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.