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Worship

It’s Sunday, about 11 AM, and a man I’ve just met hands me The New International Bible open to Psalm 8. It’s page 503 (my area code back home)-holler! Rows of benches face an altar inside a wood-paneled room. The man takes his place at an altar in the front of the room. A projector displays crosses and a 노래방 (noraebong-karaoke) machine trademark on a screen fixed next to the altar. The man’s wife, 시느, gives me a ride to the ferry on Monday and Friday. She belts out the 노래방 lyrics louder than anyone in the room. I can’t remember her husband’s name, but he’s the leader of this little congregation. Something about this rings familiar. I’m not home, but I’ve been here before.

My reminiscence is triggered by childhood memories of Sunday, when my mom would pry my sister and I from the tube (it was always “Ren and Stimpy”-my favorite, goddamnit) and haul us to church; Catholic Mass @ St. Pius X. In fact, nostalgia kicked in earlier when I slid-shut our ride’s van door. The unmistakable slide-and-crash sound of our 92′ Ford Aerostar’s rear side door comes to mind when I manually slide-shut a van door. It’s a sound that will forever precede many childhood. My father rarely attended these Sunday rituals. His church was behind the reigns of a dual bladed Ransom lawn mower. Tending his 2 acre kingdom of partially landscaped suburbia was, and is, I believe, the nearest to God my father may ever get in this lifetime.

This knotty wood clad church, half full of mother’s with 2.5 squirming kids, reminded me of my mother doing her duty as a good Catholic school mom. There wasn’t a single father in the joint.

After a few songs the pastor launched into his sermon. My eyes started to glaze over.

Some people slip into a holy trance by the words of a preacher. Others are deeply stimulated. I, however, hold it together in a state just slightly more conscious than sleep. As a kid, to stay awake, I would simulate my next move in the video game I had on pause, or come up with novel concepts for the characters in audience (there was this one guy with a hook for a hand…). In Korean mass I stay awake thanks to the ahjumma behind me who pokes me and turns the pages of my Korean language songbook. My girlfriend, is characteristically, showing a sick face of irritation. “I feel like I’m about to blow,” she whispers to me. To her credit this is even more difficult as “my wife.” Everyone is being extra Korean by not addressing her and ignoring my motions to include her in conversation, or introduction. After several instances of “Kelsi did this…” or “Kelsi likes that…” 시느 continues to refer to her as “my wife.”

For example: “My Wife like 김 치(kimchi)?” and “Go home with My Wife,” she says.

The woman behind me is one of the alpha females in the congregation. I know because she sings almost as loud as 시느 and her children are the best dressed and take part in the mass. At one point her daughter goes forth to recite a memorized passage (her mother coaches her from the pew). Her son plays a song on his recorder. Back in the day I avoided these kids-sons and daughters of the over involved parishioners. They had a holy aura that meant fatal ignorance of mainstream kid culture. For me, these kids existed in an inexplicable world of youth groups and bible studies. I often wonder what happened to some of them. It common for those inundated with Catholic rhetoric at a young age to be something of ticking time bomb. I should know, my childhood bubble wasn’t much more liberal.

Mass ends. I stand just in time to recover the sense of feeling in my ass and get some blood to my frozen feet; the little slippers that can’t reach my heals have epically failed. The pastor beckons us to his home next to the church. We enter the main room and sit down on the padded floor. 시느 and her cohorts are hustling in the kitchen to bring out the lunch. The women present us with a fine spread of delicious chicken, kimchi, yogurt w/fruit (good for health), and pickled radish. A woman says the peppers on the side are not hot. This is a kind gesture; everyone knows that foreigners can’t handle Korea’s fiery cuisine.

The pastor speaks some English so we do the routine exchange of age, height, religion, number of children, and countries we’ve visited. For a moment I forgot that I’d been to SE Asia. I tell him I was raised Catholic, but do not go to church anymore. He asks me if I believe in Jesus Christ. The smart-ass that I am answers: “Well that’s a difficult question. I don’t know what you mean by believe?”

He runs it down, “Jesus was born, died, and rose from the dead.” He wanted to know if I believed in the death, resurrection, ascension of Christ.

I reply: “I don’t know. I think it is an interesting story.” I know he gets the “interesting story” part because he repeated it back to me.

Then he says: “We believe in four things. God is love, man is sin, Jesus died for man’s sin, and, if we believe in Jesus, God will forgive sin.” Clear enough.

I go for a simple reply: “I believe that God is love. If I love then I can be like God and Jesus. I will be happy and have no sin.”

I don’t want to inadvertently agree with any totems or taboos constructed in a language I don’t understand. I do that enough as it is. That being said I keep it polite. It’s clear we’re both trying our best to be good folks. I’d just rather observe the sabbath by my couch and ritual. That being said I might consider coming back if I ever need a delicious chicken fix. The pastor say I’m welcome anytime (think that goes for “My Wife” too). They are good people, just not stepping to the same Sunday strut.

After a few last exchanges we leave with our ride-a mother and daughter from the parish and luncheon. The daughter keeps looking at me and taking pictures with her cell phone. She’s trying to be covert, but I can tell that she’s trying to capture the strange foreigners in the back seat. I put on chap stick and she explodes with excitement; my strange behavior. Her mother points out the “Mu Flowers.” The little yellow radish buds blanket the countryside plots. Sure, it’s beautiful. I’ve got to get home and prepare for Monday’s lesson.

The Show

So, I was on the ferry to Nohwa-do one afternoon when an 아저씨(ahjussi) introduced himself to me in English. He had worked as a teacher/principal and was now enjoying retirement. His English was excellent so I asked him if he’d ever lived abroad. He said he’d gone to the United States once to visit a friend in New York. Unfortunately, he never met his friend. When he landed in California, and realized the distance between the East and West coast of North America, it became clear to him that visiting his friend in New York was illogical.

We chatted about life as an English teacher, Korea, and retirement. He was taking the ferry with his grandchildren to sight-see on Bogil-do. Suddenly the discussion turned political:

“Barak Obama is visiting Korea,” he said. “White man don’t like the negro, you know, the black man.”

“What!?” “Who told you that?” I said, respectfully, but wholly taken aback.

I believe he noticed a line had been crossed. He chuckled embarrassingly, excused himself, and went back to his family.

Clearly, he thought that I, or those like me (“white man”), do not like blacks (“the negro, the black man”). I can only speculate on the man’s motivation for sharing this racist information.

I wasn’t entirely surprised, given the man’s age. Comparably, my grandparents were, and are, prone to bouts of bigotry (however harmless they’re regarded by my family). I consider their attitudes as products of lives-and-times I cannot fully understand, nor access. That being said I cannot deny the concept of race and racism has played a role in my development. For one, my grandfather, prior to senility, was an endless supply of racist jokes that introduced me to the cornucopia of racial stereotypes. It certainly doesn’t end there, but that’s not the point.

In the USA racist rhetoric, in even its most seemingly benign forms, is a reminder of the tragic history it has informed. However, Korea is not the United States so race and racism must be constructed differently, right? The answer is: I’m not sure how to answer that question. In Korea, its difficult for me to tell the difference between racism and different modes of political correctness. Arguably there is no difference between the two, but I’m not going to get into that. What I want to write about is what I’ve seen and heard as a teacher and foreigner. My examples will, hopefully, go somewhere to understand a Korean worldview that might explain the ignorance demonstrated in my meeting the old man on the ferry.

First, Korea is rather homogeneous compared to other countries. The number of foreign-borne citizens and foreigners living in Korea is minuscule. The foreign demographic is largely East Asian with a growing number of SE Asians and Eastern Europeans (as brides to Korean men in many cases).  This homogeneity might be a point of pride. I’ve been told, prior to about 5 years ago, Korean schools taught that Koreans were a pure race. It’s my understanding that this Korean “race” is defined by nationality and culture, not physical traits alone. A person born of Korean parents, outside Korea, is not necessarily Korean. The fully Korean person must know Korean food, language, dress, mythology, social norms, and other cultural characteristics. However, this is not all abstract notions of culture.

Fair skin, among other attributes,  predominates the popular mode of Korean beauty.  Most moisturizer, and other skin treatments, contain bleaching compounds. I’ve heard students teasingly claim that darker skinned students are from Africa. So, for Koreans, its true that there are ideal physical traits. When my girlfriend showed her middle school students an India Arie music video they all responded in disgust. “Teacher! Ugly!” they hollered, she reported. I’m inclined to disagree. I’m not going to discuss that further, but its important to acknowledge that Korean seem to prefer fair skin over dark skin. The ethnicity apparently has an ideal skin color-a trademark of race construction.

On top of this it’s often problematic for Koreans to have romantic relationships outside their ethnicity. It’s especially true for relationships between foreign men and Korean woman. Often such relationships carry a stigma. A foreign man might be seen as a rapist or the woman might be viewed as morally loose. With less Korean women marrying, and slightly more men to women, one can understand competition or jealousy leading to rash beliefs.  Often I hear of foreign-Korean couples dating in secret or simply engaging in one night stands, to save face. The pressure for Koreans is to marry and reproduce. I believe the ideal would be to keep it between Koreans.

I’m getting a little off track with Korean-Foreigner coupling (I don’t have any first hand experience), but I hope this paints a VERY brief view of “The Hermit Kingdom” (a nickname for Korea), and its insular state, as I see it. Korea has a predominately homogeneous demographic, with an idealized concept of beauty (and race), and pressure to date/marry within the ethnicity. Traditionally success depends on following these (and other) cultural mandates. To act outside tradition is dangerous, risking failure and shame. Being, looking, and acting the part are all important aspects to Korean ethnicity.

Ironically, the official rhetoric of contemporary Korea contains messages of globalization and progress. The powers that be clearly want Koreans aware of the “global village” and act as successful participants. The most ubiquitous sign of this trend is English education. English, seen as a global lingua franca, is a priority on par with other core scholastic subjects. Parents push teachers to expose the students to more English material and will supplement the public curriculum by sending their kids to private 학원 (hagwon) after school. It’s typical for a student to study until midnight at a hagwon. A popular saying, related by a co-teacher, goes something like this: Sleep four hours, pass. Sleep five hours, fail.

With all the time and emphasis given to English education it’s important for students to receive quality instruction. Here I emphasize content, aiding instruction, as most important. Any ESL lesson is an important vector for cultural study. Class content demonstrates the message. It should be understood that culture goes together with language. Therefore instruction of language, and culture, should be handled carefully for the most positive results.

My elementary school’s sixth grade English curriculum is based on the content of a by a CD-Rom. It is the same for grades 3-6. The contents of the CD-Rom, displayed in front of the class, provide multimedia for each lesson (in actuality, the CD-ROM does most of the heavy lifting). During class the teacher clicks through the sections of the CD-Rom corresponding to activities in the workbook. The course is pedagogically sound yet severely lacks in appropriate content, specifically that representing foreign cultures. I will demonstrate an example.

One CD-Rom strategy is video. At the end of the sixth grade’s 2nd lesson, chapter 1, students watch a claymation video then “role play” with the characters. The setting is a “Fashion Show.” It shows English in a “real” situation, using the key phrase-“Where are you from?”. Supplementing the language is the cultural representation signified by 3 women in traditional dress. The first scene features Miss Korea.

Korea

MC: Hi Everyone. Welcome to the fashion show. Hello. What’s your name?

Miss Korea: I’m Nami. Nice to meet you.

MC: Where are you from Nami?

Miss Korea: I’m from Korea.

MC: Do you like gimchi?

Miss Korea: Yes, I like gimchi.

MC: Thank You.

Miss Korea: Thank You.

In this scene Miss Korea dawns 한 복 (hanbok), or traditional Korean dress. This is a major cultural symbol. I’ve read that Korean adoptees, who return to Korea via government subsidized programs, are fitted with 한 복 to symbolically indoctrinate them into the Korean ethnic group. Most of the time people I see chase the latest fashion trends. It’s rare that I meet someone in 한 복. Next is Miss USA.

USA

MC: Hello. What’s your name?

Miss USA: Hello, everyone. I’m Ann.

MC: Where are you from, Ann?

Miss USA: I’m from the USA.

MC: Can you swim?

Miss USA: No. But I can play basketball. I like basketball.

MC: Oh, I see. Thank you.

Miss USA: Thank you.

The cowgirl outfit does signify an aspect of culture in the USA, but it’s a stretch to compare it to Korean hanbuk without proper explanation. To my knowledge the students never received any explanation of the cultural symbols in this lesson. The natural reaction of a student was to assume that people in the USA all wear cowboy gear from time to time (OK, maybe it happens). The second time I saw a co-teacher present this material a student asked me this question: “Teacher, you?” he said, pointing to the cowboy outfit. “No,” I said. To my recollection, I’ve only dressed as a cowboy once and it was for a Village People performance I did with my friends in Middle School. The irony of four kids’ choreographed rendition of the YMCA, originally sung by a group targeting gays, performed inside a Catholic Church…priceless (end tangent).  Next, is Miss Uganda.

Uganda

MC: Hello. What’s your name?

Miss Uganda: Hello. I’m Jane.

MC: Where are you from Jane?

Miss Uganda: I’m from Uganda.

MC: Did you have a nice vacation?

Miss Uganda: Yes. I visited my uncle in Japan.

MC: Oh, I see. Thank you.

Miss Uganda: Thank you.

MC: Next!

*Dialogue taken from the Teacher’s Manual. Don’t blame me for awkward language.

I’ve never been to Uganda, but I’m pretty sure they don’t dress like Fred Flintstone (or is that a piece of pizza?). It also looks like she may have used a little too much bleaching lotion on her body. I’ve assisted in teaching this lesson three times and every time Miss Uganda’s scene pops up there is an uproar of laughter. Ok, the rendition is ridiculous, but it’s more frightening when one thinks of the implications. The students simply do not have the knowledge to comprehend the absurd in the material. The first time I saw this lesson my co-teacher asked that I help him demonstrate the “role play.” I played the MC, he played the contestants. For Korea and USA he made played no special actions. For Miss Uganda he hopped on the stage, his left arm bent at the elbow with a side-scratching fist (like a monkey impersonation), and his right hand cupped over his mouth, to make the stereotypical war cry of a Native American warrior. The kids were dying of laughter. I was appalled.

Is this the map you would use to represent nations and cultural significance?

Korea expends a great deal of energy to keep and define its ethnicity-its culture, race, etc. Some lines I hear often are “Korea is most famous for _____” or “Koreans like ________.” Korea has some rough history with war and colonization so this mission of perceived solidarity is important to keep it together (whatever “it” is). From my perspective, as a foreign teacher, students are taught Korean history, literature, music, art, and even morals. They are constantly reminded of their role as students with stiff consequences if they step out of line. This doesn’t seem to change with age. What’s ironic is that one would think a nation so focused on educating its people about its ethnicity would accurately represent other cultures; at least get the map right (see above). Perhaps insularity is clouding the truth.

The evidence demonstrates how ignorance might prevail in Korea despite motions for the contrary. Investment in education is a great step toward bridging the gaps between Korea and other cultures. Unfortunately, just learning a foreign language does not open the doors to understanding, properly understanding and applying the content does. If racist or ignorant information is seeding the minds of young Koreans then that information, deeply ingrained by rigorous study, will fail them when engaging with a foreign community.

Ever seen Midnight Cowboy?

The next lesson begins with a couple trying to find York street in some unnamed English-speaking city. In need of help they ask a cowboy. That makes sense, right? Anyways, I apologize for the writing. With the blog I don’t worry too much about citation (unless I can use a hyperlink) or a perfect argument. Also, I live in a very rural setting where things are much different from in-or-around big cities. That being said standards tend to slide more around here. I believe, as with any modern state, the cities are much more progressive and aware of the rest of the world. That doesn’t let the national education system off the hook. There are major changes to be made.

Since coming to Nohwa-do I’ve compiled a decent amount of pics, vids, and audio (the recording of Ahjummas on the bus is unfortunately lost).  Unfortunately, laziness and lack of a decent editing setup have hindered a synthesis of that material. Yesterday I ran across a vid on the soannh.com. It’s video of Soan-do, an island I work on, and the surrounding area. So for all of you wanting a vision of what I’m working with these days, check it:

mms://vod.farmers.co.kr/farmers/soannh.com/soando.wmv

P.S. this is another link on the website that’s a helpful ferry schedule for islands in the area:

http://soannh.com/ship/shipping_next.html

26 Days In SE Asia

Of the many perks associated with teaching English in South Korea is the access and time to travel about Asia. My contract promises me 26 days/year for vacation during the months of January and February. Here, I’ll synthesize my videos, pictures, and writing from my vacation. Sponsored by Jellanamdo Language Program.

This is a google map that shows where I went and how I got there:

http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=107761706798482579517.000480a3fc9ecb4de15a4&z=4

Playing Ketchup Pt. 3

I laid on my back, propped up against my messenger bag while soaking up the ondol heat of the Nohwa bound ferry. I closed my cell phone. Kelsi suggested I pick up noodles and lettuce on the way home. A little boy with a “Lloyd Christmas” haircut popped his head over the row of life jacket cabinets in front of me. He stared at me blankly. I smiled and nodded with a peace sign. He stared back at me for a moment then ducked behind cover. I chuckled to myself. “I’m back in Korea,” I thought, “I’m back to domestic life. I’m back to teaching and schedules (well, my middle school’s working on that one), and ferries, and funny looks.” It was the day before day-one of the new school year and I wasn’t a bit as culture shocked as I thought I would be.

In fact the cool air’s refreshing.

I’ve been gone for 26 days. My middle school replaced 3 teachers and the principal while I was away. The Korean teacher is 6 weeks pregnant and my English co-teacher got braces. I no longer teach on one island, but four, and visit six schools in total/week. How’s that for “Dynamic Korea?” I chuckle because the new makeup has caused a stir among the faculty. I can’t define it precisely, but all these new faces, particularly the new principal, will mean the teachers have to re-harmonize (could this mean a new strategy for Wednesday volleyball?).

For me, it’s another day as a foreign peg in a Korean hole. I presented vacation souvenirs to my co-teachers and introduced myself to the new teachers, who’d been eyeballing me curiously since I walked in. My participation in the gift giving ritual was a success. I have to say I was quite nervous handing out the little Laos-elephant-key-chain-offerings for the shear fact that I had left Korea and come back. Arbitrary (for me) gift giving isn’t my style. Hey, when in Korea…

I’m still riding the high of being on the road for nearly an entire month. The people I experienced and the scenes I saw were priceless. Traveling was stimulating in ways I could not have foreseen and I am glad to have spent it mostly in Laos. I almost feel let down returning to my back water post, but after the past month I know I’m doing the right thing in this moment. If your interested in hearing about the journey I made to SE Asia click here. Otherwise keep reading. In my obsession to keep up some semblance of a linear narrative  I want to quickly sum up everything “Korea” to this point. Then I will start with fresh material for the new school year (AKA: the second half of my first 1 year contract in South Korea).

Playing Ketchup Pt. 3

The night after the Soan Middle school drink-up I woke, still drunk, in desperate need of a pisser. I rolled over in the puffy bag of juices my hungover body had become and crawled to the door to exit the main room of my hotel. To my surprise there was no doorknob! Then it hit me like a liter of soju. In my stupor, the night before, I recalled shutting the airlock to my room and locked inside by the faulty doorknob. All that remained of the mechanism was a warped bit of metal that used to turn with the knob. It was jammed and I was trapped inside with a wicked need to urinate. Good thing the guys left me with two bottles of water.

I filled up the one empty bottle, cut the stream, downed the second bottle, and promptly filled it as well. Relieved, I got back to the door situation. Thankfully I woke up early enough to still make my 8:00 AM breakfast appointment with the principal. I just needed to find a way to exit my cell (Anyone thinking “Oldboy,” yeh, I was too). With Macgyver-like skills I broke out by disassembling the latch with a bottle opener and a small glasses screw driver (thanks Sam).

Once free, I took a quick shower and got the hell out of there, leaving behind the deconstructed latch. In the day light things were clearly less mysterious, however, I still got lost and was late. My principle was standing outside his house, next to the school, when I arrived. He brought me in and sat me down to a small table prepared by his wife who made herself scarce by doing housework. “Korean Breakfast,” my principal informed me. I was fighting to hold myself together. My head was pounding and it wasn’t clear whether I would vomit. The vomitous feeling was only exacerbated by the appearance and aroma of our “Korean breakfast”-whole fried fish, kimchi, rice, seaweed soup, and some other salty-spicy Korean side dishes. It wasn’t the usual chicken-fried hangover remedy I’m familiar with back home, and so desperately craved. To my surprise the fare wasn’t so bad and actually made me feel better, albeit the silence, broken by my principal’s one word demands to his wife for “물(mul-water)” and “밥(bap-rice),”  was a little unnerving.

The rest of the day was filled with ceremonies and other things I witnessed, but didn’t register in my clouded state. I probably spent most of it in front of my computer scanning the blogosphere or stalking my friends on Facebook. The fog began to lift towards the end of the day when the faculty invited me to a show at the High School. The show consisted of two acts. The first was a four man brass/horn/drum band dressed in matching black suits adorned with big red fluffs on the breast. They delighted the crowd with such classics as “Let It Be” and “When The Saints Go Marching In” enhanced by marching band choreography, plenty of fog machine, and a laser light emitter. In between songs they would joke with the students and hand out boxes of cookies. The second act was a sultry female vocalist who belted out pop music lyrics to a background track; plenty of re-verb in the mix (kinda like professional 노래 방[Norebong-karaoke]). Her rendition of “If I Ain’t Got You,” by Alicia Keys, was nice. Koreans are most famous for their singing voices.

The rest of the second act was mix of ballads I wasn’t familiar with (Korean, I presumed).  I felt like I should have been sipping a stiff cocktail and puffing a smoke, while contemplating my lot, amidst a seedy bar patronage. Instead I was sweating B.O. while my students and co-teachers clapped to a rhythm. Next to me a high school boy was sitting on his buddy’s lap, suggestively spanking the ass of the boy next to him. For a country that skirts the existence of its homosexual citizenry I’m always surprised at the way members of the same-sex, specifically men, handle each other in Korea. I’ve gotten used to the heightened levels of male-on-male PDA, but still wonder: when students or grown men address me as “handsome man” or “sexy boy” are they are some actually coming on to me?

After the show it was good to get back to Nohwa after a night on Soan. It was Christmas Eve and I’d been looking forward to taking it easy for a few days. Kelsi and I made our own version of Mexican food with Korean ingredients. A major element in Korean cuisine is the hot pepper so it’s not too difficult to whip up a decent salsa-Kelsi’s specialty. We also had some excellent beans (thanks Kels), flavorless Korean mozzarella, homemade tortillas, tomatoes, cabbage, and cucumber. This washed down with some cold beer and laptop vids made for an excellent holiday evening. We did not spend Christmas with McCaulay Culkin. It’s common for Koreans to catch “Home Alone” marathons on TV Christmas Eve. We watched a YouTube broadcast of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story.” I almost felt like I was back home.

I wish I could say what made our unconventional Christmas memorable was the food or the setting, well, it might have been the food. Christmas morning I woke up with a sour stomach and loose bowels. This quickly degenerated into a mass exodus of fluids from both ends. The result: a state of dehydration I’d never experienced. No question, I needed to go to the hospital for some intravenous intervention. To my chagrin, the local hospital was closed. Too-weak-to-deal, I waited outside the hospital while Kelsi wrangled a cab that would take us to the harbor. There I promptly barfed all over the concrete outside the ticket booth. The 아줌마(ahjumma)-in-charge yelled at me as she dumped buckets of water on my mess. She wanted me to use the toilet. I obliged.

I’d recently read about the dangers of diarrhea and dehydration in third world countries; how inexpensive packets of electrolytes had saved the lives of Diarrhea sufferers in India. For me, it was pocari sweat/bottled water life support that sustained me on the ferry ride to the next island. Adding insult to injury, the ferry was unusually full of day-hikers sharing soju and making noise. I laid out on the floor, unsure if I would wretch or pass out, while the hikers made awkward glances at me. The drive to spew won out. I made it to the outer rails of the boat for a  release, then made my way to the ship’s squatters for a most precarious squirt. The rest of the ride was without incident save a few words exchanged with the day-hikers. They were probably wondering if I’d had too much soju or was carrying the next swine flu epidemic.

Eyesight clouding and legs buckling I staggered from the boat to the bus bound for town. I could tell Kelsi was seriously worried, but not saying anything. I was just worried about pooping myself. At the bus stop she helped me to a cab. A “병원 병원 (hospital, let’s go)” was said and we were off to our destination. Thankfully, the hospital was open and admitted me quickly. The nurse put me on a bed. I vomited into a plastic bag. She stuck me with the ubiquitous I.V. I’ve heard about from other expat Korean hospital anecdotes. Next, was the mysterious cure-all shot in the ass I also hear a lot about (From what I gather 50% of Korean medicine is IVs, shots in the butt, and little packets of unmarked pills). Pain relived and electrolytes flowing I laid in slightly subdued agony for several hours before gaining the strength to check out.

[“secret agent doctor” story omitted by request for secrecy]

We spent the next two nights in a hotel where I slowly recuperated. We were upgraded to the penthouse suite (complete with jacuzzi) after our room started to stink like a sewer; probably a result of my overloading the plumbing. The following week was uneventful save the beginning of my winter camp classes. It was clear from the beginning these would almost be a waste of time. More on that later.

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.

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.