Archive for December, 2009

Lost In…wait, what was that?

In the global village (cliche #1) I’m aware of the all-to-common moment lost in translation (cliche #2). In the Land of the Morning Calm (cliche #3) I’m faced with another cliche. I’m at a loss to name it so I’ll try to explain.

I’d bet any foreign teacher is familiar with this phenomenon in Korea (correct me if I’m wrong about this being a Korea-only thing): It begins with a plan or bit of information. This might be a contract, teaching schedule, or agreement, whatever-a plan that sounds concrete. At the last minute, without warning, the plan dissolves and chaos ensues. Sometimes, it works out in my favor-like yesterday when I woke up to an e-mail that said I didn’t need to visit the high school=”Ross Mordini’s day off.” Other times, not so much.

For instance, my first couple weeks teaching were wrought with issues-smoking water heater, no phone/internet, no money, and wardrobe malfunction (to name a few). I’d spent the previous couple months living out of a backpack and was short on appropriate teacher attire. Long story short, I observed teacher dress in Korea to be more formal than expected (Korean men seem to wear suits by default). To make matters worse I ran my only dress shirt through the washing machine with a pen in the pocket. As a result, I wore the same green dry-fit polo to school everyday for my first two weeks (there is nothing in Korea that comes close to fitting me, except hats). Eventually reinforcements arrived from the states. Thanks Mom.

One day, during my green shirt stint, I arrived at school to find all the teachers dressed up. It was school picture day and nobody had said a word to me! Coincidentally, it was the same day my co-teacher took a tongue lashing from the principal (earlier post) so things were already a little crunchy. I was ushered outside and photographed with the teachers and students.

Fast forward to this Monday when the pictures surface, nicely packaged in a multimedia slide show. These are the images of me they used in the slide show meant to highlight the past year.

It’s this type of situation I laugh about later. There’s not much I could have done. It makes me think of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode when Larry David is flipping out about a TV Guide photo of the Seinfeld crew. Unfortunately, the results of these last minute surprises are not always so benign.

It’s been established from the beginning of our contract that winter vacation runs from January to February. Larger schools in Korea often use this time to host extra classes or camps for enrichment. My contract stipulates that I’m allotted 26 days paid vacation, however, I’d been told that my school would most likely not be holding any extra classes; perks for working in such an isolated area. I recently spoke with my principal who confirmed this fact. I would not need to work during January, but am required to stay in Korea until I take my official vacation in February (this prevents swine flu or something).

Last week I was clicking through the blogoshpere when I ran into Brian Deutsch’s piece on “deskwarming” during January (this is an excellent blog by the way). A little confused I waited for further news that eventually came in the form of an E-mail from the head office and a fax to my school. The short of it was that the national office in Seoul has decided to require all teachers to report to schools whether or not they have class. This is in effect regardless of the fact that Korean teacher may file paperwork to “work” from home if class is not in session. The higher-ups claim that our contracts are different and therefore do not allow for such “work from home” provisions. The time at our desks is intended to be used for academic development and lesson planning. Fine.

Honestly, I’m upset, but have come to tolerate this kind of thing in Korea. I’m already planning to do some cool things with the kids and will spend the rest of the time working on my book list and what not (this post doesn’t have room to air all my grievances toward this anyway). Too bad I couldn’t be taking this time for myself, well, for myself, but I have experienced another sort-of cliche in Korea-when the ball’s dropped Koreans have an uncanny ability to make it better. Typically its indirect, but the balance always seems to come, usually in some last minute twist of fate (fate=the decision of a higher-up). This has to do with the way Koreans resolve conflict however unprofessional and masochistic it appears to me.

Anyways, I’m off to play in a Volleyball game that I first learned about this morning. I hope my dress shirt and slacks hold up cause I know all too well that the competition will be fierce (that’s Korea). However, afterward, I’m certain there will be a tasty meal with plenty of beer and Soju to calm any lasting nerves.


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A Bout of Regularity

A good friend of mine warned me that at some point it would strike me that this place was my home and that patterns of behavior would emerge. I’d say this has come to fruition, but its been gradual. Life on this little island has become dare I say, routine. Let me indulge in the description of a typical Monday commute.

It’s Monday morning. 6:00, 6:10, 6:20, 6:27. I get up.

My throat’s sore from the cold-dry breeze blowing in the window. Most nights the window stays open to exhaust my rugged farts-results of my Korean diet high in spicy peppers, garlic, and ginger. Perhaps, this is why Korean couples traditionally do not live together before marriage.

I heat water and flip on the laptop. Check E-mails, look @ facebook, zone out, wait for Green tea, 녹차, to steep.  Breakfast is PB&J (toasted if I have time) OR rice with soy milk and assorted toppings OR egg toast with honey mustard and extra pepper OR, a new one, bean toast (beans on toast, nothing special).

I typically don’t shower. Our place lacks the water pressure or quick draw hot water to break the chilly morn. Monday means clean clothes. Other days this might not be the case. It depends on my mood and dry time (24-48 on the line for cotton garments). We don’t have a dryer.

I leave at 7:20 to make it to the ferry in time. A taxi (pronounced taexshee) picks me u…


It’s 7:17 not 7:20. I strap on my ankle brace and and search for the last of my items-book potentially explaining Korea(check), broken MP3 player(no check), good luck pendant necklace with glow-in-the-dark beetle, (check check).

Honk! OK, now it’s 7:20. I say goodbye to my “wife” and wrestle the steal door open. Outside, next to the random cars that park in our yard, is my man the cab driver.

The taxi driver’s a middle aged Korean gentleman. He’s friendly, balding, and pudgy. I forget his name. Sometimes he teaches me new words. Today it’s 비 (bee), rain, as in: today it might rain so I hope you know how to deal with that. Body language fills in a lot of gaps.

The ride is a gorgeous morning show of agrarian splendor. The sun rising over mountains defrosts the fields and my morning attitude. Typically farmers are already up tending to the crops. Taxi costs 8,000 won.

동천에 (dong-cheon), is the ferry harbor. I’m greeted by a host of familiar characters. The frog voiced bus driver and his associates chain smoking by the ticket booth/snack shop. The 50-something man with the red ball cap who says “hello. nice to meet you” and slaps me on the back with a smile. The ticket lady who’s always over dressed with a thick layer of makeup.  The ticket lady’s mother who scoots about the scene cleaning and BSing with the regulars.

Today’s new site is an 아주마  (ajuma, grandmother) with a pig strapped down inside a basket, squealing. There’s always new sites and sounds to engage the imagination. I’ll not run with that for now.

Anyways, 1,600 won takes me to 소안 (so-an) where I teach the youth. My ride is a ferry en route from the mainland connected island-Wando. The ferry docks and releases a stream of vehicles and passengers. I hand my ticket off to the ferryman who either yells at me or smiles depending on the day and amount of unloading traffic.

The passenger room on the second deck of the ferry smells like a nursing home. The 온돌 (ondol) floor is littered with snozzing bodies covered by jackets and face masks. The scene’s like something from a cult mass suicide save a few travelers propped up chatting or staring at the TV in the corner (they’re usually zoned out enough to pass for traumatized survivors). Outside the cabin is the deck that looks out over the passing archipelago. The passing scene of islands, fisherman, and a matrix of buoys is incredible; an everyday beauty that’s astonishingly uplifting.

A tune from the static speaker signals imminent arrival. I take the stairs down to the main deck and navigate the maze of autos to reach the bow. The front gate lowers as the ferry drifts into position on the concrete launch. Bodies pile out and storm the awaiting taxis.

My co teachers and I coagulate and snag a taxi. The driver is one of four fellows. A 30-something dude with a military haircut and an obsessively clean ride (he shot me a dirty glance once for setting my beg on the seat next to me); a chipper gentleman with big pockmarked cheeks the likes of a Koren howdy-doody; a surly older man who always mumbles things to himself and yells at traffic “in the way”; the elusive, jolly heavyset chain smoker whom I believe runs the cab op. He often picks up ajumas on the way and refuses payment. My ride costs 3,000 won.

My co-teachers have figured out that my rides are reimbursed so I’m typically expected to pay these days. In the beginning I rarely payed for anything, but such is the splendid hospitality granted to newcomers in Korea. All good things must come to an end. The commute’s usually 18,000 won (~$18) there and back. Considering I could almost swim to Soan it’s a little exorbitant, but I’m thankful to have my place with my girlfriend (the school pays for it anyway). I won’t pretend to understand the logic behind budgeting of funds around here neither do I think too much about the carbon footprint, etc.

I arrive at school. Say goodbye to the driver and walk into school. I change into “teacher shoes” that used to be my TEVAS (lost), but are now some pixel sized korean slips. I shuffle into the office, flip on my desk PC, and put throw together a lesson for my first class.

So begins Monday.

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Press F4 to Caste Korean Drama

I’ve been somewhat consciously avoiding Korean television to save me from another media addiction, but today I caved. 꽃보다 남자 or “Boys Before Flowers,” as its commonly translated, is a Korean TV show recommended by my girlfriend’s co-teachers. I’ll call it a drama because that’s what everyone calls serial TV shows around here.

Episode one takes the viewer to Shinhwa High School, an elitist institution for the top 1% of Korea’s wealthy and powerful. A student finds himself with the unfortunate arrival of an ominous F4 card placed inside his locker. The scenes that follow are his brutal torture by fellow students which leads to his final stand on the rooftop of the school. Enter Jan Di, a teen girl delivering dry cleaning, who overhears the name of the boy on the roof. He’s her customer. She intervenes in time to catch the boy by his jacket as he takes a suicidal leap from the roof. Apparently, something known as the F4 wanted him eliminated.

News of Jan Di’s heroic save bursts onto the public scene; cellphones, websites, televisions, and gossip erupt with images of her saving the day (all images of Korea’s tech savvy). All the press highlighting the boy’s suicide attempt unleashes an outcry from Korean citizens protesting the elitist Shinhwa school system. To quell the threat of a commoner rebellion Shinhwa awards Jan Di a full scholarship. She refuses, but at the behest of her ecstatic albeit eccentric family her enrollment is confirmed.

Day one for Jan Di is an introduction to the world of an elitist hierarchy topped by the F4-a group of 4 senior boys whose socioeconomic status is unrivaled. Upon a grand arrival the F4 are greeted by a crowd of doting students whose worship is not unlike the idolization I’ve witnessed Korean students make for pop icons. The leader of the F4 approaches a boy in the crowd and maliciously douses his shirt with juice (he is the only boy in the school with the same shirt). Jan Di is appalled by the gal of this action. She does some online research on the F4 crew revealing their sources of prestige emanate from organized crime, Shinhwa, investment in the arts (one’s adept at pottery), and politics; definite Korean paths to success cultivated generation to generation. In an emotional monologue Jan Di vows to teach these boy’s a lesson in manners and modesty.

A pattern is initiated whereby the F4 demean well intentioned students who cross their path and Jan Di imagines calling the crew out, but meekly avoids confrontation. Tension builds. When the F4 target Jan Di’s new friend she fights back with an ice cream cone to the face of the F4’s leader, Goo Joon Pyo. Joon Pyo gets his revenge by delivering Jan Di an F4 card thereby declaring open season on Jan Di. Fellow students destroy her school supplies, egg/flour her uniform, and make jabs at her lowly status-a dry cleaner’s daughter on scholarship. She subtlety burns the F4 by not groveling. In fact, she asks for more punishment. The true hardship she faces is letting down her hardworking father who recognized the quality of her uniform that has been ruined. “Treat it like and heirloom,” he says. This is telling of Jan Di’s filial love for her father; the mark of a good Korean girl (read Korean Confucian values).

The episode ends with Jan Di being accosted by some boys in a dark locker room. It’s a bit intense; the scene ends abruptly were one would expect a graphic rape scene. This is the show leaving the viewer with a slightly disturbing hook. It worked on me, but I’d have never anticipated this from an introductory episode. Whatever works.

Of course the show is riddled with archetypes. There’s the chic girl trio embodying Korean affluence with primped style and abundant jewelery who scoff at Jan Di’s boxed lunch; the shy friend, also an outsider, who contrasts with Jan Di’s brash, unrefined personality; the sharply dressed villains (the F4 boys) draped in style and made up in appearance that’s feminine by western standards, but plays to the pants of all Korean females I’ve met (homosexuality doesn’t exist in Korea); the demanding Korean mother whose remarks are always targeting her daughter’s appearance and schemes for marriage and success; the hardworking father I already mentioned and the kid brother shadowing his father’s moves.

Thematically there’s the whole “outsider underdog, from a lower class, taking on the wealthy elite.” This is pretty pleasing as I’m astonished at how much folks in Korea blatantly worship success, especially in unabashed displays of wealth and power. The Shinhwa, a fictional conglomerate, mirrors the Korean chaebol (Samsung, LG, Hyundai, etc.) that are the multinational corporations whose power controls much of contemporary Korea. They grant Jan Di entrance to their school to control the masses. Another point is the school motif. My experience with various Asian media, including Korean, is that teens are most often portrayed in or around school and in uniform. It’s an accurate portrayal since the world of Korean students plays out to the backdrop of rigorous study and hours of school attendance all the while dressed in a school uniform.

It’d be nice to know Korean (for better access to culture), but the subtitles are helpful (they contain explanations of idioms and what not) and much is communicated through actors’s body language. Many of my Korean friends and co-teachers recommend watching shows like this to better understand Korean culture. I usually go for books instead after the same people say they’ve learned English through watching Friends, nuff said. Either way its good to take a break from my marathons with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dexter, and King of the Hill to name a few guilty pleasures.

Again, thanks for comments/critiques on the blog. I’ve been a little slow on the output lately and would love to hear more opinion on the style and content. I have a tendency to get long-winded and a bit wordy so let me know if it ain’t working.

You can check out Episode 1 of  and the rest of the “Boys Before Flowers” series @ http://www.mysoju.com/boys-before-flowers/ This website links to all sorts of videos from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc.

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