Caveat: Imaginary Languages and Cacti.

If you know me well, you know that I have a strange love for language – not just living language or specific languages, but also language as an abstraction.  When I was still quite young, this interest in language as an abstraction showed itself in the form of a past time of inventing made-up languages – by the time I was nine I had invented some rather elaborate ones, no doubt under the influence of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others.
One in particular, which I recall I called Urka, included complex and very un-English grammatical rules, intentionally obscure irregular word forms, carefully crafted lists of vocabulary purged of anything that might appear cognate to English, and its own writing system.  I had attributed this language to an imaginary race of fuzzy, toothy beings for whom I also invented strange cultural practices and to whom I granted a broad commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution.  I was such an idealist.
Anyway, I was reminded of Urka recently, as I came to one of those eerie, deja-vu realizations.  I was studying my Korean, a bit, and it suddenly struck me – perhaps my weird interest and fascination with Korean lies in the fact that it is the real world language that most closely resembles old Urka, with its conflation of adjective/verb, plethora of grammatical particles, emminently logical and strictly phonological writing system.
Not everything is the same, of course – in particular, the Urka writing system was more like one of the semitic abjads (i.e. a system that relegates vowels to optional diacritics, like Arabic or Hebrew) than the hangeul syllabary.  And visually of a style like, say, Sanskrit.  Nevertheless, in retrospect I now remember such a thought (i.e. the striking resemblances between Urka and Korean) occurring to me almost 20 years ago, sitting in a comparative grammar class as a linguistics major in college, when I was first exposed some of the delicious oddities of Korean grammar, if only at an abstract level – which is to say that, like many linguists, I have known for 20 years about the conflation of verbs and adjectives in Korean, yet I only actually bothered to learn an actual verb or adjective about a year and a half ago.
Anyway, as I walked back to the subway from the bookstore I found yesterday, I was suddenly struck by this weird insight:  Korean is my Urka.  I hadn’t thought of that, last year as I studied in college, but I must have realized it at some level, as I began obsessing about wanting to try to learn the language.
I was surfing the web last night, and found a strange list some guy had put together, in which he would give “difficulty ratings” to various languages, with regard to how easy or hard they are to learn for English speakers.  These ratings were in the form of a number, one to five, of “cacti” – kind of like granting stars to restaurants.  And he said something to the effect that Korean was definitely a five cacti language.  And another thought this provoked in me, that perhaps my interest in trying to learn Korean lies more in my sheer perverse interest for trying deliberately difficult things, at least intellectually.
Note that above, I have been careful to say “try to learn” rather than “to learn” – I’ve been feeling discouraged about my potential for success, lately:  feeling overwhelmed by the difficulties of pronunciation, of sorting out the wacky vowels when listening, the inevitable infinite lists of new words.
안녕히 가세요!

Caveat: Fall

Thursday was windy and rainy, but there was an unexpected coolness to the air, and the wind was from the northwest.  It tasted of fall, for the first time, I thought.  Friday was partly clear and breezy, and the humidity had dropped substantially.  I keep looking for changing tree colors, but I think that happens later here than in Minnesota.
I went into Seoul yesterday, and walked around.  I really love this city, I’ve decided.  An infinite collection of neighborhoods.  I started walking at Gyeongbokgang, the old palace at the north end of the old city, where the kings ruled during the golden age of Korean civilization in the 1400s.  Seoul was founded to be a new capital in the 1300s, and this palace was the first and largest built, though later dynasties and regencies moved to other palaces.
I ended up walking all the way to Itaewon, the touristy area east of Yongsan, which is the old military base used by the Japanese during their occupation/colonization and subsequently by the Americans.  Slowly, pieces of real estate have been repatriated, so the base is much smaller than it was even when I was here in 91 – for one thing, the golf course was given back and turned into a park.  But the base is still huge, and the long walls topped with concertina wire are eerie in the midst of the bustling city.  The base has often been a point of contention, and the intention is to eventually repatriate all of it and have the American Forces Korea headquarted elsewhere.  It seems a recurring imperial pattern of the Americans, not really in keeping with the stated objectives of milatary operation, that our army often makes the former rulers’ palaces and bases into their headquarters – think of the Green Zone in Baghdad.  And I doubt it is ever a very smart idea – leads to unnecessary resentments among the people being “assisted.”
I saw the war memorial.  I think this is new… I don’t remember it at all.  It’s quite monolithic, and saw the Namsan tower looming in the background, lighting up the night.
So Itaewon is mind-blowing.  That inescapable smell of “down-range” (the old military slang for “off-base entertainment zones”):  leather and food.  And lots of Americans – not just off-duty soldiers, but hippies and tourists too.  Stores and nice restaurants.  And, surprisingly, zillions of thirdworld immigrants – this was unexpected and new to me.  I would hazard a guess that Koreans are a minority in the area.  Especially south of the main drag, I swear it was “little Africa,” with Nigerians and Congolese and I overheard plenty of Arabic too.
The contrast of American crewcut soldiers buying trinkets from a middle-eastern-looking, long-bearded, youthful vendor in Itaewon was strange.
I was trying to find a foreign bookstore Marlene (from work) had mentioned – still shopping for a place to get my weekly fix of news and commentary magazines.  I didn’t see it – might go back in today and spend less time wandering aimlessly, and more time trying to follow the directions she gave me.

Caveat: Dead Zone

The last several days have been a dead zone.  After getting my new phone on Saturday, I went home with grand ambitions to enjoy my long weekend.  Instead, I vegetated in bed with a cough and fever, taking medicine and vitamins and feeling useless.  I was unable to concentrate on writing or reading or even surfing the web.  I guess I made it through a few chapters of Los Dioses de Marte, a Edgar Rice Burroughs novel I'm reading (John Carter:  Gods of Mars, translated to Spanish).  I monkied around a bit making lists of vocabulary I should be memorizing, from my Korean textbook.  But mostly, just pure vegetable state.

I'm finally feeling a bit better today.  I made it to the store last night to buy some fresh tomatoes and broccoli, and have been craving some pasta which I'm preparing to go with these.

So, lurking in my apateu, I haven't been much of a cultural explorer, these days.  Feel like I'm not exploiting the opportunity, but I remind myself, I'm here for at least a year – I'll get better and have a chance to do plenty of exploring.

Caveat: Time flies when you’re hacking up a lung

Well… I haven't done much except work and sleep, the last couple days.  Letting this headcold I've got run its course….

But I suddenly have an unexpected long weekend – turns out this is Korean Thanksgiving holiday (Chuseok), this weekend.  So that gives me some time to get healthy again.

I got my cellphone, now!  I am trying to figure out how to use it.  The manual has about 6 pages in English, the rest is in Korean.  Time to break out the dictionary, again – just like using the washing machine.

I was planning to go out and do a little photo-essay of my neighborhood today – cover the walk from my apateu to work, all the buildings and avenues and public statuary and stores.  But I'm just not feeling up to it.  I'll relax and surf the internet with my new fast DSL connection, and go to sleep early I think.  Maybe tomorrow.

More later.

Caveat: Preciouse; Dreams; Alienation

"Happy ingredient for happy meal with preciouse [sic] family.  Good ingredient makes delicious meal!" – this was on a packet of garlic powder I bought at the Homever store.  I went there last night, having decided to buy some makings for some pasta, and stock up on orange juice and the little cans of cold coffee I'm becoming addicted to.

Last night I had a dream – what I call synthetic, not in the contemporary connotation of "artificial" but in the etymological sense of a compositional bringing-together of many disparate elements.  The dream was very vivid and the most remarkable I've had in some time – perhaps the touch of fever from this cold I've got?

As I remember it, the dream picks up in medias res with Michelle insisting on a "big wedding" – but the setting is here in Ilsan, Korea – more or less.  And it's not like this dream is taking place in the past, exactly, though there are a lot of people around from different points in my life – family, friends, etc.

I'm really disconcerted by the idea of a wedding of any kind, and so I argue back, "but… we're already married."  This seems like an important and incontrovertible point; I feel confident this will win the argument.  Michelle nevertheless persists, complaining that we never had a "real" wedding, and, well, it's her due, somehow.  I get less diplomatic, and decide the only way to win this argument is to bring up the unmentionable:  "but… you're dead, Michelle."  How can she argue against that?

But Michelle says, seriously, without a pause, "we're ALL dead, Jared."

This leaves me stunned and almost paralyzed – I feel like a minor character in Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo (the absolute greatest Mexican novel, period).  So in this stunned state, the huge wedding proceeds.  The location is a vast, palatial hotel located incongrously out on the tidal mud flats near the Incheon airport.  Very modern, full of those Korean luxury decorative touches – statuary in poor taste, mirrored walls, faux marble floors, fountains.  I become aware that both Randy and Jeffrey are present – contemporary versions of them, not old versions:  Jeff is clearly a grown man, somewhat disgusted and definitely uninterested by the goings-on.

The ceremony itself is quite hazy, but I recall feeling very upset to find an orthodox rabbi officiating (where'd this guy come from?), and I remember that the soundtrack included a pop song by Madonna – a haunting bit whose name I don't recall [update – it's "Ray of Light"], but I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard this song:  I was in the Burger King in Craig, Alaska, in October, 1998 – nice bit of temporal indexing by the dream-maker, eh?

After the ceremony, but before the reception, Michelle wants to take a walk, to look at the chemical plant next door.  Her fascination with machines and factories… you know.  But we end up out on the mud flats;  we're barefoot.  There are people selling things in little stands – shoes, cell phones, clothing – like at any busy street in Korea, or Mexico, for that matter.  The mud is firm – really it's like the way sand feels on the beach, when the waves roll back and leave the sand bubbling and wet.  I remember thinking this is not the way I would expect the mud flats out by Incheon to feel.

We see a boy flying a kite.  It's a younger Jeffrey.  Michelle takes my hand, and announces:  "Jared, did you know that I can fly?"  Of course I'm skeptical.  But she simply raises her arms, still holding my hand, and begins to fly.  I'm taken along with her.  We circle over the chemical plant, and Michelle waxes poetic about the processes involved, all the pipes and distillation columns and such.  We circle among some birds.

Some time later, I'm at the reception, which is going well – but Michelle is missing.  Randy is roaringly drunk.  The dream ends with Randy and I wandering through the enormous hotel looking for a restroom, but unable to find one – my Korean is not adequate to the task of asking about one, and it seems in poor taste to try to mime the necessity to the attendants we find.

End of dream.

This morning I went to the immigration office, took a number, and waited.  The number on the display read 55… the number on my ticket said 112.  The employees went to lunch, came back, I kept waiting.  Finally, after 3 hours, it was my turn – it took 30 seconds for them to hand me back my passport and give me my new alien card.  Now, I'm a LEGAL ALIEN.  This is so… amazing.

It was raining very hard.  There's a place that I walk by where there's a cat I've seen – it has a collar, so I think it might be owned, but it seems kind of feral.  I saw it one night, chasing a rabbit into some bushes.  I wonder what it's like to be a cat in such an intensely human environment, so densely populated with apartment buildings and businesses?

Caveat: Snort

Yesterday was amazingly clear, sunny, lower humidity with a strong north breeze, though still quite warm.  Today dawned with drizzle and overcast, however.

I am definitely sick – just cold symptoms but nevertheless unpleasant:  sore throat, fever, aches – you know the deal.  So I'm not going to be doing a lot, except work and sleep, I think.  Just try to get better.  I often get sick during the 3rd week of extensive travels – it's like my body suddenly realizes, "hey, the environment's changed" and goes on strike, or something?

Caveat: Mexican Independence

Happy Mexican Independence day.  Or, really, days – the Mexicans cleverly place their anniversary at midnight of September 15th (this is el grito del padre Hidalgo, in 1810), thus ensuring they have two back-to-back holidays each year, the 15th and 16th.

I've joked that one of the reasons I have always felt such a resonance with Mexican culture is because of the coincidence of el grito with my birthday.  And because I'm now living on Korean Standard time, I decided that, properly speaking, I should celebrate today (16th) since that's when 21:15 Pacific time is actually occurring.  Well, whatever.

To celebrate, I did a load of laundry, listened to internet radio (KCRW of Santa Monica, then the BBC News), and had some ramyeon with cabbage chopped into it.  I'm actually feeling a bit under the weather, like an incipient cold or flu, so I've decided not to go off exploring or challenging myself today, but just kind of lurk hermitwise in my apateu.

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon amidst the infinite grid of globalized small-retailer capitalism that is the Myeongdong neighborhood of downtown Seoul:  people watching, strolling, looking for a bookshop that would give me a fix of my favorite magazine, The Economist (but in this venture, failing).  A man stopped me and asked in halting English if he could interview me – he was holding a video camera.  I almost said yes, but suddenly an attack of shyness made me shake my head and decline politely.  I had visions of myself as some kind of online video spectacle, the hapless foreigner abroad in Korea.

I'm trying to discipline myself and drag out my Korean textbook that I brought with me, thinking I must work on building my vocabulary and making sure I know what to do with those verbs.  But I'm having a bit of a muddle with inertia, and reassure myself I have plenty of time to work on this. 

Annyeonghi gaseyo.

Caveat: Unusual Things

I saw several unusual things today.

Walking to work, I saw a right-hand drive SUV.  I thought maybe it was from Japan – there are auto ferries between Busan and Shimonoseki – but the car had local license plates, so who knows? perhaps just someone's eccentricity? 

Then I saw a woman carrying a large bag of vegetables on her head.  It took me a few moments to realize this was unusual.  It might be that I'm in a very middle-class part of Korea, now, but this is not a common sight.  Yet my recollection of traveling around the country back in 91 is that there were women with large bags of vegetables on their heads everywhere.  So either I'm in the wrong place to see such things, or there have been radical changes in Korean bulk vegetable transport over the last 16 years.

After work it was raining hard.  Fortunately, I had brought my umbrella "just in case," but even still, with the wind and rain, I was rather wet by the time I got home last night at around 11.

But, walking home, I saw a female bus driver.  I actually did a double take.  I remember an exchange with my dad when we were in Mexico in July about the notable absence of female bus and truck drivers there, and just the other day I'd been reflecting that the same certainly applies here.  So, that was an unusual thing, too.

Finally, as I crossed the last major street on my way home last night, dodging raindrops and trundling buses (I've been wondering if there's some kind of traffic-law exemption for buses, here, given how often they run red lights and make contra-indicated right turns), I saw a new MINI and a new Beetle, both dark blue – I shouldn't be surprised, as BMW has dealer outlets here, but I haven't seen any VW dealers yet, and this was the first one of each vehicle that I'd seen here.

These are very banal "unusual" things, but I guess I'm groping for something to write about.

I love the rain – I went to sleep to the sound of the rain through the open windows of my little apateu (=apartment).

This morning, I've been reading Lucian's A True Story – I may have read this a long time ago, but I don't recall, and it was one of the "books in progress" that I threw into my small "books to take with me" pile (which my friends Mark and Amy ended up mailing to me because I couldn't fit them into my luggage, but I wish I'd managed to fit them in, as mailing books to Korea is not a discount proposition). 

Lucian of Samosata is one of the most amazing writers of all time.  The True Story is a veritable 2nd century work of fantasy fiction, in which he explicitly states it the only true thing he will say is that it's all untrue.  My interest in Lucian goes back years, and interrelates with my work in grad school on Cervantes, who clearly was at some level familiar with works by Lucian and his late classical imitators.  In tone and style, it actually reminds me most of something like Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth.

Not sure what I'm doing today.  Going into Seoul today, but what to do?  Want to look for some postcards and/or souvenirs for my nephews, Jameson and Dylan, and perhaps for others, too.

Caveat: And thems the rules

Almost two weeks here, now – the newness begins to wear off.

Walking home last night, I felt tired.   There was that foggy haze hanging among trees and over streets, that you see with high humidity on hot nights, as the ground cools faster than the air.  I guess I had my first "bad day" yesterday, as the routine is established and I begin to take certain things for granted, and then something goes amiss.  Just this one group of kids (a medium-ability cohort called 왹고-2) who seemed profoundly uninterested, and couldn't stop chattering among themselves, checking their cellphones, writing notes…. 

Relative to my experience teaching in the U.S. (which was years ago, and in a fairly privileged private school, admittedly), there are very few disciplinary problems with kids here, but it still was getting to me.  It doesn't help that the book we're working in seems a little "easy" for them, and that they seem uninterested in the topics being covered (the text tries to be "hip," providing articles covering things like video games and the internet, but in the area of computers and the internet, a few years amounts to decades, so the book's 2003 publish date means that the material being covered is ancient history as far as these kids are concerned). 

Well, anyway, I tried to break up all the chattering pairs and roughhousing triplets, moving the seating arrangement around – this was the first time I'd done such a thing, and the reaction was sobering:  suddenly the class went from carefree and chattering but entirely unfocused to somber, very focused, and with a palpable atmosphere of teenage resentment.  They literally sat there glowering at me, with a sudden peculiar solidarity that forgot all their internecine squabbles and tribal affiliations of moments before.  Ah well.  It was bound to happen sooner or later – and I'm not about to back down – that's what they hope to achieve, of course.  I know enough about classroom management to understand that the main thing is to be predictable and consistent – being a new teacher, I'm still showing them my boundaries and tolerances and expectations, and to back down would be handing them an irrevocable victory.   

But still, it left me in a gloomy state of mind as I walked home later.  Let's see how things go today.

Caveat: Alone in a crowd

Many people express surprise and befuddlement when the learn how much I do things alone "for fun."   On Monday, when I was talking with Danny (the school director) about what I'd done over the weekend, I told how I'd gone into Insa-dong and explored, walking around and seeing the streets and neighborhoods and crowds everywhere. 

"By yourself?" he asked.  "Just looking around?"

I said yes, and his response was a shrug indicating discomfort with the idea, and he muttered "strange."  This is not just a cultural-based response, as I have had similar reactions from North Americans, too, or any other group.  I guess I am strange.  But I genuinely like being alone – and most especially – perhaps paradoxically – I like it best when in a crowd:  a mall, a busy street, in the subway or on a bus.  I don't really know how to explain it. 

Being really alone is certainly less pleasing to me – as when I was living on my uncle Arthur's land in Alaska for 4 months, or even sitting about my apartment here.  Somehow, when not surrounded by others, being alone causes me to be too introspective, and I can go off on unproductive meditative tangents.

And it's not that I dislike being around people in a more social way – one of the reasons I seem to like teaching is that it does give me lots of structured opportunities interact with others.  But what most people don't GET about me is that I really am a very shy person – I have gotten so very good at seeming  extroverted and self-confident in social (especially work) environments that they find it implausible that I'm actually shy. 

So my enjoyment of being alone in crowds is, I suppose, a compromise position – a way to be around people but without feeling called upon uncomfortably to interact with people I don't know well.  And I'm such a consummate people observer – a sort of cultural explorer, I think I called it at some point – that sitting or walking among a crowd gives me plenty to think about.

Well, this is a sort of rambling, introspective entry.  But I've been thinking about it, I guess.

Caveat: Heat

It's been hot the last few days… with the monsoon clouds absent, the air gets hot and steamy, like the East Coast of the US in summer.  Last night, walking home from work, the humidity was so high it congealed into fog hanging between the highrises and hovering over the boulevards.

Some people have asked what I eat, here.

Let's see… in the spirit of the rather reduced calorie intake I've been practicing the last year or so in Minnesota, I still try to eat less than I crave.  It's difficult, but important to keeping my weight under control.  For breakfast I have fruit – an apple or orange or peach, and maybe some bread or crackers, and one of those cold canned coffees so popular here.  Right before leaving for work I have a quick meal of ramyeon (instant ramen noodles) with boricha (barley tea – an odd-tasting tea concoction served cold, kind of grows on you).  I like some of the flavors of ramyeon available, including kimchi and a barley/seaweed thing I found.  I always add even more hot pepper sauce than is already in the mix.  My main meal is at work, as there is always lots of food around that can be eaten during break (around 5.30-6pm).  Generally bibimbap (rice with bits of meat, fried egg, various veggies), or kimbap (rice wrapped in seaweed, japanese-roll style but with fragments of cucumber, spam, fruit, etc., inside).  Lately, something called sundubu has grown on me quickly – a seafood and tofu soup, very spicy and lighter.  One day, Diane brought some home-made american-style spaghetti that was quite tasty.  Lastly, when I get home I have some fruit juice, maybe a diet coke or cold coffee, and some yogurt.  Is this interesting?  Not sure… but when more than one person asks, via email, I figure it's time to put into this blog thingy.

My wireless internet (wifi) that I've freeloading at my apartment has proved less reliable the last few days… perhaps they're catching on?  I definitely downloaded a big chunk of updateware over the weekend with my flurry of OS reinstallations.  Anyway, I'm at the school plugged into a wired internet connection with my laptop.  I may have to look into buying a wifi router and setting it up at the school so I can roam here with my laptop.  That would be convenient, probably worth the investment.

Caveat: Computerlessness

Well, I got ambitious Saturday night, and decided to try to "fix" a few of the small things that have been annoying me about my triple-boot laptop.  Consequence:  I ended up reinstalling all three operating systems yesterday and this morning, and in the meantime, I was, naturally, without a computer.  Ah well.

The problem with the triple boot config is the battle of the bootloaders… still trying to resolve.  But I've got all three running again, but now the Vista bootloader is dominant, whereas before I had the GRUB (linux) one running the show – not sure I like this better.  But I did get my "factory original" Vista Business edition working on the laptop on its own sector again – so that's a big step in the right direction.

Yesterday, taking a break from this computer stuff, I took the subway into Seoul and wandered around Insa-dong (a downtown neighborhood) a little bit.  Perhaps, like when I lived in Mexico City 20 years ago, I could make a goal to eventually visit and explore the surroundings of every stop in the Seoul Metro.  This would be very ambitious, but I may try it.

Caveat: Internet Radio

The internet is an amazing thing.  I can listen to radio stations in Minnesota, Los Angeles, or Mexico City, from where I am right now.  And I do.  I've been surfing around the internet radio world this morning, found a very strange, eclectic station in Bilbao, Spain, that played Aaron Copeland one minute and some kind of Catalan punk the next.  And then the Star Wars theme.

Yesterday was rainy, today is sunny – first really sunny day here – most days have been partly cloudy or overcast.   And it's Friday, so I'll get my first non-jet-lagged day off, tomorrow, a chance to get settled, go exploring, whatever.  Looking forward to it.  Not much to say.  Several people have accused me of being terribly "impersonal" here in this blog, but I guess I just don't know who is in my audience… could be anyone, right?  And in at least two occasions, utter strangers have sent me little comments on one thing or another.  So I guess that functions as a sort of constraint on my tone.  I'll save the personal stuff, as appropriate, for emails, I guess.

I was online a few hours ago and got a surprise IM (instant message) from a former coworker, Aurel, from HealthSmart (the Long Beach company I worked for up through April).  I hadn't heard from him since he left the company about a year ago.  So now, he's making hoards of money doing consulting – a Romanian-Canadian with a definite genius level of programming skill.  I was glad to hear he was doing well.  He didn't seem that surprised that I'd changed careers – I suppose it doesn't take knowing me that long to realize the extent of my wanderlust, eh?

Caveat: Teaching

I really am glad to be teaching.  Do I sound like I'm trying to convince myself?  Maybe I'm at that stage where I'm asking myself, what have I gotten myself into?  Really, it's cool to be teaching again, but currently feeling a bit overwhelmed – I really do want to do a good job.

So Tuesday was Gary's last day – he is/was my predecessor.  Several of us teachers, along with Gary and the two directors/owners of the hagwon (academy) went out for food and drinks after work – since this is an afternoon academy, that means we were out from around 11 pm through 3 am.  But Korea is definitely a night-owl culture, and many bars and restaurants and such are open very late.  Social drinking is, of course, extremely pervasive, but I resisted the suggestions of soju (korean native vodka-type stuff) or beer and stuck with saida ("cider" = really this is 7-up or something like that).

But there's nothing like seeing your coworkers get drunk for getting to know them.  Ha.  So, Gary was the raison d'etre of the party, and life of the party too – the life of any party, such an expansive and energetic personality.  Grace is a korean-canadian, fully bilingual, and has been with the school since it's founding, 4-5 years ago.  Marly, a maori new zealander who's been around for about a year, and seems quite competent at teaching and is quite friendly.  Lastly, Danny and his wife Diane are the owners/founders of the academy, a korean couple who lived in south africa for some years.  So they're my "bosses."  I really think Gary was right, I've landed in a good spot -they seem very conscientious and dedicated to providing a quality product to their students.  I met an "alum" of the school Tuesday afternoon, who was visiting but was now enrolled at the University of Chicago – that speaks pretty well for the skills and competency imbued, given the high standards and reputation of that school.

So we stayed out till about 3 am, but since work starts at 2 pm, this is not really a problem.  I feel for the students, who essentially go to school from 7 am to 11 pm (with food breaks, I guess) – public school in the morning, hagwon in the afternoon.  And this practice is universal.  No wonder Korea kicks U.S. ass in educational statistics, right? 

Yesterday Danny and I drove to an immigration office, where I had to surrender my passport in order to get an "alien card" -  I've always wanted to have my alienation confirmed bureaucratically.  I feel naked without the passport, but I have a little piece of paper that I use as an ID, meanwhile, and I should get the card in 2 weeks, and this will allow me to do things like get my own cell phone, bank account, DSL connection, etc – all the accouterments of modern life.

I am, by far, the "old man" here, but I felt comfortable with these people and I'm feeling optimistic.

I have approximately 13 classes, most of which meet twice a week and several meet three times a week.  I'll tell more about my schedule and students later, as I get to know things – for now I'm just going to go "by the book" and follow Gary's lead (to the extent I can make sense of his notes – heh) and Danny and Diane's curricula. 

Given the quantities of free food on offer at work, and the fact that my rent is paid for, I can already tell that I'm going to be hard put to spend my earnings here – but that's good, I guess.

One piece of disappointing news:  my vacation schedule is such that I probably won't be able to take any long excursions out of Korea – the 2 weeks are distributed across the calendar and there's not a lot of flexibility.  So I guess people will have to come visit me, instead.  I will have weekends free, regardless, and South Korea is small enough that you can see most any part of it in a weekend.    But the slow boat to China, traipsing off to Darwin and points south, and other adventures will have to wait, it seems.

Caveat: Tuesday Morning

A few blocks south of here there is a large park with a Lake in it.  Everyone seems to call it the Lake Park – I’m not sure if this an official name or not.  I walked down there this morning, and there’s a nice little pedestrian bridge that gives some good views of the area.  Below are 5 photos all taken from basically the same exact spot standing on this pedestrian bridge connecting the Ilsan neighborhood to this large park.
Looking east (well, kinda east-north-east, I think) there’s this weird looking bit of public art on the large plaza on the north side of the boulevard between Ilsan and the park.
Looking north you can see the Homever store I mentioned (a Walmarty sorta place), and the little Jeongbalsan hill.  My apartment building is a few blocks behind the Homever store, and the subway station is a few blocks toward the little hill.
Looking northwest, North Korea is only about 20 km thataway – after you go through Munsan on highway 1, which is where I was stationed in the US Army.
Looking southwest, toward the Han River and then Incheon (which is where the international airport is, about 25 km), and then the West Sea (also called Yellow Sea) and, much beyond, Qingdao and Shanghai.
Looking southeast, toward downtown Seoul (about 25 km) – it’s city all the way.
In other news, I am coming to the stunning realization that most Koreans don’t know the names of their streets, and don’t particularly care – they often don’t put signs, they don’t put the names on maps, etc..  This is difficult for someone like me, who has always loved being able to study a map and then navegate around on this basis, and it’s surprising to me that it’s taken me so long to realize this.  Regardless, it leads to an interesting, networked-node sort of view of the world, an interconnected web of buildings and landmarks on nodes, with unnamed spaces connecting them.  I’ll get the hang of it, but getting directions is, well… interesting.

Caveat: A tough act to follow

Location:  Ilsan-gu

Soundtrack:  crickets, and morning city noise

The teacher whom I'm replacing is named Gary.  He's a very energetic, dynamic guy from Yorkshire.  I get to spend the next two days watching and working with him before he leaves, so there's an overlap to provide some transition for the students and for me.  There are two cohorts of students – a Monday/Wednesday/Friday group and a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday group, each subdivided into classes based on age and relative mastery of English – so two days of overlap provides at least one day of time with both teachers for each of the classes I'll be doing.

Abilities range from lower level "elementary" students to quite advanced "middle school" students.  I put the quotes as I think the terms aren't quite applicable as we would conceive them in the U.S. – the "elementary" are what I would think of a "middle school" – age 10 to 13 roughly, while "middle school" are more like high schoolers – age 13-16.  The oldest student is 17 I think.  The whole thing is compounded by the fact that Koreans are all 1 year "older," because they count the day of one's birth as the "first" birthday, and when they report their age to you, you never know whether they're subtracting that extra year because they know that we calculate from zero, or if they've forgotten and are doing a straight translation.

The advanced students are quite advanced – perfectly capable of having complex conversations on just about any topic, and toward the end of the evening Gary and I found ourselves enmeshed in a "discussion" (with the "T2" group) of Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee" that would do a group of American college freshmen credit.   I put "discussion" in quotes as the whole classroom structure is, nevertheless, much more teacher-centered than I'm used to from the states – more "question and answer" than discussion.  And no doubt some of this I'll just have to adapt to, but other aspects I may begin to try to change as I get settled into the academy.

Gary and I walked down to a Dunkin Donuts (yes, they have those) on break and got some coffee.  He told me I had been very lucky, as I had landed in the best hagwon ("after-school academy") in Ilsan (and there are apparently 100's, many of which he's taught in over the last 6 years.  6 years!  Anyway, of course I asked "so why are you leaving?" and he explained that he and his wife are moving to southern Seoul (she's soon having a baby) and that the commute out to Ilsan would just be too much.  It's pretty clear that he's on great terms with the other staff members of the school and he said Danny (the director) is quite professional.

Most notably (in my opinion) he's on amazing terms with the students.  After we finished that last class of the evening we walked out into the hall and all the more advanced students were lining the hall to say "goodbye."  Many of them had cut out fat "tear drops" of blue paper and glued them to their cheeks ("see, we're crying because you're leaving" they explained), and they presented Gary with these large posters which everyone had signed with little paragraphs or anecdotes written with them, sort of the way kids sign yearbooks for each other in the U.S.  None of the staff were aware the students had prepared this "farewell party" for Gary.  I was touched and impressed by their degree of devotion to this guy.

He will be a tough act to follow.


The picture above shows my building, Urim Bobo County I.   Within blocks there is a McDonalds, a Burger King across the street from the McDonalds, a Starbucks, a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf franchise across the street from the Starbucks, a Homever (this is, roughly, a Carrefour store – and Carrefour is just French for Wal-Mart).  All amazingly high density.  But so far, I haven't even eaten in a restaurant (at 3 days, probably already some kind of record for me, at least when being abroad) – I've bought food (yogurt, ramyeon, fruit) and eaten in my little apartment, and there's also apparently a lot of free food flying around the school, too – last night I had some cold Bibimbap for dinner (my favorite Korean staple).  I have gone to the Homever store to get some houseold supplies and to be able to shop for food without overstretching my almost non-existent vocabulary.

Ok, well… day 3 begins now.  More later.

Caveat: Korea

Location:  경기도 일산구 (Ilsan-gu, Gyeonggi-do)

Soundtrack:  mostly sounds of crickets, cicadas, citysounds

I really meant to post more, sooner.  I am entering my 2nd day here in Korea.  I start my teaching job later this morning.  Right now it’s 3 am and I’m unable to sleep, due to the confusion induced by the time-zone change.  But I’ll adjust.

Last week was very hectic, in Minneapolis, getting packed up and all my stuff moved from my apartment to the storage unit I’ve rented in Eagan (near the airport).  I got checked out of my apartment on Thursday afternoon, and Friday morning I was on my way, Minneapolis to Chicago and direct from there to Incheon – a 14 hour flight and a 14 hour time difference meant 28 hours in a suspended state of intraplanetary teleportation.

I slept a little on the plane, but never do much.  I watched two movies – from the Korean movie channel on the plane, to get myself in the right frame of mind.  They were actually very good movies:  “Highway Star” (Bokmyeon dalho) and  “Miracle on 1st street” (1Beonga-ui gijeok).  Subtitles in English, so I wasn’t completely lost.  If you want to get a taste of contemporary Koreana these would be excellent choices, I think.

The flight arrived at Incheon almost 40 minutes earlier than scheduled, and by 5 pm local time on Saturday night I was through immigration and customs and boarding a bus for Ilsan.  I rented a temporary cellphone and was thus able to connect with my contact from my new job, who met me at a bus stop just west of Madu Station in Ilsan-gu and drove me from there several blocks to my apartment.

It’s just a little studio, hotel-room-sized, but with a kitchenette.  And even has a washing machine.  It’s in a highrise apartment building called Urim Bobo County.  I have no idea what they mean by this – bobo means, roughly, bourgeois, but without any negative connotations.  And “county” seems to imply a pleasant suburban living environment – it’s a transliteration of the English word, not the Korean word that means “county”.  Overall, I expect the intended effect is like the infinite number of apartment complexes in the U.S. with names like “Park View Terrace” or whatever.  Basically meaningless, but meant to evoke a kind of suburban arcadia.

But, unlike suburbs in the U.S., Korean suburbs (and postwar urbanization patterns in general) are overwhelmingly high-density – thus this suburban community (45 minutes by train northwest of Seoul) feels more like Manhattan than like any socio-economically equivalent American suburb, e.g. Thousand Oaks in L.A. or Burnsville in Twin Cities.
This picture (above) shows the main street a block north of my apartment, and the fire station that will be my landmark for finding the place.  The school is northwest, about a 20 minute walk – I wasn’t able to find it yesterday, walking around exploring, but I did find a nice park with a little hill in it, called Jeongbalsan (which is also the name of my rail station), and I had a strange moment when the pine forest smell and the humid, red, sandy soil evoked memories of marching through Korean woods on infantry exercises when I was stationed here in the U.S. Army all those years ago.  Smells are weird that way, so evocative.
Above is a picture of the big buildings peeking through the trees of the park.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to get a lot of sleep since I arrived, so as to at least be well rested if not quite on schedule when I go into work later today.
In computer news… I am trying to get my Linux installation to allow me to type Hangul (Korean writing system).  I’m having some frustrations, but I can kind of get it to work through a bit of kludge at the moment, by typing in the one application I can get it to work in (gedit, the opensource equivalent to something like Wordpad under Windows) and then cut-n-pasting into the destination (e.g. Firefox browser, where I write this blog), hence: 정발산 (=jeongbalsan).

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