Caveat: A better bookstore

I found an even better bookstore, and very conveniently located next to my Saturday hagwon.  I spent a few hours there, bought some magazines and a philosophy book (a collection of essays by Deleuze), and a matching pair of manga books:  volume one of "Deathnote" (which I learned about based on seeing a graffiti on a desk at my work), in both English and Korean translations – I've been thinking for some time that reading a manga in Korean might be a good way to work on my skills – especially having access to the English version too.  Manga are very popular here (they're called Manhwa) – there are whole sections in bookstores devoted to them.

Caveat: More thanks

These last two days, I have gone all-out to approach my teaching and my world with a sort of broad gentleness, and an attitude of thankfulness and kindness.   Partly in the spirit of the holidays.  Partly in the spirit of the kindness of my employers, who, despite their recent criticisms of my abilities, remain genuinely decent, fair-minded people, whose foremost concern is the kids – in this respect, I seem to have lucked out over the more mass-production language hagwons that seem to predominate here.

But mostly, because I have become more and more convinced that my best personal cure to episodes of anger and frustration is simply to "think" myself out of it.  That's the cognitive behavioral therapy thing, right?  So…

And the honest truth, the last two days have been much happier and less stressful days at work.  Not perfect… no, those T2's are still… well, no comment. 

But the T1's – wow, what a smart group of kids.  We're doing a unit on biology.  I put together a lecture on the Monerans for Wednesday, and we kept on it today, answering quiz questions via discussion and reading more material.  I got to talk about stuff I'd long forgotten and have been reading furiously to remember from my almost-minor in botany back as an undergrad at Minnesota:  prokaryotes vs eukaryotes, the symbiotic origins of chloroplasts and mitochondria, the carbon cycle, taxonomic systems and phylogenetics.  And for the most part, at least half are keeping up with me. 

And though not quite the same level, academically, the Monday/Friday 수능 cohort, are just plain pleasant and fun, as we talk about democratic movements being suppressed in Egypt and Korean Presidential politics (they'll have elections in December) – I got them to make a prediction that 이명박 would be the winner.  We'll see if this pans out – I have this vague recollection of reading somewhere that, in the U.S. anyway, polling teenagers is a better predictor of presidential race outcomes than polling adults.    Perhaps because they know what their parents are thinking and saying, and report more sincerely than adults self report in polls?

And then I came home to a wonderful, entertaining, uplifting email from my best friend Bob, demonstrating again why he's my best friend.   And now I'm watching David Letterman on my TV, eating some delicious ramyeon with mystery vegetables (and chopped tomato and way too much chili paste added), and writing my blog.

It was suddenly a bit warmer today – maybe 15 C.  And raining earlier, and now foggy.  I'll go to my Korean class tomorrow.   I've actually begun to remember some bits of vocabulary, too.  Maybe there's hope for that impossible project (ie. actually learning this baroque, beautiful, convoluted language), too!

Caveat: Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving.  But… I'm in Korea, and that's one U.S. holiday that simply hasn't made it over here.  I was realizing that this is the first Thanksgiving that I haven't commemorated in any way in my entire life.  So I bought some chocolates and gave them away to my students, spending a few minutes in each class discussing the holiday and tossing them candy.  This seemed to go over well.  Food is the key to most people's souls, isn't it?

So.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Caveat: Unfunness

Welcome to my world:  the unfunness.

Today, I asked for, and got, some critical feedback on my teaching.  Not really a positive review.  My own fault for asking, right?

Primary concern:  I am unfun.  Too serious….  I always have been too serious.  I was too serious as a child.  As a student.   And certainly, I am too serious as a teacher.  Still… I have trouble reconciling this with how much fun some of my classes can be, especially the younger kids, on the one hand, and the most highly motivated advanced classes, on the other.  But the criticism is certainly compelling in light of those recalcitrant T2's.

Secondary:  classroom management.  I don't really control my classrooms.  That's the uber-democratic hippy-quaker thing showing through.  I'm not a disciplinarian, at heart.  And I resist being urged to take more control… and have trouble reconciling the idea of being more "fun" on the one hand with being more controlling on the other, though I recognize, intellectually, that it's possible and even necessary with some groups.

Next:  I speak too fast.  I know this is true, and have no argument here – it's the hardest single thing to remember, as I teach – that I'm working with language learners, and even when they nod and pretend (quite convincingly) that they understand, they aren't necessarily getting much of what I'm saying.

Next:  I give the kids too many choices.  They're not supposed to have opinions about what they should be studying.  This is, again, my countercultural background showing through.  And is certainly even less popular a viewpoint, here in Korea, than it would be in the U.S., though even there it would be a less than universal approach.

No defense, no excuses.  I will keep trying to improve.

Some general observations, however.  I'm an introverted person – perhaps not best suited, in some ways, to being a school teacher.

But on the other hand, I am really pretty good at "teaching" – but only in the context of highly motivated learners.  I am not, at least constitutionally, a motivational speaker – not by any stretch of the imagination.  Thus, I do fine interacting with those who bring a desire to learn to the classroom, regardless of their level of innate intelligence or degree of preparation.  But, when it comes to the motivationally challenged, I am clueless and incapable of pulling them along.  Perhaps this is because that's my own internal demon?  Not sure….

Caveat: Chat

At this instant, I'm chatting online in a weird mixture of Korean and Spanish – I signed up at this website called hanglingo.com to try to meet people for "language exchange" and just got an instant message from someone.   This will be interesting…

Caveat: First Snow

I left work this evening and it was snowing.  It was a hard-falling slushy snow.  But by the time I got to my apateu it had fizzled to a weak drizzle. 

I bought some vegetables yesterday.  I don't know what they are… green shoot thingies.  I often buy vegetables I am unable to identify… just for the adventure I guess.   When I decided to chop some of it into my ramyeon this evening, I found a label:  "Product of China."

This is stunning, for some reason.  More stunning than the zillions of dollars worth of electronics and plastic crap and everything else China exports.  Because it's so easy to remember that within my lifetime, people were starving in China.  And now they export fresh vegetables to their neighbors.  I suppose this doesn't mean people aren't starving there, any more – after all, people starve in places like Guatemala, while bananas are exported.  But it's just weird, I guess.

Most fruits and vegetables in Korea are grown locally – even tropical varieties and even out-of-season – they have bazillions of acres covered in greenhouses.  It's weird to think that South Korea is almost self-sufficient in food, yet one of the most densely populated countries on earth – more densely populated than any other "large" country except Bangladesh.   Into an area of just under 100,000 km sq. (about the size of Kentucky, and similar topography), they cram 50 million.

I love snow.

I wish they would give me some kind of performance review or even the vaguest fragment of feedback at work.  I'm in the dark.  It's… frustrating.

Caveat: A Sunday Walk

It was the first day that the high temperature was below freezing, I think, since I've been here.  And a strong wind from the northwest.

So I thought, today I'll take my camera and take a walk around my neighborhood.  I took almost 100 pictures, and here are some I particularly like.  All these pictures were taken within about a kilometer of my apartment, as I walked a roundabout route past the subway, up through the park with the little hill, around past near where the Tomorrow School is.  They're shown in the order I saw them, roughly.

200711_ilsankr_street1_2 This is a street about 4 blocks east.
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200711_ilsankr_subwayentrance1 This is the entrance to the Jeongbalsan subway station.
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200711_ilsankr_office1 This is a government office near the subway station.
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200711_ilsankr_rose1 This is the same office from the other side, and a flower on a trellis.
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200711_ilsankr_path1 This is a path up the hill.
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200711_ilsankr_hills1 This is a view looking northeast from near the top of the hill.
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200711_ilsankr_dog1 This is a friendly dog I saw in someone's yard.
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200711_ilsankr_suburbanhouse1 This is a rather posh American-looking house.
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200711_ilsankr_backhoetree This is a backhoe and a tree.
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200711_ilsankr_proof And finally, proof that my students have opportunities to apply their hard-earned English skills out in the real world, right in their neighborhood.
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Caveat: Chase Cult Up Grade Personality

The above was emblazoned proudly on a man's jacket, I saw on the subway coming home from my Saturday Korean class.

I'm so uplifted by the knowledge that clothing-marketers' English is almost as bad as my Korean.  But seriously… I think that it should be the name of a novel.  A complex study of eschatological metaphor and post-modern epistemology, set in an imaginary Asian country dominated by American consumerist values and inhabited by largely identical tribes of evangelical christians and half-hearted, retrograde buddhists.

Is there any room for a devoutly atheist, libertarian marxist half-quaker such as myself? 

It might snow tonight. 

In the bookstore where I went to buy my magazines for the week, I heard Abba.

Caveat: The longest war

I overheard on the radio part of a book review of Susan Faludi's new book, Terror Dream.  Without having read the book, I'm probably as skeptical as the reviewer with respect to Faludi's apparent core thesis:  that Bush/Cheney's war-on-terror is resulting in significant rollbacks of feminist gains of previous decades.

Nevertheless, one sub-thesis that the reviewer mentioned, that I found compelling and powerful, was the idea that, far from being a strange and unwonted new type of war, the new "war-on-terror" is, in fact, America's oldest and most formative experience of war:  after all, wasn't the idea of a besieged city-on-a-hill at the heart of the White Man / Native American conflict, from the time of the first British settlements in North America?  A community of "innocents" victimized by fanatical, unknowable others who, "unprovoked," would come into the community and attack civilians.  As a nation, after a long period of aberrant integrative practice, we've finally reconnected with our long lost old demons, now conveniently externalized into the broader world.

In this sense, we've been fighting the war-on-terror since the mid 1600's.  By comparison, all other wars are irrelevant internecine squabbles.  Regardless of the validity of the parallel, the drawing of it is quite thought-provoking.  Are these Islamic fundamentalists, our fellow humans, the new Injuns?  Wow.

Listening to:  Magnetic Fields' "Strange Powers;" "The Trouble I've Been Looking For."

[Youtube embed later as part of Background Noise.]

Caveat: USFK TV

Well, it turns out that with my new television, despite not having cable I'm able to receive one English-language channel after all:  the U.S.Forces-Korea TV network.  There are about 40,000 U.S. service members and civilian support personnel here, and they get their own TV station. 

There are no commercials, but it's a steady feed of popular network television shows, including a rebroadcast of Jay Leno at around 11 p.m. (of course, this is in reruns right now due to the Hollywood writer's strike) and the Simpsons show up at like midnight, some nights.   In between the shows and where there would be commercials, instead you get these military public service announcements.  I swear, some of these public service announcements are exactly the same ones that ran on the USFK TV when I was stationed here 16 years ago.  "Drive safe, winter's coming;"  "A gambling habit can get you in trouble;"  Etc.

I find I have a very low tolerance for these announcements, as the military community outlook reflected in these announcements seems terrifyingly narrow and often eerily unaware of the surrounding cultural context.  Or maybe it's just because it reminds me of some unpleasant memories:  all night watch duty at the company HQ, days off duty, but locked onto post with nothing to do but read ancient copies of Dostoyevsky, watch TV, or clean the bathrooms again because my (married-back-in-the-States) squad sergeant had volunteered us before disappearing somewhere with his (local) girlfriend.

Last night I dreamed I was driving through a blizzard in Minnesota or Iowa or somewhere like that.  Where did that come from?

Caveat: Pale Cement, Aging Peach

I walked to work this afternoon at about 3.30 (Wednesday have the reduced schedule), and it was hazy, about 12 degrees (54 F?).  The sun looked like an aging peach resting on a pale cement sky – it was sufficiently overcast that there was no glare to look directly at it, but the disk was a perfect deep orange color, like you see sometimes at sunset.  Hmm… is this the Gobi sand sky you get from Mongolia, in the winter?  I sort of remember some kind of phenomenon like that. 

200711_ilsankr_pathamongapateutowar I took a picture of the path among the apartment buildings with my phone.

I had awoken this morning dreading my T2's today.  But Danny had given them a good talking to during his class, and when I got them at 8.40, they were moody but gamely putting in a sincere effort.  I'd been remonstrated too, by my coworkers.

And so, all of us chastened, we made a go of the excruciatingly boring TEPS book (TEPS is a Korean high-school level English proficiency exam – the students' motivation levels are not aided by the fact that the exam's status is in flux currently, as there is much talk of it being replaced across the board by the TOEFL, which would make the test-specific instruction less-than-relevant).

200711_ilsankr_walkinghomelookingto Walking home, I took another picture, showing the view from a pedestrian bridge I use to cross the boulevard I call "broadway" in my mind (this is the still nameless "main drag" in my part of Ilsan City), looking northwest toward Juyeop station, and further along, toward Kim Jong-il's socialist workers' paradise, lurking out there in the night like a bad business proposal.

Caveat: Apocalypse News

It is probably a bias of the BBC/NPR axis – the sort of radio I listen to – but it seems to me that news-radio programming has been harping a subtly apocalyptic set of themes lately, focusing on such issues as sustainability, global warming, the obesity epidemic and rampant consumerism.  Frankly, despite the self-evident importance of these issues, I find them more depressing than the more standard war/murder/terror/chaos/scandal fare.  That's because it's possible to be optimistic for the long-term future in the face of the latter, as we've been living with that sort of thing throughout history and things nevertheless persist in getting better.  But the former themes of environmental degradation and ecological imbalance are genuinely scary vis-a-vis the long term, and there's little precedent for a human society successfully overcoming such dangers, while there's plenty of evidence of societies succumbing to them (e.g. Jared Diamond's well-documented histories of the Maya or Easter Islanders).

I listen to these radio articles about the upcoming virtually inevitable end-of-the-world and I find myself ideating (is that a word?  it is now…) pulling a Kaczynski – go live in the mountains and be anti-human.  Of course, my family is rife with tendencies in this general direction, anyway.  So I'm predisposed.  But seriously, what can one do in the face of 7 billion people hell-bent on consuming themselves into extinction?  On the other hand, is this just another episode of apocalypto-science, like the malthusian alarmism of an earlier, pre-"green revolution" era?  Because human societies seem to crave an end-of-the-world narrative to keep things interesting….

Caveat: Worstest

We're in the new school location.  Things a bit chaotic today.  Most classes went fine, despite feeling a bit unprepared for them because of the chaos of the move.  The one class I went out of my way to prepare for, however…. 

Worster than Friday.  They patently refused to do anything.  Perhaps part of my problem is that the disciplinary "chain of command" here isn't really clear.  What is it I'm supposed to do, when an entire class refuses to do anything?  The administrators are busy people, especially with the move – and they both carry teaching loads as well.  It's not like this is a regular public school, where grades are submitted and meaningful – it's all about preparing students for exams and / or interviews, etc., for their careers as "foreign school" students.  So I can't threaten anyone with flunking out, either.  Oh, what a mess. 

This "T2" cohort and I have been circling each other like sumo wrestlers for several weeks now, and last Friday I thought it was going to end.  But, I think today was the collision.  Argh. 

No solutions.  And I know I'm not a lousy teacher, intellectually – my other classes go well, are fun, but sufficiently imperfect to leave me assured I do know how to handle problems when they arise….  But, it sure is hard on one's ego to be so patently rejected by a group one is supposed to be supervising and helping.

Caveat: Go TV

And here I thought I'd seen it all.  Everywhere you go, middle-of-the-night television is pretty dull.  But I didn't think I'd ever see a game of go (the japanese game, with white and black stones) televised, and commentated.  Awesome way to spend 20 minutes at 1 am!

Caveat: Leaving

The leaves are leaving the trees.  I really should go out and take some pictures… they're quite beautiful.

I got lost on the purple line (Line 1) of the subway today.  This is not something that happens to me often, but line 1 is a bit odd… it's really just the old commuter rail lines, grandfathered into the subway.  As a consequence, there's a lot of branching of lines, and each direction goes by on multiple platforms.  Anyway… I didn't mind getting lost, but it took me 3 hours to get from Gangnam to Jonggak. 

Last note:  I heard a radio bit this morning about a new sport that's being tried in Germany, called "chess-boxing."  Competitors alternate rounds of boxing with rounds of speed chess.  This is intriguing for all the wrong reasons.

Caveat: The best and the worst

I had one of my worst classes so far today.  And one of my best.  I guess that's good… lots of variety in a day.  Kind of a roller coaster.

One class, I nearly gave up and just walked out.  I had nothing left to say to them, no way to get through.  They chat and write notes and do work for other classes, and if I tell them to stop, they stop, but then they sulk and pretend to understand not a single thing I say.  Reminding me of something  I heard recently about the Buddhist monks in Burma, who as a way of protesting don't exactly go on strike, they just become obdurate and uncooperative and generally opaque to the authorities.  Call it an attitude strike.

Then another class they were interested, engaged, asking creative questions, getting excited about learning and the possibilities of knowledge and all that.

Why such differences?  I don't know.

The school is moving this weekend – to a new building a few buildings down from our current one.  I don't have to be there for this, but I'm looking forward to vast amounts of confusion and distraction when I come in on Monday.  Meanwhile, I have hagwon tomorrow.

And at the moment I'm doing laundry and watching a Korean game show… I have no idea what's going on, but I find the Korean more interesting than the dialog in dramas or news shows (the other options) because there's a lot of mugging and impromptu and informal speech, which are the bits I most desperately need some skill in understanding.

So… more later.

Caveat: Television

I just acquired a free television – sort of inherited from the recently departed teacher.  I haven't owned a tv for almost a decade.  I immediately began watching the most garish and least comprehensible program I could find – some kind of game show.200711_ilsankr_tv01

There are only about 5 broadcast channels here, that I can find.  I'm certainly not going to get cable.  But being able to watch Korean tv might help with my language skills, I rationalize.  We shall see.

 

Caveat: Professoriality

A while back my best friend Bob sent me an email in which he responded to a comment I made a few weeks back about always ending as the "professor" at the teaching jobs I've taken on.  I was working on writing back to him finally, just now, but realized this could be a more general comment on the "state of Jared's life."  So here goes…

Bob wrote the following: 

    I wonder whether your multi-lingual, bi-continental, bi-millennial career of being nicknamed “professor” means that you should actually become one? I know you have trepidations about how much backlogging you’d have to do to start a degree in a new field, but shit, if you got a doctorate in anything, you could probably market yourself to teach anything else, perhaps in some cool, alternative-type institution and/or exotic locale. I don’t know how many such places actually exist, but I do seem to detect a trend within academia away from specialization towards more interdisciplinary courses, majors, and so on. Not sure I really know what I’m talking about—perhaps I’m just unwittingly fantasizing about my own dream job.

He's right, of course.  I should become a professor – I've always thought that's where I should be headed.  But getting a PhD is not trivial – especially when one is as unfocused and vaguely dilettantish as I seem to be.  Last fall, as part of my relocation back to Minnesota, I made an extended self-examination around the idea of returning to graduate school.

I audited a doctoral-level seminar with an old professor I really liked on the topic of good old Cervantes, who occupied the position of honor in my abandoned doctoral dissertation proposal when I was in the Spanish Lit program at the Univ of Pennsylvania.   This audit experience merely confirmed the fact that, as much as I love Cervantes and the whole lit-crit game, it's not what I would want to do a PhD on at this point in time.

I had some interviews and conversations with another old professor at the U of MN, who had been my undergraduate advisor and is now attached to the Philosophy Department, wondering if I would do a program in that subject area.  But as much as it attracts me, it's difficult for me to nail down what, exactly, I would do in the field of philosophy.  I'm not really a philosopher as much as a philologist… but we just discarded the philology line in the previous paragraph.

How about linguistics?  I could see doing this, sometimes.  And certainly, that's the subject area that dovetails best with my current pursuits – teaching and learning language(s).  In an aside, I had a fun moment in a class today, as I demonstrated for my terminally bored teenagers a few moments of my experience on their side of the hagwon divide (i.e. my Saturday Korean class):  I did one of those back-and-forth dialogues, where I played both student (myself) and the teacher (my Korean language seonsaengnim), and demonstrated conclusively that I, too, could be profoundly clueless in the face incomprehensible linguistic input.

OK.  No answers.  Just thinking "out loud" here.

I'm having some ramyeon and boricha and listening to Minnesota Public Radio's morning show at eleven at night.  More later.

Caveat: Birthday Cake with Chopsticks

Yesterday at work we had a birthday cake for Grace, one of the teachers.  It was a very western looking birthday cake, and we sang happy birthday in English.  Somehow this made the fact that we all dug into the cake with chopsticks seem all the more alien, somehow.  Odd, the things that strike me as alien here.

I've been working pretty hard Monday and today… I'm feeling like I need to put more prep time in, to be a better teacher.  Some classes go very well, and others, not so well.  With some classes I seem trapped in a spiral:  students don't do their work, come unprepared, so I "crack down," giving more homework, checking things more, and this quickly becomes profoundly frustrating for both sides.  I need to work on not getting caught in these loops.  But that's a minority of classes.  Most of my classes are quite fun, for the most part, and the students are engaged at some level or another.  And with this new schedule, I have pretty fun classes at the end of my daily run, each day.  So this is nice.

Caveat: Oops, missed a day

I was on such a good roll, posting each day to my blog.

I was awakened yesterday morning to my phone ringing, but when I answered "hello" there was dead silence.  I thought it was a telemarketer – there are as many of those here as there are in the US, but usually a few sentences of English discourage them quickly enough.   They also like to send you little text messages all the time.  Anyway, my phone rang a few more times after this, and finally I shut off my phone and tried to go back to sleep.  It was about 10 am… but I'd not gotten to sleep until 3 am the night before – my schedule here is so late, usually, which I don't really like, but I have nevertheless become very accustomed to it.  Sigh.  I couldn't sleep, so I pulled out the book I've been reading and several hours suddenly disappeared.

Net result: yesterday was a total write-off.  I did none of the things I'd intended to do, I was lazy and read all day.  But I guess sometimes I need days like that?

I finally made the dreaded "ne" mistake, which English-speaking learners of Korean often complain about.  I was in the convenience store downstairs, last night, stocking up on cold coffee and orange juice, two of my staples, and the woman asked me if I needed a bag.  I still have no idea what exactly they're saying when they say this phrase, but I hear it often enough I understand the drift of it and recognize it when I'm being asked.  So I shook my head and said "ne."

Here's the problem:  "ne" means "yes."  But it sounds too much like an English negative, don't you think?  So far, for whatever reason, I had successfully avoided this bit of linguistic confusion, but yesterday, whether because of my recent accelerated efforts or day of escapist reading, I slipped up.  It clearly confused her, that I was shaking my head no, and saying yes.   She gave up trying to give me a bag, because I was leaving the store, but she was obviously thinking "crazy damn foreigners!"

The proper word for "no" is "anio" (or even "anyo" like Spanish "año"), where the key negation syllable is "an" (which is also attached to regular verbs to negate them).   

There are other issues with affirmation and negation in Korean, which show up frequently with my students.  Koreans always say yes or no to questions in the spirit of "confirm" or "deny," thus, I will ask a student "So you didn't do your homework?" and she will blithely nod and say "yes," meaning she didn't do her homework.

In English, we typically say yes or no to a question in the spirit of the underlying content of the question, and asking the same question of a native speaker would get "no" as an answer in reference to the same basic facts.  So… lots of confusion.

Perhaps it's best to avoid yes-no situations as much as possible?  Stick with the gray middle ground.