Caveat: Jeffers’ Answer

Then what is the answer?- Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one's own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history… for contemplation or in fact…
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

— Robinson Jeffers' poem "The Answer"

Caveat: Really Sick

I worked yesterday.  It was something I sort of volunteered for, because my co-teacher had to do some make-up classes for the 4th grade (kids attend school on every-other-Saturdays but normally there's no English on Saturday classes). 

And I didn't really mind working, but yesterday was the worst day I've had in years.  Not because of the work, but because I was sick.  Really horribly sick.  Like throwing up sick.  Between first and second periods, in the bathroom, and later when I got home.  And feverish.  And just horrible.  Probably too-much-information.  Sorry.  Today I feel a little less horribe, so far.  I slept about 13 hours but it was on-and-off, waking up every hour, and dreaming these really horrible dreams.  I ate some toast, but feel wrung out like a used rag.

Caveat: The Googling Priest

I use a website called feedjit to monitor the traffic to my blog – I'm not sure why, it's not like this is a commercial undertaking.  It's just fun, I guess, to see who's coming to my site.  I rarely get more than 30 visitors a day, and the average is about 15.  More than half of these are people who know me:  family, friends, etc.   The most popular websearches that lead to strangers actually visiting my blog are:  "뭥미 meaning", "some people swore that the house was haunted" and "korea visa run."

According to feedjit, I recently had a visitor from the Vatican.  I don't know anyone in the Vatican.  But it's just funny:  "hey, the Pope reads my blog."  Not likely – maybe some bored low-level functionary priest.


Caveat: Kids Can Be Fun

Sometimes, it's all worth it.  The other day, making a zoo.  Today, clowning around with costumes.

Here are some pictures.




Namgung Da-hun




I Do-hyeon


Choe Do-hyeon




Caveat: RIP Néstor Carlos Kirchner

Néstor Kirchner, the last president of Argentina, and husband ("first gentleman"?) to the current president, died yesterday.  He and his wife have been so frequently vilified in the US media as Argentine analogues to Venezuela's Chávez, but in comparison to his venal and buffoonish predecessor, Carlos Menem, I think that this couple has been a profound improvement in governance (not to say perfect, obviously… corruption is relative). 

220px-Cristina_y_Néstor_Kirchner_-_cierre_de_campaña I'm surprised at his death – it's clearly premature.  And it rather throws a wrench into the plan of his and his wife's to rule the newly re-branded People's Republic of Pampas indefinitely, as an alternating diarchy.  Who will replace Fernández de Kirchner, next year?

Néstor Carlos Kirchner

Caveat: Instantaneous Change You Can Believe In

Barack Obama was on Jon Stewart's show last night.  I watched it on the web.  The president said, "When we promised, during the campaign, 'change you can believe in,' it wasn't 'change you can believe in' in 18 months; it was 'change you can believe in' – but you know what? – we're gonna have to work for it."

This follows on the previous night's guest, Senator Ted Kaufman (Biden's appointed replacement from Delaware), who pointed out that although the Senate is corrupt and obstructionist (not his words), it was designed to be that way.  Yes, let's remember what the founders intended.  So, given that as a context, perhaps former Senator Obama has an important point.

I understand the limitations of the legislative process, and recognize that the executive branch is not always (or even often) able to set legislative agendas.  But I remain disappointed by him.  I really thought he'd have been better able to meet the rhetorical challenges of the presidency than he's typically been, although he's had his moments.

Caveat: 9) 부모님께 감사하는 마음을 잊고 살아 온 죄를 참회하며 절합니다.

This is #9 out of a series of 108 daily Buddhist affirmations that I am attempting to translate with my hands tied behind my back (well not really that, but I’m deliberately not seeking out translations on the internet, using only dictionary and grammar).

7. 나의 진실한 마음을 저버리고 살아 온 죄를 참회하며 절합니다.
     “I bow in repentance of any misdeeds lived, foresaking my true heart.”

8. 조상님의 은혜를 잊고 살아 온 죄를 참회하며 절합니다.
     “I bow in repentance of any misdeeds lived, forgetting the favors of our ancestors.”

9. 부모님께 감사하는 마음을 잊고 살아 온 죄를 참회하며 절합니다.

I would read this ninth affirmation as:  “I bow in repentance of any misdeeds lived, forgetting my heart full of thanks to my ancestors.”

I fell asleep on the bus on the way home from work.  That almost never happens.  I must be very tired.

Caveat: Are You Ready?

Contrary to the "Korea has four seasons" bunk that is invented for all the children of Korea by the mysterious cultural propaganda machine, I don't really believe Korea has four seasons.  So I am guilty of cultural blasphemy.  In actuality, living in Korea is like spending half a year in a tropical country, and half a year in Siberia, with the advantage of getting to stay in one place.  Guess which half arrived yesterday?  The deceptively beautiful, puffy clouds were racing down from the north this morning, like an army of dragons in an ominous video game.

I love this kind of weather.  Although it does make me a little bit homesick for Minnesota.

Caveat: Octobery

The day was dropping hints of winter.  A blustery wind turning up leaves on suddenly old-looking trees, making them flash silver.  Huge bales of rice wrapped in white plastic scattered across fields of gold stubble and puddles and black mud and shoots of green weedy grass nourished by the recent rain.  Pale purple and white daisies and other unnamed fall flowers littering the highwaysides.

For the first time in months, I thought to myself, I'm cold.  This is not a bad thing.  I like being cold – that's why I long ago substituted my birth-home in California with my adopted home, Minnesota.

Little Ha-neul, of the charming smile, in my first grade afterschool class, had a prized new possession: a little chemical hand warmer in the shape of a dunkin-donut, with advertising to match.  She was holding it to her neck like a pet bunny. We drew zoo animals in that class, while Mr Choi slept soundly at his desk in the front of the room, despite how loud they were. 

The pines on the hills, as I rode the bus home, danced.  The sky was gold and pink.  I listened to Korn, and Gordon Lightfoot.  I stopped at the chuk-hyeop for juice and toilet paper, and by the time I reached my apartment, the daylight was almost disappeared.

Caveat: those sands in his eyes

Case 10

Sound and Color

A student came to the Great Venerable Chan Master Pop-An (Fa-Yen Wen-I : 885-958) and asked, "How should I understand sound and color?"

Venerable Master said, "Here, good Monk, why don't you introspect yourself about who is asking now?"

Later Chan Master Ja-Soo sang a Gatha for this:

Sound and color are merely two words;
The monk didn't realize those sands in his eyes.
Playing the jade flute in the yellow crane gazebo;
In the town near the river, the plum blossoms falling in May.

The truth of this Kong-An [koan] is distant from any terms, easy or difficult.  Therefore, it is neither difficult nor easy.  Truly, the faithful student who has the bright eye can notice what it is.

Jade flute?  What kind of jade flute?
Plum blossom?  What kind of plum blossom?

If one can distinguish the jade flute and the plum blossom, then tell me now.  If one is capable of distinguishing, then I will comment with an ancient sage's Gatha: 

Truly fortunate is the blind tortoise
Who accidentally found a board floating in the ocean,
Or a mustard seed which was pierced
Through by a tiny needle dropped from Heaven.
He would be the final winner of Tao.

Venerable Master responded for himself

If someone asked me this Kong-An, I would answer,

Before even clouds are gathered in the southern mountain
Rain poured down in the northern mountain.

[from a section entitled "Hye-Am:  Patriarchal Hwa-du," in Cookies of Zen by Shin Myo Vong]

Caveat: When to Worry

I like Carlos Mencia.  He's funny.  He said:

"Want to know when you should start worrying about America?  When Mexicans stop coming."

He also apparently is the origin of the suggestion that the INS start hiring the migrants they catch crossing the border to work as border guards, on conditional work permits tied to productivity – i.e. if they can't keep people out, they will get deported.  This will solve the problem three ways to Sunday, and probably be cheaper than the way it's done now, given the low wages these workers could be paid. [remember, this is a joke].

Caveat: Blah

Yesterday I didn't go hiking.  I had had this plan that I was going to go into Gwangju and meet a friend, but that fell through, too.

So I ended up having a really blah, dull Saturday.  I intended to try to get into Gwangju later in the afternoon, because a fellow foreigner-in-Yeonggwang is in a band in Gwangju, and he'd invited me to come see his band play.  But somehow, as the rain started and I looked out my window, feeling a bit melancholy, I lost my motivation.

It was an exhausting week, last week.  A lot of ups and downs, with the sixth grade and my afterschool classes and my positivity at the beginning of the week. 

And on Thursday, there was that demo class event.  I don't think I told about that, here.  School was released early on Thursday, so the teachers could go to workshops and demonstration (open) classes at Yeonggwang Elementary School.  Normally, it seems like a lot of the foreign teachers don't get brought along to such events, but there was going to be a demo English class, too, and my coteacher asked if I wanted to go along.

Some coteachers are more inclusive of their foreign teachers than others.  I would rank mine as somewhere in the middle.  There are foreigners here in Yeonggwang County who get included in absolutely nothing that goes on in their school.  There are others who get included in everything.  To a certain extent, I find that I have to pay really close attention, and ask "what's going on?" on a regular basis, to get included in things.  I wonder if it works the same for the Korean teachers.  I keep coming back to my epiphanic realization, some months back, that being informed, in a Korean workplace, is 100% the responsibility of the underlings, not the managers, as we tend to paradigmatize it in the West.

Anyway, this little demo class represents a huge milestone, for me.  The demo class itself wasn't perfect, but it provided a lot of good teaching ideas which I wrote down for later thought.  But after the demo class there was a meeting to discuss it.  A bunch of Korean teachers, talking in Korean, about thoughts and impressions.  The American coteacher who'd been part of the presentation was there, but I know his level of Korean is so low that he was just zoning out.  But I had the truly amazing experience of actually following, and trying to follow, parts of the meeting. 

I don't want to give the impression I understood even half.  I have been telling people that my ability to understand the spoken Korean around me hovers at around 10%.  But that's not bad.  And if I really concentrate, and the topic of conversation is known ahead of time (as it was in this meeting), I can sometimes get up to understanding 20~30%.  That's not enough to actively participate in a conversation.  But it's enough to not get bored.

In fact, it's downright exhausting, trying to stay alert.  The meeting was like an hour-long listening test.  And, when it came my turn to talk, I stubbornly decided to try to say something in Korean, despite the fact that them all being English teachers meant that I could have spoken in English, like the other foreign teacher there.  Was I showing off a little bit?  I'm not sure that was the motivation… more like, trying it out.  I only said two sentences.  I said the class was interesting.  And that there had been a lot of good ideas.  At least, that's what I hope I said.

I see the meeting as a milestone, because of that effort to use Korean in a meeting with Korean coworkers.  It was mentally challenging.   And maybe I embarrassed myself.  But I felt like it was a good thing.

But so… just to explain, yesterday, I just felt tired out.  Not depressed and burned out.  Just tired out, from a mentally challenging week.  So I ended up doing basically nothing.  Reading.  Surfing the web.  Watching TV.  We'll see …


Caveat: What Happens When Low English Ability Joins The Marketing Department

Tempy_html_m69279aa9 This happens all the time, in Korea – and the rest of non-English-speaking world, too, for that matter.  Some product gets developed and marketed under a name that would be an utter disaster in an English-speaking market.  If not a downright embarrassment.  But this guy (an American in Korea) has made a funny video about a particular example of this phenomenon.


[hat tip: my friend Basil]

Caveat: A Single Day’s Journal [less incomplete than before]

I don't love every incidental of my job.  I fear and distrust the caricature of bureaucratic malevolence that is my vice principal.  My principal seems to judge his staff largely on the basis of their skill as volleyball players, rather than on their competence as teachers – and because of this, I rate as a liability rather than as an asset, in his view of the school organization.  The administrative office has epically bungled my housing situation, and I have consequently endured interminable and yet untellable travails of minor expense and mild inconvenience.  Some of my coworkers are either so shy or so xenophobic that I dread interacting with them.  And of course, the Korean Communication Taboo frequently imposes its unexpected and unforeseeable frustrations.

Oh, yesterday, I had a really difficult day.  I ended up grumpy and frustrated.  The thing is… I've been having some really good days, and feeling really good about my job, lately.  So yesterday was frustrating because it felt like a major loss of progress, a major step backwards.  The sixth graders during the regular morning classes were being rude, rowdy, and there was nothing my coteacher or I could do to bring things back under control.  I felt like a lot of the problem was that my coteacher and I don't know how to "use" each other effectively, and I blame myself and my lack of experience for that.

So.  Hard day.

Yet, despite these issues, and despite yesterday, the fact is that my "on the ground" work, in the classroom, has been going simply great.  I am not a perfect teacher, I'm sure.  I'm probably deficient in many ways, that I can't even perceive.  But I have fun.  Even yesterday, I had great fun with my afterschool classes, where I have a lot of autonomy and control.

Mostly, I really like my job, in a sincere and deep-felt way, and I derive immense satisfaction from my interactions with the children and even many of my coworkers.

On this most recent past Monday, for some reason, I felt this even more strongly than usual.  As I arrived home after a tiring yet overall satisfying day, I had this weird, unwonted, utterly guileless thought:  "I like my job."  The several days since then haven't gone so smoothly, but regardless – perhaps this is a kind of pep-talk to myself – I've decided to make a little journal of Monday's minutiae, as a record of a "typical" good day in my current career.


[Monday, October 18, 2010]

I awoke at 5:20, roughly.  I have an alarm set, always, but most days, I wake up before the alarm.  I wake up very slowly.  I think about things.  I doze, and let the "snooze" feature of my alarm earn its keep.  Finally, at about 5:45, I get up, turn on the electric kettle, and get out some instant coffee.  I love brewed coffee, but I'm a deeply lazy person, especially first thing in the morning, and I love convenience much more than brewed coffee.  For that reason, I use instant coffee.  I need the caffeine more than any kind of spectacular taste.

I put on something warmer to wear.  I still keep my window wide open 24/7, and the nights, these days, are cool.  Under my cover, I don't need extra clothing, but up and about, I feel the slight chill.  I open my little netbook computer, and begin to wonder what I will write in the blog.  I write some fragments of dreams in my more private journal, and I open a text file of a story-in-progress, in the off chance that I'll think of what to put next.  Not likely, but it's perhaps good to be optimistic, right?

I surf to my most typical websites:  LA Times, The Atlantic magazine, Facebook.  What's happening in the world?  I find an article in a blog, that interests me, and follow links to something new.  I record notes in my "websurfing journal" – mostly just pasting links with one- or two- word observations or snippets of thought.  I am an unrequited but unrepentant scholar, at heart.

I drink some coffee.  This morning, I decide to have toast for breakfast, with my approximately four cups of coffee.  I generally have either toast, or, if I've got left over rice, I'll have a Korean breakfast of rice and kimchi.

I finally choose something to put into my blog – many times, I have things partially or even completely "pre-written" in my journal, and I just copy and paste them into the blog.  Other times, I just write it out, right at the moment, in the box on the administrative website.  This morning, I do the latter, pasting in a long quote from a blog site I have open.

I motivate myself, finally, and jump up.  I brush my teeth, use the bathroom, shave, shower, get dressed.  Pretty fast.  As usual, I've put off motivating until the last possible moment.  I rush out the door at 7:30.  I'd committed myself to getting to school early, this morning, because there is a lesson plan I promised my coteacher that I would to put together for our 6-2 class (6-2 means 6th grade, 2nd classroom).  I'm really running rather late, this morning.  I live just under 2 km from the bus terminal.  I have to jog the whole way, to make it on time.  Casually, I can walk it in about 16 minutes.  Marching "quick time," I can make it in 12, which is my normal pace.  Today, I made it in 8 minutes.  So, I don't miss the 7:40 bus.  Oh well… I needed the exercise.

I listen to my mp3 player on the bus.  I've got a folder with some tracks by Brit alterna band, Muse, looping.  I'm particularly fixated on a track called "Map of the Problematique" (which sounds like the name of a chapter in a book of contemporary literary criticism).  I look out the window at the stunningly beautiful although unspectacular, rural scenery of my world.  I read random pages in my Korean dictionary.  I'm not sure this really helps me that much, but I've always been a compulsive consumer of reference materials, and at least this way, I'm staying topical vis-a-vis my desire to improve my Korean.

I arrive at work at around 8:15, after walking the just-under-one-kilometer length of Hongnong's "high street."  I step into the still silent halls of the school, I switch out of my street shoes and into my one dollar plastic sandals, greet the school caretaker, and go down to the new English classroom.  I hate this new English classroom:  it is stark and uninteresting, when viewed from a child's eye, and it fails to take into account myriad details of the sorts of things real teachers actually need or use:  no bulletin boards, bland and generic decoration such as might be found in a high-end travel agency, poorly configured storage space with unused bookshelves but zero closets.  Numerous gadgets, but no rainbows.  It is the embodiment of that philosophy of education that holds that technology and military-style organization can make up for poor leadership and a lack of teaching skill and a lack of teaching "heart."  Which isn't to say I believe my coteachers or myself lack teaching skill or "heart".. .but I often suspect that the school's administration feels this way.

I put together a lesson plan for the 6-2 class that involves a gameshow concept that I've been riffing on lately.  I've been using it in some of my afterschool classes:  give an "answer," Jeopardy-style, and wait for the kids to come up with a question.  Pay out "cash" (my ubiquitous play money) for good "questions."  The kids seem to like it, and the 6-2 class is
exceptional, in that they're much better behaved than the other two sixth grade classes, and therefore my coteacher and I had agreed that they "deserved" something more fun. 

School starts, and we go to the 6-1 class first.  6-1 is not the class of angels that 6-2 is.  There are rowdy elements, but it's not the "Welcome Back Kotter" basket case of academic rejects that 6-3 is, either.  It's the "middle" group.  We have a hard but treadmill-like class, reviewing the ridiculous memorization material that the county education office mandates for the English curriculum.  I'm not philosophically opposed to memorization, per se, but the stuff put out by the education office is so devoid of context, and so full of mistakes and unnatural, non-native-speaker-style language, that it almost defeats its own purpose.  I try to keep my criticisms of this to myself, but it can tend to sap one's enthusiasm, when required to focus so much on such poor curriculum.

Then, the 6-2 class is – lo and behold – canceled.  This is the way things go, when working in Korea.  Last minute changes with no warning, for no clear reason.  There's an upcoming sixth grade assembly, and the 6-2 teacher wants to focus their time on preparing, rather than have an English class.  I respect the 6-2 teacher a lot – her class is not a group of angels just by virtue of fate or coincidence, obviously – I assume there's something in her teaching style and classroom management skills that has created this behavioral miracle.  For this reason, I don't resent or in any way criticize her cancellation of the class, even to myself – it's her judgment call.  But I'll miss the positivity of that particular group of kids, and I'm not sure when I'll get to use the lesson plan I came in early to put together.

I have a free period, after recess.  I spend the time preparing for my afterschool classes.  I go online to check my email, but only briefly – the new classroom configuration is not hospitable to lurking and web-surfing.  In this respect, I wonder if there was some intentionality on the part of the administration, because they were in some way trying to discourage this kind of behavior on the part of their English department.  But I doubt it.  Nothing about the new classroom spells out "planning" or kid-centered "intentionality," to be honest.  It's the sort of classroom someone who doesn't work with children would come up with.  Which isn't far from the truth, I expect.

At 12:30, we have lunch.  Lunch is always one of my favorite times of the day, even when the food is of dubious quality.  I love seeing all the kids, hyper and yet somehow managing to stay within the behavioral constraints of the feeding themselves.  They grab their steel trays, chopsticks and spoons, and go past the lunch ladies scooping out rice and soup and kimchi and a few other random things.  They zigzag in weird patterns as they emerge from the food line, trying to find the row of tables where their particular class has been sited by their homeroom teacher – each time it's different.  The homeroom teacher may or may not be paying any attention whatsoever.  You can learn a lot about homeroom teachers by watching how they manage their kids in the lunchroom.  Some sit with their kids reliably, and inspect trays.  Others join other teachers and seem unaware their kids are in the lunchroom.  I'm not sure either pattern represents something optimal – I could seen benefits to both approaches.  But it's interesting to watch, sociologically.

I don't remember what was actually given to eat, on Monday.  The kimchi has been atrocious, lately – a byproduct of the national cabbage shortage crisis, meaning the lunchroom is skimping on quality, I suppose.  Unlike the kids, the adults don't get served by the lunch ladies – we have our own line where we serve ourselves.  I try to fill my tray in such a way that I know I confidently empty my tray completely.  I like that feeling of closure of having an empty tray at the end of lunch – I hate seeing how much food is wasted, to be honest.  Koreans, having been a nation on the verge of starvation 50 years ago, have become very cavalier with how they throw around food, I think.  It makes me a little bit sad.

I love lunch because dozens of kids say a soft "hello, teacher" as they walk past me.  I always try to say hello back – although sometimes it makes me feel like a greeter at a party.  After lunch, kids will chase after us (the four English teachers – we always eat lunch as a "team," which seems to be nearly unique to our department, and I'm not sure where this tradition comes from or who came up with it) and say "hello" or ask the random, peculiar questions that ten year olds can come up with, given very limited English.  "Do you like tigers?"  "I'm a crazy monkey!"

I have adopted the Korean habit (not universal, but definitely encouraged and broadly popular) of brushing my teeth directly after lunch.  I stand at the hand-washing sinks that are outdoors in the courtyard, next to the English classroom.  The result is that I always have an audience of between two and twenty children, when I brush my teeth.  When I finish, I talk to any that are around.  To the first student:  "Hello.  What are you doing?"  "No." Haha… "no" meaning "I have no idea how to answer this question you've asked me."  "Are you playing?" Quiet, shy, vigorous nod of the head.  Second student:  "Teacher!  Teacher!  That boy is crazy!"  "Yes, I see that."  Confident, cheerful, vigorous nod of the head.

I go back to the English classroom, and discuss ways to improve the sixth grade class with my coteacher.  Not much progress has been made here, obviously.  But we keep trying.   "We must work hard to learn to be better teachers," she always says.  I agree.  She's right.  It's why I respect her, even in her mistakes.

The afterschool classes are always what I look forward too.  Even the hyperactive, difficult-to-control first graders.  The first grader class starts at 2:30. 

[… uh oh… out of time.  I will post the rest, later… ]

[OK.  Look, here's the rest – as of 2010-10-22 07:00]

No lesson plan I've ever made has survived an encounter with these children.  They're more difficult to manage than a herd of cats.  If I look away from any given student, odds run about 70% that that kid will be hitting, jumping on, racing against, or mischievously distracting another student.  No matter which student.  That's just the way it works.  Yet, despite this, they've grown on me.  A lot.  And I can feel confident that although sometimes I yell or lose my cool with them, they seem to like me, and look forward to my class. 

The plan today was to read a little story in this series of ultra-beginner-level story books.  The stories literally consist of a single sentence repeated with different nouns, which are shown in photograph illustrations.  Today, the sentence is:  the x is up in the tree.  We had a parrot up in the tree.  We had a lizard up there.  We had a cat, I think.  There was an ant, which, looking at the picture, I thought was a spider, until Ji-min officiously corrected me.  I admitted my mistake.  Then we did a little bit of TPR (I give commands like "hands up!&
quot; "sit down" etc.) while I took roll-call.  Lately I've been not using my little paper cut-out tokens with their names on them, to take roll, partly because I've reached a point where I know 90% of their Korean names and it's easier for me to just tick them off from my list.

After the TPR, I get them in a chair, and I pass out some animal puppets.  This never goes smoothly.  About half the students immediately become weirdly transformed into hopped up crack addicts when they see the puppets, and they crowd around grabbing and pawing for them to get the "best" ones.  The other half hold back and look on their peers disdainfully, almost preternaturally like bored teenagers.  But as soon as the first riot dies down, they come up in a second wave and gather the dregs.  Any puppets unselected by the students are to be seen lying on the floor like the detritus of an epic battle with Noah's ark as the setting.

So I begin the plan:  we're going to role-play this little storyline.  "The X is up in the tree."

Here, look:  I'm a tree.  Here's a hippo (holding puppet at my shoulder).  "Repeat / 말하세요 [mar-a-se-yo = please say]:  The hippo is in the tree."  The students get the conceit, because the immediately begin to debate the possibility of a hippo in a tree, in Korean.  Oh, that's funny.  Definitely.

Now, volunteers?  One student raises her hand:  Ji-min.  Much better English, than the rest, and very serious, a lot of the time, but sneaky, too.  She comes up to me.  She has a mouse puppet, I think.  She puts the puppet at my shoulder, while I pretend to look like a tree.  "The mouse is in the tree," I say.  She repeats, easily.  But something's going wrong.  The other students are racing forward.  There will be no turn-taking, here.  All the animals want to get into the tree, at the same time.  Uh oh.

I decide that I have to go with the flow, here.  I am tackled by 20 first graders with animal puppets, all wacking me (*gently*) as they try to attain the best real-estate in the "tree."  I begin to sink to my knees, and the game becomes:  knock down the tree under the weight of elephants, lions, bears, cats, dogs, ducks, monkeys, etc., who all want to be in the tree.  But I think.  Hmm… maybe someone else would like to be the tree.  So I get them all sitting back in their chairs, more or less, and I ask for volunteers, again.  It's the boy named Jeong-an, of course.  He's sees the possibilities, already.  I even have a little corollary to Murphy's Law, that I coined:  instead of "If it can go wrong, it will," it goes "if it can go wrong, Jeong-an will appear."  But he's a cute kid.

The kids get excited when they realize I'm going to let them repeat the tree game, this time with one of their own as victim, and that it's not a one-off moment of fun.  I'm thinking to myself that the main concern, here, is to make sure it doesn't get out of hand.  Different kids have different levels of tolerance for being wacked (*gently*) by animal puppets until they've collapsed to the floor in fits of giggles, while everyone's yelling vague variations on "The X is in the tree."  But that's what we do.  The similarity to trying to teach first graders American-style tackle football is more than passing.

Time goes quickly.  My next class is already lurking in the halls, peering in through doors and windows in amazement at the kinds of fun my first graders seem to be permitted to get up to.  Finally, I release the first graders with a last "Hands up!  Bye" – which is a little routine of mine.  The third graders are a little bit moody.  They suspect (accurately) that they're not in for as much fun, because Ms Ryu has me on a mission:  we're trying to put together a little English-language musical that's coming at the beginning of November, and so for that, we need to practice, practice, practice.

The practices never go super smoothly.  The kids know their lines pretty well, already, but the issue is a matter of focus – there is too much "down time" between each individual kid's lines, and during that "down time," attention tends to wander.  Fast.  And far.  The musical is a variation on Peter and the Wolf (it's the same thing I attempted over the summer, but now, with more support from Ms Ryu and the kids' homeroom teachers, and knowing it will be "real," on stage, in a couple of weeks, the kids are taking it more seriously).

There are a bunch of wolf characters, and while I'm working with the wolf characters on something, I turn around to see that my duck (So-hyeon – a diminutive and innocent little "angel" who goes by Angelina) is viciously assaulting my sheep (Je-won – who insists his English name is Barack, much to my delight).  And a few moments later, when I'm working with these animals in Peter's menagerie, several of the wolves decide to have a spa, and begin lounging on stage left playing with each other's hair.  But who can complain?  They're good-spirited kids, and at least, unlike the first graders, they notice when I'm yelling at them to stop, most of the time.

Finally, at 4:10, Peter, the wolves, and their animal friends file out, and the advanced class files in.  It's still on the books as the sixth grade afterschool class, but at some point, the original definition broke down, because my sixth grade class has exactly one sixth grader who attends regularly, at this point.  And then it has about three fifth graders, a fourth grader, and a third grader.  I think what's happened is that the kids mom's who either believe or want to believe that their kids are the best at English in their school, should be "with the sixth graders" because that, naturally, would be the most advanced class, which is where little Gil-dong or I-seul needs to be.  It's a lot like hagwon biz, that way:  the parents decide the level of competence of their child, overriding any judgment on the part of the teachers or administration.  And parents' judgment of their kids ability will tend to be infused with a little bit of – shall we say? – vanity.  Which is not to say that my advanced class isn't pretty advanced.  These kids are pretty good, definitely.

In my advanced class, we're making "diaries."  Not really diaries – I'm modeling myself on a kids' book I bought back in the US last fall (at my niece and nephew's school book sale in suburban Denver), called Junie B's Essential Survival Guide to School.  It has a sort of "kids view" of life at school, with sections on school supplies, school transportation to and from, school personalities, etc.  So I'm having the kids make their own versions, one chapter per class.  The chapter in progress today is "How to go to school" – focusing on transportation.  But I encourage the students to get whimsical, and I love some of the results.  Nam-su writes that he goes to school by ant – and he draws a picture of a stick figure standing on the back of about a 100 tiny ants.  Da-yeon writes that some days, she goes to school "by Simpsons," and she draws extremely accurate depictions of Bart and Lisa, but with new jobs working as a pair of draft horses drawing a chariot.  And Challie (Charlie? – I can't ever remember his Korean name, I hate to admit) draws a great little picture of a character teleporting into school "by brain."  Awesome.

The advanced class is small and well-behaved.  There are no hyper children in that group, really.  So it's a nice kind of calming, "cool down" class for the end of the day.  I let the kids leave at 4:50, and begin to clean up.  Between the chaos of the first graders and the rearranged desks of the third grade class, there's a lot to do.  I operate in a "borrowed" classroom, that belongs to my colleague Mr Choi, so I feel obligated to try to leave it in reasonably decent condition.  And I always bring so much paraphernalia to class: puppets, paper, crayons, attendance folders, etc., that it takes two or three trips back down to the English classroom to get everything moved back.  I put the desks back in neat rows, and try to pick up the worst of the trash on the floor, and put the redistributed pens and pencils in neat piles on one of the side boards (who knows where these pens and pencils come from – I suspect that the kids "steal" them from inside the desks of the second graders who's homeroom this is). 

Mondays and Fridays, because my last class ends at 4:50 and because I then have to move my stuff back to the English classroom and get it put away, I sometimes miss my regular 5:15 bus back home to Yeonggwang.  I can tell from the clock that that will be the case today, so I don't even bother trying to race to the Hongnong bus terminal, but decide to wait a little bit longer and then catch the 5:40.  I go online and check my email, and do a google search for some kind of online "list randomizer" – I'm looking for something that can be used to entertainingly select kids at random from a list.  My coteacher already has such a tool, but I keep thinking "there's got to be a better way."  I find a few candidates to investigate further, later.  Sometimes, though, I think going "low tech" and going back to a cup with pencils with names on them would be best.  If teaching in a Korean public school classroom is having any major, profound effect on my teaching philosophy, it's that more and more, I am becoming "anti-technology."  I just don't think gadgets and technology make for better teaching.  They tend to distract the children from the interpersonal interaction, which in language learning is especially important.  Maybe there are ways to use technology that aren't so distracting, but I've yet to see good examples.

I walk down to the bus terminal and get on the bus for home.  The bus is utterly empty except for me and one old lady.  I suspect it's too early for the power plant commuters (who mostly tend to commute on company-owned buses anyway, if they don't have their own cars), and too late for the school workers.  And who else commutes away from Hongnong at the end of the day?  It's an end-of-the-line kind of town.

I listen to tracks by Talking Heads on my mp3 player.  There's a track called "Found A Job" that I absolutely think is one of my favorite music tracks of all time.  The lyrics are both concrete – telling a story – yet also philosophically complex, raising interesting issues about popular culture.  And I love the rhythm and music, too, perhaps partly because it's always a bit of a nostalgia trip for me.  The summer that I was living in my car, traveling from Duluth across the Upper Peninsula, in Ottawa and finally in Boston, I had only three (3!) cassettes that worked in my decrepit Sony Walkman that I'd wired into a rube-goldberg car stereo for myself:  Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings and Food, Psychedelic Furs Mirror Moves, and David Bowie Space Oddity.  So all the songs from those three albums are engraved upon my brain at a very deep level, I think.

A bunch of middle schoolers and high schoolers get on the bus at Beopseongpo, and I always get some low-grade entertainment out of their efforts to pretend to be cool and not notice there's a foreigner on the bus (or, on the other hand, the blustery, "Hello!  How are you?" that they will sometimes deliver).  When we arrive in Yeonggwang, I set off across the bus terminal bus-parking-area, and enter the warren of market stalls behind the terminal.  I can see the old ladies swatting flies laconically as they squat behind their buckets of octopi and raw fish.  I love to watch the still-alive crabs trying to escape from their buckets, which are already filled with soy sauce and chopped onions.  Do they realize they're soup?  It's poignant. 

I go out the "secret" back way from
the market, and up the grade, through the corner of the main market area, and then behind the Co-op grocery (chukhyeop hanaro mateu) and across the vast gravel parking lot where the every-five-days market is held.  I slip between two buildings and cross the rotary (traffic circle), climb the hill (not steep) past the various apartments, past the "Glory Tourist Hotel" and finally behind the gas station to my building.  

I am inspired to call my mom.  I don't do this as often as I should.  It's not that I don't like talking to my mom.  I get stuck in routines, and my attention wanders away from getting around to it, a little bit.  And then I'll remember, but when I remember, it's not a good time to call, or I'm too busy to be able to sit down and call.  Queensland is only an hour ahead of South Korea, and neither celebrates Daylight Savings concepts, so I don't even have the "time zone excuse."  I remember the complexities of calling from Chile to the US, where the time zones lined up, but both countries have daylight savings time, but on opposite seasonal schedules that don't quite match up.  So depending on the month, I was either same time, one hour ahead, or one hour behind Minneapolis.  It was like a speeded up version of continental drift.

So anyway, it's been a long time since I talked to my mother.  And it turns out she's got company coming for dinner.  So we don't talk long.  Hopefully, I'll call her again before too much time goes by.  I decide I need to use a few of the tomatoes that are over-ripening on my shelf, and in a moment of culinary inspiration, I create grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed with tomatoes and horseradish sauce (which also seems on the verge of going bad in my fridge).  Hey, that's pretty tasty.

I end the day by listening to Minnesota Public Radio online, and begin the initial draft of what becomes this narrative.  I fall asleep earlier than usual – maybe around 10:00.  I guess I'm tired. 

I'm still not sure this little daily journal is in final form.  I'll keep tweaking and making small changes, I expect.  Stay tuned.  Or not.

Caveat: Principles & Parameters

Before I plow into actually trying to read the book on Chomsky's Minimalism, after having skimmed through the first few pages, I want to record my "before" snapshot:  where do I stand in current understanding and/or lack-of-understanding of contemporary syntactic theory?

I last studied syntactic theory in the early 90's, when I was exposed to John R Taylor's book Linguistic Categorization, which for me personally was deeply influential.  Because of that, though, I already find on page 5 of Understanding Minimalism (by Hornstein et al.) something I find deeply suspect:  "[the Principles and Parameters Theory] now constitutes the consensus view of the overall structure of the language faculty." 

Really?  Maybe… if the definition of "consensus" = "what Chomsky thinks."  Which is not, per se, beyond plausible.  But…. although Chomsky is without a doubt a seminal and key thinker in the field of linguistics, I don't see him as infallible, nor do I see him as the sole source-of-truth.  Am I being overly sensitive to what I have always perceived as an embedded authoritarianism in Chomskian syntax?  Probably.

I have no quibbles with the principles and parameters theory, actually.  It's scientifically trivial, in fact, as long as you leave open what those principles and paramaters might be.  My personal "gut instinct," though, is the principles and parameters in question are not specific to a "language faculty" as Chomsky and his followers have always advocated, but rather instantiations of more general "rules of cognition" that are innate to the human brain by virtue of it's neurological anatomy and chemistry.  Which is to say, language truly is "thinking out loud."  This is not a totally naive view, but it's perhaps not part of the "consensus" in the field, either. 

OK, out of time.  More later.

Caveat: An Enviable Failure

About six months ago, when I was in Japan, I made the observation that Japan seemed much less "depressed" than one would expect of a country that was in the throes of a two-decades-long economic downturn.  I suggested we look at it as a "sustainable recession."

Now, The Atlantic's James Fallows is on board.  He seems to agree with me:  not that he knows what I wrote.  But I know what he's writing, and in broad terms, he seems to back up what I was observing. He says that if Japan is a failure, it may be the sort of failure we should envy.

Japan may represent a future: where a society can come to terms with – and finally end – the fetishization of never-ending economic growth.

Someone named William J Holstein (to whom I was directed by Fallows) blogs about Asia extensively.  He takes on The Economist's editors love affair with a doom-and-gloom analysis of the Japanese economy, head on.  He begins:  "It is positively surreal to read what the Economist is writing about Japan while actually visiting the country. There is a major disconnect."  Definitely – I've noticed this too, in my loyal consumption of the magazine's content.

His conclusion identifies an ideological engine driving the magazine's mis-analysis.  I'm not sure I completely agree, but I do think it's worth quoting at length, because, again, it recognizes that there are alternatives to a no-holds-barred, economic-growth-at-all-costs "free market" ideology.

Why is the Economist, a normally respected publication, so wrong about Japan? I think it's because the Economist sees itself as the bearer of the free market orthodoxy. If Japan is facing "grim" conditions amid overall "gloom," then the Economist's ideology is correct. No nation can be advanced and sophisticated without embracing "the market." But if Japan is, as I argue, a country that is managing itself very well without accepting the Anglo-Saxon version of capitalism, then the Economist's ideology is faulty. The reform of embracing market reforms does not work for everyone. It is not universal. That very simple idea is what the lads at the Economist cannot allow to take root because it undermines their intellectual legitimacy. So they persist in their doom-and-gloom analysis of Japan–even if it does not even begin to square with the reality on the ground.

A final note, pertaining to South Korea:  I personally think that Korea's economic leadership is watching Japan very closely, and always has been.  And I think the Koreans may recognize that Japan, more than, say, Europe or the US, represents South Korea's "most probable future."  I don't think that would be a bad thing, either.  The main point:  Japan is not the cultural or economic basket-case that the Western media likes to portray.

Caveat: overlooking what their students are halfway good at

I was in a store yesterday and I noticed the clerk (a young, college-age woman) was studying some rather difficult looking material, with a notebook open to a set of handwritten notes on what looked like a medical topic.  The notes were completely in English, with lots of long words and full sentences, hand-drawn diagrams and charts, all with a neat, miniature penmanship.  Yet she saw me and failed to produce an English sentence, although she clearly wanted to. 

I was struck by the realization (a realization I've had before, too) that although most Koreans exit their primary and secondary school systems still unable to speak English, despite a decade of obligatory English class, nevertheless many do manage to acquire a substantial level of skill in reading and writing.

And then this morning, I found a comment by a Korean (well, I assume the person is Korean, since the screenname used for the comment is "The Korean") on a blog post on problems with English education in Japan and Korea by a blogger named "chrisinsouthkorea."  The comment is worth quoting in its entirety (moreso than the original blog post, which basically says the same thing a thousand vaguely disgruntled foreign teachers on a thousand blogs have said about English education in Korea).  It's quite insightful and worth seeing for anyone teaching English in Korea.

I would suggest that English test should be strongly focused on reading and writing. (Maybe you included these concepts in "comprehension ability.") But my main point is that speaking is a really overrated ability. And a part of the reason why it is so overrated is because (I trust you won't misunderstand my intention when I say this) NSETs [Native Speaker English Teachers] tend to focus on their own frustration with being unable to communicate with their students such that they overlook what their students are halfway good at.

I don't [think] NSETs really get to see the practical application of all that English education in Korea. Broadly speaking, (of course this could differ individually,) Korean people learn English so that they can work at a company that deals with foreign clients. After all, Korea is one of the most export-dependent country in the world. They do NOT learn English to make small talks with Anglophones. In this context, reading and writing with high-level vocabulary and grammatical structure is the most critical skill to learn, not speaking.

There's another point, worth adding:  reading and writing skills are much easier for non-preschool-age humans to acquire than speaking skills.  Witness my own substantially better competence with written Korean over spoken Korean, or consider the fact that although I can enjoy reading a novel in French, for example, I'd be hard pressed to have even a basic-level conversation in the language.  And although I can get the gist of a newspaper article in Dutch, I don't even know how to say "hello."