On September 1, 2007, I arrived in South Korea for my first teaching gig. I didn't blog about my arrival until a few days later – I still hadn't adopted the one-blog-post-per-day habit.
My first place of work was in a building less than two blocks from where I work now. One of my coworkers at that first job is still a current coworker, despite an intervening complexity of 6 different institutional employers. I had met two others of my current coworkers within the first 6 months.
Although Goyang is a city (suburb) of over 1 million residents, the Hugok neighborhood where I work is a village within the city, and over the decade it's really changed very little, and many of the faces are the same.
The intervening 10 years have seen a few memorable adventures (including my year teaching down south in Jeollanam in a public school) and a long, drawn-out near-death experience: cancer, anyone?
I believe that the latter experience has fundamentally changed my personality. Perhaps not even for the worse – but I seem to have a much less adventurous spirit, now. I rarely fantasize about travel, anymore, whereas that was a near constant in earlier versions of myself. That, of course, is on my mind, since I'm going to be traveling, starting tomorrow, for only the second time since the cancer thing.
I still don't have any clear feeling that this Korean life is permanent. There are strong reasons why it might not be – there's some precariousness to it. Nevertheless, on a day-to-day basis, I operate on a fundamental assumption that this Korean life has, indeed, become my permanent lifestyle. It's convenient to think that way, even if it's not really true. It's comfortable.
Yesterday morning, I predicted I would have a hectic week. In fact, yesterday was more than hectic – yesterday was downright insane. My coworker Grace failed to return from her vacation as scheduled (maybe an airplane travel problem? I wasn't clear on the situation). But her substitute teacher was no longer available. We had no teacher for 6 classes, and about 30 minutes to adapt.
So Curt shuffled the schedule, combined some classes, and we made it through. I had a full schedule, needless to say. 8 classes, straight through, no breaks.
For the combined and non-standard classes, mostly I taught non-standard lessons. I'm pretty good at ad-hocing it. So it went OK. I had one combined class with 20 students, though – which is HUGE by hagwon standards. I haven't faced a class that large since I taught at the public school down south in 2011. They were the younger kids. We played bingo. It went smoothly.
Several hilarious student anecdotes eventuated.
I was giving a planned, really hard month-end essay writing test to my ED1 cohort, but being a bit frazzled, I wasn't being very sympathetic or helpful to my poor students.
A boy named Sean, who never pays attention, looked up in the middle of the test, and asked, "What's a film festival?" Perhaps that seems innocent enough – a gap in vocabulary, no more. However, in fact we had been reading, brainstorming, discussing, and trying to write essays about film festivals for the past month. The core of the test, in fact, was to write an essay about an imaginary film festival, for which I gave some made-up details (location, schedule, etc.). So this was a rather glaring gap. Rather than try to help the boy, I just started laughing. I think the students were disturbed by this performance.
I laughed so hard I nearly cried.
Later, in one of Grace's speaking classes, I asked a 6th grade boy named Kai if he was in any clubs. We had been discussing clubs such as a taekwondo club, computer club, chess club, or that kind of thing.
Without missing a beat, he said, "I'm in the night club. Every night." He mimed a disco dance move. Where did that come from? I laughed again. That might seem like a pretty clever pun for a non-native speaker. Actually, it makes a bit of sense. "Club" is a borrowed word from English to Korean (클럽 [keulleop]), but only in the "night club" meaning – thus that's the central meaning for Koreans, rather than what we think of as its main sense, which is just a social organization of some kind.
I had a plan to do some things to get ready for the fact I'm going to Australia next weekend: various projects, hovering in the wings. But after making it to the store yesterday, I got absolutely nothing done. I just lost momentum – last week was a hard week and I just needed the downtime, I think.
I listened to random new music in pop and rap genres.
So now I'm going to have a pretty hectic week, I think. More later.
What I'm listening to right now.
The Weeknd, "Starboy feat. Daft Punk." This song intrigues me: the kind of sweet, ballad-like production and melody contrasting with the hardcore street-culture braggadocio lyrics. That makes it a more introspective effort than either genre in isolation.
[Verse 1] I'm tryna put you in the worst mood, ah P1 cleaner than your church shoes, ah Milli point two just to hurt you, ah All red Lamb’ just to tease you, ah None of these toys on lease too, ah Made your whole year in a week too, yah Main bitch out your league too, ah Side bitch out of your league too, ah
[Pre-Chorus] House so empty, need a centerpiece 20 racks a table cut from ebony Cut that ivory into skinny pieces Then she clean it with her face man I love my baby You talking money, need a hearing aid You talking bout me, I don't see the shade Switch up my style, I take any lane I switch up my cup, I kill any pain [Chorus] Look what you've done I’m a motherfuckin' starboy Look what you've done I'm a motherfuckin' starboy
[Verse 2] Every day a nigga try to test me, ah Every day a nigga try to end me, ah Pull off in that Roadster SV, ah Pockets overweight, gettin' hefty, ah Coming for the king, that's a far cry, ah I come alive in the fall time, I No competition, I don't really listen I’m in the blue Mulsanne bumping New Edition
[Pre-Chorus] House so empty, need a centerpiece 20 racks a table cut from ebony Cut that ivory into skinny pieces Then she clean it with her face man I love my baby You talking money, need a hearing aid You talking bout me, I don’t see the shade Switch up my style, I take any lane I switch up my cup, I kill any pain
[Chorus] Look what you've done I’m a motherfuckin' starboy Look what you've done I'm a motherfuckin’ starboy
[Verse 3] Let a nigga Brad Pitt Legend of the Fall took the year like a bandit Bought mama a crib and a brand new wagon Now she hit the grocery shop looking lavish Star Trek roof in that Wraith of Khan Girls get loose when they hear this song 100 on the dash get me close to God We don't pray for love, we just pray for cars
[Pre-Chorus] House so empty, need a centerpiece 20 racks a table cut from ebony Cut that ivory into skinny pieces Then she clean it with her face man I love my baby You talking money, need a hearing aid You talking 'bout me, I don't see the shade Switch up my style, I take any lane I switch up my cup, I kill any pain
[Chorus] Look what you've done I'm a motherfuckin' starboy Look what you've done I'm a motherfuckin' starboy Look what you've done I'm a motherfuckin' starboy Look what you've done I'm a motherfuckin' starboy
I was yelling at my HS1-T cohort the other day, as is so often my wont these days.
It's a very frustrating group of students – a collection of obstreperous, very smart but extremely rebellious 6th and 7th grade girls (yes, all girls – by some grave misfortune).
So I was yelling. The standard stuff: please focus on your work and quit talking about your favorite pop star idols; please speak English during class; please do your homework, next time.
Maybe the "pleases" were getting thin on the ground. I was pretty annoyed.
One girl (whom I won't name) said, "You know, you're not very good at being scary."
I sat down, deflated.
"I know," I sighed. The girls all had a laugh, and went on their merry way.
What I'm listening to right now.
Communist Daughter, "Soundtrack To The End"
You put on a pretty face And we never saved our money And then we got stuck in place And I lost my milk and honey
And all the songs were new And they broke our hearts in two While we walked away So I just pushed on through And I made my muscles move 'Cause I could never say
And all our hearts were breaking There was music all around And the walls were always shaking 'Cause our love was the sound Our love was the sound
We took six of one And nothing from the dozen I guess I'll never need another hand to stay awake Oh, get me right up to the brink I'll break one way or other
Some of the best of us are already home Still singing softly through the stereo Although we tried to make the only amends Now it's just a soundtrack to the end
And all the songs were new And they broke our hearts in two But we still walked away So I just pushed on through And I made my muscles move So I don't have to say That it's not right to carry on It might be old but she isn't gone And you never listened anyway
All our hearts were breaking There was music all around And the walls were always shaking 'Cause our love was the sound Our love was the sound
And all our hearts were breaking There was music all around And the walls were always shaking 'Cause our love was the sound
I was doing a prospective student interview yesterday at work, with a 2nd grade elementary student. My task in these interviews is to try to decide which class to place the student in, based on current level, but where the kids are too young or too low-level to be able to do a typical Korean-style diagnostic test.
I had the student attempt to read from one of our elementary readers, then we tested a few random flashcards from our phonics series. Finally, I tried out our "phonics diagnostic," which is a kind of graded set of sheets where we attempt to gauge how well the students can sound out unfamiliar words.
The boy really wasn't very good at any of this, but he was pretty good at catching my meaning and understanding my directions, in spoken form. We get a lot of students like this, who've attended some kind of pre-literacy "immersion" (in quotes because it's often not very immersive) kindergarten – they have some rudiments of English in spoken form but are very weak on alphabet and reading/writing.
Anyway, I always conclude these interviews with a very short writing test. I have the kids draw a picture of their favorite animal, then have them try to write something about their animal. At his level, I didn't expect much, but in yesterday's case, the result was a bit odd.
The boy drew a picture of a very implausible dog (at right), then smiled and confidently wrote, "Thia bag hippe."
"What's that say?" I asked.
"This dog happy," he said.
Hm: not strong on phonics or sight-words, then, and maybe not even completely clear on the whole alphabet concept, but, for all that, apparently confident.
Contrary to all expectation or intention, 10 years on I am still in Korea.
I was at the immigration office this morning, doing the annual ritual of visa renewal. It was completed completely without hitch – Curt and I have it down to science, and we spent a record minimum amount of time on the paperwork this year – maybe 30 minutes, total¸ plus driving time to the office and waiting time in the waiting room.
There are many reasons why I wasn't sure I would be there this year, but none of those worries have come to fruition, so far, and so, I have once again renewed.
Picture at right: the back of my registration card, my main ID in Korea.
Sometimes my friend Bob, an academic professor of music and conductor in Wisconsin, sends me snippets of Spanish song lyrics to translate, because he actually needs them for his work. He knows I don't mind this, and even enjoy it.
Perhaps I should add to my blog's various tag-lines, at left, the phrase "The Only Spanish-to-English translation service operating in the Korean Peninsula!" I would be pretty confident this is true, though who really knows what Kim Jeong-eun is up to in his secret cultural propaganda factories in the basements of Pyeongyang.
Yesterday, Bob sent me a song in the genre of candombe (see the wiki thing). He was hoping I could translate it and/or offer some cultural observations. Here's what I sent back to him this morning.
Here's an in-line translation, mostly "on the fly" with a few checks with the RAE (Royal academy of Spanish Dictionary website). There are a few disorganized notes below the translation.
Candombe del seis de enero
Es por todos sabido que el 6 de enero Everyone knows that January 6th es el dia de los Reyes Magos is the day of the Three Magi [Epiphany] y en honor de uno de ellos, el más negro and to honor one of them, the darkest, se programa una fiesta en el barrio. a party is arranged in the neighborhood
Es por todos sabido que es el más negro Everyone knows that the darkest, el rey de los santos candomberos the king of the candombe saints San Baltasar es un santo muy alegre Saint Balthazar is a very happy saint dice la mama Inés y mueve los pies. that's what Mama Inés says, and she moves her feet
Listos corazones Ready hearts van con el candombe come with candombe y con este ritmo a profesar, and with this rhythm, to show los rojos colores the bright colors con festón dorado, with golden edging le gustan al rey San Baltasar. they love Saint Balthazar
La comuna convoca y lo venera The troupe gathers and venerates por la estrella lucero que el ciclo espera under the Wandering Star that the calendar will bring San Baltasar se hamaca sobre las aguas Saint Balthazar rocks over the waters de un mar de promesantes que canta y baila. of a sea of worshippers who sing and dance
Conversa el ronco bombo mientras avanza the husky drum speaks as it moves forward repican tamboriles en las comparsas tambourines sing out in the dance-lines fiesta criolla de negros y blanqueados a high-caste party of blacks and whites together cuando cambian de toque cambian de estado. when the rhythm changes, the whole mood changes
– by Yábor (Uruguayan folk singer, b 1950) – in-line translation is mine
Possibly controversial translations:
* criollo as high-caste – normally criollo is translated as "Creole" but that, in colloquial English, is tightly associated with Franco-Carribean culture, which obviously is something different than what we have here. So I went back to the original Spanish meaning (actually originally Portuguese), which is a reference to a specific rank within the complex caste system that existed in Spanish colonial America – the criollos were the locally born white folk, thus at the top of the caste system. But criollo also developed a broader meaning of "locally born" as opposed to "foreigner" (immigrants and "peninsulares" i.e. Spaniards) – especially during the 19th century. So in that sense, the "fiesta criollo" might just mean "a party for and by locals". In the first half of the 20th century, it even became a kind of term of pride that was essentially unifying as opposed to divisive. Probably that's what's intended, here, but by using the term "high caste" I'm getting at the word's problematic roots.
* toque as rhythm – that's not a dictionary translation, but it seems to fit the context. It really might be wrong, but "when the touch changes" feels meaningless to me, so I made a guess based on my feel for broader semantics of the word toque – much wider than English "touch" – and my vague recollections of interactions with Spanish-speaking folk musicians (a few in the 1980s, and one, a close friend of my dad's, in the 2000s).
The most notable thing about this song, to me, is the clear implication that whites participate and enjoy, too ("a high-caste party of blacks and whites together"). This is underscored by the insistence that Saint Balthazar is the "darkest" – it's announcing a kind of "Africa Day" for the whole community, which is unifying in a pre-PC way. That's how I read it, anyway. Cynically, if Yábor is the author (and I think he is), as a white Uruguayan folk singer, he would naturally want to emphasize this aspect if he decided to author a candombe. In that sense, this song most definitely is a bit of cultural appropriation, but perhaps no less authentic or meaningful for that – it represents a genuine if somewhat starry-eyed effort at racial unity in the complex landscape of Latin American racial politics (which, we must always remember, work differently than US racial politics, as much as we want to notice the obvious parallels and similarities).
The poem's themes are quite dark, but they are depressingly apropos considering it's 2017.
What I'm listening to right now.
Oscar Brown, Jr., "Bid 'Em In."
Bid 'em in! Get 'em in! That sun is hot and plenty bright. Let's get down to business and get home tonight. Bid 'em in! Auctioning slaves is a real high art. Bring that young gal, Roy. She's good for a start. Bid 'em in! Get 'em in! Now here's a real good buy only about 15. Her great grandmammy was a Dahomey queen. Just look at her face, she sure ain't homely. Like Sheba in the Bible, she's black but comely. Bid 'em in! Gonna start her at three. Can I hear three? Step up gents. Take a good look see. Cause I know you'll want her once you've seen her. She's young and ripe. Make a darn good breeder. Bid 'em in! She's good in the fields. She can sew and cook. Strip her down Roy, let the gentlemen look. She's full up front and ample behind. Examine her teeth if you've got a mind. Bid 'em in! Get 'em in! Here's a bid of three from a man who's thrifty. Three twenty five! Can I hear three fifty? Your money ain't earning you much in the banks. Turn her around Roy, let 'em look at her flanks. Bid 'em in! Three fifty's bid. I'm looking for four. At four hundred dollars she's a bargain sure. Four is the bid. Four fifty. Five! Five hundred dollars. Now look alive! Bid 'em in! Get 'em in! Don't mind them tears, that's one of her tricks. Five fifty's bid and who'll say six? She's healthy and strong and well equipped. Make a fine lady's maid when she's properly whipped. Bid 'em in! Six! Six fifty! Don't be slow. Seven is the bid. Gonna let her go. At seven she's going! Going! Gone! Pull her down Roy, bring the next one on. Bid 'em in! Get 'em in! Bid 'em in!