Tuesday, August 23, 2011

See you in 4 months, world.

Tomorrow's the last day of my contract and I haven't time to type anything elaborate. It suffices to note that I'm ecstatic to be leaving this job behind me. I'll be back in the USA around Xmas. Here's the plan:

(remainder of) August: Japan
September: Philippines, China, Laos
October: Vietnam, Thailand
November: India
December: England, Spain, Holland

I doubt I'll be updating this blog. I've hit my image storage limit anyway.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Jeju: Hallasan

Hallasan is the center of Jeju Island and, properly speaking, it is Jeju Island, being the highest bits of the volcano.  It's the tallest mountain in Korea and I wasn't going to leave without climbing it.

I rose early and boarded a bus to the park surrounding the mountain.  On board I met a Dutch tourist who was also planning an ascent, so we went together.  We climbed up the Gwaneumsa trail (8.7 km, mostly stairs) and down the Seongpanak trail (9.6 km, mostly uneven chunks of basalt).

The Gwaneumsa trail begins in a forest that looks like this.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Jeju: Seongsan Ilchulbong and Udo

On the east side of Jeju there's this antediluvian volcanic thing called Seongsan Ilchulbong, which name means something like "Holy Mountain Sunrise Peak," so it sounds like kind of a big deal but in practice it just means the village next to it has a lot of overpriced guest houses.  It's customary for tourists to wake real early and heave themselves up the rock to greet the dawn.

Seongsan Ilchulbong:  prepare to be mounted directly on the morrow by yours truly.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Jeju: Loveland (not safe for work)

Jeju is an island south of the Korean peninsula sometimes called the Hawaii of Korea.  Both islands are shield volcanoes (Jeju is dormant) with economies based on tourism and exporting fruits (mostly tangerines and oranges in the case of Jeju).  Jeju has always been sort of independent from mainland Korea.  Locals speak a unique dialect and have historically had a somewhat different culture.

Jeju was on my list of places to see before leaving Korea behind.  It's conveniently only an hour by plane from Seoul, so I flew over and spent 3 days doing the tourist thing.  My first endeavor was a visit to Loveland, an erotic sculpture park outside Jeju City and the most infamous tourist trap in all Korea. 

Funny story:  Loveland is literally right next to the official, classy Jeju Museum of Art.  I took in Loveland first and browsed the Museum of Art afterward.  There's no bus stop to get back to the city and Loveland is the more popular attraction, so I needed a taxi and they were all waiting in Loveland's parking lot.  On my way to the gaggle of cabbies I was hailed from behind in English by a well-dressed young Korean man who turned out to be a Jehovah's Witness who hangs around outside this local monument of sinful prurience and struggles to press copies of the Watchtower into the hirsute, sweaty palms of debauched foreign tourists.

My frolic through Loveland is obviously a story best told in pictures.  Here some of them are, but a warning first:  this is definitely not safe for work and if you find erotic statuary distasteful these definitely are not the pictures for you.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sokcho and Seoraksan

Seoraksan National Park is home to, and named after, Korea's most popular mountain.  It's on the east coast, 3 bus-bound hours from Seoul, next to Sokcho (a city).  Seoraksan is so dang famous I wanted to climb it before splitting Korea for good.  My lovely companion and I made it so one magical (highly arduous, actually) Saturday.

Yep, still funny.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Korean Food: Ddeok

Let's be frank:  ddeok is weird.  Also hard to pronounce.  The closest you can get in English is "dock."  The favored translation is "rice cake" and, I think, somewhat misleading.  It's not something a typical English-speaker would consider cake-like or recognize as being a rice product.  Still, that's what the locals insist on calling it.  (Can't teach them anything.)

The classic ddeok dish is ddeokbokki, which is what you see here with an added egg and noodles.  Normally there's just the red sauce (often painfully spicy), ddeok sticks (the tubular white things) and odeng (the flat stuff--it's a kind of fish cake).  An ubiquitous street food.

If I had to pick one word to describe ddeok, I'd go with chewy.   Two words?  Chewy, insipid.  All the flavor of ddeokbokki comes from the sauce.  Ddeok itself tastes like nothing. 

It's traditional in Korea for new hires to buy ddeok for everyone after they receive their first paycheck.  I don't know if this occurs outside education but it's definitely the rule at my school.  This semester there were several new teachers and I received a ridiculous amount of first-paycheck ddeok.  Two, three times a week I'd return to my desk after a class and find a little gift-wrapped box of glutinous blandness waiting for me.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Kimchi Field Museum

In one of the COEX mall's sub-basements lies the Pulmuone Kimchi Field Museum.  Pulmuone is a Korean food company that produces, among other things, kimchi.  I don't know why the place is called a "field" museum; perhaps because if you're there, you're in Korea, which constitutes being in the field for a scholar of kimchi studies.

Kimchi is a blanket term for vegetables soaked in brine and fermented and/or pickled.  I'm convinced it all began as a food preservation strategy because I can't bring myself to believe they did these things to enhance flavor.  There are something like 200 different kinds of kimchi but the most common sort is made with napa cabbage and red pepper paste.  When someone says 'kimchi' this is usually what they mean.  I end up eating it just about every day and it's probably the only kimchi you can find outside Korea, wherever you are.

Like most waygooks, I don't like kimchi.  Koreans think this is because it's face-meltingly spicy, which shows you how parochial their palates are.  Having eaten food from all over the globe as well as countless kilos of kimchi, I can assure you your first thought after chopsticking a slab of kimchi into your mouth will not be "this is spicy."  An average burrito is spicier than kimchi.  So are many other Korean dishes.  No, the reason waygooks dislike kimchi is that it tastes bad, viz. like fermented cabbage that's been soaked in salt water.

Korea's been trying to talk its way onto the world stage in recent years.  One of its tactics has been the promotion of Korean culture abroad.  See, for example, the humorously inapt Visit Korea Year (2010-2012) and various attempts to convince foreigners that Korea can make unique contributions to world culture.  If you ask a Korean what Korea has to offer the world, they'll probably mention the two products of Korean culture they're most nationalistic about:  Hangeul ("the world's most scientific alphabet") and kimchi ("the food of the future").  Hence the kimchi museum being bilingual.  Let's have some pictures.

Ironically, this ancient kimchi recipe is written with Chinese characters.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Facebook has declared war on prolixity.

Isn't it weird when you're lying in bed learning some Spanish and thinking about how you spent 2 hours of your own personal free time studying arithmetic and are pretty stoked about it, actually, and then you suddenly taste the cheap no-brand Hot Pocket(tm) you ate probably like 16 years ago (with the black olives, left over from when your mother had bought a few on sale and discovered your sister hated them) during that strange, dark period when you watched The Empire Strikes Back every night for several consecutive weeks?  I mean how can you summon such a specific, seemingly insignificant sense impression from so long ago and then recognize it?  And what, if any, connection exists between all these things?  Other than you (me)?  And isn't that the human condition right there.

Friday, July 8, 2011

One Week of School Lunches

Clockwise from rice:  roots and walnuts marinated in soy sauce, apple noodle cabbage thing, kimchi, pork vegetables ddeok, mung bean sprout soup.

Clockwise:  doenjang soup, french toast, toasted seaweed, leafy non-cabbage kimchi, banana, unmixed bibimbap.  The Korean race suffers an ancestral horror of unmixed bibimbap.  If you're at a Korean restaurant and look like you may not mix it, someone will come and do it for you.  Red stuff is gochujang (flavor sauce).

Clockwise from rice:  random greens, fried pumpkin thing, radish kimchi, chicken and potatoes, kimchi jjigae.

Clockwise from rice:  random greens:  the sequel, eggs marinated in soy sauce, kimchi, chunk of fish, pig bone soup.  The soup was pretty good actually but had fist-sized chunks of pig bone in it.
The rice is discolored because it was cooked with black beans.  Proceeding clockwise:  japchae (sweet potato noodles), I don't know but there was apple in it, kimchi, marinated quail eggs + meat + I don't know, soup with random vegetables and sea creatures (some whole, some in parts).

Monday, July 4, 2011

Busan: Incomprehensible T-Shirts

While visiting Busan we came across a collection of superb Engrish.  The pictures caption themselves.

Monday, June 27, 2011

I think the Translator hates me.

Or at least has no confidence in my ability (which I think quite fair).  I haven't written much about her because she hasn't been interesting; until recently she continued to translate nearly everything I say and be predictable and easy to work with.  She did once chastise me for pointing with my index finger but other than that it was smooth sailing.

This semester I teach the school's youngest students with her and she seemed to enjoy it.  She was indulgent and cheerful and real extra pleasant.  Then in April her behavior started to change.  She failed to appear for a few classes and when students asked me where she was I had to go fetch her from her office.

Soon she stopped having a good time and became less involved in our co-educational enterprise.  These changes were remarkable enough that I considered asking her about it.  I assumed she was tired or overworked, two common problems for employed Koreans, and thought maybe she'd appreciate some friendly concern.  But our relationship isn't a talking about personal situations sort of deal so I decided it would be wiser to stay out of it.  I wasn't going to hassle her.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Really, we all look alike to them.

I showed this picture to three classes today:

Remember how my students are hopelessly bad at recognizing diversity in foreigners?  In two of today's classes my first task was to convince everyone this is not a picture of me.  (The third class was a third grade class, which means they were all thinking it was a picture of me but not saying anything about it because contributing a potentially useful utterance to a classroom is devastatingly uncool in Korea when you're 15.)  One girl, upon accepting this as an image of a stranger, shouted "brother!"

Also, they're shallow.  I know, everyone is shallow.  But read this or this.  In the two classes willing to speak there were cries of "HANDSOME!" and "SO HANDSOME!" and "BIG MOUTH!!" which I had to quiet.  Even after I'd explained about how that fool isn't me.  (Students hassle me about being handsome every day, especially when they want something.)  Dang it Korea, you're supposed to laugh at the man's buffoonery not fall in love with him.

Actual conversation from yesterday apropos of nothing:
STUDENT:  Teacher... tall?
ME: How tall am I?
STUDENT:  [nodding]
ME:  187 centimeters.
STUDENT:  Oh! So handsome!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Busan: Temple with Ocean View

I've little interest in temples and this one is nothing special.  Great location though. 

This picture of the stone marking the turnoff for the temple was taken from the nearest bus stop, where it's like 20 torturous minutes between buses and you know if you hail a cab you'll see the bus in the rear-view mirror pulling up as you ride off.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Busan: Haeundae Beach

Behold:  mainland Korea's best beach.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The 2011 English Pop Song Competition

Seems the middle schools in the district hold English pop song competitions every year.  Being a local celebrity famous for my coziness with the English language, I was chosen to judge both auditions and final performances.  Auditions were weird.  At 0830 hopefuls came to my classroom and sang one unaccompanied minute of their songs to myself, Chortle, and a roomful of mixed-grade students.  You can imagine the horror of being 12 years old and singing a foreign-language song first thing in the morning in front of 2 teachers and two dozen strangers.

Singers scrupulously observed rests, including instrumental breaks, which makes for a real awkward a capella performance, let me tell you.  When their minute was up Chortle barked at them in Korean and they shuffled to their seats trying to hide their pantloads of terrorshit.  Some students sang in groups of 2-3, in which cases harmony was attempted.  This usually worked but is the only reason I can now say I've heard "Lemon Tree" sung in parallel tritones.  Well, technically it is harmony and the girls were so consistent that I have to think maybe they were just being avant garde.

For the final performances the school's English Day! banner--evidently unfurled for every extracurricular English event--was hung in the auditorium.  The festivities began with technical difficulties.  The auditorium's PA didn't work despite having been thoroughly tested.  Plan B was to broadcast the music over the entire school's PA at 78 rpm quality, which gets the sausage made, but at what cost?  Someone working the technology accidentally started "Dancing Queen" 3 or 4 times, which was cool because hey, ABBA!, but it turned into a huge tease when the girls who were slated to perform it no-showed.

Then there were the microphones.  They all had dirty/loose XLRs or something and crackled when jostled.  I started hating the very idea of the microphone after the first student stabbed "You Raise Me Up" into my eardrums singing straight out his nose.  I got a headache from the kid who wrapped his hand around the windscreen, held it to his lips and shouted into it.  I could see his carotid artery swelling with exertion.  He doubled over when he wanted to be louder still, like he was trying to use his pelvis for leverage against his diaphragm in a perverse quest for mechanical advantage.  And he did a wordless caterwauling thing I cannot adequately describe; it was simultaneously painful to hear and hilarious.  The applause he received was thunderous.  I couldn't tell whether it was ironic or if the crowd prized his total commitment.

Singers provided printed lyrics for the judges.  This was helpful because most of the time listening alone was incapable of determining which words were intended.  (No one was this much fun though.)  One song was performed twice and the two transcriptions didn't agree.  Is the line "sense of elation" or "since ovulation"?  The difference is huge, guys.  I also learned you can safely drop the f-bomb on your Korean middle school's principal and 5 of its English teachers because none of them will catch it.

All told, I'm glad this was my last English Pop Song Competition.  Being the Paula was hard work.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A boring story from someone else's job.

I laughed though, because it's my story and my job.  You may remember that I call one of my co-teachers Rose because she's about as quick as the dumb one from the Golden Girls (pictured).  Most of my co-teachers bring nothing to my classes but Rose likes to contribute in her own clumsy way.  Here's how our classes together have worked for the last 10 months:
  1. Rose provides a cloze (fill-in-the-blanks) worksheet covering the textbook's dialogs.
  2. I lead students through the textbook up to the first dialog.
  3. I coerce students to listen and fill in the blanks.
  4. I coerce students to say the missing words as I reveal them via PowerPoint.
  5. Once the complete script is on screen Rose talks about it in Korean for 2-6 minutes.
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 for the second dialog.
  7. I coerce students to perform speaking exercises.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Busan: Haeundae Beach Love Motels

Went to Busan last month, took a lot of pictures, didn't even tell you about it.  Allow me to right this wrong starting with an expose of Busan love motels.  Your first question is undoubtedly "What's a love motel?" and I'm glad you asked!  A love motel is where Koreans/Japanese take their lovers for assignations.  Hourly pricing is often available and staying more than one night is discouraged.  Love motels are awesome because they're often cheap, typically clean, and frequently wacky.  

Monday, May 30, 2011

Korean Food: Jjigae

Jjigae means "stew," more or less, and it's served literally boiling hot in a special earthenware bowl.  I like most kinds of jjigae, especially after I've shoveled in a heap of rice to eliminate the soupiness.  All jjigaes, with the exception of doenjang jjigae, are made with gochu (red pepper) in either paste or flake form.  (They're spicy.)  They often share other ingredients, e.g. you're likely to find dubu and cabbage in other jjigaes, not just the sundubu and kimchi varieties.  Kimbap Paradise will serve you a bowl of jjigae with a side of rice for 4-5,000 won (like $4.50 tops).  You can do a lot worse.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No man is island except this guy right here.

Last week Chortle told me about a mandatory teacher training workshop.  The district education office organizes a few of these things each year and I think teachers are required to attend x hours of them; I went to two last year.  She had a visual aid with all the details in Korean.  She pointed at stuff and told me what it meant.  Good enough.  All I needed to know was where to go and when to be there.

Yesterday she approached me with the same document translated in the margins by her blue ink scrawl and relayed all the particulars to me again as if the conversation hadn't happened already.  Which is okay, I mean whatever, she's a busy lady, I don't mind getting the same info twice every now and again.  But she hadn't told me the first time that one of the presentations would cover adapting to life in Korea, for the benefit of the waygooks who arrived in March.  When she mentioned this during the recapitulation she chortled and said I seem to have adapted quite well enough already.  Which got me thinking.

Chortle likes to diagram graphomaniacally while she explains things to me.  I think she distrusts her spoken English.  This document was her visual aid for explaining my schedule this semester.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

This was a triumph.

At the end of a class today I burst into song.  Specifically:

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Buddha's birthday: more fun than Christmas.

Seoul calls its official celebration of Buddha's birthday the Lotus Lantern Festival and it's a better party than Christmas for sure.  I attended the festivities Saturday night and am glad I did.  First came a surprisingly long parade with a cast of thousands.  Here's some things you won't see at Xmas:

Huge green swastikas.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I have more (modern) Korean art for you.

There's a Chagall exhibition in town which I thought I might like to take in until I arrived at the museum and discovered admission was 13,000 won, a revelation which caused me suddenly to realize I don't know who Chagall was and don't want to find out at the going rate.  Happily, said museum offers a free exhibition of work by contemporary Korean artists, much of which is strange and reproduced below for you in photographs.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Korean Food: Kimbap

After reading my post about Styela clava you may have gotten the impression Korean food and I don't get along.  That nasty business certainly wasn't pleasing to my mouth.  But in general Korean food and I are like this.  To dispel misconceptions and perhaps also satisfy your natural curiosity about what people on the other side of the planet eat every day, I'll be posting a series of ... posts about the Korean stuff I eat.  I'll start with kimbap because I'm enthusiastic about it, it's ubiquitous in Korea, and most foreigners can see its appeal.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I Won't Learn Korean

I've met a couple of Koreans who want free English lessons from me.  In both cases they've offered a language exchange:  my English for their Korean.  Sadly for them, their Korean has no value to me because I've decided not to learn the language.  And I don't mean I'm taking a stance of passive disinterest towards Korean, say by not enrolling in classes or not buying a phrasebook; I mean I'm actively not learning Korean.  I'll go out of my way to avoid learning it.  I consider the entrance of a new Korean word into my understanding a loss, not a gain.

I have some great reasons for not learning Korean.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

New Facebook profile pic!

This sign used to just read WILL in blazing red letters on a segment of spikey wrought iron fence.  I thought it was a Nazi cafe because the sign gave me a triumph of the WILL or WILL to power sort of vibe.  Now, with the festive trim, I get a Jimmy Buffet sort of vibe.
I'm certain I've mentioned Hongdae in previous posts.  I recall a specific one in which I described an evening I spent there all suited up with nowhere to go, hungry for kebab, an evening which found me at its close intoxicated in public after a run-in with Makgeolli Man, a local character who arbitrages convenience store makgeolli from a peasant cart he pulls around the neighborhood and who praised my sartorial excellence and enthusiastically professed his love for me.  Well it happened again last Friday!  Except I wasn't wearing a suit and was already intoxicated when my path crossed Makgeolli Man's.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I visited Yeouido, home of the world's largest Christian church.

Yoi Island (Yeouido) is an island in the Han Wikipedia can explain to you.  I visited it because "see the world's largest Christian church" was on my list of things to do before leaving Korea.  While I'm at it, let me refer you to Wikipedia for the answer to any question you may have about the church itself.  All the background is covered more than adequately by the internet; why should I bother to type anything beyond my personal experience, as yet unrecorded?  (I shouldn't.)  So let's get on with it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

This post is nothing more than a complaint and is honestly a rather tedious read.

Though my school pays my rent, I have to pay for "maintenance" each month.  "Maintenance" covers my electricity and water consumption and also a slew of miscellaneous fees that don't make sense when Google Translated but always add up to around 80,000 won.  This maintenance bill is ridiculously hard to pay and has vexed me since the beginning.  I've always managed to pay it on time, often just barely, but this month it will certainly be late.  I feel my grievances on this occasion are best presented as a dialogue:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Further proof race is a social construct:

I wanted a picture of a running woman for a lesson.  I was sure most students would know the verb "to run" and confident at least a few of them would be able to say "she likes running" if prompted.  I chose this one:

Looks like she's flying.  Thanks, Google Images.
Most of my students were able to say "she likes running" as predicted.  However, when I asked "Where do you think she's from?" things got a bit weird.  I asked this question re this random woman in 10 classes last week and in every one someone immediately called out "Kenya!"

Perhaps you're thinking the worldwide fame of Kenyan distance runners has penetrated Korean pop culture to such an extent that here running itself is associated with Kenya and Kenyans.  I assure you this is not the case.  My students think this woman is from Kenya because Kenya is the only African country they can name.  I know this because my follow-up question in each class was "Why Kenya?" and the answer was always "black" or "black skin" or the ungrammatical slap in the face "she is black people."

You may consider this misidentification of a tanned woman as a black African a product of ignorance, and that's fair.  These students have probably never seen a "black" person in real life, much less met one.  The only non-Asians they know are the English teachers they've had the last 3 years:  probably 2 or 3 waygooks total, and they met me only last week.

But I don't want to dwell on the ignorance here, not when there's a far more instructive observation to be made:  the difference between a "white" person with a tan and a "black" person is not immediately clear to Korean children because it isn't obvious.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I ate something nasty.

Specifically, Styela clava.  Two weeks ago I encountered a new soup at lunch.  It was red, like it had a tomato base, and smelled questionable.  I fished around in the cauldron with the ladle and discovered it contained something I could not identify.  Something that looked kind of like an eyeball with warts all over it.  I thought "probably an animal?", couldn't get any further into the taxonomy, and decided not to eat it.  I asked a coworker what it was and she couldn't tell me more than that it came from the ocean.  She insisted it isn't an animal.  She also told me you have to be careful when eating it because it's full of fluid that squirts out when you bite it, possibly scalding the inside of your mouth.  I gagged a little.

This is Styela clava fresh from the sea.  I do not want to eat that.

Last week the same soup was served again.  Word had gone round that I was put off by the warty sea creature.  Worse, I was in line next to Chortle, and as it happens this vile thing is not just a Korean delicacy:  it's also Chortle's favorite food.  I sighed inwardly and resigned myself to eating one in order to score Culture Points.

A pile of Styela clava ready for cooking.  This is turning my stomach right now.
In Korea this tumescent abomination is called 미더덕 and the favored English translation is "warty sea squirt," a thoroughly apt label that efficiently summarizes arguments against eating the knobby thing.  An onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it represents.  What do you call a name that tastes like what it names?  I don't know, but let me just say that "warty sea squirt" is definitely one of those.

Boiling makes it no more appetizing.  This could only be less sexy if it were fermented and/or pickled.
You don't really eat the warty sea squirt.  It's too leathery to masticate.  You just bite it and swallow the juices that blast out.  Chortle drained like 10 of them, pausing to savor the viscous flavor explosion of each one before adding its flaccid husk to the carcass pile on her tray. 

One was sufficient for myself.  What did it taste like?  Hard to say; it's like trying to define replace without saying replace.  I'll just say it tasted like a hermaphroditic tunicate filled with fluid and something hard in the middle, so if you're curious you can just imagine trying to eat a waterlogged human thumb what's been tanned and boiled to shoe-leather.

Quail eggs and kimchi pancakes for lunch today, though.  Not bad.

Monday, March 7, 2011

I am a proud member of the "I Like Tea" club.

So apropos of nothing Chortle slapped this sheet of paper all spattered with Korean down on my desk and asked me which after-school club I wanted to join.  At first I thought this surely was a trap because "after-school club" sounds like "extra work" to me and I consequently enjoyed a terrifying premonition of getting roped into herding naughty children who don't understand any English through a museum in my spare time.  No thanks, Korea:  the overtime rate you are contractually obligated to pay me is insufficient compensation for field trips through the fires of hell.

But my intuition was incorrect.  Chortle explained that on two Fridays of each month the sticklers in administration allow teachers to knock off one hour early so they can enjoy some bonding time with other teachers who share their interests.  It's a team-building thing.  Teachers have to register officially with a club to enjoy this privilege.  I definitely wanted to spare myself all those hours of looking busy, so I needed to join a club.  Here's a list of my options as translated by Chortle:
  1. The "Educational Culture" club.  Chortle didn't know how to express the name of this one in English, but she made it seem boring and didn't want to try to explain.
  2. The "I Like God" club.  Self-explanatory.
  3. The "Traditional Korean Music" club.  Apparently its members form an ensemble.
  4. The "Western Music" club.  Similar to #3 above, I gather, but with guitars.
  5. "ELF (Enjoy Life & Food)".  Curiously, this one has an English-only name.  It meets at fancy restaurants.
  6. The "Trekking" club.  Chortle consented to "walking" as a better translation.
  7. "Mountain Hiking."
  8. The "I Like Movies" club.
  9. The "I Like Tea" club.
Note that there's no "I Speak English" club and imagine joining a club full of strangers you can't risk offending who conduct all their business in a language you don't understand.  I wanted to claim those glorious hours off, but the path was perilous.

I hemmed and hawed.  Chortle mentioned she was joining the "I Like Tea" club and wrote her name in its box.  She was the third signer and none of the other clubs had a member yet.  I asked about the movie club:  all Korean movies, or subtitled American ones?  Chortle didn't know.  I looked thoughtful.  I tentatively offered that I'd enjoyed some teas in the past.  There was a pause.  Chortle leaned in close and in a conspiratorial whisper told me the "I Like Tea" club is a front organization for going home early.  It meets once each semester for an evening meal at a decent restaurant, just for fun, and otherwise does nothing.  There is no tea.  It ought to be called the I Like Going Home Early club.  I knew at once this was the outfit for me.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I attended a school assembly.

I've already mentioned the unpredictability of my schedule last semester.  Informed you of the days on which I obediently trundled up to my classroom and awaited, in utter solitude and eerie silence, students who came 35 minutes late bearing a sheet of paper with the day's new schedule, leading me to wonder what had caused the delay and why no one ever told me about these things in advance.  I may also have mentioned this happened often enough that I placed a book in my classroom to facilitate productive use of these unexpected segments of quiet time.  I forget.

If during these eerily silent periods I stuck my head into the hall to look for signs of life, I'd hear faint but definitely amplified speechery, as if some unseen somebody somewhere down some corridors on the other side of several concrete walls were delivering a lecture via megaphone.  I also noticed that I routinely heard the ghostly warblings of an anthemy tune shortly before students started filtering in.  I therefore hypothesized these odd, lonely times must involve school assemblies of some sort.  I did ask people what had transpired after the first few such happenings but nobody had enough English to fill me in so I let it go and have since considered the unannounced delays on these special days and the shortening (by 10 whole minutes!) of my subsequent classes on said days as accidental, though blessed, gifts from the pitiless educationing machine that is my school.

Today I learned these events are in fact assemblies, held on what is probably best called the "playground" even though it lacks the most meagre shreds of whimsy necessary for play and is honestly just a big flat square of dirt, to which I have heretofore never been invited.  Blessedly.  Some foreigners would feel slighted by such exclusion from community functions but for my part I greatly prefer sitting alone for 35 minutes to standing in front of the school staring eastward into the sun and exposed to the bitterness of the morning elements while the principal exhorts the student body to learn really hard in math class so the nation can finally overcome the shame of being a Japanese colony 100 years ago.  I mean, take your pick:  attend the local potentate's incomprehensible ceremony or enjoy some surprise you-time. 

This morning's occasion for speechmaking was a ceremony marking the first day of the semester for incoming first grade students.  Chortle told me about the gathering and my compulsory attendance thereof roughly 50 seconds before the show started, so we had to run to our places.  I'm glad she was there to direct me through the motions everyone else has learned by rote.  "The flag," she said, as the teachers flanking the concrete podium in front of the big dirt square turned to face the flag.  A kid climbed onto the podium, stood in front of the lectern and, for the benefit of his 600 assembled peers--none of whom sang along--beat 3/4 through the national anthem in the most textbook style imaginable.  "Turn around," she said, as the teachers turned to present a unified front to the incoming first grade and the student conductor quit his post.

Next came the speechmaking.  There were three microphones:  one in possession of the P.E. teacher acting as drill sergeant, loudly demanding silence from the increasingly restive student body; one malfunctioning at the lectern when the principal began his oration and one hastily-brought replacement for same.  I can't testify to the contents of the speeches, what with the low quality audio, the distracting blasts of static and feedback and it all being in Korean, but I can tell you the high point of my bemusement came when the teachers departing for other schools (e.g. Stealth Korean) were formally introduced to students who will never see them again.  That was a puzzler.

The ceremony ended with the student conductor beating 4/4 through a replaying of the school song from--I'm speculating here--a wax cylinder.  None of new students sang along, perhaps because they'd never heard their new school's theme song before but maybe because they're lazy or weren't in a singing mood after half an hour of standing at attention.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bukchon, I think.

I paid a visit to Bukchon (I think that's what it's called, anyway), a residential neighborhood set in the hills north of the city center.  It's a famous area because its homes somewhat resemble traditional Korean structures.  I went on a Saturday afternoon and found the place crawling with Korean tourists taking pictures of the way their ancestors might have lived had they enjoyed access to concrete, high-quality masonry, reliable carpenters, the printing press, electricity, interior decorators, etc.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Once more, with feeling.

The second semester of my year in Korea starts next week.  At this point before the first semester I was in a blind panic.  I arrived at school on a Thursday knowing nothing about it, my job, my coworkers and students and their capabilities and expectations of me, or the textbooks I would have to use.  On the following Monday I taught more than 100 students.  My blind panic didn't subside for several months. 

As the semester's apocalyptic desperation dragged on I learned how to get the work done without raising any immediate complaints.  I'm not any good at it but I know my current ability is sufficient to get through it, which is all I care about anyway.  I lowered my personal standards, stopped taking the job seriously, practiced pretending the school doesn't exist when I'm not there and now I'm mellow as I approach the second round of this gig.  For at least the next 5 months I'll be teaching straight out of a textbook (harder than it sounds) and I know I can keep 35 Korean juveniles busy for three quarters of an hour with minimal preparation and three pages of it.

I'm writing this on Friday morning.  There's a don't-come-to-school holiday next week and I don't know if it's Monday or Tuesday.  The official school calendar showing all the holidays, special activity days, midterm/final exams, etc. has not been finalized, much less printed (in Korean) and handed to me.  I don't know which day next week I'll teach my first classes, which classes those will be or who I'll be teaching them with.  I don't know anything about Stealth Korean's replacement.  I haven't seen a textbook for one of the grades I'll be teaching next week.

These unknowns could conceivably be a source of anxiety for me, but they're all just work and I don't take that home with me.  There are too many books for me to read, too much iron for me to shift.  This afternoon I'll visit my lovely companion.  We will enjoy The Naked Gun 2 and I will tell her she's pretty; this will be good for what ails her.  Tomorrow we'll attend a book club event at which I will eat gourmet food, drink wine I'm told is very nice (but tastes like mouthwash), and complain about the book we all read.  I haven't decided on a Sunday plan yet, but I can assure you it will involve sleeping in.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oh Stealth Korean, I hardly knew ye.

Today I learned two surprising things about Stealth Korean:
  1. She lives on the other side of the city and has been trudging through a one-hour commute for the last 5 years. (!!)
  2. I'll never see her again.
Item 2 is obviously the more surprising.  Stealth Korean's term of service at my school is up and she'll start work somewhere else next week.  See, Korean teachers aren't allowed to work at a school longer than 5 years.  When their fifth year is up they get transferred somewhere else.  I don't know the rationale behind this shuffling of the deck.  It can't have anything to do with preventing tenure because Korean teachers are nigh unfireable regardless of their itinerancy.

I knew nothing about Stealth Korean's imminent departure until this morning, when Chortle clued me in, because nobody tells me anything.  I was like, "Dang."  This is a great personal tragedy for me personally because Stealth Korean was the school's most fluent English speaker (i.e. the only conversational one) and best English teacher.  Almost all the co-teachers I worked with last semester (8 in all) are various shades of useless.  Imagine working a job at which you and all but one of your coworkers is incompetent and the competent one is not just competent, but excellent.

Stealth Korean was totally useful in the classroom.  She interrupted me at appropriate times to clarify points the students couldn't understand; she translated complicated directions into Korean, something none of the others can manage; she improvised novel, unplanned activities when what I was doing wasn't working; she gave me useful feedback and was good at classroom management.  I had no worries working with her.  No matter how badly I cocked things up she was always ready and able to uncock them.  Once, I forgot when one of our classes was scheduled to end (this is easier than you think) and terminated it five minutes early expecting the bell to ring in a few seconds.  Stealth Korean took over without a hitch and prevented an outbreak of chaos.  It was also Stealth Korean who first showed me teaching is not the job for me.  I realized one day, watching her, that she honestly likes her students and truly enjoys teaching.  I never will.

Now she'll be replaced by nobody knows who.  I don't mean the information hasn't trickled down yet, I mean literally nobody knows.  One would think the administrative types would've planned this whole thing out well in advance, having known all year that Stealth Korean was leaving, but in fact they have not.  Hope they get it sorted by next week.  I also hope the new English teacher speaks English and isn't completely worthless.  If it's another Wallflower, I'm in for an excruciating semester.

As we sat waiting for a Korean-only staff meeting to begin, I shared my high opinion of Stealth Korean with Chortle, who solemnly told me she (Stealth Korean) is "irreplaceable."  At first I thought this was simply the sort of platitude polite people reflexively offer when hearing praise for others, but Chortle went on to explain that she (Stealth Korean) is literally irreplaceable.  She'd been a real go-getter, launching and directing several extracurricular English activities, e.g. the 30-minute English Days I've written of, taking on significant extra work in the process.  Now none of the remaining teachers want to continue her programs and are battling to avoid shouldering the burden.  Chortle laughed nervously as she said, with a panicked flash of sclera, "It's a big problem!"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Visit to Loving Hut or: I Ate a Lotus Leaf Burrito.

Alright, so there's this Vietnamese woman, Ching Hai, who calls herself the "Supreme Master" and makes an excellent living peddling an eclectic feel-good Buddhism.  Wikipedia is happy to tell you all about her.

Among the Supreme Master's many business ventures is the Loving Hut chain of vegan restaurants.  There are several of these in Seoul and, being ostensibly vegetarian and wanting to experience at first hand some wacky Supreme Master kitsch, I recently visited one to be overcharged for a meal.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Here's some weird Korean art.

There's a lot of modern art in Korea, much of it in the form of oversized statuary, a photo collection of which I'm preparing.  In the meantime, here's some art from the lobby of the Seoul Press Center to whet your appetite:

Monday, February 7, 2011

The DMZ is a tourist trap. Also, a tank trap.

I picked the worst day of the year to visit the DMZ/JSA and surrounding points of interest (e.g. the third infiltration tunnel, Dorasan Observatory, Dorasan station).  Fog reduced visibility to just about nothing, rendering the North invisible and allegedly making the JSA too dangerous for tourists.  The army was concerned that DPRK soldiers might have been lying in misty concealment somewhere waiting to kill us all.  The most interesting part of the tour was therefore canceled.  How exactly KPA assassins could have ambuscaded a tour group without conspicuously crossing the border and massacring it at close range is beyond me.  Hey US Army:  fog works both ways.  If you can't see the lurking communist scoundrels, they can't see you.

As is typical of me, I found the tour surreal and farcical and ended up observing its structure and participants more closely than the things we were shown.  It gets all meta when I go to tourist attractions and I always come home with pictures of tourists taking pictures.  Have a look:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Weird Korean Stuff

I'm reposting this because I still think it's hilarious.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Grammar is one reason foreigners don't rate in Korea.

I recently had an interesting conversation with a Korean woman.  We got to talking about the awkwardnesses of being a foreign English teacher in Korea--there are many--and she  told me about her 9-year-old niece, who doesn't respect her foreign teacher for interesting linguistic and cultural reasons.

One of the largest grammatical differences between English and Korean concerns formality.  Hierarchy is so important in Korean culture that the language enshrines it as a fundamental element of grammar.  The grammar of Korean speech is determined by the relative ranks of the speaker and audience within the prevailing hierarchy.  Think of the way a Romance language conjugates its verbs to encode subjects, then imagine adding another layer of inflection to encode the speaker's rank relative to the audience.  It's complicated and Wikipedia can tell you all about it if you like.

All you need to know to follow the rest of my story is that the least polite paradigm is banmal, which is basically Korean stripped of formality.  Superiors use banmal when speaking to their inferiors, who use a more polite form in reply.  Close friends use banmal amongst themselves.  Typically, Koreans begin a relationship with more polite forms and move towards a mutual banmal consensus as the relationship deepens.  Using banmal inappropriately denies a person the respect they are due and is a social insult that won't likely pass unnoticed or unpunished, especially if a feisty ajumma with a big flowery carpetbag and the low outrage threshold typical of her kind is on the receiving end of the presumption. 

So let's get back to this niece:  why doesn't she respect her foreign teacher?  As her aunt explains it, it starts with the language. English has nothing akin to Korean's byzantine formalities.  It offers only rudimentary honorifics (Mr., Mrs., etc.) and its politeness is usually a matter of word choice, never a basic point of grammar.  The niece, being Korean, is used to encoding politeness and respect with grammar.  Not finding any equivalent tool in English, she intuits that it isn't a polite language and that no special respect is due her foreign English teacher, a refugee from a rude land where people don't even respect their elders--they use the second person to address everyone!  (Polite Korean speech refers to superiors in third person.)

This unwarranted generalization isn't confined to children; adult Koreans make similar inferential mistakes.  Some Koreans go straight to banmal when speaking Korean with strange foreigners, though they wouldn't be so rude to their countrymen.  They feel the lack of formality they perceive in English allows them to ignore the rules of Korean when speaking to waygooks.  The perception of English speakers as completely informal is encouraged by the entertainment industry:  subtitles of English dialogue always use banmal.

In conclusion, here's a random picture of winter near Insadong:

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    Jesus Tissue is evidently a big thing in my neighborhood.

    In the last week I've been handed two more packets of Jesus Tissue while mounting the stairs to the metro station.  These new ones are from a different church.  I guess the Sunday morning loyalties of Koreans are easily be swayed by small, practical gifts.  And there seems to be a cottage industry of tissue manufacturers printing customized tissue packets.

    Probably the weirdest thing about this church is its name:  Seoul Light & Salt Church.  I thought I had a fairly good grasp on Christian imagery but I can't figure out what salt has to do with it.  I also noticed that what must be the Korean transliteration of "Jesus," 예수, happens to be the Church Latin pronunciation.  Not so for what I take to be "Christ," which requires four syllables:  그리스도.

    The toddler points to the sky and says "Look, Jesus!" while her female relations chuckle at her puerile foolishness.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    Let's visit the Japanese Torture Museum!

    Last weekend I finally got to visit Seodaemun Prison History Hall.  The prison was used by the Japanese to interrogate, imprison, torture and execute recalcitrant Koreans, and it's since become part of Korea's founding mythology.  The History Hall's stated purpose is to "honor and pay tribute to the spirit of our patriotic ancestors who bravely devoted their lives to resisting the Japanese, despite imprisonment, harsh torture, and threat of death... [and] to remind future generations of their noble spirit of independence."  I forgive you for thinking this sounds like generic jingoistic blather.  I agree.

    The exhibits tiresomely wallow in victimhood.  The basement of one building is dedicated to documenting (and recreating with models) the tortures suffered by inmates.  One of the exhibits, "Torture--A Tool for Ruling the Colony", states that the methods employed at Seodaemun Prison "can be compared to some of the most atrocious war crimes committed in world history", which I guess is true:  compared to the firebombing of Japan or Dresden, or a routine day at Auschwitz, every atrocity perpetrated at Seodaemun Prison is forgettable.

    The museum aims to tell an uncomplicated story about the noble, long-suffering Korean people, their fervent desire for sovereignty, the inextinguishable flame that burned in the breasts of their martyrs and the implacable hostility and boundless depravity of their vicious Japanese overlords, but the result doesn't entirely lack nuance.  Just mostly.  I learned everything I know about the prison from the exhibits yet came away with a greater appreciation for the story that wasn't being told and a reminder that all history's power lies in its framing.

    Let me introduce you to the untold story.  The prison was built in 1908 and operated by Japanese authorities until 1945.  The execution building, a wooden hut containing a gallows, wasn't constructed until 1923.  In 1943 the prison housed ~23,000 inmates.  All told, in the 22 years between the construction of the gallows and the end of Japanese rule, about 90 prisoners were executed.  This was not a death camp.

    The story gets more interesting after the war ends.  The Japanese quit the scene in 1945, but Seodaemun Prison wasn't decommissioned until 1987.  This monument to savagery and national humiliation wasn't immediately torn down by the locals in an explosion of pent-up frustration.  For 42 years, more than half its operational history, it was run by and for Koreans.  The despotic governments that followed Korean independence used it to incarcerate political dissidents, as had the Japanese.  I don't know if they tortured or executed anyone because the exhibits are mute on the details of the prison's life as a tool of internecine oppression.

    But enough preamble.  Let's have some pictures!

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Urinal Art

    It pays to carry a camera in Seoul because you never know when you might come across something eminently worth photographing.  One night, after being overcharged for hot chocolate at a cafe near Samgakji, I stopped to use the convenience and was delighted to discover a collection of amusing urinal art.

    Urinal art is common in Seoul; every subway station lavatory I've visited has some.  I think having something to consider visually while you void your bladder is nice.  Here's an example I found in a bank:

    To me, the picture seems somewhat incongruous.

    Monday, January 3, 2011

    Someone lives in the school.

    For the next three weeks I'm conducting my "winter camp."  For the purposes of this post, all you need to know about it is that it means there are typically only two non-students in the school on any given day:  myself and one of my co-teachers (the one with the throaty laugh).  Or that's what I thought, anyway.

    The maintenance/janitorial guys are around for part of the day, sometimes, but they generally take off before us teachers, and on Friday they locked the school's doors before leaving, trapping us in the school.  I thought this problem would ultimately be solved with a cell phone and was surprised when my co-teacher--let's call her "Chortle" from now on--ducked through the nondescript door beside the copy room and brought out a shriveled old man.  Turns out the nondescript door beside the copy room leads to the vestibule of a teeny little flat occupied by a man pushing 80.

    After the shrunken guy who lives next to the copy room let us out of the school, I queried Chortle about the nature of his employment.  She told me he's the school's security guard, more or less.  Korean public schools hire pensioners with backgrounds in security to live in the school and guard it when everyone else is gone.  I don't know what he's protecting the school from.  The bars on all the school's windows efficiently deter forced entry, and I know grandpa security isn't patrolling the perimeter at night with a flashlight to intercept would-be vandals.  Whatever. 

    When I told Chortle no one lives in American schools, she was astonished:  Who guards the schools at night?!?  I explained that hiring the elderly to live in and guard schools is not feasible in America because it would be prohibitively expensive, most reliable types already have their own homes and lives--which they would be loath to abandon for a teeny flat in some junior high--and we don't feel the need to guard educational facilities in this manner.  I'm thinking these Korean school security gigs are just sinecures for the aged.