mention a quantity of anything, you use not only the name of the item but also a special counting word that means, more or less, "thing", so to count pencils, f'r'instance, you say, "Pencil three kae", but there are different "thing" words for different items, so for books you say, "Book one kwan", cats, "Cat two mari", and so on. There are different counting markers for small paper items, bottles, cups and glasses, numbers, money, people, animals, books, large things and small things.

I said it before, I'm sayin' it again: everybody here crazy.

Either way I decide about the class, I will regret it. I don't like to be a quitter and I won't learn the language too well on my own. I also wouldn't see my new friends Cliff and Joelle as often. On the other hand, it's a lot of money and it's two hours of frustration with, so far, little payoff. So, in the words of Paul and Artie, "Any way you look at this, you lose." Everyone I in the class whom I talk to is either leaning toward or leaning against continuing, but nobody's sure what to do.

Saturday also brough a trio of metaphors for my situation Saturday. First, I caught a different number bus to the class, as it was headed in the right direction and the sign said it went to Banwoldang, the junction where the YMCA and the class are, but it headed to the far far south of town, where the driver turned around to me, the only passenger, and said to get out. I had to take an expensive cab ride back to Banwoldang and missed the first 15 minutes of class. Avid readers of SJCintheROK (that is to say, I) may recognize this as a reprise of something that happened in my first week or two here.

On Saturday night, I was going to a bar near Kyungpook University to see a band and talk with Joelle and Cliff, and Joelle and I missed connections and I ended up standing at the wrong subway stop for 40 minutes. We finally made connections, though, and we sat so close to the band that I couldn't get out of my seat till breaks between songs. On the first song, I kept thinking the guitar player's back was blocking my view of the singer; turns out he was the singer. Something deep there about forests and trees...

But we did have a good time in a tiny funky bar with 95% American clientele, and I figured out a way in the wee wee hours (couldn't help it, I'd been drinking beer) of the morning to tell the cab driver how to get me home, so there's that.

Meanwhile, the principal up on the outskirts of Seoul sent me email today to say that they will have an opening in the fall and he's definitely interested in my services, so there's that.

And Tiki, who was so scared, likes to stand on his back legs, pull my hand to him with both paws and nuzzle, so there's that.

So it goes.

Friday, February 20, 2009

One hundred!

Believe it or not, this is my hundredth post on this blog! Wow.

...I sure hope I say something memorable.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The amazing race (well, ethnicity)

...hard to believe this sign for a hair salon, isn't it?

I don't have any evidence that Koreans are racist toward blacks. It's hard to be racist against somebody you never see. To be precise, in almost six months I've seen three African-Americans here. It's like living in Vermont.

I suppose the people who put up this sign thought it looked hip; I'm sure they meant no offense. Still, FAIL.

The Koreans are probably the most ethnically homogeneous people in any modernized country in the world; they came here from Mongolia some thousands of years ago, and as this is a peninsula without many resources, there's not much reason for any outsiders to come here, except the Japanese, who periodically stop over for a few decades to rape and plunder. (There's a popular phrase in Japanese, "tourist camera", which is a homophone for "stupid Korean".) I think that, even though the Koreans have a reputation for xenophobia, they are as much sinned against as sinning. Like Poland, Korea is stuck between two bigger, more aggressive powers and has paid the price, in blood and stereotypes. To be blunt, they seem to be the Polacks of East Asia. I think their reputed jingoism is largely defensiveness.

The look is homogeneous, too; to my eye, everybody's complexion is exactly the same, and there are about three hairstyles for women and two for men. Sometimes one will see a Korean with (dyed) brown hair, which goes very well with the skin tone. On rare occasions one will see what my dad used to call a "suicide blonde" (that is, dyed by her own hand). That, I think, looks ridiculous. It's black hair dye, though, that must sell like hotcakes stuffed with money; there are some very wizened people here, and barely any of them, and no women that I can recall, have a single gray hair. Maybe Ronald Reagan had a commercial deal here back in the day: "Howdy, Koreans, this is ex-president Reagan with a word about Kiwi brand black shoe... err, hair coloring."

My Americanness, and my paleness, don't attract a lot of attention, despite my rarity. (I appear to be the only foreigner between the Manchon E-Mart and the Sea of Japan. [Oops... Koreans hate that name; it's the East Sea.]) I think that the oldest Koreans (the ones who remember, or even served in, the war) are grateful to us. I was out running in the park a few weeks ago and an elderly man, dressed in his Sunday best, jogged along with me for a few feet and gave me a broad smile, a thumbs up, and (in English), a "Number one!"

One is not always the loneliest number.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Well, I'm back

I doubt that I'll be as entertaining here as the Wonder Girls were in my last post. (For one thing, I ain't shavin' my legs). K-pop is mostly about all the namjas trying to be N'Sync and all the yeojas trying to be the Spice Girls (aside from the Korean teens trying to be gangsta rappers-- don't try to imagine it), and the undisputed monarchs of the genre are Big Bang and Wonder Girls. If you think the Nobody clip was silly, yeah, it kinda is, but the official video includes several minutes of lead-in in which the guy for whom the girls are supposed to be background singers is stuck in the bathroom stall with no toilet paper, which necessitates the Girls' rise to fame. (I prefer the clip I posted.) And you hear that song a thousand times and not get it stuck in your head. I dare you. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Anyway, the important part of my trip to Seoul went very well, I think, and I have high hopes for the future. Everything else was a pain in the duff. I forgot my iPod, so the time went very slowly. I lugged my heavy laptop the whole way, hoping to get a return email from my student who teaches in Seoul (not having written down her phone number, and not having considered that after she gave it to me in Facebook chat, I wouldn't be able to retrieve it if she wasn't online). We had tentatively planned to meet at Seoul Station once I called her to set a time. I never reached her, but left her an email saying I'd be at Dunkin' Donuts at the station from 7 to 7:30 p.m. if she could make it. The shop was SRO, so I stood outside it, a million travelers brushing by me, for a half hour, in vain, and then another two hours waiting for the train home, with not a thing to read.

It was 100 minutes to Seoul, at 190 mph, and another 75 minutes by subway to the suburb where the school is. And it was freakin' cold, dude! On Saturday I'd gone hiking with Luke at the Daegu Arboretum; it was 65 degrees and I wore a t-shirt and jeans. The wind chill in Seoul on Sunday was in the high teens. (Winter's made a Favresque comeback here, too... it's 2 p.m., temp 32, winds gusting to 23 mph.) I'm trying to find a tunnel to work.

However... I met Tony, the social studies teacher at the school who'd been my contact, and Bob, the principal, at the Yatap subway stop and took a short bus ride to the school. It's about the size of the Manchon LIKE school, but ultramodern. I had an hour-long interview with Bob, which I think went very well. Then we all went to lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant and swapped jokes and whatever they call those Vietnamese taco-looking wrapper things that look like Rubbermaid raw material till you soak them in hot water and fill them with comestibles.

There's an good chance they'll have an opening in the fall and I think I will quite likely be offered it. (Chickens? Hatch? What?) They pay 600,000-800,00 Won ($470-$620) more a month than I'm making now, and the teachers live in nice, modern apartments (with lofts!) There is some uncertainty, as they have outgrown their floorspace in six months and the company has bought a big campus five miles south of Seoul, in a city of 200,000 that is not on the Seoul mass transit system. Who will be at which location? Where will they live? And what about Naomi?

It would be a very great deal more work than I'm doing now if I got it, lesson plans and clubs and tons of homework to grade. And, frankly, I've come at last to really like Daegu. And Heeduk is my friend (though all my other friends will be leaving over the course of the next year). But... I would be doing something more worthwhile, more of a challenge, with a bigger upside, at a place where I could see myself having a (rest of a) career, for ten years perhaps. But I might not get it, if there's an it to get, and it's possible I might not take it if I did. (I doubt that, though.) (Am I using too many parentheses? [Yes.])

We shall see. For now... to quote Samwise Gamgee in the last line of The Lord of the Rings: "Well, I'm back."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Seoooooul Train...

...I'm almost out the door to catch the KTX 200-mph train to Seoul to finally check out the school which, if not for a cruel twist of fate, I'd be teaching at now, and to meet the guy who's been my contact there. Maybe possibly might could potentially be an opening there next fall.

To keep you entertained till I get back, watch this:

(This has been played six times a day, from every radio and every storefront, every day for the five months and fifteen days I've been here. Resistance is futile.)

...I'll let you know about the trip...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

미국 사람 이예요.

미국 사람 이예요 (Meeguk saram eeyayyo) means "I am an American." (Or, literally, "United States person I am," which gives you some idea of the language barrier.)

I find myself getting Americaner and Americaner. I've made my apartment a little island built up on English language books and an iPod packed with Western pop songs and NPR podcasts, and a few tchotchkes from home, and above all, the Web. Facebook and CNN and tv shows and movies and email and Skype keep me anchored to my friends and my country. I eat American food at home and most of the time when I eat out. (At least that way I know there aren't any animals in my food.) Even the cats have forgotten their Korean vocabulary by now.

It's just possible that the change in presidents has contributed a smidge to my revived patriotism, as well.

I guess it was inevitable; I like many Korean people, but the culture is, in many ways, totally alien, and I can no more immerse myself in Korean life than Kirk would go native if he were living on the Klingon planet. So I cling on (Get it? Har!) to what I know.

In some ways, I feel more 미국 사람 than I ever did back home. But I'm still glad to be here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Born to Run

I got tagged for a new game/questionnaire/self-analysis quiz on Facebook. I'm cutting and pasting my answers here, for those of you who, like me, have no sense of boundaries.

(Hey, try it... it's fun... just delete my answers and comments and put in yours. (If you do it, send me your results, huh? Fair's fair.)

And now, the quiz. verbatim:

1. Put your iTunes, Windows Media Player, etc. on shuffle [You can also use your Pandora channels on shuffle for this].
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer.
4. Tag AT LEAST 10 friends (including me so I can see your results).
5. Everyone tagged has to do the same thing.
6. Have Fun!

Turn! Turn! Turn! (The Byrds)
(However I am, it isn't how I was an hour ago.)

My Sweet Lord (George Harrison)
(Well, I *do* have a bit of an ego.)

Push (Matchbox Twenty)
(Physically? Attitudinally? Perhaps it performed the common Korean error of mistaking "P" for "B"?)

Ferry Cross the Mersey (Gerry and the Pacemakers)
(The title doesn't fit, but play the song and feel the music. Perfect.)

How to Save a Life (The Fray)
(I haven't eaten an animal since 1991.)

"Alison" (Elvis Costello)
(Oh, this is pathetic, and frightening. I had an English girlfriend named Alison, and this would have been true from 1975 to about 1981.)

So What (Pink)
(Oh, thank you *so much*, guys!)

Bleeding Love (Leona Lewis)
(Well, they've been gone for ten years, but... hmm.)

Tusk (Fleetwood Mac)
(Republicans? What Lindsay Buckingham was referring to when he used this euphemism? Uhh...)

WHAT IS 2 + 2?
Blackbird (The Beatles)
(How very Dada.)

Time of Your Life (Green Day)

I Will Remember You (Sarah McLachlan)
(I do have a tendency to live in the past.)

I Will (The Beatles)
(Exactly. I will, not I mean to.)

Lady Marmalade (Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya, Pink)
(What?! What is this doing on my iPod?)

I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues (Elton John)
(Oh, this is so far beyond funny. And sad.)

Here Comes the Sun (The Beatles)
(Are we talking reincarnation here, or na na na na hey hey goodbye? And will people bring balloons?)

I Don't Want to Go Home (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes)
(Where is that, exactly?)

Alison (Elvis Costello)
(Oh. Shut. Up.)

I'm Like a Bird (Nelly Furtado)

99 Luftballons (Nena)
(Was ist das? Is that an answer to my question about my funeral?)

Put Your Records On (Corinne Bailey Rae)

Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen)
(Yeah, okay, I'm shutting down and putting on my New Balances. Bye!)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Best. Weekend. EVER.

(Don't you hate it when people think that their cats-- who, after all, look like a hundred million other cats-- are so cute they'll stick a photo up even when it has nothing to do with what they're talking about? Me too.)

...well, maybe not the best weekend ever. (My honeymoon was pretty good.) But I'm teaching the kids to use strong, interesting words, and I didn't think "A Really Nice Weekend" would cut it.

As there may be one or two Anglophones to whom I haven't whined about how I got offered my dream job (with 600,000 Won a month more in salary) six hours after I'd sent my degree to Daegu and how FedEx promised to redirect the package but didn't, and how they actually called me to apologize for delivering the package faster than promised to the address on the label... I should put in all the tragic details here. But if I do, I'll be up all night and my tears might short out the keyboard, so I'll save it.

But I've been in touch with the aforementioned dream school (St. Paul Preparatory Academy, an elite international school in Bundang, a new and ritzy Seoul suburb) and this weekend I bought my bullet-train ticket for next Sunday to go up, see the school, and meet my contact there, Tony, who sent me the contract last August with the note: "Please please tell me you haven't sent your papers to Daegu yet." He says that they've expanded their enrollment a great deal already in their first year, there's a good chance they'll need another English teacher, and mine is the first name he'll present to the headmaster... so we shall see. I couldn't spend the rest of my career at LIKE school, but I might could maybe do so at St. Paul... I also hope to see Margaret, one of my ex-St. Joe students and cross-country runners, who is teaching up there.

Besides that... I found Korean class on Saturday morning to be difficult, possibly because I didn't glance at the materials all week long, but I made some friends: Joelle and Cliff, though half my age, have let much more adventurous lives than I, including stints in the Peace Corps. We arranged to meet at Club That on Saturday night for the launch party of Daegu's first magazine for Anglos and locals. (Check it out online at

During the afternoon, I did my teaching, then skipped the health club (for the first time in ten days!) and went downtown. I was too late for Joelle's birthday dinner, but met them at Club That, along with their friend (my new friend) James. It was less than ideal, as it wasn't so much a party as a shouting match over the band, but then we went down to the first floor (where Hami Mami's is in the daytime) and had a nice talk. Joelle asked if I wanted to come to the Writer's Group at the same place at 2 on Sunday, and being a decisive sort, I said, "Maybe."

Today (Sunday), I went for a run in the park, then showered and headed downtown. Joelle and Cliff were there, as were Emma from New Zealand, Jeremy from California, Justin the Yankee fan and Princeton grad (who despite it all seems like a nice guy), and Pill-kon, who, as you may have guessed, is local. We had 90 minutes or so of people sharing good writing and exchanging commentary. I hadn't brought anything, so I recited the only thing I've ever written that I've memorized:

(once sperm a secret's size
and egg a whisper's width)
Spoke knowingly today.

"God is dead,"
Thomas said.

(That poem, by the way, is older than anybody else in the writer's group and shorter than most Koreans.)

So I have friends (my first in Asia with whom I don't work!) and will be going to the meeting next month. They're all smart, friendly, and talented, but I think I could take 'em all in a 60s-sitcom trivia contest. Maybe.

Afterward, Cliff and I went to see Inkheart at the movies. I liked it very much indeed; it's gotten mixed reviews, and it won't be any hit: too dark for little kids, too fairy-tale for a lot of adults, but it's the best movie I've seen in a long time. Right up my alley, anyway.

...and then I stopped at Kyobo Books, bought a gorgeous, 19th-century-looking hardcover journaling book (Tradition notebook: Precious Memories, Magic Spells), complete with placemarker ribbon, for seven bucks, and came home to begin my procrastination over writing this post by Facebook Friending everybody I just met... and now Justin tells me via Facebook chat that...

There. Is. A. Regular. Bar. Trivia. Night! (As you may know, the only things in the world I'm good at are writing, trivia, and one other thing that modesty and a solicitous concern for the sensitive reader prevent me from sharing with the public...) It occurs to me that I work nights, so I might not make it to trivia... but maybe I can work something out; it doesn't start till 11 p.m.

So, to recap, this weekend brought me:

A ticket to check out my dream job
A magazine that might help me find out what the hell is going on socially in this town
A beer
A writer's group, meaning:
a) a kick in the gluteus for my writing, and
A good movie
A gorgeous journal
Hope for a rebirth of trivia

...and, oh yeah, spring. It's been in the 50s Fahrenheit through all of late January and early February. (Jealous much?)

I feel as if, after over five months of going to work and going home, my world is opening up...and next Friday starts a three-day weekend! So... sometimes you eat the bear. Or, in my case, the bear-shaped block of tofu.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Their parents make them do it

Our involuntary guest blogger today is Oscar-winning composer Randy Newman, who is going to explain why these poor Korean kids go to school and go to school and go to school some more. (Several of them were still at LIKE when I left at 11:30 last night.) I've bolded and italicized the kids' secret.

Take it away, Randy:

Kids today got problems
Like their parents never had
Neighborhoods are dangerous
The public schools are bad
At home there are distractions so irresistible
The hours fly by
No work gets done

Some Jewish kids still trying
Some white kids trying too
But millions of real American kids don’t have a clue
Right here on the lot
We got the answer
A product guaranteed to satisfy

Korean parents for sale
You say you're not all that you want to be
You say you got a bad environment
Your work at school's not going well

Korean parents for sale
You say you need a little discipline
Someone to whip you into shape
They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair

Look at the numbers

That’s all I ask
Who’s at the head of every class?
You really think they’re smarter than you are
They just work their asses off

Their parents make them do it

Oh, learn to play the violin
Oh, to turn your homework in right on time

What a load off your back that will be
No tears
No regret
Never forget who sent Fido to the farm

The greatest generation
Your parents aren't the greatest generation
So sick of hearing about the greatest generation
That generation could be you
So let's see what you can do
Korean parents and you

...thanks, Randy... and remember, in Korea, I am definitely not a short person.