Archive for January, 2010

Playing Ketchup Pt. 2

Excitement was palpable the week following the Kwangju trip. This wasn’t for the lead up to Christmas, but for the upcoming winter vacation-time off for the overworked. Christmas in Korea doesn’t share the same bloated significance with the west. Typically it’s a time spent with friends and significant others. If your Christian I’d imagine you go to church (told by the number of cars parked in our front yard, across from a local church, Christmas Eve), but there was no other mention of Christmas traditions from students or co-workers. In fact most were a little thrown off when I wished them a Merry Christmas. But I digress.

As I said before I was limping through the end of the school year, emotionally and physically (I threw my back out of alignment playing volleyball). No matter, I was looking forward to some time away from school. The Wednesday before Christmas was considered the final day of class. After some testing the students played some games for prizes. One game was a modified version of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” where the winner could inflict pain on the loser-a light slap to the face, a pinch of the nose, slap to the hand, etc. All other games were less physical and the kids seemed to enjoy them all equally. Following the games was a highlight reel of the last year. The next day there would be a formal ceremony to cap it all off. Korea is most famous for its ceremonies.

The real hype was a plan made earlier in the week (surprisingly ahead of time). That night I would spend the night on Soan-do and have dinner with my co-teachers. My first 회식(dinner) with my co-teachers! I know schools have these all the time. Presumably I was left out because I live on an other island and must leave early to catch the last ferry home.

Note: In Korea an important mode of team/friendship building is the group dinner. This topic could fill volumes, but I’ll stick to the basics of what I’ve learned. First, the character of the scene depends on the relationship between roles. One’s polite role is essentially based on age and sex (read Confucianism, think male dominated age-based hierarchy). All sit around a rectangular table. In my experience males and females sit on opposite ends. Older folks, especially the 아주씨 (ahjussi-older men) congregate on one end and drink themselves into oblivion. The older men speak the most and demand the most attention. When glasses are empty, or near empty, the younger men instinctively pour refills (again, a sign of respect for superiors) and vice versa (one should never leave another man’s cup empty). Women are generally stoic unless prompted or chattering amongst themselves. I, the foreigner, am the wild card, an empty vessel for filling with soju, wisdom, and Korean cuisine.

The trouble with my position is that I must rely on feel rather than language to navigate the scene. This reality coupled with Korean’s hearty emotional swatch can make for an exhausting roller coaster ride. This is only exacerbated by the composition of my middle school’s faculty [and alcohol]. We are comprised of older men and young women. This sets up a striking imbalance of power and a somewhat awkward dinner. Again, to be fair, I don’t know what’s being said 99% of the time, but I believe I can glean a great deal from body language.

I sat in the middle next to my principal on the border between young females and the ahjussis. My head on a swivel, I engaged in some limited discussion and smiles with my female co-teachers to my left and a game of “fill up the foreigner” with the ahjussis to my right. One man, new to the crew, was introduced as the “Soju King” (perhaps king of the restaurant we were at). He and the principal kept the soju flowing with shouts of “건배!” (kohnbae!-cheers!) The science teacher, who’d suddenly come out of his shell, had morphed into the most gregarious of all. He darted between the men sparking instances of cheer. I’d become his new favorite, but he still reminded me of his superiority by requesting refills and mocking my “one human family” wrist band with a throaty hiss. Little did he know that the essence of that phrase keeps things in perspective when his native culture seemed to be doing its best to drive me mad. Occasionally my principal would bark something toward the woman’s side of the table. Sometimes it was met with laughter, but more often than not, an uncomfortable smile. I asked my co-teacher if they had these dinners often. She replied, “no,” with a can-you-guess-why smirk.

Towards the end of the dinner the group took turns giving speeches regarding the previous school year. When it was my turn I stood and rattled off the few Korean phrases I knew/thought were remotely appropriate. “Anyeong Haseyo!” (hello). “Yong Sangsangnim imnida” (incorrect, but meaning to say “I am English Teacher”). “Bangapsamnida” (“nice to meet you”) Each completed phrase was met with exhalation from the audience. Then, I dipped into my warmly inebriated soul to produce some kind words for the group. I can’t remember exactly what I said (something about Korea was once on paper, in a book, but has been lifted from the page to my heart, or some shit). My emphasis was on the bleeding heart sincerity of my expression. I tried to picture the over-the-top ballads and dramas most famous in Korea. It was a rare opportunity to stand up and be recognized as a  individual whom was truly thankful for his position and experience in Korea; a little pathos for those I’d only begun to know outside the cold silence of the faculty office. I think they got the jist of it.

After dinner the crew headed to the 노래 방 (norae bong-singing room)-the number one place for Koreans to blow off steam. The norae bong is like karaoke where I’m from except its performed in a small room that’s rented by the group. It’s probably safe to say that every norae bong in Korea is outfitted the same way. A large monitor is hooked up to a norae bong machine that stores all the tracks referenced in a plastic coated guide-binder. In front of the monitor is a big table wrapped with plush bench seating. Admission typically includes some beers and a snack tray (squid jerky with mayonnaise, shrimp chips, some crunchy morsels, maybe fruit). Speakers play a rendition of an instrumental with lyrics on the monitor set to imagery of nature or unrelated video. Tambourines and shakers are usually available and there’s always plenty of re-verb in the mix to drown out even the most inept voice. The set-up is brilliant. Koreans are most famous for good singing voices.

I was urged to sing first and would have except I had trouble finding a song. The “pop song” section of every norae bong is chock full of artists I know, but I always have trouble identifying the tracks as it seems they’ve gathered the most obscure B-sides from every top-40 artist of the last 40 years. Eventually I scored with Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So,” but butchered, or rather norae bong butchered, the tempo and key. I did, however, get in an excellent “Let It Be” and “Champagne Supernova.” My highlight performance of the evening was a freestyle to “Shake Ya Tailfeather” spit with a ferver fueled by the previous month’s anguish. I covered a whole range of topics, but kept it quick enough to mask anything that might be offensive to my hosts. When I popped out of my rhyming trance it was clear nobody in the room quite knew what to make of my impromptu verbal assault. I blurted into the mic, “Stress relief!” The science teacher put his arm around me and said, “Never do that again.”

By the end of the night our party boiled down to a drunken pack of men who deposited me in a nearby hotel. Exhausted, but stimulated, I took a short walkabout the small town as soon as the group was out of sight. Soan was a different place at this moment. I reveled in the mysterious darkness; the shadowy crags and craters of a Korean village. It’s piecewise construction of old hanok, fluorescent signs, and concrete reminded me of my school dynamic. It’s not always pretty or coordinated, but it works in the end and has an unmistakable charm. I believe this says something for Korea in general.


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Playing Ketchup Pt. 1

When I was in middle/elementary school teachers always liked to pun around with “ketchup” and “catch-up.” It’s forever altered my perception of these two bits of language. I don’t know how to feel about that.

Anyways, I haven’t posted in a while; falling from my 1 post/week goal. Here I’ll attempt to play ketchup after the last month, or so, of silence.

The Korean school year effectively ends in December. Winter vacation runs through January and part of February. The students return for some ceremonious attendance mid February before taking another “break” and beginning the new school year in March. This being my first year I’m not quite sure how this all plays out for the students. Either way, I’ll be on vacation for the month of February.

To recap:

The first half of December I finished covering the required material for Middle School and helped students review for finals. My once-a-week free-for-all high school classes were canceled and the elementary school days cut short by swine flu and a week of preparation for the school festival-a 3 1/2 hour-33 act explosion of cute. The entire elementary school student body participated, performing for a chattering crowd of parents and grandparents. It was the greatest thing I didn’t know about since Wednesday volleyball.

At first I spent the extra free time [granted by class cancellation] at home. However, this “holiday,” granted by my high school and elementary school, was problematic for my middle school so I was reigned in to spend my M-F/9-5 warming desk at the middle school. This wasn’t so bad until the middle school festival was canceled (swine flu) thus negating my duty to teach Christmas carols. The cancellation left me two weeks worth of time slots and nothing to do. Uninspired and a little jaded I pulled out the great equalizer of teaching tools-Movies. We made it through “Charlie Brown Christmas” and some of “Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer” before my C0-teacher politely suggested I not show movies in class because it embarrasses the other teachers (I suppose they don’t show movies). I got us through the last with some creative versions of scrabble and a “Winter Holidays” sideshow/worksheet.

For all my [teaching] intents and purposes December was a wash. Much confusion and poor communication within my school devolved into questions of self worth [in Korea] and hating Korea (sample). My girlfriend was having as much trouble coping as I was. Thus our combined efforts to secure sanity on Isolation Island (as we sometimes call it) were holding by a thin thread. Answer: we took a trip to Kwangju.

Kwangju is home to most of my co-teachers and some friends. My girlfriend and I made the last minute decision to visit a Korean friend who lives there. Unfortunately I jotted down his phone number incorrectly (sorry Yong Sang) so it was too late by the time we corrected our mistake. As luck would have it we ran into a pack of 외국인, way-gook-eun (foreigners), one of whom my girlfriend and I met while teaching @ a summer camp (my girlfriend also knew a few others from a previous girls weekend). We followed them to “German Bar” or what might more appropriately be called “Western Bar” since it seems to cater elusively to the 외국인 contingent (at least that night anyway). The wood paneled scene housing 40+ foreigners offered a much needed release (Song’s Beer) and a chance to socialize with other foreign English teachers. However, the last 3 months of relative isolation made it difficult to handle the like-university bar scene. A feeling of reverse culture shock ensued. Fortunately my feelings of anxiety were dampened by the friendly crowd sympathetic to my situation and experience. For the first time in a few months I felt accepted as an equal within a group, albeit a very drunk and rambunctious bunch. This was a great place to be, however, I couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling amidst the pack of flamboyantly foreign bar hoppers. I’ll relate in tangent.

Tangent: Now’s a good of a time as any to highlight the trend of anti-foreigner sentiment that’d been coming to my attention around this time. I know I’m not the only one to recognize that the blogosphere had been paying a great deal of attention to the matter of Korean/English teacher relations. This apparently stemmed from the reported activity of a group known as the Anti-English Spectrum-a coalition of South Korean citizens whose primary focus is the exposure of degenerate foreign English teachers. It’s been reported that this group  has stalked English teachers, drummed up anti-foreigner sentiment, and even declared death threats. They’ve even gone as far as to influence recent changes regarding visa requirements and procedures. All-in-all I believe this group  represents a radical minority in Korea, however, the media coverage they’ve received has elevated their status significantly and perhaps swayed public opinion. Korea has a rough history with outsiders and xenophobia and harsh criticism of out outsiders are understandable. Unfortunately the fact remains that a slim minority of foreigners commit crimes in Korea thus rendering the generalizations made of  외국인 unfortunate to say the least. For a better treatment of this subject I suggest following the hyperlinks starting here. This blog is an excellent resource for foreign English teacher related material.

Anyways, the trip to Kwangju made it clear that more often than not similarities appear to out-way differences regrading the experiences of foreign English teachers in South Korea. This continues to be a comforting theme reminding me that I’m not alone in the Hermit Kingdom.

Part 2

I also wanted to draw attention to some props I got a little while back from another blog. Check it out-here.

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These are some samples from some impulsive writing I did in December. It should be obvious why I didn’t Segway them into legit blog entries. If you don’t understand It’s cause I don’t want to sound like a rambling asshole. This is supposed to be a blog for constructive storytelling aimed at a wide audience. Anyways, I think this stuff lets you know where I was at in December. Note: I ran these through a spell checker since it was written without much consideration other than a drive to transcribe thoughts to text. I wanted to keep this a fairly pure stream of consciousness. I do this kind of thing alot. I highly recommend it.

I’m hoping for high membership within the blogopshere. Be one of those guys that reads the web and composes daily on thoughts meandering and powerful. However, it would seem that such a task desires a lifestyle inexorably tied to the screen and and a seat; a pear shaped hypertensive body reconstituting reality from bits of text. I can’t do it all the time so I make a goal of writing once a week. But then nothing happens or I’m busy and forget to document that groovy weekend when everything seemed to come together. After that it’s gone and I’m back to work and my blog is about Korea @ work and how that sucks for my waygook ass out-of-place. Instead I try to imbed meaning in quality storytelling. I try to cop dope metaphors and pull out great cultural significance from the deconstruction of the everyday-the seemingly mundane.

Then one day my blog get props from another blog and I’m rushing home to connect and tidy up my site. I need to make sure that this blog holds the appearance of something masterful, yet composed with ease. To make it seem that I were the pear shaped hypertensive ramen eater plugging away at this for the past few months, but I also have glorious adventures. But most of my writing has been like this. Streams drawn from multiple consciousnesses. Thoughts that spill from the delirious mind, the sober mind, the drunk mind, enraged mind. Stereotypes next to carefully worded remarks regrading a person’s t-shirt design and how it so beautifully displays the tortured Korean soul. I never make jokes about seoul=soul unless I absolutely have too. I save this bullshit on my computer for no reason.

For two weeks straight I watch “the Boondocks” on the way to school in the morning and feel the word “nigger” popping into my thoughts as if it were making its way into my everyday lexicon. I read Fight Club, reconsider reality, and take postmodern hip shots at the ignorance around me and want to punch the ferry guy who yells at me. I read The Singularity is Near and think about how nanobots could loosen the stiffness in my hips and let me pick up smoking again, or at least think I’ve taken up smoking again. But would that even be worth it? Korea is one of the world’s largest consumers of impotence drugs-boner pills for the millions who said fuck it to the warnings about smokes and brother booze.

Today, the ferry pulled in on the south dock. I waited patiently (as I’ve been coarsely told to do); elevator rules. I’m confused. I point at my destination island, say the name, and flash the ticket. The fuck-ass dude who always gives me shit does his usual bit to be as unhelpful as possible and simply yell repeatedly at me in Korean with no attempt to use hand gestures. Eventually I deduce that the North dock is my departure point and head there, but that ferry has come form the wrong direction and, as expected, the North dock guys look at my ticket and say no. They point to the first ferry which is pulling away, but comes to park at the north dock. It docks and dumps off a bus and some passengers. The North and South docks are about 30 meters apart (at the most). I wait; elevator rules. Get on the ferry. The ninja turtle looking mother fucker who always gives me shit for no reason gets in my face and tugs at my shirt tail poking out from underneath my sweater/jacket combo. He says some shit in Korean that I gather is not positive. I say, “shirt,” smile, and give a little jerk to the first thing I can get a hold on-the zipper to a breast pocket. He kinda moves away disgusted. I think about throwing him over board; getting him all wet in front of his friends. Make him cold just like the dozens of times he’s made me stand outside while he enforces his bullshit elevator rules. I also think about smashing his face against the cold grated steel loading ramp until he stops talking shit. Either way, I’d have nobody to back me up and I’m sure he knows this, otherwise there’d be absolutely no logical reason to make threatening advances toward me in this situation. He, however, is probably not threatening me, but just a dick and this is how people who are dicks act in Korea (or at least in this dude’s case). Nothing will happen, I’m sure, but it doesn’t keep me from imagining things if they were to escalate.

I started sleeping while sitting in the bedroom next to the space heater, reading. I always get tired while reading next to the space heater. I speculate the heater coils slowly consume the oxygen in the room; a silent combustion-perhaps a type of fan death. There’s a smell wafting from an unknown origin I can’t quite identify, but it’s like a fart. It’s not my fart (I’d have felt it), but a stink nonetheless foul and obtrusive. Kelsi comes home. The bang and creak of our sheet metal door wakes me up. I’m not sure if I was sleeping. I ask her, but she couldn’t say.

I fucked up Ramen. I’ve got a new thing where I fry some vegetables in the pot before I boil the noodles. My theory is that the pre-fried vegetables will release their flavor into the ramen. I like mandu (pot stickers) in the mix. I microwave those first before adding. All together I get a fairly hearty soup in under 20 minutes. It usually gives me heartburn.

Something I ate last night gave me glue shits. Glue shits are high volume and reasonably difficult to push out, although not quite categorical constipation. The glue shit almost always leave a mark on the thumb of my wiping hand since a sizable amount of feces is exposed after I’m finished; hence the glue effect. The glue shits always plug the toilet. Yes, I flush my toilet paper. Yes, I know your not supposed to in Korea. I compromise by using a small amount of TP. No, the toilet paper has nothing to do with the plugging. My evidence is that no toilet paper actually makes in near the drain with a glue shit. The glue shit fills the entire drain hole like a batch of concrete. The paper rides on top, always last to exit after the multiple flushes needed to discard a glue shit (5 flushes is the current record). We have no plunger. I have not seen a plunger in Korea. They are probably around, but I don’t intend to look. I’ve got these glue shits under control.

Things I have less control over:


-Korean people

-My Korean school

-The Korean language

Either way the feeling of losing control is something I’m familiar around here. It usually translates to a desire to lift weights or, if drinking, a desire to violently compose crap tunes on my guitar/freestyle. Typically these desires don’t last long and result in napping. Today I lost control of my eyeballs; they may have started falling out after spending the morning engaged with the laptop screen. Reading helps and so does napping. The heater is just a catalyst, perhaps deadly.

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