Caveat: 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈

“좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈” is the title of a Korean western.  Yes, western, as in western genre movie.  It takes place in 1930’s Manchuria, which was a bit of a wild land at the time, with the Japanese trying to exert imperial control, while the Chinese, British, Germans and Russians tried to regain spheres of influence, and with disgruntled and outlaw-ish Korean freedom fighters and Mongolian tribesmen thrown into the mix. 200px-The_Good,_the_Bad,_the_Weird_film_poster

The title is an homage to Eastwood’s classic American western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” – it translates as “the Good, the Bad and the Weird.”  The title itself tells you there’re are some interesting post-modern things going on.  It’s over-the-top in terms of violence, but worth seeing.

I love how it includes all these seemingly out-of-sync cultural objects and references – 1920’s big-band dance music, Japanese soldiers, Korean merchants or black-marketeers, Mongolian tribemen sitting on horses on hilltops looking like Native Americans…  but I would imagine it might not be that far off vis-a-vis what Manchuria must have been like in that era.  Of course, everything is exaggerated and re-imagined, just in the way American westerns re-imagine North American history, too.

Caveat: The faith-based economy

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 I don't normally like South Park that much.  But sometimes I watch it, because the social and cultural commentary can be so amazingly intelligent and deep-cutting.  One such episode I caught recently was the one entitled "Margaritaville" about the way that what we believe really drives the economy.  Kyle becomes a Jesus figure, and saves the economy by taking on everyone's debt (the way that Jesus takes on everyone's sins) and thus allowing everyone's lives to return to normal.  It's pretty funny, but scarily accurate in the way that it explains how the government bailouts are supposed to work.

And another episode where Mickey Mouse beats the crap out of the Jonas Brothers is funny, too, although much nastier and cruder, more in alignment with the South Park norm.

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Caveat: Le Corbusier’s Fantasy, Manifest

Walking along the Juyeop Park Esplanade yesterday in Ilsan in the humid, still evening, I watched the children playing among modernist statuary, parents playing ball with their kids, kids walking to or from hagwon as if they were college students, grandparents strolling, an old woman selling onions and garlic.  All around, a rectilinear park-like environment, punctuated by a seemingly endless array of identical high-rise apartment towers of dubious individual architectural merit.  This is Ilsan, a city of half a million that didn't exist the first time I came here, in 1991.

Yet unlike so many Modernist planned cities, Ilsan seems to work, at a very fundamental level.  Imagine something with all the charm of Cabrini Green (Chicago's infamous 1960's era Modernist housing projects), but inhabited by a mostly Lake Forest demographic.  The children play happily amid the soulless buildings, the parents are a bit overwrought, but deeply bourgeois.  This is not typical Korea, either, but it feels very much like the future.  The future that visionaries such as Le Corbusier and other Modernist "new city" proponents supposedly got so wrong. 

Ilsan represents to me the proof of the fact that although most contemporary urbanist thinking seems to focus a great deal on the way that we can influence lifestyles through how we plan our urban spaces, when you get right down to it, there are very few elements of the physical urban space that are guaranteed to make a difference, positive or negative.  Density is significant, but Ilsan is probably as automobile-reliant as any American city, if only because of the upper-middle-class status of most of its inhabitants – they need their cars, as aspirational objects, above all else.  Perhaps it makes me a bit of a cultural determinist (read:  marxist), but what makes urban spaces work has more to do with the socioeconomic position of the inhabitants than with how they are put together.

Caveat: Masa de Harina Nixtamalera

Seungbae es uno de mis mejores amigos coreanos.  Anoche cuando llegué a Suwon, me dijo de inmediato, "I think you need Mexican food."  Así, claro que me conoce bien.  Nos metimos en su pequeña van amarilla y manejamos a Osan, donde cenamos fajitas y quesadillas y horchata, todas hechas por cocineros verdaderamente mexicanos.  Los chilangos de Osan, Corea, con su improbable proyecto de dar a los gringos (y ¡pochos! porque así son las fuerzas militares estadunidenses, en estos días) de la base aérea ahí un sabor de su continente extrañado.

Images  Hablé con el cocinero sobre el problema de encontrar la masa de harina verdademente mexicana.  Me explicó lo que ya había sospechado:  por alguna extraña regla proteccionista, no se permite importar la harina nixtamalera en Corea.  Ésta es la harina de maíz que se usa para hacer tortillas mexicanas frescas, tamales, sopes, pupusas, etc.  Me decía que cualquier otra necesidad de la cocina mexicana ha podido encontrar en Seul, menos esta.  Incluso a traído maletas desde Los Angeles o Chicago o DF a este país llenas de maseca (la marca mas conocida de masa de harina). 

Después de comer Seungbae y yo hablamos algunas horas acerca de las dificultades de la vida, en nuestra singular mescla de español, inglés y coreano.  Es un hombre muy inteligente, con buen sentido de humor.  Acerca de mis dificultades digamos emocionales con mi lugar de trabajo, me dijo: "there is no good medications except for time."  Que es exactamente la verdad, e?

Estuvo bien.  Hoy voy a ver a mi otro buen amigo coreano, en Ilsan.

Caveat: facebookkeeping

I just realized that facebook hasn't been getting my blog posts recently.  So I need to figure that problem out, again.  I've always loved the word 'bookkeeping' because it has three doubled letters in a row:  ookkee.  Hence the title.

I'm in Suwon.  I have some vacation days.  I'm trying really hard to get past the negativity I was feeling RE my efforts to learn Korean and my job situation, over the weekend.   A little trip is a good idea, but it sure is hard to motivate into starting it – I'm really glued to a non-travel status, these last several months.

Maybe I will go to Ilsan tomorrow, for old times' sake.  Not too much of a plan, although I think I should be back home by Saturday, as there are actually some things I need to get done to prep for my summer courses that start next Monday.

Caveat: Princess Mafia

Back in 2008 I had a middle-school class called TP1.  By sheer distributional accident, it was all girls.  And they were not the "good student" type of girls – they were all rebellious, obnoxious, and often lazy as all hell.  I tried some various gimmicks to try to keep them engaged, but ultimately the only thing that ever worked was to go "off script" and just talk about stuff.  This suits me fine, actually – I think that's the absolute BEST way to learn a language, talking about things that are interesting to one.  But it raised a lot of ire with my bosses because I wasn't making progress in the text.

P1040945  Anyway, way back then, I was also reading a lot of manga (Japanese serial comic book novels), and was toying with trying to write my own.  The most progress I made was with a sort of concept of essentially recreating this experience of this clueless, fuddy-duddy, middle-aged, American guy trying to teach English to a bunch of trendy but disinterested Korean middle-schoolers, much more fascinated by the cute guy in the next class and their cell phones and their own reflections in the windows than in learning how to take the TOEFL. 

I had named the class the "Princess Mafia," which the girls alleged was offensive to them, but which they nevertheless seemed to adopt as a sort of badge of honor, and would bandy it about.  And that became the working title of my little manga.

I did some plotting and framing on it, but my artistic skills are unpracticed.  And then it sort of faded from my mind, as a project.  Recently, however, I ran across some pages of character studies I'd made.  I wonder… it still seems to have some potential.  At right:  Hannah.

Caveat: Sulk. Sulk.

One of the things about the Thursday-Friday school staff fieldtrip that got me really depressed was the fact that I didn't receive a lot of positive encouragement in my efforts to speak or understand Korean.  I felt frequently ridiculed and mocked.

I've indicated before, on this blog, that right now, in my life, trying to get better at Korean is near the top of my list of priorities.  Call that quixotic, or peculiar, or pointless.  But it's true.

So to the extent that the fieldtrip, and my interactions with some of  my coworkers, squashed my optimism and enjoyment of trying to learn the language, it was was a real downer.  And so… what have I done, today, in the wake of this?

I felt crappy.  I didn't go off to Seoul, as I'd planned – I lacked motivation.  I had zero interest in going out into the Korean-speaking world.  I sulked.  This is bad behavior.  I know.

Here are some pictures taken during the better part of the trip, with my cell phone (so they have rather poor resolution), climbing the mountain Daedun.  

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And here are the principal and vice principal, plotting some new humiliation – or maybe just being clueless and cold-hearted, in a good-natured and paternalistic way.

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Caveat: The Hongnong Alcohol Blacklist

I have just returned from the worst 24 hours I've ever spent in Korea.  Well, maybe there were a few 24 hour periods back when I was a soldier in the US Army stationed at Camp Edwards, up in Paju, (DMZ/Munsan/Ilsan) that were worse.    But I'm just sayin.

My biggest mistake was that I've recently been relaxing my formerly teetotaller approach to alcohol – since my trip to Japan, when I made the breakthrough realization (or recollection – call it personal historical revisionism) that one of the reasons I managed to learn Spanish effectively in the 1980's was because I wasn't adverse to falling under the influence.  It lowers inhibitions, which is a big issue with language-learning.

But this school that I work for – well, they're a tribe of "college-frat-party"-worthy binge alcoholics.  And that's not my thing.  Never has been my thing – even when I was doing my own share of binge-drinking myself, back in college.

Maybe I'll give a detailed breakdown, later.

Let's just say, I was witness to manifold unkindnesses, and became depressed, despondent and angry.  I was in tears when I got home to my tiny Yeonggwang apartment.  I haven't been there, in quite a while – in tears, I mean.

I hold it all in:  the anger, the tears.  Bottled up.  And then it comes out, when I can finally get alone, even though the drunk moment has passed.  Alcohol sucks.  And I've always been a weepy, grumpy, judgmental drunk – I know this about myself. 

Hell.  I know I can never renew at this school – alcohol reveals depths and truths about people, and although there are many kind and wonderful people working at Hongnong Elementary, none of those kind and wonderful types are the ones running things – the manager-types showed their true selves pretty effectively, as far as I'm concerned.  And not in their own favor, frankly.

I will survive this contract.  I can avoid the management types, mostly.  But they are cruel, unkind people, who furthermore insist on excusing their cruelty as "tradition" and "Korean culture."  Fine.  I know, confidently, that there are other types of Korean culture:  types that don't require cajoling people to get drunk, that don't require laughing at (not with) underlings, that don't require groping female employees.

Mr Kim (remember him? – the PE teacher) was actually among those who were pretty kind to me.  He seemed a bit disgusted with how out of control the alcohol games got, too.  He explained to me, mostly in Korean (with a dictionary in hand), that we should make a Hongnong Alcohol Blacklist, and that the first three members included certain highly placed individuals in the school's administrative staff.  I laughed at that, and he was sullenly pleased that he'd managed to make a joke across the cultural divide.

OK.  That's enough.  

Looking out the window of the bus, coming home, I saw a cloud with a silver lining.  Literally.  Korea is a beautiful country.  And there were enough "off to the side" kindnesses shown to me in my sadness, today, that I know better than to give up on the humanity of Koreans.  Generalization and stereotyping are almost always really bad ideas.

Here's a mountain or two.

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Caveat: Work Related Excursion

I'm in Daejeon with my coworkers.  The whole school staff piles into a bus, the moment the kids have left campus for the start of summer vacation earlier today.  We drive to Daedunsan (Muju), the more ambitious hike some trails (I'll post some cellphone pics later), we drive to Daejeon, and have a hweh-sik with way too much beer, soju and makkeolli flowing.  Now I'm in a hotel, and my roommates, being high on the seniority list, have been socially obligated to go drink some more.  I've bowed out.  Tired, and, as many know, I don't enjoy drinking too much.  I'm feeling deeply melancholy as it is.  I don't need more.

Caveat: 티처 좀 외계인처럼

A student said this to me today:  티처 좀 외계인처럼 [ti-cheo jom weh-gye-in-cheo-reom = teacher a little like an alien].  She was talking about me.  I was flattered.

Sometimes I’m definitely an alien.  Or among aliens.  Or something like that.   This seemed very true when I walked down the hall to the 4-1 classroom, where teachers were seated on the floor playing Korean percussion instruments:  사물놀이 [sa-mul-nor-i].  They were practicing for the school concert that was later this evening (I attended, and may post some video from that, later).

I really like 사물놀이.  Here’s some video.

Caveat: 여름방학

Today is supposedly the last day of school before summer vacation (여름방학).  Summer vacation for students, that is.  And many (if not most) students will be attending summer camps and hagwon for most of the summer – that's the Korean way.  I will be teaching school-run summer classes for the month of August, and I will get next week off.   But I have to continue coming to work this week, as there are many things going on for staff at Hongnong Elementary.  Sometimes it seems a little pointless to have to stay, despite the fact that most of the staff goings-on aren't relevant to a non-Korean-speaking foreigner.

But I'm not sure I really agree with those who vilify the "desk warming" phenomenon.   It's what you make of it.  Most of the staff in a school during these desk-warming days are quite busy:  making plans, rearranging classrooms, preparing presentations for the school talent night, etc.  If one chooses to take the time to interact with these people, and offer to help, you can build a lot of goodwill and it can be a learning experience, too.  

Yesterday, I had only one regular class (the others were "cancelled").  And I did a little desk-warming, I admit – surfing blogs on the internet.  But I also spent some highly productive time developing lesson plans for one of my summer classes, along with the person I'll be co-teaching it with.  And I accompanied one of the third grade teachers with her class to the gym for a highly entertaining PE class, where I kind of had the role of observer / English-speaking kibitzer.  And on Monday, I had my morning classes canceled and the kids for my first grade afternoon class didn't show up, but I was very busy developing detailed program plans for my other summer classes (for which I won't have a co-teacher).  I was working "above and beyond" as they say, making more detailed plans than requested.

Nothing is more effective in building goodwill among unpredictable Korean administrators than unexpected displays of competence and dedication, in my experience.  Actually, that applies to more-or-less competent administrators anywhere.  Korean administrators aren't incompetent – they're just different.   They're operating by different cultural rules, that for them and their underlings are largely transparent.  These rules are only opaque and seem crazy to us Westerners because we haven't grown up within them.

Caveat: Climbing a secret mountain

Living life is like climbing a secret mountain, sometimes.  I climb up, pushing really hard, and then I reach some part of the trail where the terrain follows a ridge for a while, or dips down to a small valley for a time.  The trail is easier, but I also feel as if I'm not making any progress, or I lose sight of my objectives.  The metaphorical peak of the mountain is obscured by metaphorical trees, and I sit down somewhere beside the trail to drink makkeolli and eat kimbap – metaphorically, of course.

I haven't been doing much with my free time, lately.  But that down time… the dead time… feels necessary.  Sometimes I need to do just nothing.

Caveat: Quack

I am listening to A Prairie Home Companion, Saturday night broadcast on MPR (which I listen to at 8 AM Sunday, over here west of the date line).  There's a skit retelling of "The Ugly Duckling."  Lots of good duck puns.  The best:  "All these duck doctors are quacks if you ask me."

Caveat: Eingrsh

This is not a satire.  I had a student recently who actually spelled "English" as "Eingrsh" – which perhaps was an effort to approximate the Konglish pronunciation of said language.

I have finally figured out how to deal with the use of the phrase "nice to meet you" as a general purpose, anytime greeting.  I answer with "저음 뵙겠습니다! [cheo-eum bwep-get-seum-ni-da]"  This translates, literally, as "For the first time I will be seeing your honored person," but it's the general way of saying "how do you do?" upon a first meeting.  By answering their "nice to meet you"'s in this way, I can convey to my students, clearly, that "nice to meet you" isn't what we use, in English, for subsequent meetings.  Why do they say it, then?  Because they're translating the Korean "만나서 반갑습니다 [man-na-seo ban-gap-seum-ni-da]," which translates literally as "nice to meet you" but is used whenever you're glad to see anyone.