Caveat: Drinking Vinegar

Well, oops.  I missed a few days, there.  I've been supremely lazy the last several days, enjoying the temporary respite from work because of new year's to try to rest up and finally get over this flu thing.

I was strolling the aisles of the Homever (홈에버 "hom-e-beo") store where I shop, contemplating the many products I could buy.  I noticed a whole section devoted to what I thought were varieties of soy sauce and the like.  But on closer inspection of a label, I read a small fragment in English that said "drinking vinegar."  Hmm… I've never heard of that.  Not sure if it's a poor translation for a concept such as "cooking vinegar" or if they really drink vinegar here.  It comes in different flavors and brands.   I bought some, out of sheer curiosity.  At the least, I can make some cole slaw or something.

Caveat: 2007

The computer gig had some interesting
projects, but the career was losing its lustre. I decided to
return to teaching, because I had overcome my prior financial difficulties. Jeffrey (my stepson) started college, and the trust fund I'd created for him
would cover costs, so I was free, financially. I applied to some overseas jobs, including Costa Rica, Tunisia, and South Korea. South Korea ended up being the most appealing, for various personal reasons: my interest in the Korean Language; my adopted Korean nephews. So I started teaching at "Tomorrow School" in Ilsan, Gyeonggi, South Korea,
in September.

[This entry is part of a timeline
I am making using this blog. I am writing a single entry for each year
of my life, which when viewed together in order will provide a sort of
timeline. This entry wasn't written in 2007 – it was written in the
future.
]

Caveat: End of Tomorrow

Today was kind of the last official day for School of Tomorrow (language hagwon);  as of next week, we become part of LinguaForum officially.  We had a long staff meeting that wasn't entirely pleasant, as we confronted the changes that we face – more classes to teach, completely changed curricula, etc.

Meanwhile, it was hard to get motivated to teach out of the "old" books for one last day – so I had the kids reading a simple little poem by Wallace Stevens, called "The Snow Man."

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

 

 

Caveat: Confusion can be good

Since the xmas party on Tuesday, I've been telling my students a little story of it – how I was the only foreigner there, and how my very limited Korean language skills meant I remained very confused most of the time.  But then I share with them the fact that I actually picked up quite a bit, just from understanding 5% (or less!) of the vocabulary flying around.  And that I learned a lot.  And I coined a little aphorism:  "If you understand everything, you're learning nothing."  They seem to appreciate this – even the less-motivated students nod sagely after it sinks in and they've parsed its syntax.

I bought 꼬치 (chicken skewers) for the O2 students after they got a pretty high average on a vocabulary quiz.  A way to ring out the old year, I guess.  They seemed pleased with this.

It was drizzling as I walked home.  Where did winter go?  It's been warmer the last few days.  Hmm… typical Korean pattern, actually.  A bit of Siberia, a bit of southern Japan – the air mass boundary moves back and forth.   And when it's warmer, it's wetter.  So the best chance for snow is when the line's moving north… which is always followed by warmer weather.  Which is why Korean winters rarely have much snow on the ground.

Caveat: Santa Cruz?

Yesterday we had an obligatory xmas party, in association with the local campuses of the "Blue" Academy which is another branch of the hagwon corporation that has acquired my place of work (our school becomes part of a new branch of this corporation, and will be called LinguaForum <- they have a website).

Actually, it wasn't completely obligatory – Danny and Diana and Grace all managed to get out of it, pleading previous obligations elsewhere.  But Ryan and I went, along with the new manager guy, Kurt, and the new incoming teacher Pete (everyone goes by English names around the academy, and I'll stick to naming them that way in part to allow them – and myself – anonymity, vis-a-vis google et al.).

Kurt picked me up around 4, and I met his wife and daughter and we drove to Hwajeong, where the party was.  There were about 500 people there, in a big rented hall, including important boss types, regional VP types, lots of teachers and staff and families.  And I swear, I was the only foreigner there.

You see, this LinguaForum thing is a new venture – at least for the Ilsan / Goyang region where we are.  Most of the Pureun schools are math/science prep places, and thus much less likely to have foreign staff.  The company is trying to grow their "English hagwon" biz rapidly, and thus are going around acquiring small independent schools such as ours was, and converting them over.

This is the first large social event I've attended in Korea.  Unlike my colleagues, I hardly resented it – I actually thought it was nice to have something to do for xmas day – even if it was nothing more than schmooze with people in a language I barely understand.

Some things I had been led to expect, however, based on reading, conversations, and just some degree of understanding of the nature of Korean society.  There were interminable awards ceremonies.  There was much silly raising and lowering of hands, clapping, and waving about, in unison.  There were karaoke contests, including some major company bigwig belting out some charming almost bluegrassy Korean ballad.  There were prizes for children, and an endless buffet with a nearly infinite variety of almost entirely unidentifiable foods.  There was soju and beer on every table, but much less drinking than I'd expected.

I had a few humorous misunderstandings:  at one point, I couldn't figure out why everyone was talking about Santa Cruz (as in the city in California, or maybe a Spanish religious concept).  It should have been obvious:  they were talking about Santa Claus, but the "L" changes to "R" and the vowel was definitely off, and the consequence was that it didn't even occur to me until had to ask someone, despite what day it was.

Finally I got a ride home with Pete and his wife and daughter, and I told them some of my tales about travels around Latin America.  I tried to go to sleep early.

This morning I had to wake up early and go to work by 9 am (considering I normally get off at 10 pm, this is indeed quite early).   We had to drive into Seoul and go to a training for the new RingGuAPoReom curriculum.  Which ended up being not terribly enlightening.  The first session was OK, but I had been hoping something like a mock lesson or something dynamic, but it was really just a little lecture about the contents of the books, which was really fairly self-evident to us, having had the chance to look through them on our own.  The second session was about the same, with the added factor of being in Korean, which meant I understood my standard 3-5%, which is hardly enough to get me to any kind of appreciation of what's being said.

And then we drove back to Ilsan.  Ryan and Pete and I had lunch at the hole-in-wall place in the basement of the next-door building, and they were very sociable with me for a change (well, not for a change, as Pete's completely new… so, I mean Ryan, I guess).  They started teaching me some "restaurant survival Korean" and then made me make all the requests to the serving staff:  more rice, check please, etc.

I was thinking to myself, "damn, I've learned more Korean in the last two days than in the last two months!"  So… maybe working for a big company will be good for me, here.  Now, if I can only shake this goddawful flu virus.

Caveat: The Best Gift

I honestly had no intention of writing some sappy Christmas-spirit entry to this blog.  It's not really in my character, and I've been feeling totally crappy, with a major relapse of flu symptoms combined with a lot of frustration and uncertainty about work.  But…

I have this student who goes by the English name of … well, let's call her Ashley (something makes me shy about telling her real name, English or Korean).  She's in my T2 class, which, if you've been reading this blog, you will already know means she's not a superstar when it comes to the "Jared's favorite class" category.  But she's been the lead player in the rebellion… at least, it's always seemed that way to me.

More than once, if I'd been hard-pressed to name a student that I was certain hated me, I would have named Ashley.   Perhaps the only one in that category… though, in my more rational, adult moments, I recognize it's unlikely she's ever hated me, simply that I was in some way a barrier to the most fulfilling expression of her teenage angst and anger.  Or a target. 

She's not stupid – in fact, in a recent English level-test, she was the highest scorer in her age-group in our little school.   Several other teachers expressed dumbfounded amazement at this, but I'm not so naive as to assume that bad attitude is the same thing as low intelligence or lack of skill – in fact, I might be more inclined to believe the opposite.   And when she reads out loud, her accent is almost eerily flawless, at least in comparison to her peers – so she doesn't lack innate language talent, either.

We've had more than one disciplinary confrontation.  My least-proud moment, this fall, was when I tore up a crib sheet she was writing (for another class), in an unsuccessful effort to confiscate it from her (although throwing Steve's cellphone across the classroom was a close runner-up – and I did that just recently!).   Often an entire week would go by when she would answer not a single question of mine, nor open her book, nor show any interest in the class, while wearing a permanent scowl on her face – and I would know it was directed at me, as I would, an hour later, look in to see her giggling with a friend in another class.

I'm certain I've managed to earn some of her anger:  I am not always great with remembering names, but for whatever strange reason she was the target of the "wrong name" syndrome, during my first months at the school, more than most.   And I know I misread a sort of inward-looking shyness on her part as a more malevolent hostility, early on.   But based on conversations with other teachers, she's not entirely innocent, either.  Ryan described her as spoiled, rude and permanently angry.

I have tried not to take it personally.  Most of the time, I didn't.  But I couldn't help but be aware of her glowering resentment. 

Well, today, Ashley gave me a Christmas present – and one of the most wonderful and memorable I've ever received:  she participated;  she was pleasant and civil with me and her peers;  she smiled.

I'm not even certain that it was meant to be a Christmas present.  Perhaps she was just in a good mood, for whatever reason.  Doesn't matter.  It made a difference.  Without her serving in her standard role, those T2's shined… and were my favorite class of the day.  Of course, we weren't doing much work… just a word game, nothing strenuous, academically speaking – it's Christmas Eve, after all.

Something very Christmassy about that little glimmer of niceness.  Of joy.  So, everyone… Merry Christmas – from a soulless man in Seoul. 

Caveat: qubits

I'm reading a book I bought by someone named Seth Lloyd, a physicist, about quantum computing.  I'm trying to figure it out, but I can't, for the life of me.  It's profoundly counter-intuitive.  I'll let you know if I make sense of it.

I'm not very happy about xmas.  I generally don't care much about it… but I'm feeling rather isolated, I confess.  Well, I'm not here to moan about it.  But it's been a kind of gloomy day.

Caveat: Talmudic Citation

When a Korean teenager quotes the Talmud in his writing assignment, I suspect this indicates nothing more than a strong set of internet-search skills.  However, the fact that he used the quote meaningfully and in an appropriate context shows some talent with language, too, I would say.  Always little stunning things like this, to keep me motivated.

Ever since my crisis last month with my T2's, I've been getting happier and happier with my students.  But, balancing that is an increasing discomfort with my coworkers.  Part of that is, undoubtedly, the transfer-of-power taking place as the independently owned-and-operated School of Tomorrow becomes transformed into a small branch campus of LinguaForum Academy, Inc.  But I also feel that my way of coping with my teenagers' recalcitrance (i.e. backing way off, ending arguments about whether homework gets done, etc.) probably isn't in accord with the do-more-sooner and work-harder philosophy of the other teachers.

My feeling is that I'll get more accomplished exposing them to English in a relaxed, informal and pleasant atmosphere than cowing them into compliant tasks of mindless memorization.   But it's hard to quantify results, which is what parents want.  So I'm not sure how this will go… of course, with a new curriculum coming soon, it's all moot.

Meanwhile, one thing certain to happen with the new owners / managers is that I will probably end up working more hours, at least at first.  It's already started to happen – I had to come to work early yesterday and today for these long, tedious presentations to parents about the changes in the school (tedious for me, anyway, since they're conducted in Korean, and I can do little but be a nice American-looking spokesmodel standing around).

So I'm exhausted, and feeling like the flu is trying to make a comeback.  And I'll be working Christmas day… well, not exactly working, but interacting with coworkers at an obligatory Christmas party.  I don't really resent this at all – I look forward to it, as I might get to know some of the new people associated with the new corporate parent of our little hagwon.

Walking home, I had an ecstatic moment when I understand not one, but two words in a row in an overheard fragment of conversation between two people walking the opposite direction.  You have to understand, this is a milestone, as such overheard conversations of passing pedestrians are quite challenging for a language-learner.   I understood, exactly:  "blah blah blah … my younger sister… blah blah blah"  I have no idea as to context, etc.  But it was cool to hear it and know for certain what it meant.   We take our victories, however small, right?

Caveat: Casino Problem

Nothing can be more enlightening than having a political discussion with a pair of 13 year old boys.  Obviously, what they say is, likely, a reflection of the views of their parents – but they tend to be more frank and up front – especially if they have limited language skills in the language in which the discussion is taking place.

On the subject of South Korea's just-this-instant elected president, 이명박, Tom explained to me that he was "crazy man," and when I asked him to elaborate, he said he was "a robber" and that he had a "casino problem."  I'm going to guess that Tom's parents voted for one of the other guys. 

It is true that the presumed president-elect will be facing a criminal probe by the national legislature, before even being sworn in next month, for his association with a corporate fraud case.  Ah well, politics is politics, everywhere, right?

I had a good day at school today.  All the students were relatively pleasant and at least moderately motivated.  Several, including normally silent Mona in my T2 class, are stunning me with unforeseeable founts of interest and actual work.

Cindy, in the brilliant T1 class, has the flu, and she and I were chatting before class about how everyone has the flu, these days, including me, just now beginning to recover (knock on wood).  Then she said something very funny:  "Your voice is much nicer when you're sick."  I guess she was referring to that raspy, slightly lower sound it has.  But… I didn't know what to say.  Should I have said, "Oh.  I'll try to stay sick, then"?  But I think she was joking.  Sometimes I can't tell.

Caveat: Vote?

Tomorrow is election day.  South Koreans will vote for president.  이명박 (reformed romanization I-Myeong-Bak / conventional romanization Lee Myung Park) is the far-ahead leader in all polls, member of the conservative Grand National Party, which would then replace the slightly less conservative current ruling coalition.  Most people here are voting their pocketbooks, as there has been a lot of inflation of e.g. land prices.  Most of the leading candidates seem to have similar views of such controversial issues as the North Korean rapprochement (i.e. they favor it), as best I have been able to determine (though I haven't researched extensively).

So tomorrow night, we'll know who will be president for the next 5 year term.  Like Mexico, presidents may only serve one term. 

Caveat: Incentives and U.S. Healthcare

I heard a part of a speech by Mike Huckabee, with whom I was certain I would find very little in common, and was stunned to hear a compelling and cogent argument about the core problem with healthcare in the U.S.

It comes down to an MBA-style incentives analysis:  why do insurance companies prefer paying for major healthcare interventions when prevention would be cheaper, in the long run?  Because, from a strictly actuarial standpoint, they have almost zero interest in the long run, since the average person is covered by a single given healthcare provider only for a short or medium run (i.e. a person keeps a given job at a given company for, say, 5 years, when prevention-oriented healthcare requires much wider windows of 8 or 10 years, at the least).  Thus, to pay for prevention-oriented healthcare for covered workers is only to subsidize a competitor, who would be the next insurance provider down the line in a given worker's career track.

One can question the accuracy of the individual bits of fact or statistic in the above analysis, and I didn't get a chance to hear what he thought the solution might be, but I was nevertheless pleased by the argument's underlying clarity and logic – it had an almost marxist-dialectic appeal.

No doubt, someone's been writing Huckabee's policies and speeches, but that he would sign on to such an assumption-challenging exposition speaks well of his intellectual integrity.  I'm not saying I would vote for him – he is, after all, the current favorite of a fundamentally intolerant Christian right – the all-American Jihad, made-in-Arkansas.  But, he's been condemned more than once as a new example of something that might be called an "evangelical liberal," and this example may provide some support to that categorization.

Caveat: Here and There

I felt I really needed to get out of the apartment.

I took the subway two stops to Baekseok, to look around.  I found where the new frequently advertised Costco store is being built.  I walked around and enjoyed the late afternoon illumination on the clouds.

I then took the subway two more stops to Hwajeong.  I found a few department stores.  Walked around some more.

Then I got on the subway and went to Anguk, and strolled around Insadong.  I found things to buy, maybe they would be good xmas presents for my nephews, if I can get it together to mail them.  Soon.

200711_ilsankr_treesn

Caveat: Xmas Specials

I watched a really depressing xmas movie today… I was going to do something productive like go to my Korean language hagwon, but I decided I was still under the influence of the influenza virus I've been combating.  But kinda depressing… I watched a rather grim-seeming xmas special on my TV, that I didn't catch the title of (it had dialog in English, which made it the most compelling programming available to my currently muddled mind). 

I took a nap and dreampt I was in some alternate-universe Humboldt County, unable to find my home.  Drifting around, sometimes driving, sometimes walking, like a shade. 

Caveat: fluff

I emerged from work at 10.20 this evening into driving, fluffy snow.  I hadn't even realized it was snowing.  I walked home smiling to myself.  Maybe that was because I may have finally begun shaking the flu thing I've been struggling against, though. 

The snow accumulated in tiny drifts in the rumples of my thick overcoat, and the sound of rushing buses and mopeds was muffled. 

Caveat: What if zombies took over Ilsan?

I don't know the answer.  Just something to wonder about, I guess.

So it's been a bit hush-hush, but I think it's common knowledge now, and thus I will blog it (since they're installing a new sign on the building, after all).  The School of Tomorrow Language academy has been sold by its owners, Danny and Diana, to a big conglomerate academy business, and will become the new "RingGuAPoReomEoHagWon."  The company is trying to break into the specialized English-only academy biz, and this is their opportunity.

Thus I get to work for both a small, independent "mom and pop" academy, as well as a big corporate academy, all under a single one-year contract.  There will be a lot of changes, not least will be a radically different curriculum.  I still don't really know what to expect.  But the "hippie school" ambiance that I rather liked does seem endangered.  On the other hand, I may get some more "professional" management/feedback, which might help me feel more comfortable about where I stand as far as performance.

Caveat: long time ago, men were best

I was walking to work along "Broadway" this afternoon, and happened past this temporary store selling Xmas decorations, and blasting from some loudspeakers was that latter-day American Xmas-music standy, "Feliz Navidad," sung earnestly in a charming Korean accent.  This was culturally disorienting.  The sun was a lovely blurry gold in a hazy winter sky.

Earlier, I had enjoyed watching an episode of Spongebob Squarepants on my television, dubbed into Korean.  The fact that I didn't understand anything he said really didn't interfere with my ability to understand the plot, although there's some pretty clever word-play in those cartoons that I obviously missed out on.  As I watched, I had some sweet instant coffee, and ate a pre-made sandwich of indeterminate content bought from the "Orange" (e.g. 7-11 type) store downstairs.  The sandwich was made with an eerie green-tinted bread.  It tasted pretty good, in a wonder-bread sort of way.

When I got to work, I was correcting some writing books, and ran across the following passage, written by Julia, age  13.  Note the oddly-phrased demonstration of her strong awareness of Korea's rapidly evolving gender-roles:  "I think test is garbage.  Test has no existence, cause if I know who make test, I curse him (or her, but I think him, because long time ago, men were best)."

I played a game with the T2 class today, and for the first time in over two months, every single student participated and even showed glimmers of enthusiasm.  Of course, we didn't touch the curriculum.  Ah well.

I also had recently given a "꼬치 challenge" to my 수능 and T1 cohorts.  The challenge involved the following:  if they could get a class average of above 75% on a context-based vocabulary quiz for the current chapter in the text, I would buy them all 꼬치 (skewered barbecue chicken, see entry of a week or so ago).  Well, it never rains but it pours – both groups made the grade today, and I paid out 21,000 won to treat them all to 꼬치 from the corner stand.  But it was worth it to see them work hard at it… bribery gets you everywhere, as they say.  And the stomach is the key to these youngsters' minds.

Caveat: No free lunch

Honestly, when I got here, I wasn't expecting a free lunch.  But for the last three months, one of my favorite "perks" of my teaching job has been the free lunch (or, really, dinner) they give us every day.  Not only do I get to sample a wide range of Korean cuisine, since it's generally "eat whatever we give you," but also, of course, I could make it my main meal of the day and it essentially supplemented my income.

But now, change of policy:  the free lunches are over.  I don't really resent it.  But I will miss it, I'm certain, if for not other reason than for the adventurousness of eating something I have no idea what it is two or three times a week.  Having to bring/buy my own will cause me to tend to a more conservative "order what I know" strategy, I'm certain. 

Ah well.  I did learn some delicious things.

Caveat: Learning 한자

I have this book on 한자 (hanja) for learners of Korean.   These are Chinese characters, which are widely used in Korea, but do not form an indispensable part of the written language, unlike e.g. Japanese, where you cannot learn the written language without learning the Chinese characters too.  Nevertheless, it has seemed to me that true literacy in Korean requires knowing these Chinese characters, much as an ability to understand Latin and Greek roots can aid in being well-educated in English.  In fact, I have sometimes explained to my students that Latin and Greek roots are the English language's hanja.

Therefore, I'm going to try to learn some.  But at the moment, I can't even figure out how to type them – I know there should be some kind of "type in hangeul and look up appropriate hanja" functionality on my Korean keyboard gadget on my laptop, but I can't get it to work.  So, I'll let you know when I get it to work.

Meanwhile, we're having some freezing rain, and, knock-on-wood, the flu I've had seems to be getting a little better.