Caveat: Another Brief Retracing

I arrived in Suwon just now.  I had left some things with my friend here who runs the guesthouse where I stayed in February and March, and I've come to pick them up:  a box of books, and some winter clothes (which, given how chilly this Korean spring has been, I probably should have taken with me to Gwangju two weeks ago… but, I've survived).

I'll spend some time tonight or tomorrow using the convenient intenet to catch up on my blog posting.  I could have gone to a PC방 (internet cafe) last week in the evenings and done it, but I was obsessing with cleaning my new apartment, and focused on adapting to school.  Anyway, if it takes longer to get internet in my apartment, I'll have to develop a PC방 habit, I suppose – I can't neglect this blog too much, can I?

Here is a picture of my main classroom at my new job.  Imagine it filled with a bunch of wiggling first-graders, as it was this afternoon.  As an English teacher, I'll see bits and pieces of all the grade levels in the school, from kindergarten to 6th grade.

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Caveat: The Schedule

I got a fairly final version of my teaching schedule, this morning.  It will be what I have, beginning next Monday.   It’s a little overwhelming only because of the uncertainty of what to do in some of the classes.  But if I compare it to the sorts of schedules I got when working at hagwon, it’s incredibly light on couse-load.  For the week, I see only 23 teaching “hours” (where “hours” represents about 40~50 minutes in the classroom, but it’s conceptually padded with the transition time and just considered to be one hour.

The absolute easiest term I had at hagwon, I had about 28 teaching hours in a week, and once, I had 40, I think.

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Caveat: The Apartment

My new apartment is not called an "apartment" by Koreans.  The term "apateu" is reserved for the cookie-cutter apartments found in high-rises.  Several of my coworkers have told me that I'm living in a "house."  But, by the standards of American English, it's still an apartment.

It's the top, third floor of a commericial building.  Maybe it could be called a "flat."  Or, very charitably, a penthouse.   Underneath me is a hairdresser's shop and a tteok store (tteok is Korean rice-cake, in at least 10,000 varieties).   The apartment was frighteningly filthy when I got into it on Monday – I was afraid to sleep on the bedding provided, and the floors had enough dust that walking on them barefoot was a bit like a stroll on the beach.

I've been cleaning industriously.  And I've been attempting to decorate.  It's much better, now.  And, on the good side, by Korean standards, this apartment is huge.  Gigantnormous.  And it has access to a rooftop "balcony" area that I could see becoming a nice spot to hang out on summer evenings – as long as I do some cleaning and invest in some kind of patio furniture.

Here are some pictures.  Note that the wood-looking floors are just the ubiquitous Korean "wood-flavored linoleum" – they look much better in the pictures than up close and personal.

First, my livingroom, with TV and a few weak efforts at decorating – the textiles strategically placed to cover holes or blemishes on the wall.

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The view from the rooftop area, looking north, I think… I haven't got my directions completely down yet, in my neighborhood.

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The kitchen area.

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The entry area.

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The bedroom.  I bought some new bedding, and have been sleeping on the nice firm mattress, but I can confidently say that I will migrate to the floor, Korean style – especially once the weather gets hot and sticky.

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The "extra" room – maybe it will be my office/studio?

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I've lived in worse places.  Some cleaning and decorating will make it fine.  And… it's the most space I've had since … wow, since I was married, maybe.  Too bad all my junk is in a storage unit in Minnesota – if it where here, I could unpack it all and sit and admire it.

Caveat: 꿈을 가꾸는 홍농 어린이

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That’s me standing and looking a little bit goofy in front of one of the entrances to my new school.  The sign over the entryway reads “꿈을 가꾸는 홍농 어린이” (kkumeul gakkuneun hongnong eorini = “Hongnong children [are] cultivating [their] dreams”).

I think one of the things that impresses me about Korean society is that the children seem so happy.  Children everywhere in the world can seem happy, but in many of the places I’ve spent time, the children seem, on average, a lot less happy than in Korea:  e.g. parts of Mexico, south Minneapolis, L.A.  Is my memory or perception distorted?  I’m not sure.  It’s not a scientific sample, it’s just my gut-level impression.

Anyway… a society with happy children can’t be doing too badly, I think.

Caveat: Curses! It’s Carl Kwan!

I have some time to kill, sitting in my classroom, and not yet assigned classes.  It's nice to have the time to adjust – so much better than the hagwon way of throwing you into the deep end on the first day.  But I can't work on my blog, because the school's internet filter blocks my blog-host's IP address.  So I turn to Carl Kwan, to kill some time.

The orientation I attended last week was pretty good.  Well-designed, well-paced, with good presenters.  But another aspect of working as a pet foreigner for the public schools system in Korea is that the central Education Ministry can come up with some ill-conceived rules, requirements, and initiatives.   I'm suffering from one of them now.

They have required everyone to complete a "20 hour online seminar" series about teaching as a foreigner in the public schools.  I think it might have once been a good idea – but the badly designed/written curriculum, combined with a stunningly irritating presenter, make the actual completion of the series of videos and quizzes excruciating.   Carl Kwan, the Chinese-Canadian presenter, likes to say his own name.  I suppose that can be an effective schtick with students, but it gets old fast.  And he loves the word "um" – which I very much doubt is effective with English learners.

Well, anyway.  Here's a screenshot of the now infamous (in my mind, at least) Carl Kwan.

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Caveat: 전라남도 영광군 홍농읍 상하리 홍농초등학교

Korean addresses are backwards from what we Westerners are used in most countries I’m familiar with.  They list the largest geographical unit first, and then “drill in” or “zoom in” to the most local unit, without using commas.  So my new workplace would have a partial address as follows:  전라남도 영광군 홍농읍 상하리 홍농초등학교 (jeollanam-do yeonggwang-gun hongnong-eup sangha-ri hongnongchodeunghakgyo = South-Jeolla-Province Yeonggwang-County Hongnong-Town  Sangha-Village Hongnong-Elementary-School).

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The map shows Yeonggwang County. It’s on the west coast of the peninsula, in the northwestern corner of South Jeolla Province, which is the southwestern mainland province of South Korea.  So you visualize that it’s “facing” China’s Qingdao across the Yellow Sea to the west.  The green-bordered blob you see is about 50 km. north-to-south and the same east-to-west, with some islands floating offshore.  Maybe I’ll get to visit them sometime.

Hongnong Town is the knob at the top of the map.   Yeonggwang Town (the “county seat”) is the cluster of extra roads you can see near the center of the map (but a bit off to the southeast from center).

The county is rural, but it’s not as rural as many might imagine.  South Korea has a very high population density, so the number of persons-per-square-kilometer, even in an area like this, is more like New Jersey or Eastern Pennsylvania than it is like Iowa or Idaho.  And Korea is crisscrossed by expressways, nowadays, too, so there’s not much left of the long, slow trips on twisting one-and-one-half-lane highways that even I remember vividly from the early 90’s.

I already like my new school.  It’s just like any other Korean elementary school, a bit of a cookie cutter architecturally, with the dirt playground in front and the three-story facade of classrooms.  But in a town as small as Hongnong, it has a bit of the feel of a community center, too, maybe.

I was shocked and dismayed to learn that my apartment will not be in Hongnong Town, but rather Yeonggwang Town.  That seems like a long commute (about 30 km.).  Also, when I saw my apartment, it was rather dirty, and definitely a bit shabby.  Hmm… lots of cleaning to be done.

Caveat: Really actually finally starting?

The training is over.   Tomorrow I will meet my "co-teacher" and we will go to Hongnong (my new town), where I will meet my school and get to see and settle into my apartment, hopefully. 

I'm nervous and excited.  It's been a long 8 months, since I was employed.  It's been largely voluntary, but I'm looking forward to being "settled" again, finally. P1040449

Caveat: 광주 0 : 2 성남

The training program took us to a soccer game yesterday.  It was between Gwangju and Seongnam.   The stadium was almost empty – I think our large group of foreigners was about a quarter of the audience.  This one guy, Dave, proposed a bet on the outcome.  I studied the two teams’ rosters, and said, OK, I think Seongnam will win.  And I was right – Seongnam won, 2 to 0.  Was it pure luck?  What was my betting strategy?

I just bet on the team that had foreigners’ names on the roster.  My thinking?  If the team can afford to put some foreigners on its roster (an expensive proposition, apparently), then they must be serious about winning, and are probably near the top of the league, since very few foreigners play soccer in Korea (baseball and basketball are different, where most teams have several foreigners at least).  I suppose it still could have been luck, but Gwangju was pretty clearly out-classed in the game – the Seongnam team (foreign and Korean players equally) was faster, nimbler, and seemed generally better prepared.

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Caveat: Thick on the ground

Here, ancestors are thick on the ground.  There in my home country, it's not like that.  Ghosts are far and few between.   Flowers on the forest floor, clustering and waiting for sunlight – that's how ancestors are.  Sometimes you see a lot, sometimes, not.  Mostly, you never notice them.  But they're thick, here.  Thick on the ground.

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Caveat: Field Trip

This large group of "newbie" EFL teachers in the training here were taken on a field trip yesterday.  Kind of like a one-day tour of some parts of Jeollanam province.  It was cool.  I took a lot of pictures.  But here are two that actually show me – which are rare.  I'll maybe post some of the "scenery" pictures later.

This first picture is of me with some school girls that were at the Nagan Folk Village – a sort of Korean Historical theme park (tastefully done).   Kids in Korea will run up to foreigners – especially large groups of foreigners obviously on tour, and say things like "Hello!"  "How are you?"  Basically, they want to practice English, and be friendly.  These girls were impressed because I'd managed 3 or 4 phrases of passable Korean, and so I suddenly became a rock star.

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This picture is me in front of a small compound gate at a temple complex at Jogyesan National Park.

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Caveat: Trees. Trees.

The last time I talked with my mother, she shared an aphorism with me that's been rolling around in my brain:  "Before enlightenment, there are trees.  After enlightenment, there are trees."  This is probably a paraphrase of something aptly Buddhistic, but I like the simplicity of it.

I was thinking of it, and looking at trees, yesterday, as I climbed up the path up the mountain behind my hotel here in Gwangju.  There were many trees, in various stages of springing forth, from bare branches to luxuriant pale, glowing green, with lots of blossoms too.  Some of the trees had little labels on them placed by the local park service that maintains the park, and so I set to trying to learn some of the Korean names of trees – assuming I could identify the tree in question based on my own somewhat stale knowledge from my classes in botany of 20 years ago. 

It was a steep climb – good exercise to reach to top.  The view out over Gwanju wasn't spectacular:  there were too many trees.  But it was beautiful.  And I had the space mostly to myself, since rain was threatening.  It's pretty rare to have park-trails to oneself, in Korea.

Here is a picture.

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Caveat: in praise of pedestrianism

Yesterday, I took the bus out to see my new town for the first time.  The little town of Hongnong-eup (-eup just means "town"), in Yeonggwang-gun (-gun means "county"), on the northwest corner of Jeollanam-do (-do means "province").  I was intending to meet with my fellow "foreign teacher" who is working at the same school that I will be;  however, she ended up having a last minute errand to run, so I was left on my own at the bus station of Hongnong.  I walked the length of the town in about 10 minutes.  And then I was back at the bus station, with nothing to do.

So… I did what I always seem to do, when at a loss as to what to do.  I took a long, long walk.   I think I walked about 10 km.  I walked south of Hongnong, through the rice fields, and ended up at a place called "백제불교문화최초도래지" which roughly translates as "Baekje Buddhist culture first arrival place" – it is the spot in the Korean peninsula where Buddhism first "arrived," probably in the 500's or early 600's CE.

The location has the feel of something like a cross between a national monument and a Buddhist theme park, with flower gardens, trails over and around the mountain, lots of statues, chanting from speakers mounted on lamp-posts, gift shops, temples, etc.   It was, in any event, very interesting.  I had forgotten to take my good camera with me, but I snapped a few photos with my old cellphone (which I carry around for it's pretty-good electronic dictionary function).  I'm having some trouble downloading those photos, now, but when I do, I'll add them here.

I then walked into the town of 법성 (beopseong), an industrious-seeming little fishing port on the inlet in the coast, there (geomorphically, a "ria," or submerged river valley, I believe).   I saw at least ten thousand stores selling "gulbi" which is the local species of croaker fish, very popular to sell to the tourists, apparently.

By this time, it was getting toward 7 PM, so I decided to just come back to Gwangju, since I'm not so into wandering around randomly once the sun sets.   I found the Beopseong bus terminal and got on the next Gwanju bus, and I felt very efficient and knowledgeable when I was able to walk out of the bus terminal and immediately climb onto the correct bus number (1187) that would take me back to the east side of the city to the mountain where my hotel is located.  I got back by 9:30 or so, I think.

I really love just walking around places.  You get such an "honest" feel for how the place is.  You see all of its aspects.  You don't truly know a town, until you've walked down each of its connecting roads at least as far as the next town.   When living in big cities, I often wander for long stretches on public transportation.  But in rural areas, such as will be my new home, the best thing is to wander on foot.

I plan to do a lot of that, over the coming year.  I'm off to a great start.

Caveat: Orientation is disorienting

I am participating in a rather in-depth, week-long orientation and training program related to my new job.  This is very disorienting – because I never had so much as an hour of orientation or training at any of my three previous jobs in Korea.

Some of the "cultural content" it is a bit redundant or boring, for someone who's already been here a few years.  But other bits are amazingly useful, and I find myself thinking, "gee, it would have been nice to have known that, say, 3 years ago."

Overall, I think this will be good.  Plus, the hotel where this is taking place is the poshest place I've stayed at in a long time – possibly since I had the Oracle 8i/9i certification at that resort in Pennsylvania in 2004.

Here's a picture from my hotel balcony, looking west-southwest over Gwangju, as the sun is coming up behind the mountain behind me.

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Caveat: Zen pep rally of robots; Confucian riot of saints

I like to invent little metaphors that sound like good names for rock bands.

Yesterday, walking around Gwangju, I ran across some monuments to the Gwangju democracy movement of 1980.  Although the movement failed against the dictatorship of that time, it was a significant turning point in the evolution of South Korean politics. 

I began to reflect on South Korea's "protest culture."  A lot of people view this as a sort of political immaturity (even, or especially, South Koreans themselves), but I have a rather different take on it.  Firstly, this "protest culture" is as innate and important to modern South Korean democracy as, say, a town hall meeting is to New England democracy.  Secondly, however, I think the fact that people in this country feel free to begin a rally or protest at the drop of a hat actually makes South Korean politics a bit more genuinely responsive and, well, "democratic" than a superficial systemic analysis might suggest.  So rather than seeing it as a blemish on the South Korean polity, I see the protest culture as a sort of enhancement, if an imperfect one.

But it seems odd, doesn't it, that a country still so steeped in Confucian culture and values would adopt protests and riots as a (more or less) legitimate means of political expression?  Thus I stumbled on the idea of a "Confucian riot."  Which sounds cool, and is maybe less oxymoronic than you'd think.  And I was contrasting the idea, in my mind, with Japan.  Japan doesn't have the same kind of protest culture as South Korea – not at all.  Perhaps, lacking a recent historical experience with in-your-face dictatorship (i.e. at least not since WWII, and arguably even before that), Japan never developed the need.  Japan is a more consensual polity, whether truly democratic or not.  More like a "pep rally" than a riot.  And so I stumbled on the contrasting idea of a "zen pep rally."

I'm just thinking about these things.  This is not a polished thesis or even intended to be a well-structured argument.  More like a suggestion for two contrasting metaphors for two intimately related but profoundly distinct societies.

Here is a picture of a monument to the "518" movement (the Gwangju uprising of 1980), in front of the central high school.  And some other monuments I noticed, not far away.

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Caveat: Sucky Rosetta Sudoku

I don't like sudoku.  Nor do I like crosswords, chess, "brain-teaser" puzzles, etc.  I feel like this fact about myself is somehow a serious violation (nay, betrayal) of my nerdly origins, that I'm like this.  But, I've always lacked enthusiasm for these types of mental recreations.  One memorable example:  I remember when Rubic's Cube first came out, and everyone was obsessively trying to solve it.  I managed to solve it – it wasn't easy, but I managed – but  I genuinely recall my efforts to do so as a profoundly unpleasant experience.  I never picked it up again.  Even today, when I see a Rubik's Cube, I have a sort of visceral reaction of strong distaste, similar to how I react to seeing bananas (to which – it has been verified – I am allergic).

My theory is that this gut reaction is because my perfectionism is stronger, and receives higher priority, than my intellectual curiosity.  That doesn't sound like a very good reflection on my personality.  And… it's not.  But I'm trying to be honest about things, here.

Anyway, that's not what I meant to write about.  I had a major insight, yesterday. 

I'd decided to dedicate some more time to working through the Rosetta Stone software I'd splurged on last fall.  I've been pretty unhappy with it, and so it's hard for me to motivate to use it.  I have only managed to work up to around the middle of the Level 1 Korean package.

So I was slogging through it… I see the value in it, in building some automaticity with respect to grammar points and  vocabulary.  My core criticisms remain the same:  it's not very linguistically sophisticated in its presentation of material (especially of phonological issues and grammar); the speaking sections' "listener/analyzer/scorer" is majorly wonky (I sometimes get so frustrated I just start cussing at it, which tends to lower my score); the grammar points covered sometimes don't match the way actual Koreans around me actually speak, in my experience.

But I found a new reason why I don't like Rosetta Stone, and I found it in a surprising way.  I was reading a recent issue of the Atlantic magazine, and there was an ad for Rosetta Stone.  And the ad said something to the gist of:  "if you like sudoku, you'll love learning a language with Rosetta Stone."

You can see where this is going, right?  Rosetta's software is deliberately designed to activate the same mental processes and reward centers that puzzle-games like sudoku do.  And therefore it's suddenly obvious why I spend most of my time when trying to use the software feeling frustrated and pissed-off.  It's the same reason I feel constantly frustrated and pissed-off when I try to solve sudoku puzzles, or play chess, or other things like that.  I just don't enjoy that type of intellectual challenge.

But this insight also forces me to temper my criticism of Rosetta Stone substantially, in one respect:  it means that it's just my idiosyncrasy, in part,  that causes me not to like it, and to regret having bought it.  If you're like most reasonably intellectual people, and enjoy killing some time solving sudoku or playing chess or the like, then, probably, Rosetta Stone is a great tool for learning a language.  You'll probably think it's really fun.

Sigh.

So… there.

Caveat: 이가방이 무거워요…

I have arrived in Gwangju.

Everyone knows I struggle with memorizing vocabulary.  “Heavy” is a word that I’ve looked up the Korean equivalent for at least 15 or 20 times, and it never has managed to stick with me.  But, as of today, I think I can confidently say I’ve got it well and truly stuck in my brain, finally.

Context is everything, in language learning.  I have some very heavy luggage, today, as I tote my most important worldly possessions down to Gwangju.  Hefting the bag into the taxi, and again, getting help from the assistant at the bus terminal, I had occasion to hear and use “무거워요” (mu-geo-weo-yo = it’s heavy).  And now I know that I know that word.

Travel costs are so reasonable, in Korea, after having been in Japan.  The bus ticket, express “special” (우등) from Suwon to Gwangju was only 21,000 won.  That’s less that 20 bucks, to take me basically across the whole country, north to south.  Admittedly, that “across-the-country” bus trip was exactly 3 hours and 5 minutes long.  Once out of metro Seoul, the expressways are wide, well-engineered and convenient.

I don’t remember when I was last in Gwangju.  I do know I haven’t ever spent much time here – it’s Korea’s 4th or 5th largest metropolis (depending on whom you ask), but possibly it’s the country’s least “international” of the major cities.  Regardless, it’s an important city for the history of modern democratic South Korea, and it’s pretty successful, as cities go, from what I’ve read.

I’m going to look around a bit.  More later.

Caveat: “주둥이 함부로 놀리지 마라”

“Don’t move your muzzle randomly” –  this is what my friend Seung-bae said, as we stood in front of a Buddhist temple, discussing the issue of hypocrisy and religion.  We had driven up the first part of a mountain called 광교산, past the Suwon reservoir, and at the end of the road near the base of the actual mountain, there was a temple, as is typical.

When he said this, he wasn’t criticizing me – he was teaching me an aphorism, which he is very good at.

Here’s a picture of the temple.

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Here’s a picture of the view out over Suwon, as it got dark.

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Here, we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall for makkoli (rice beer) and egg/vegetable pancakes with some radish kimchi on the side.

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Here’s a picture of a bogus chicken joint.

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Caveat: Melancholy Megalopolis

I'm going to head down to Gwangju, tomorrow, since I have to check in for my "training" on Sunday, but I'd like a few days to get oriented myself, first – I'm thinking of taking a day trip out to my new place of employment on my own, just to get the feel of the place.  "Chomping at the bit," I guess is the phrase.

But that means this is my last day in Seoul, and suddenly I'm feeling very nostalgic about my time in Ilsan (north suburbs) and Suwon (south suburbs).  I'm excited and nervous about my new job, but I know I'm taking a risk – especially since I've always been such a "city person" and now I'm moving to a tiny town, for at least a 1 year commitment.

Despite growing up in Arcata, a relatively tiny town of less than 20,000, I became a "city person" – my life in places from Mexico City to Philadelphia to Minneapolis to Los Angeles to Seoul have all agreed with me much more than those times I've been in less urban environments.  I was telling a friend that the smallest place I've lived, for an extended period of time (i.e. over 6 months), since high school, is probably Minneapolis / St Paul – a metropolitan area of about 2 million.  With my move to Hongnong, beginning (I think) week-after-next, it's looking like that will change.