5 years ago this morning, I arrived in Ilsan, South Korea, to start my English teaching job. I never would have imagined I'd be living in Ilsan 5 years later. But here I am.
I've been having a lot of ambivalent thoughts, lately, about my continuing stay here – mostly induced by circumstances and awarenesses raised by my recent quick visit back to the US. It is undeniable, though, that I've stumbled upon a lifestyle that mostly "works" for me – as strange as that might seem to others.
Here's a photo I posted 5 years ago that I took of Ilsan's Jungangno (Central Avenue, which I called Broadway for about year until I figured out its name), about a block from my old apartment (and about a kilometer from my current one).
Last night we went out to dinner after work – all the coworkers and I. It was goodbye for a couple of departing teachers. People come, people go. I was laughing with Curt yesterday over how many different employers I've had since coming to Korea (6), yet mostly working with the same group of people in the same neighborhood (except for the oddball one-year-long fling down in the rural south, at the public school at Hongnong).
There's an artist named Ward Shelley, who does this interesting thing where he makes hand-made "timelines" and data visualizations – the kind found in history books, but sometimes on strange or unusual or unexpected topics. I really like his stuff. Here's a timeline of the history of science fiction:
He calls these things "diagrammatic paintings." Also, here's an interesting quote,
The relationship of science fiction to belief is ambiguous but in some
way essential. Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities. It
has that in common with religion and patriotism, except SF is much more
candid about it.
The middle-schoolers were taking a test today. They are mostly multiple-choice tests. Students have various strategies for coming up with random numbers when they don't know the answer – i.e., how to choose a), b), c) or d). My favorite is using their pen as a sort of die – throwing it down on the desk surface and letting how it points determine which letter answer to choose.
But another method is to use the Korean version of eeney-meeney-miney-moe, which goes as follows, in it's most complete version (the kids mostly seem to use various abbreviations of this):
코카코라 맛있다 맛있으면 또 먹아 또 먹으면 배탈나 딩동댕동댕! 척척박사님 알아 맞혀주세요 딩동댕동댕
The content of the rhyme is something to do with the deliciousness of Coca-Cola, drinking it, and getting indigestion. How did the Coke Corp manage this bit of viral advertising? Is it beneficial to them? Who knows…
Referencing this rhyme is a short-hand way to reference the fact that students are overwhelmed by the test and thusly using random-number-generation to fill in the answers.
One of my students was saying, "Oh, Teacher! I can't."
I said, "코카코라 맛있다" (i.e. the first line of the rhyme: ko-ka-kol-la mas-siss-ta = Coca-Cola has great taste).
Quick as can be, the student came back: "아니, 맛없다" (a-ni, mas-eops-da = No, [it] doesn't have great taste).
I recently saw an article on The Atlantic that explained that the muppet known as the Swedish Chef does not, in fact, speak Swedish. Well, of course not. But that hasn't stopped some Swedish guy from "transcribing" his talk. Sample:
I like it mostly for the linguistic aspect. But he's kind of funny, too – especially the turtle.
Today at work I learned that one of my favorite students (and one of my most long-term students, having had this student in class a few times even when I was working at LBridge in 2008~2009) is departing Karma. I've seen this person "grow up" and it's always amazing and remarkable to see.
At one level, I completely accept it – there's constant churn and turnover in this business, as parents all struggle with their own highly individualized decisions about that's best for their children, what they can afford, whether they feel they're getting their money's worth. And I was impressed with hearing that in this particular case, it wasn't just a parental whim but something that apparently resulted from a fairly long dialogue between the parent and the child. That's pretty rare in Korean families, still.
But at another level I'm wounded, as always when a well-liked student departs. I wonder if there was something I could have or should have done differently to help the student better. And it's in moments like this that I feel the resentment for the unbridled capitalist nature of this market and job, that seems to grant so many choices and so little of anything else of value.
The news left me moody, and then there was an ad hoc half-hour-long staff meeting after classes ended, as we try to solve scheduling conflicts that are resulting from departing teachers (yes, that too). The meeting transitioned me from moody to pissed off, as I struggled to understand, made an effort to contribute only to reveal my failure to understand, and ended frustrated beyond belief at why it is I subject myself to this bizarre existence. Why don't I get my butt in gear and learn this language?! Why. I'm trying. But it's just not easy.
During yesterday's staff meeting, I listened carefully. Really, I should take my dictionary to the meeting – as it was, I didn't take very useful notes. In fact, here are the notes I took during the meeting. All of them.
The agenda for the meeting looked like this.
You can see why I have no idea what's going on. Although I can generally make out the topic-headers and try to pick out things I might need to ask about later, as pertaining specifically to me.
Really, this weekly experience builds my empathy for my students, who sit stone-faced and politely incomprehending, as I prattle on in class.
Curt likes to put little sayings and aphorisms on his meeting agendas. The one on this one says,
내가 원하는 사람이 되기 위해서는…
당신이 되고 싶은 사람이 되기 위해서는 하고 싶지 않은 일을 해야 하고, 듣고 싶지 않은 말을 해야 하고, 만나고 싶지 않은 사람을 만나야 한다. 워치 않은 일을 하지 않고 진정 원하는 일을 하는 사람은 없다. 우리는 누구나 당장 하고 싶지 않은 일, 어려운 일보다는 편하고 쉬운 것은 찾게 됩니다. 그러나 당장 하고 싶은 일, 편한 일부터 찾아하는 사람은 자기가 되고 싶었던 원래 모습과 가장 멀리 있는 자기 모습을 발견하게 욀 가능성이 그만큼 높아집니다. – 조정민, '사람이 선물이다'에서
I may have made some typos in transcribing it. I wanted to try to translate it, but I haven't, yet. Maybe sometime. I tried googling a translation (as opposed to googletranslating, which is utterly bad) and failed – so if you want a translation effort, you can plug it into googletranslate but don't trust the result. The author, 조정민 [jo-jeong-min = maybe Cho, Jungmin] wasn't even particularly googlable – I think (but I'm not sure) he's a preacher or pastor. I can't sort out the search results on Korean websites very well.
I went to work today, and because of the typhoon, classes were canceled. We still had a long staff meeting, and everyone had some stuff to work on – I worked on my debate class materials for a while: since I have no textbook, I have to put my own materials together.
Sitting in staff meetings is quite stressful for me – perhaps the most stressful aspect of my job. They are conducted in Korean. I can only understand the broadest aspects of the content. I compare it to taking a listening test that is too far above my ability level.
I got out of work early and walked home in the wind. I still think this typhoon is pretty wimpy, although there was plenty of leaves and branches being blown around.
According to the locals, this is a big deal. Some schools are closed in Ilsan. But… no notice that Karma is going to be closed today. And looking out my window, so far, it seems kind of wimpy for a typhoon. I'll get back to you.
I guess I'll make like a Republican-in-Tampa, and adopt a more somber-but-still-upbeat tone.
The sky is full of fast-scudding clouds and luminous orange gray at 7 am. I'll give it that. It's a lot worse down south where I used to live in Jeolla-nam. I've
heard about downed powerlines, etc. But here, I've seen worse on an
entirely nondescript, average January afternoon in my hometown of Arcata.
In class earlier, I had a student giving her considered opinion on a rather difficult article we'd read.
"It's not good," she said.
"What's wrong with it?" I asked. "There's something wrong with this article," I agreed, elaborating. In fact, the article was a rather exaggerated rant that I'd adapted from a US newspaper website editorial about the horrors of government regulation. I expected the students to eventually figure this out, and express it somehow. "What do you think is wrong with this article?" I probed.
"I think… " she began, thoughtfully. "In my opinion… after thinking about this a lot," she continued. I was expecting her to nail the problem in the article at this point – she seemed to be on to something, anyway. But then, she concluded, "It's too long."
Dame nube olvidada tu hermosa tristeza sin arraigo.
Dame Vida mía única tu imposible verdad.
Dame mi soledad tu repleta cosecha de renuncias.
Dame muerte mía tu relámpago de abrasado total.
Y tu -electrón terrible, y tu -velocidad de la luz, y tu -vértigo de distancias, y tu -infinitud de guarismos :y tu -secreto goce germinal de las pequeñas larvas que bucean hacia el sol, y tu -lindo caballito de cartón de mis sueños de niño destripador, dadme en seguro trance vuestro centro inexorable de palpitar dulcísimo; entregadme en éxtasis deslumbrado el devenir ciego de tanta primavera tronchada. A ver si así solo y con todo compongo de mi sed indecible el tremendo suceder de la Totalidad.
– Miguel Labordeta, de "Punto y aparte" (pag. 86) Editorial Ciencia nueva 1967
Tal vez ligeramente relacionado, por la temática ateísta.
I have a very smart 8th grade student who has shown a strong ability to muster well-argued libertarian positions. She obviously does a lot of reading and research online – but I really think she understands the ideas she puts together, and she argues them well. We recently had a debate on the merits of regulating junk food (e.g. New York's recent soda-size law or San Francisco's ban on Happy Meals).
The following essay by 4th grader Han-saem seemed exceptionally charming. I reproduce it with spelling and grammatical errors uncorrected.
today, I made book. because it's Homework over the vacation. I
have paper, glue, colored pencil, and scissors.
I'm cut into strips paper by scissor and painted with colored pencil on
the upside. Finally, I'm cheak but … oh my god!!! this is strange because it
is a dream ㅠㅠ
This is a child to whom I can most definitely relate – dreaming of making books.
Someone attempted to comment on a recent blog entry of mine – the one about PSY’s “Gangnam Style” song. The commenter was what I would I consider a troll – mostly by virtue of the fact that he (or she, but I suspect he, since he called himself Bob Knob – a very troll-like name, too) declined to provide a means for contacting him (i.e. the email address provided was invalid).
Because of the troll-like nature of the comment, I didn’t approve it. Yet I feel compelled to address his criticism, which struck me as nevertheless having some validity. Here is what Bob Knob wrote:
Ehhh… 오빠 (oppa) is what young Korean girls call guys that are slightly
older, in particular their boyfriends. The literal translation is “big
brother” (but guys don’t use it to refer to their older brothers), so
“Daddy-O” isn’t all that accurate.
First and foremost: duh. I know what 오빠 [oppa] means. I suspect that Bob Knob doesn’t know what ‘Daddy-O’ means. ‘Oppa’ literally means older brother, but it’s used to address older men affectionately and also to address boyfriends. Daddy-O is not really current American slang, but in the 1960s it meant someone in authority but who was being addressed informally, and it also was used by some “hip” women to refer to their boyfriends. I seem to remember seeing it a lot as a form address between prostitutes and clients (and or pimps) during a particular epoch, too.
The term ‘Daddy-O’ thus means “informal flirtatious term of address directed by a woman toward a man, with vaguely incestuous connotations.” Which is exactly how I would define ‘oppa.’
In that way, by translating ‘oppa’ as ‘daddy-o’ I try to capture that same semantic field (since in Anglophone culture there is nothing that resembles calling a boyfriend “brother”); but also, because the term ‘oppa’ is clearly being used somewhat ironically (same as the ‘manly man’) in the song in reference to the middle aged man singing it, I figured using an out-of-date slang term like daddy-o would serve that purpose well.
I was tempted to use the term ‘papi’ which is used in hispanic culture to address older men and espeically boyfriends – ‘oppa’ works similarly in Korean culture.
Well, anyway. I doubt the troll named Bob Knob will read this, but I felt compelled to respond with this cultural/linguistic observation. I should also note that this same “Gangnam Style” video has gone sufficiently viral in the US that there’s an extensive write-up about it at one of my favorite US news websites, The Atlantic. Max Fisher, the article’s author, himself pointed to an extensive write up by Jea Kim at her blog My Dear Korea (a blog which looks interesting enough in general to be someplace I may return to regularly). She further returns with a comment on Fisher’s article, in which she takes issue with just how revolutionary the video’s satire is – and in that, I’m inclined to agree with her – to see the video as revolutionary in a Korean context is to be rather myopic vis-a-vis Korean cultural history.
I’ll conclude with this fascinating bit of Americana. Watch it through to the end for some original Daddy-Os.
The mathematical phrase '22, 2e, E2, Ee' forms a sort of tongue-twister in the Korean language, because the English letter 'e' (used in e.g. natural log functions, etc.) and the number/digit '2' are pronounced the same way: /i/ (IPA).
So the phrase as a whole would be read '이의이승, 이의이승, 이의이승, 이의이승,' [i-ui-i-seung, i-ui-i-seung, i-ui-i-seung, i-ui-i-seung = two to the second power, two to the e power, E to the second power, E to the e power]. But there are added complications, too. First, the genitive '의' [ui] is normally reduced to '이' [i] in rapid speech. The second problem has to do with the evolution of modern standarrd Korean versus regional dialect: middle Korean (i.e. around 1400 AD) was a tonal language, while modern Seoul dialect is devoid of tones. But some regional dialects retain the tones, and in those dialects, the number '2' and the English letter 'e' are assigned different tones. This makes the phrase less of a nightmare of pure homophones, but it ends up sounding quite odd and singsongy, and is difficult to sort out, if you try to get the tones right – not to mention sounding like a country bumpkin.
The real miracle of all this is that one of my students explained this to me. Pretty well, too.
Unrelatedly, this very smart student said to me today: "Teacher! I am very, very, very, very, very humble."
I laughed, and suggested she was maybe unclear on the concept of humility.
Aargh. Once a successful actor and a true shooting star in Japan. Today he is beginning his new job at the Berlin zoo. What has happened? He is accompanied by the film crew on his first day of work at the Zoo where he is faced with new colleagues and challenges on the one hand and fighting prejudice and overcoming obstacles on the other.