Monday, December 20, 2010

My Tonsillitis Week

So on Wednesday morning I'm collapsed on the floor of my kitchenette, having made a mess of myself with my breakfast of canned peaches.  I lack the strength to stand up, despite the peaches, and I start feeling I've reached a serious nadir of health and personal dignity here.  I'd spent Tuesday in a similar, if less profound stupor, but at least then I'd been in bed and not all sticky with canned peach syrup.  Monday had arguably been worse.

Let me tell you about Monday.  My fever began Sunday afternoon.  I ate some kimchi, took some ibuprofen and went to bed early.  I made all the right moves.  Even so, I was roused deadly early Monday morning by serious chills.  This was bad news for me because the heat was already on and I couldn't get any warmer in bed.  So, after due deliberation, I made for the shower.

Soon I discovered that even the shower's maximum hotness was insufficiently hot for my needs.  There wasn't enough water or heat to stop my convulsing.  It was maddening, trying to spread what there was as evenly as possible over my surface area, struggling to maintain a constant level of misery.  And I was committed to the shower:  it was bad, but once I was naked and wet, every other place was worse.

I made a high-risk, naked dash to turn up the power on the water heater.  This was dangerous and really unpleasant but it worked, turning my shower into a shamefully inefficient jacuzzi.  I stayed in there long enough to get pruney hands.  Once I'd toweled off, I spent the rest of the day lying on the floor in a stupor.   

Thursday, December 9, 2010

An example of what I'm working with.

The level of English ability at my school is low. I can think of four students (out of the 700+ I teach) who have demonstrated an ability to speak in phrases. This is after they've had 5.5 years of English class. Half of those phrasers, maybe, can manage complete sentences. From the rest of my students I receive blank incomprehension, single word responses or incomprehensible weirdness.

Last week I wrote down an exchange I had in a high-level class so I could give you an example of what I'm working with.  Read in horror as I attempt to explain what "sure enough" means (it came up in a story I was using to teach about articles):

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The gym.

I'm in the gym 3 or 4 times a week because even in Korea I hate feeling flabby and weak.  I've established a rapport with one of the gym employees.  I exclaim "fighting!" and "hail-suh!" at him every now and again.  "Fighting!" is Konglish for "I/we/you can do it!"  "Hail-suh" is a transliteration of health (Korean has no th sound) and I think it probably means "gym."

Last week the gym guy tried to have a conversation with me about my preceding weekend, which was sweet of him, but not when I'm doing a quad extension with 200 something pounds, dude:  a man needs to focus.  Still, I feel we're well on our way to becoming bosom buddies.

My gym is on the fifth floor of the Grand Convention Wedding Hall, a good example of weird Hangeulization of English.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

They won't do it if they find out it isn't on the exam.

My students lack intrinsic motivation and their education is structured to provide a narrowly-focused extrinsic motivation.  Second-grade students have their final exams of the year next week.  Their scores don’t matter much—if you’re in the second grade today, you’re going to be in the third come March—but it’s one of two big tests that determine their overall scores for the year.   Korean public education is all about big tests.  

I was teaching a lesson about articles to an advanced second-grade class.  “Advanced” means they performed well on the English midterm, which is a bit of a joke if you’ve seen the test.  Advanced classes are still a mixed bag.  They include the kids of greatest fluency who have studied English privately for years alongside kids who are good at multiple-choice tests or just lucky.  And the test includes no speaking or listening component, so students’ scores don’t reflect their ability to communicate in English or understand what I’m saying.  But I’m digressing here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My school doesn't have a fire alarm.

I learned this yesterday, the hard way.  I was sitting in my (communal) office, doing work, ten minutes left on the clock.  There was a commotion.  The other teachers in the office became frantic, exchanging information in panicky Korean and rushing out the door, leaving me quite alone.  I thought, "Would they tell me if the building were on fire?" and got back to work.

A few minutes later, my head co-teacher returned to the office.  Here's a transcript of our subsequent conversation:

Her:  [Korean mispronunciation of my name].  The school is on fire.
Me:  I was just wondering if you'd tell me if the school were on fire.
Me:  [Noticing eerie silence] The school doesn't have a fire alarm.
Her:  [Characteristically throaty laughter]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Another salient peculiarity of Korean public schools:

Going to high school in Korea isn't automatic.  Koreans don't just go to the nearest high school upon completing middle school.  They apply to high schools they're interested in and have to be accepted before they can attend.  High school applications require final grades (more exactly, class ranking data) from middle school, so to facilitate this process, grade 3 middle school students write their final exams in early November, with 6 weeks of school remaining before the winter break.

This means students attend 6 weeks of classes that have no impact on their future.  There will never be another middle school test for them, never another grade.  The book is closed.  Consequently, students who were difficult to motivate or keep on task become impossible.  As far as they're concerned, middle school is over--and they're right.  One can understand why American schools always schedule their final exams for the week before vacation.

The complaint I'm coming around to here is that my 3rd grade classes have become impossible.  I spent this last week trying to play a fun game in class and most students won't do it.  The game's fun and built on unchallenging language, but only about 20% of the students actually play it.  The others prefer fighting or talking to their friends.  I can force them to play the game if I hover over them, constantly supervising, but once I turn around they stop.

My predecessor tells me the Korean teachers spend these classes watching movies and hoping for the best; naturally, I'm held to a higher standard and my lessons are expected to have some educational value.  Five more weeks.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How to get a discount from Makgeolli Man.

I was left to shift for myself Saturday night.  The weather was mildly chilly.  I was near Hongdae.  I wanted a kebab.  For reasons immaterial to the story I'm about to unfold I was wearing a well-tailored business suit.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy Pepero Day!

Today is 11 November:  Pepero Day!  You know how the American candy industry has glommed on to Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas, shamelessly pimping them to move product?  Well, at least Brach's has never presumed to create a holiday where once there was none.  American candy companies are content with perverting existing traditions.

Not so in Korea!  Here there's a confection called "Pepero," manufactured by Lotte, a Korean conglomerate.  It's a cookie stick dipped in chocolate.  Four sticks of Pepero held vertically resemble, with some prodding of the imagination, the date 11/11... and so every 11 November since, I don't know, probably 2006 or something, Koreans buy large amounts of Pepero and distribute it to their friends and loved ones.  That's all there is to it.  This is a very shallow tradition.  Think Valentine's Day with chocolatey cookie sticks and no history.  According to Wikipedia, the company denies having started the holiday, though the premise is silly and Pepero is a Lotte trademark.  It may as well be "Pepero® Day." 

What this all means for me is that my first task this morning was eating the handful of Pepero my nearest coworker thrust at me.  I also received an appreciable amount of cookie stick from students throughout the day.  One of them appears to have simply baked me some cookies, which is really tremendously sweet of her.  Here's a picture of my haul:

Not bad.

I appreciate the gesture but am not likely to eat all this here Pepero.  I plan to re-gift it to my unsuspecting well-informed and exceedingly charming significant other, whom I like to please even if it means engaging in high-risk re-gifting.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Employee Ping-Pong Tournament 2010!

Let me set the scene for you:  Friday, 20 minutes before quitting time.  I had plans for dinner.  In fact, I had plans for the entire weekend set to commence in 20 minutes.  My head co-teacher interrupted my looking busy:

HC-T:  [Korean mispronunciation of my name], can you play table tennis?
Me:  [Appearing to think carefully] Maybe.  I haven't played for 15 years.
HC-T:  Can you try?  There is a tournament.  Many teachers are playing.  We should go there now.

And so began my participation in the school's ping-pong tournament.  The twenty-odd participants were divided into three teams further subdivided into pairs for doubles.  This was all conducted in Korean and I haven't a clue how it worked.  I was paired with Stealth Korean, probably because we're the same age and she boasts the best English.  (In Korea people of disparate ages can't be friends, so it would've been weird to pair me and a middle-aged teacher.)

While waiting for my chance to shine, I solicited some details from Stealth Korean.  She told me the school does this sort of thing twice yearly.  Each member of the winning team is awarded a small cash prize, allocated by the school budget for this purpose.

The competition was tame; only two of the twenty-odd participants displayed any skill or grace at the table.  Neither Stealth Korean nor I was one of these.  We were terrible.  Towards the end I thought it was going well and, unable to follow the score-tallying in Korean, asked Stealth Korean if we were winning.  She told me we were losing.  Badly.

The school cafeteria hosted a sort of banquet after the tourney, serving fried chicken, Chinese fried chicken, green pepper japchae, mandu and jokbal (pig's hooves).  I know what you're thinking:  isn't jokbal drinking food?  Indeed!  The school also provided beer and soju!  I didn't stick around to see how far into drunkenness the staff descended but I did try some jokbal, which is kind of revolting.  Imagine a pig's hoof, with all the skin still on it, steamed/boiled or whatever until said skin is all rubbery.  I will say, in its defense, that it at least has the decency to taste like nothing.  A science teacher sitting across the table from me said jokbal contains lots of collagen and would therefore be good for my skin.  Right, by the same mechanism that enables bald men to regrow hair by eating a bucket of it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My apartment.

I've been holding off on posting apartment pictures because things were a bit dirty in here.  The guy before me was not a clean man and had been living here for five years.  With dogs.  I'm told school employees spent a significant amount of time cleaning the place, and when I arrived they had left all the windows open to disperse the stink.  I'd hate to have seen this place before it was cleaned.  A neighbor who knew the previous tenant visited and said "Oh, you got rid of the smell."

I've since cleaned some more and the place is mostly presentable, if cluttered.  The clutter is mainly due to a dearth of closet space and is therefore not entirely my fault.  So let's get on with the show:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

It's cold in here.

The weather has taken a turn towards cold and my work day has become quite chilling.  Yesterday's high temperature was 10 degrees; the low was 3.  Yesterday I learned my school has no central heating.  In fact, only the classes and offices are heated--everything else, e.g. hallways and lavatories, is warmed only by the sun's feeble autumnal rays and body heat.  I also learned that someone in charge likes things brisk.  Both yesterday and today, when morning temperatures approached freezing, exterior doors and some windows were left wide open all day long.  In the halls, the school's a meat locker.

I have experienced a new discomfort:  my office and classroom are on one side of the school.  The lavatories are on the other (and down several flights of stairs), perhaps 100 meters away.  This is a miserable trip to make through a meat locker.  As I mentioned above, the lavatories are not heated.  They're also adjacent to three (open) exterior doors.  And the gents' sports an exhaust fan, i.e. a sizable hole in the wall that allows cold outside air free ingress.  And there's no hot water.  And the only hand-drying tool supplied is of the electric air-blasting kind... and it only blasts cold air.  All this adds up to a dreadfully cold excretory expedition.  A conundrum:  do I leave the toilet with wet hands and suffer all the way back, get my suffering straight away from the hand dryer or not wash my hands at all?  My coworkers seem to prefer the latter.  We'll see how this plays out.

Oh, and the heater in my classroom is broken.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

We all look alike to them.

I'm doing a lesson on describing people.  I use this picture of David Beckham as an example of a shaved head:

In one of my classes, a group of girls formed a committee, nominated a spokesperson and asked if this is a picture of me.

Also, like three times now, classes have responded to a picture of Michelle Obama with "Oprah!"  So I guess it's true:  we all look alike to them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

In case of tissue emergency: Jesus!

Sometimes there's a person standing outside the subway exit nearest my apartment building.  This person intercepts me and gives me marketing stuff.  I think she works in tandem with the anonymous ne'er-do-wells who tape local restaurants' delivery menus to every damn door in my apartment building about once every two weeks.  Then the security guy has to spend an afternoon removing them all.  It's an eternal game of cat and mouse, unless the security guy gets a kickback... 

Anyway, a few weeks ago, the interceptor was distributing to each passerby an ad for a noodle restaurant and a free stick of gum.  I got the package two days in a row.  But the joke's on you, lady:  I don't understand Korean and you have just wasted your gum but I do appreciate your giving me the benefit of the doubt and believing that maybe I can read the prospectus for your noodle restaurant. x2.

Today I was handed something novel:

Two packets of tissues and a pamphlet, all with a Jesus theme!  The pamphlet is 100% Korean and thus meaningless to me.  I can figure out the packets though!

In Korea you carry a packet of tissue for two reasons:  (1) every meal you eat in this country will liquefy your sinuses (2) some public lavatories do not supply tissue.  I guess the idea here is that when next I eat a hot meal in a restaurant with inattentive waitstaff or move my bowels in a poorly stocked convenience I will reach for my packet of Jesus tissue and be evangelized in my moment of shame.  Will keep you posted.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

N Seoul Tower

There's this mountain in downtown Seoul called Namsan (literally South Mountain).  Someone built a tower on top of it like 40 years ago.  As is typical with these things, the tower was made into a tourist trap.  I went to see it on Wednesday because hell, why not?  The view from a tower on top of a mountain in the middle of Seoul is bound to be pretty good, right?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Random Chuseok pictures.

Here's a dump of pictures I took during my Chuseok vacation.  I'm too lazy to narrate all this so just drink it in with your eyes.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I bought a guitar.

And what a guitar! But more on that anon. If you want a guitar in Seoul, the place you must go is Nakwon Arcade. This bizarre structure is located right on top of Jongno sam-ga station exit 5, at the southern end of Insa-dong. It's probably high in the ranking of largest musical instrument stores on Earth. Classical guitars are not well represented, as is customary in guitar stores round the world, but there are plenty of high-end electrics and acoustics. Let's tell this story with some visual aids:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I climbed Suraksan.

I live right next to 수락산 (Suraksan or Mt. Surak).  I see it from the elevator lobby on my floor every day.  Today I decided to climb it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rocky Horror

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a special place in my heart.  I think it's subtly sophisticated (yes, I'm probably overthinking it) and tremendously entertaining.  I like most of the songs and sometimes I listen to the soundtrack and sing along.  With gusto.

Shortly before leaving for Korea, I learned the musical would be performed in Seoul.  I was delighted but somewhat shocked.  Korea seems an odd venue.  I'm given to understand that Korean culture typically frowns on frank sexuality, and Rocky Horror is quite frankly sexual.  In 1975 it was too much for mainstream American audiences and it still has limited appeal in the States.

Even if open sexuality in general doesn't daunt the Koreans, there's the show's Q-factor.  Musicals are pretty queer to begin with, but Rocky Horror is exceptionally so.  We're not just talking about mincing or double entendres here:  Rocky Horror is straight-up gay and that won't be lost in translation.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Surprise! Happy English 30 Minutes!

I'd just finished my last class of the day, turned off all the electric stuff in my classroom and was about to leave, locking the door behind me, when two of my co-teachers came in speaking Korean to each other.  One of them turned the lights back on while the other started moving furniture.  Still speaking only Korean and not having addressed me, they unfurled a banner.  One of the teachers summoned students from the hall to help hold the banner against a wall so it could be secured there with tape.  I lent a hand, still clueless about the proceedings.

The banner proclaimed the school's "English Day" and I was finally told my classroom would be used to proctor the one and only English Day festivity, a multiple-choice test.  After the test, the banner was taken down, refolded and stashed until--I presume--the next such observance.

All told, English Day lasted half an hour.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Yes, I do more than work!

I also eat, for instance.  In my apartment I have a microwave and range.  This would be sufficient to cook many things if I had a pot or pan, a plate or bowl, chopsticks, maybe a spoon or fork, etc., but I have none of that.  Just a microwave and range.  Therefore, the only foodstuffs I keep in the apartment are bread, bananas, and digestive biscuits:  things which require no utensils.  No, I don't eat the bread and biscuits over my sink.  I have a bag for that.

My breakfast consists of a banana, a biscuit and some bread.  Around noon I enjoy a lunch in the teachers-only cafeteria at my school.  This costs me about $2.50 and the meals are ample and generally tasty.  I eat one every day.  In the evening I need another largish meal though, so I've been dining out every night.  It's not too expensive; the priciest meals in my neighborhood run around $5 (the average meal is about $4) and are filling.

In the interest of mapping the gastric life of my area I try to patronize a new restaurant every 3-4 days.  Here's how it works, in case you find yourself needing a meal in a foreign city where no one speaks your language:  you walk around until you find a restaurant.  Restaurants are pretty obvious.  Then you go inside and search for a menu--these are also fairly obvious.  If there are pictures, more the better:  you point at something that looks foody.  If there are no visual aids, you decide how much money you want to spend and point at something in your price range.  They'll understand.  Then you sit down and wait.  If you're in a fancier place with no obvious menu, you do what I did in my Vegetarianism vs. Nihilism post below and hope for the best.

My only rule on these outings is that I must eat whatever I'm brought.  Adhering to the rule makes the thing more adventurous and ensures I at least get my money's worth.  My only nasty surprise thus far came this Monday when I went into a new restaurant, ordered a random thing and got a plate of noodles and clams.  The noodles were great, but a whole octopus, about 3 cm long, was buried in them.  I set it aside and ate everything else.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Again with the drastic unannounced schedule changes!

Let me walk you through my usual morning routine.  My "normal" work hours are 0830-1630 with the earliest class beginning at 0900.  I typically arrive at school around 0815 and begin sweating furiously.  The heat isn't so bad but the humidity in the school is very high and I'm wearing a shirt + tie.

First things first:  I climb 4 flights of stairs, enter my classroom, and turn on the AC and computer.  I want to have the sweating under control by class time, so I like to give the AC 30+ minutes to knock the humidity down.  I turn on the computer because it takes like 25 minutes from power on for it to reach functionality.

Next I dip into my super-secret stash of extra-soft, absorbent toilet paper (left behind by previous teacher for who knows why).  I use this to mop some of the sweat off my face and arms.

Then we're off to my office space, where I deposit my belongings, turn on my other computer and drink some water.  The AC is not turned on here until 0830 if I'm lucky, so I leave quickly, bound for the staff lavatory where I mop some more sweat with TP.  (Motion speeds the drying process.) 

I was going through this sweat-control routine today when I was informed of a sudden, drastic change in my schedule.  I was already at work early because I had to teach a class that was rescheduled due to last week's typhoon.  My school likes to reschedule these classes for as early in the morning as possible, meaning I started teaching today at 0830 instead of 0900.

When I went to my office after turning on my classroom's AC, I was informed that my schedule today had been changed:  I would now be teaching all the day's classes back-to-back, in one big chunk broken only by 45 minutes of lunch.  This meant 5 straight hours in the classroom.  The other teachers considered it grueling and my supervisor made me drink both lemonade (for calories) and coffee because she thought I would collapse.  Why can't this school figure out its own schedule?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Again with the drastic unannounced schedule changes.

So it's 0910 this morning and I'm sitting in my classroom reading through student comments about my predecessor and wondering why the halls are empty and the students I was expecting 10 minutes ago haven't arrived.  I step out into the hall and hear what sounds like some kind of assembly going on somewhere else in the building.  Okay.  Has my morning class been postponed?  Canceled?  Rescheduled?  Someone knows, but not me.  I go back to my office but don't find anyone who speaks English.  Back to the classroom.

At 0930, students start arriving.  When my co-teacher arrives she hands me the day's new schedule:  classes start 30 minutes late and are 5 minutes shorter than normal.  Okay.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pink, spongy eye.

The school nurse made an announcement during one of my classes.  My co-teacher told me the school is experiencing a conjunctivitis (no, she didn't say "conjunctivitis") epidemic and the nurse was telling everyone how to avoid contracting it.

The principal made an announcement a few minutes later.  He said that any student who intentionally contracts conjunctivitis will be punished.

(Yes, students are exposing themselves to pinkeye to get out of school.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Plans change.

Many foreign teachers in Korea complain that their schools make drastic schedule changes without warning them, telling them the schedule has changed, or that someone is considering changing the schedule.  Today, my first day of classes, I became another victim of this peculiar style of organization.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Polyester doesn't breathe.

First day of school—no classes for me until the 30th though. I got through the day, but I’m definitely in over my head.  I feel woefully unprepared for Monday.  Time to swim or die.

I looked natty in my polyester suit but I paid a terrible price. I was met at the door by the principal and escorted to his office, where the temperature was 27 degrees and the humidity dire. What followed was truly epic sweatiness. I was sweating so profusely that the vice principal fetched me a thick wad of tissues and the principal himself got up to crank the ac. Then a secretary or something served us steaming hot tea. Great. A stream of sweat was coursing out my sleeves as the three Koreans spoke about I don’t know what. Me, I imagine. Within seconds I had sweated a handprint onto my pant leg. This meeting went on for an eternity or like 6 minutes, I’m not sure.

At least my effort was visible. All the information the principal had to judge me with is what my head co-teacher told him and what he could figure out with his eyes. Hopefully he thought “I respect this young man for undergoing such terrible suffering in order to respect me with his dress” rather than “this disgusting foreign animal is disgracing my cushions.”

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Breaking of the Fellowship.

Today the whittling down of our group and the isolation of its members began in earnest. There were ~340 hires at the orientation, all occupying two dorms at the university. We were divided into cliques but we still ate together, mingled in hallways and on streets and steps, and slept in dorm rooms with roommates.

After today’s lunch we all boarded buses bound for our respective education districts. There were 14 buses total, carrying around 20 people on average; the group got a whole lot smaller in an instant. Most people were sharing buses with strangers as well… but at least these were English-speaking strangers sharing a common experience.

At the district office we were met by our head co-teachers, who had come to transport us to our schools. The group of 20 friendly faces we spent 1-2 hours on a bus with all disappeared in a few minutes.  At the end of the day each of us would sleep alone in a strange place.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pictures from the Korean Folk Village

You figure it out:  I can't.
Bizarre Korean t-shirt.
These are the only two pictures I took.  Nothing else was worth photographing.

People are very cliqueish.

Orientation has been on for 4 days.  Several cliques were visible on day 2 and now they've ossified.  I'm in a clique myself but have been trying to bring into it as many people as possible.  Being a stranger in a strange land, I think it best to have more rather than fewer friends.  I'll talk to anybody and I make a point of including people who don't seem like shitbags in any plans my clique has in the offing.  I'm trying to enlarge the circle.  But it's not working.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sorry wounded people, I shan't donate blood to you in future.

Today's first event was the unnecessarily thorough medical exam.  I had my vision tested for acuity and colorblindness; my hearing tested; my blood pressure, height, and weight measured; four vials of blood and two of urine collected; and a chest x-ray taken.  I'm surprised I wasn't checked for a hernia or prostate cancer or wired up with electrodes and ordered onto a treadmill.

There were complications with my donation of blood.  Finding a good vein was no trouble for the nurse.  She easily pierced and drained it.  The experience was increasingly painful with each vial, and as she withdrew the needle it felt as if she were pulling out a fishing hook.  My next stop after the vampires was the chest x-ray, so I proceeded down four flights of stairs and entered the queue.  One of the other people waiting drew my attention to the eyeball-sized swelling under my wound and suggested I return for further medical attention.  Light pressure on the swelling resulted in fresh bleeding, so I agreed with the wisdom of his suggestion and took the elevator back up.

I fetched another alcohol swab and with it began applying more serious pressure to the lump.  As I headed back down the hall towards the elevator, intending to rejoin the x-ray queue, I began losing consciousness and collapsed into the nearest chair, in front of one of the Koreans working the health gig.  She asked if I felt okay.  "No," I said.  Here the conversation rested.  I began sweating copiously, became quite unable to move, and started to lose sensory functions.  Another Korean in a white coat walked by and asked me if I felt okay.  "No," I said, and on she went.

After a few minutes I was able to persuade the first Korean to fetch me some orange juice, and within 20 I was able to walk again.  I think it would've been easier and more pleasant not to resist the faint and just conk out for a while.  I imagine I would've woken feeling refreshed.  The swelling is gone now but I'm left with a nasty, expanding, painful bruise.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Yeongjong Airport Town

The Incheon airport is not in Incheon proper but rather on an island a bit off shore.  The island is also host to a municipal unit called "Yeongjong Airport Town," which I think the Oceanside Hotel is probably part of.  Here are some pictures:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Vegetarianism vs. Nihilism: Guess Which Prevails

I'm a vegetarian.  I don't eat meat because I think doing so is morally objectionable for several reasons which aren't worth getting into here.  When I went veggie however many years ago, I understood there would be times when I would have no choice but to skip a meal or eat around a pile of meat if I wanted to uphold my principles.  I accepted responsibility for feeding myself.  Principles have costs; if you aren't willing to bear the costs, you can't have the principles.  I've paid my dues whenever the need arose:  during my month in China, the staple of every meal was meat but I steadfastly refused it all, no matter the social awkwardness, and got by with the help of rice.  I planned to do the same in Korea. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pictures of Airport Weirdness

This is a piece of art on display in the O'Hare international terminal.  Title:  Male Sin.  WTF.

O'Hare toilets feature a sophisticated automatic dispenser for plastic ass protectors.

An accessible urinal in the Incheon airport.  Try to imagine how this would be used.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

If there's a quiz on this, I'm screwed.

I've just finished the 15-hour EPIK Online Pre-Orientation Course, a mandatory training supplement.  With no cheating it took about 4 hours.  It seems customary for the designers of these things to seriously overestimate the amount of time their courses demand.  I'm reminded of the 20-hour Grammar Awareness Course I completed for my TEFL certificate in perhaps 5 hours (no cheating).

This EPIK course is mostly irrelevant, frequently bizarre and occasionally incomprehensible.  The first two characteristics are evident right from the start:  the course begins with a series of bullet-point lectures on developmental psychology delivered by a guy with an accent I can't place (South Africa?).  He began with Freud's psychoanalytic pseudoscience and I subsequently enjoyed watching him try to look professional and relevant while describing each stage's associated erogenous zone.  Yes, that anal stage is a doozy!  How does this apply to teaching English in a Korean public school?  It doesn't.  In fact, it doesn't apply to teaching anything anywhere unless you're teaching a class on the history of psychology, in which case it is a grotesque antiquity of some historical value.  Thanks, South African guy, for the superficial, unnecessary review of intro psych.

The text for each lesson is riddled with clumsy language and grammatical errors but still somewhat useful because each lesson ends with a quiz featuring questions and answers lifted verbatim from the text.  This leads to serious comprehension problems due to the text's high level of grammar fail, but don't worry if it's impenetrable:  the quizzes are unscored and allow you to guess until you arrive at the correct answer.  But the lesson isn't complete until it's been open in your browser for 15 minutes, so don't learn too quickly!

Did I mention everything is bullet points?  List of things I hated during my education:  (1) PowerPoint presentations (2) bullet points (3) PowerPoint slides of bullet points (4) waking up at early o'clock in the morning (5) watching others succeed and enjoy themselves.

So in conclusion, I've retained little of the information presented and I'm boned if someone grills me on it later.  Sorry EPIK, I just can't be bothered to remember that "Vygotsky's Sociocultural Perspective" is a subpoint of "The Cognitive-Development Viewpoint" of developmental psychology.  But the funniest part about this whole thing is that I had until January to finish the pre-orientation course.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Online banking is a farcical absurdity.

I'm not closing my US bank account because in an unpredictable emergency a cache of USD is helpful.  I need some way to manage and interact with it while I'm in Korea, preferably without using the phone, so I set up online banking last week.  I immediately forgot my username and had to jump through a hoop to get it back.  Now, as is de rigueur with such things, I have to choose secret questions and supply secret answers to them for the next time I forget my username.  You know how this works:  you select points of personal data that no one is likely to know or be able to uncover without considerable difficulty but that you can regurgitate at any time.  This exercise quickly degenerated into absurdity for me.  There are twenty-one questions in all and I can answer two of them consistently.  I have to choose three.  The two I can answer are in the same group, so I can only select one.  Bummer.

Although some of the questions are clearly aimed at a demographic I don't represent, i.e. married sports fans with children, in aggregate they're supposed to partially define a typical contemporary American as a person.  What does it mean that I can't answer them?  I guess it means my account is extra secure because any ironically well-informed villain who knew all the answers would still be unable to bypass the questions because--double irony--he has no way of knowing the answers I made up.

Friday, July 30, 2010

How much does all this cost, anyway?

Although Korea is happy to pay your rent for a year, and defray your travel expenses, and provide you with health insurance and pension, and pay you a salary, etc., there are plenty of costs you have to cover before getting that far.  Here's a breakdown of my expenses before even getting on the plane:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Korean bureaucracy invades my nightmares.

Applying for this job has been a protracted and uncertain process.  I sent my application to a recruiting agency, KorVia, in early April; I interviewed with EPIK, which now handles applications for SMOE, on April 12.  I got EPIK's seal of approval on April 22.

Then I had to send my documents to Korea for scrutiny with magnifying glasses, gas spectrometers, etc.  Here I ran afoul of bureaucratic inefficiency and/or incompetence and suffered a substantial delay.  I busted my hump to get my documents in order and they arrived in Korea on May 17.  Next came total radio silence until July 1, when I received a form e-mail from EPIK declaring me a successful applicant without any further elaboration or detail.  The next update came in the form of a contract and Notice of Appointment on July 23.

So it took an entire quarter of the year to arrive at tentative certainty re what I'm doing next year.  Emphasis on "tentative"--EPIK hasn't finalized the date for orientation, though it's tentatively scheduled to begin on August 17,  2.5 weeks from now, and no one has been assigned a school or even grade level yet.  That's right, nobody knows who's teaching elementary and who's teaching high school.  Some people also don't know where in Korea they'll be teaching.  Others have been told they have been accepted and will start a job on the other side of the world in 2.5 weeks but have not yet received contracts, much less visas.

What I'm trying to communicate here is that Korean bureaucracy moves at a glacial pace, is opaque, and announces its decisions and the attendant burdens on you suddenly, in brief flurries of activity.  Last night I had an amusing nightmare featuring these themes.  None of you are in it, and reading about the dreams of others is boring, so it's all after the jump:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

They Can Kill You, But the Legalities of Eating You Are Quite a Bit Dicier

I have received a contract from SMOE, signed it, and sent it on to a Korean consulate for visa purposes.  There's nothing too crazy in the contract, though it's clearly designed to protect SMOE against the foreign teacher and provide the former as much latitude as possible in squeezing productivity out of the latter.  It's a bilingual document (English translation provided by SMOE) but in any dispute the Korean text--incomprehensible to most foreign teachers--prevails.  I expected all of this.  In fact, I read last year's SMOE contract before applying. 

A more novel document is the 9-part SMOE 2010 addendum I was required to sign months before receiving the contract proper.  Its conclusion is worth quoting (emphasis mine, caps sic):
  • I fully and forever RELEASE, WAIVE AND DISCHARGE, and COVENANT NOT TO SUE the S.M.O.E.... from and for any and all demands, claims, actions, suits, damages, losses, liabilities, costs and expenses, from any cause whatsoever (including, but not limited to, travel delays, property damage and loss, bodily injuries, sickness, disease and death), directly or indirectly arising in connection with my participation in employment with the S.M.O.E., whether or not foreseeable or contributed to by the negligent acts or omissions of S.M.O.E...
Korean contracts for foreign teachers have evolved over time to prevent the recurrence of common disputes, becoming more specific about duties, pay, and benefits, as one would expect, but one has to wonder what exigencies have compelled SMOE to worry about being sued for negligently manslaughtering its teachers...

Monday, July 19, 2010

About the title.

"Loser back home" is a label affixed to an expatriate who was a loser in his home country and attempts to craft a new, more glamorous and interesting identity for himself in his new country of residence where no one knows him and the locals are unable to read the cultural signs which mark him as a loser. This often entails knavery, clumsy seductions of local women, public intoxication, and generally shameful behavior that tarnishes the reputations of all the LBH's fellow countrymen, causing them to be viewed forever after with suspicion and distaste.

I assure you, dear reader, I am not one of these precisely. I am a refined gentleman of no distinction whatever and I am a loser in my native land. Allow me to explain.