Caveat: El Túnel

pictureHe estado leyendo la novela de Sabato, El Túnel. Encontré el libro hace medio año en un estante mal mantenido el librería 교보문고.  Hace mucho tiempo que me dedico a leer una novela en español, y me está gustando. De estilo policiaco, tiene un sabor kafkaesco, o tal vez me hace recordar los excelentes del polacoargentino, Gombrowicz.
El viernes pasado, habiendo podido salir del trabajo temprano a causa de que fuera el fin del trimestre, fui a Seul para devagar, como es mi hábito. Y de repente sentí que había perdido el librito. Me gusta leer libros en español cuando me meto en el metro, por el gusto de confundir a los locales en cuanto se den cuenta de que no es el inglés que esté leyendo. Tantos coreanos padecen una miopía respecto los idiomas occidentales: que sólo existe una lengua del ”alfabeto inglés.”
No podía encontrar el librito en ningún lado. Me puse triste. Pero hoy, preparando otra salida, para ir a algún Starbucks con la intencionada de estudiar, de repente ahí estaba el libro. Me alegró. Acabé con casi 20 páginas en el metro, esta tarde.

Caveat: Best Class

This has been my best class so far. All smart. All interested. Almost all the time. Awesome kids: Ellen, Candy, Eunice (she came back!), Helen, Anastasia, Sydney, Steven.

Caveat: Different Priorities

The small cultural differences are sometimes the most striking.  Take the question of what's considered publicly embarrassing. 

God forbid a woman be caught smoking by a male colleague or stranger in public.  Korean women who smoke go to great lengths to hide the fact that they smoke, and every building has a secret balcony or hidden rooftop space where these shameful women ply their vice, while Korean men smoke nonchalantly anywhere they damn well please.  

Meanwhile, I passed not one but two women casually seated on busy sidewalk benches at different spots, indelicately cleaning the gunk out from between their toes.

Notes for Korean
콩국수 = cold noodles and soybean  soup
부터 = from, when
cf. 나를 선생님으로부터 보호하세요 = protect me from the teacher (a student sample sentence)
차지하다= seize, take possession of, make something one's own
편리한 =  convenient
적 = [this is some kind of mystery particle… I see it all the time, attached to substantives and followed by the copula… not sure how it works.  one dictionary meaning that might fit:  "occasion, time, experience" but I'm not sure that's right]
구체 = the property of concreteness
구체적인 = concrete (adjectival meaning, i.e. having the property of concreteness)

Caveat: Proliferation Security Initiative

According to various news sources (e.g. The Korea Herald, The Australian), South Korea's response yesterday to the North Korean nuclear test has been to finally get around to joining the US's "Proliferation Security Initiative."

This was particularly interesting to me, because of an incident in one of my most advanced debate classes about a month ago.   We have these "newspapers" (they have current events packaged for ESL learners, produced by a domestic Korean publishing house) that always have a current debate topic in their pages.  I really like pulling our in-class debate topics from these newspapers, because they are always topics that are immediately relevant to South Koreans, being policy issues that are under discussion by the government.  I can urge the kids to consider that they are learning not just English, but something along the lines of a South Korean civics class.  This provides at least some of them with some additional motivation, and because the topics are prominent in the South Korean media, it also makes them easy to research, even if they are often conceptually quite difficult.

 Last month, the newspaper had as its debate topic the question as to whether South Korea should fully join the US's Proliferation Security Initiative.   I didn't know much about it, and I didn't put too much time into researching it, myself.  I read the article, gave it some thought, and it seemed like a pretty uncontroversial thing, to me.  I understood South Korea's ambivalence, about it, however, given the always fraught nature of its relationship with its northern neighbor — North Korea had basically said that it would view South Korea joining this treaty as a "declaration of war."  Huh… right.

I tend to avoid stating my personal opinion on these debate topics until after the debate is finished, so as not to bias the students' take on them.  But I'd formed in my mind that joining PSI would probably be OK.  Until Sally's discussion of it.

Sally is a sharp sixth grader.  A bit of a prodigy, in some ways, excellent with these civics and social studies type concepts.  I have joked that she's going to be a lawyer, some day.  Anyway, we were beginning our discussion of this Proliferation Security Initiative, and she begins, quite simply:  "I read about it, and I think it's illegal."  My jaw dropped open.  "Uh… That's not what the newspaper said," I was thinking to myself.

But she went on to explain that it involved arbitrary search and seizure in international waters, and that it basically boiled down to a form of international racial profiling of ships-at-sea.  Not using this kind of vocabulary — she's not THAT good — but she did a perfectly adequate job of making these ideas clear using simpler vocabulary.  And I was just stunned, even recognizing that she was probably basing this on something she'd found on a Korean opinion website of some kind.  Because here was a 6th grader, lecturing me on international law.   She'd managed to internalize the arguments, and it was clearly not just parroting but that she understood the significance of them.  I was so impressed.

Sure enough, when you look at Wikipedia on the topic of PSI, you find that it was another one of those dubious cowboy-internationalist undertakings of John Bolton, former UN Ambassador under President Bush.  Given that pedigree, how could it NOT be illegal?  I bonked my forehead and went "d'oh!"  And, because of Sally, I changed my mind about South Korea joining the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Now, it becomes moot (note to self:  now is the time to explain the meaning of the word "moot" to Sally's class — we can revisit PSI for 5 minutes in light of the news).    South Korea has gone and jumped into it, anyway, in reaction to the North's intemperance.  Ah, well…

Caveat: The Space Emperor, Drawn to the Dark Side

Our future Space Emperor, BHO, is clearly not afraid to disappoint his fans. Whether this represents cynicism or realpolitik, I find hard to judge. I really, really enjoyed Maureen Dowd’s recent mocking of the situation vis-a-vis Cheney: “Dick twinkles. ‘Yes, we can.'”
pictureIn other news, I collected all my retired (read, broken) plastic alligators and brought them to class today, because this is the last week of the Spring term. Here is a picture after the Eldorado2 kids had arranged them.
Notes for Korean

야경= night view
-스럽다 = to seem like
사랑스러운 = love-like ~ “lovely”
올리다=raise up, [and many other meanings, maybe “begin”?]


Caveat: Scooter

It seems I see more and more of these tricked out scooters. Scooters are everywhere, and always have been. But lately, there seems to be this influx of some kind of European or Japanese style high-end scooters. I saw a “Hello Kitty” themed pink scooter with a trendy-looking woman riding it, walking home from work the other night. And this thing was in the parking lot a block away, the other day.

Caveat: The Land of the Morning Suicide

So many people commit suicide in Korea.  They have a very high rate.  And famous people keep setting the example.  Today, it was the humuliated and profoundly unsuccessful former president, 노무현.  I'm of the personal opinion that he was at least somewhat better than the current president… that's largely due to ideological issues.  That there was corruption and gross incompetence in Roh's administration is undeniable.  But he entered politics as a human rights lawyer and activist, and I really feel that his intentions were genuine.  Somehow, I'm inclined to "read" his suicide as a confirmation of that.  Truly corrupt people (compunctionless types) feel no shame.  And no shame means no suicide.  The truly corrupt go and lurk in a fog of false righteousness.   But suicide is easy to "romanticize."  It can be manipulative, too.  So… who knows.

He threw himself off a cliff near his home village.  He left a note — no ambiguity.  He'd been in the midst of being investigated (or prosecuted?) for corruption charges.  I guess he just didn't want to deal with it anymore.

Caveat: Alas, Robuckle

It was a pretty rough week.  Not so much in the quantity of work, but in the ups and downs of the affective environment at LBridge.  There was the announcement, mid-week, that there will be layoffs, campus closings, etc.  Though not impacting me directly, obviously the mood in the staff room has taken a beating.  And today the rumors began to surface that teaching loads would be way up, next term.  Which is logical, but no more welcome, for all that. 

And there were deprecatory things muttered about "speaking teachers" (code for E2 visa-holding teachers as opposed to "natives") who have "easier jobs."  While I disagree with that, with regard to class load, I do acknowledge that not having to interact with the parents, as is required of the native teachers, definitely makes things a little bit easier.  I see how they struggle and suffer with the constant shifts in mood and policy (oh, there's a policy?), and of course, lack-of-support, on the part of management. 

But the thing that has me most depressed is the situation of a student of mine.  Not just mine… she's been in the Eldorado-ban (level) for a good portion of my time here.  Her English name, self-selected, is Clover.  I actually really have enjoyed having her in my class.  She's not a great intellect, and her English skills are spotty.  She's not a hardcore studier, and she's often moody.  She can be easily discouraged, and is too often comparing herself unfavorably to her peers.  The competition gets her down.  But… she could be a lot of fun, too.

One day, a month or two ago, I came in, and she announced, "today, I am Robuckle."  I said, "that's an interesting name.  I like it."  But I wanted to know where it came from.  She managed to explain, after jumping up to the board and drawing it out in Korean hangeul, that it was the consequence of playing a common language-game with the hangeulized version of "Clover."  This, of course, enchanted me – everyone, including my students, know about my love for all sorts of language games.

Here's how it works.  If you write "Clover" in Korean syllables, it comes to keul-lo-beo (클로버).  Then, according the rules of the language game, you put the first syllable last.  That gives lo-beo-keul (로버클).  But now the leading /L/ has been un-twinned, so it gets to become an /R/, according to standard Korean phonology.  That gives ro-beo-keul.  Finally, you un-hangeulize it back to something close to English phonology, and it sounds like "Robuckle."  Fabulous!

Clover enjoyed having made me so happy with such a silly thing.  So I enthusiastically endorsed the renaming of Clover as Robuckle.

Robuckle went back to being Clover a few weeks later, but after that, I always would grin to myself whenever I was scoring a paper of Robuckle's, or entering a grade, or whatever.  I'm easily and eccentrically pleased, I guess.

Anyway.  Clover's grades have been dropping quite a bit, of late.  And she got a terrible score on the speaking final speech.  She complained (via her mom, conveyed to the homeroom teacher, conveyed to me) that I had scored her unfairly.  And she became grumpy and taciturn in class.  Which of course caused her subsequent scores on things to drop, too.  I asked her, several times, to bring me the scoring sheet I had given her for the speaking final – I was open to renegotiating the score, or, even, letting her have another go at it.  But she was more interested in being angry about it.  She finally told me her mom "threw it away" (meaning the scoring paper), to get me to leave her alone about renegotiating the grade.

The other day, she apparently complained to her mom that she "hated" all of her teachers at LBridge.  Which is fine.  Such complaining is the god-given right of every adolescent.  But she alleged that we all hated her, too, and that we were unfair to her.  Such complaints come from children everywhere, all the time.  But the problem in the hagwon biz, where the parents are the paying customers… well, you can imagine: I've written about this dilemma at least once before.  The management is just as likely to side with the kid as with the teachers, especially if the kid in question is being unequivocably backed by his or her parent.

The outcome of this is that Clover's homeroom teacher got a dressing-down today by the manager, for not intercepting Clover's problems, and for being unfair, and for not mediating her perceptions of unfairness of her other teachers, such as myself.  And that left Clover's homeroom teacher pissed as hell, naturally.  At Clover.  At Clover's mom.  At the manager.  And Clover is, most likely, dropping out.  And Clover's sister, a star pupil across the street at the middle-school branch, is being pulled, also.  Officially, it's all the fault of us teachers. 

You see how this works?  It's depressing.

And despite all that, I'll miss Clover, too.  Her unkempt hair, her occasional wry grin, her sullen slouch, that baseball cap permanently affixed to her head, her flashes of real intelligence shining through the murk of atrocious syntax.

Alas, Robuckle.

Caveat: Evocations

It's weird how bits of music get attached to particular memories, and most significantly, for me, to specific texts.  It's not always a matter of, "that's what I was listening to when I read X."  Of course, sometimes it is, too.  Peter Gabriel's track "Mercy Street" was playing as I read the concluding paragraphs of Cien Años de Soledad, and whenever I hear that song, I inevitably think of that book.  More broadly, Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman album will always, strangely, connect with LeGuin's Earthsea novels, because that album was on heavy rotation when I read those novels way back in junior high.  Tracks of New Order and Depeche Mode moodily — appropriately, perhaps — evoke Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, as I had those on my playlist (at that time a cassette-playing walkman clone of some kind) when I was reading those very "heavy" books during my complex, often very depressed time serving in the US Army, and stationed at Camp Edwards in Paju, Korea.

Perhaps more peculiar are the connections between Kraftwerk or the Psychadelic Furs and Shakespeare and Melville.  But such connections are really solid, because altogether they represent my second year in college, when I was flirting with being an English major.  Still other evocations are downright bizarre, and less direct.  I almost always think of Jose Donoso when I hear Silvio Rodriguez's Playa Giron album, but the connection is basically because of the song "Santiago," which connects on subject matter to my 1994 visit (a winter week in August — Southern Hemisphere, remember?) in Santiago.  I was reading Donoso, despite the fact that I didn't have any kind of sound track with me at the time.

Perhaps the strangest evocation hit me today, as I was walking to work in the pouring rain.  Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans" played on my MP3, and I thought of Ayn Rand.  That's just plain crazy… but it happens every single time.  I also tend to think about the murals of Diego Rivera.  The connection is actually rather abstract – it's not like I was listening to Arlo Guthrie as I read Atlas Shrugged, all those years ago when I was living in Mexico City.  I think it's got to do with the sort of populist (anti-intellectualist?) "exaltation of the hard-working craftsman" that thematically unifies those artists, despite their stunning ideological differences.

Caveat: Thanks, Evolution

“Evolution is good at getting us to avoid death, desperation and celibacy, but it’s not that good at getting us to feel happy,” – Dr Geoffrey Miller, quoted in the New York Times May 18, 2009.

Notes for Korean
한국어를 잘 못 해서 죄송해요 = I'm sorry I can't speak Korean well
동경 = donggyeong, means Tokyo (literally, "eastern capital", thus it's a translation of the name, rather than a transliteration… interesting, I saw it in an advertisement)


Caveat: Apocalypse hagwon

The first hagwon (a Korean for-profit, after-school academy – think "night school for elementary kids") that I worked for was called Tomorrow School.  I was under the impression that it was pretty successful, but it was a small, single-location, "mom and pop" business.  The owners, Danny and Diana, showed either a lot of market savvy or else had a lot of luck in selling it when they did – basically, they jumped out at the top of the market, as far as I can tell.  So, after my first four months, Tomorrow School was purchased by a rapidly growing chain of hagwon being built by LinguaForum corporation.

LinguaForum was not, originally, a hagwon business but rather a significant publishing house of language-teaching materials.  I had the somewhat vague impression that they were building the chain of hagwon mostly to function as a sort of "lab school" environment in which to develop, test and promote their textbooks and teaching materials.  In that respect, I liked them, because they showed a great deal of methodological sophistication in terms of their higher-level curriculum design and intentions.  But they were new to the hagwon business, and their on-the-ground execution was pretty weak.  I don't think they had a clue how to actually manage, capitalize, and compete in Korea's private after-school-academy market.

So, after taking on too much debt by growing too fast (mostly through acquisitions of mom and pop single-location hagwon like Tomorrow School), LinguaForum decided to abandon the field.  They tried to arrange some kind of complex cross-investing relationship with LBridge company, which was a successful and growing but well-established local player in the Ilsan area hagwon market.  I'm under the impression that more than one of the terms of the deal fell through, and neither LBridge nor LinguaForum were happy with the outcome.

Nevertheless, the consequence was that last July, LBridge acquired my contract from LinguaForum.  Unfortunately, management flat-footedness (in the form of no small amount of arrogance, among other things) meant that although the LinguaForum hagwon chain ceased to exist (the parent publishing house remains), only about half the teachers and barely 10% of the student body tranferred over.  I have the unconfirmed suspicion that the failed deal was bad, financially, for LBridge.

All of that, combined with the slumping economy (although, as I've mentioned before, South Korea, relative to other OECD countries, is doing quite well) and an intensely competitive hagwon business environment with lots of consolidation, cutthroat student poaching, etc., means that LBridge now finds itself it somewhat dire straits.  Yesterday, it was announced to staff that there will be layoffs, campus closings, and shrinking teaching "teams" in the coming Summer term.  I don't think I'm directly affected… my current understanding is that they're going to let my contract run out as written to the end of August.  But end-of-contract "bonuses" are imperiled, apparently, and Korean staff (i.e. those who are working here as Korean citizens rather than under work visas, regardless of native language) are deeply and justifiably concerned about job security. 

Enrollments have definitely been shrinking.  There have been lots of complaints about the difficulty of the curriculum – yet, last fall, there were complaints about the lightness of it.  To keep changing the curriculum in response to the tides of parental sentiment is a little bit of an unwinnable battle.  You've got to adopt a curriculum and methodology, and stick with it.  LBridge definitely has proven poor at this. 

Mostly, however, it seems to me that success in the hagwon biz is about building and managing relationships with kids and, of course, parents.  And my gut feeling is that LBridge is TERRIBLE at this.   Unlike Tomorrow School or LinguaForum, LBridge leaves the major portion of the parent-relationship-management problem to the front-line teachers.  While philosophically this may be a good idea, the fact that the management provides precisely zero training or support to the teachers who they throw into this role means that LBridge sets itself up for failure.  The fact is that they basically treat their staff like wage-slaves rather than professionals (i.e. things like a lack of respect, a distrust of teachers' abilities to manage their own time, etc.), yet they think they're being clever by having their front-line people be the ones in charge of interacting with parents.   You can see the mistake, here, I think.  The parents, after all, are the paying customers.  You don't want disgruntled and untrained staff being the ones who manage your customer relationships.

To connect this crisis to a business I know fairly well, it is like those tech companies that rely on their technical people to manage customer relationships.  This, as we all know, rarely works.  You need customer-relationship-management specialists – commonly known as salespeople.  That's how for-profit business works.  Far be it from me to parrot the likes of the Harvard Business Review, but it seems to me self-evident that in successful companies, intelligent and hard-working salespeople and marketers drive quality and innovation, and then the technical people make it happen behind the scenes, where they can murmur and grumble to their hearts' content.  In the hagwon biz, that means having dedicated "parent-relationship-management" specialists, I think. 

Danny, the owner of the Tomorrow School, understood this intuitively:  he did almost nothing but focus on interacting with the parents, as far as I could tell, leaving the day-to-day management of his business to his wife Diana, and the classroom execution was left to the teachers from whom he expected a great deal of self-reliance and innovation (which is to say that, despite my complaints at the time – see my blog from a year and a half ago – he actually treated his workers more professionally than I've seen at LBridge… we always see things more clearly in retrospect, right?). 

Caveat: You never asked

No three words make me angrier and more prone to stereotype Korean management negatively than those three:  "you never asked."   At least today, they weren't directed at me.  I have yet to have a long-term interaction with a Korean manager (or even aspiring manager) who hasn't at some point used those words with me or with some other underling.  It comes in response to statements such as "I didn't know…" or "no one told me…" 

Frankly, in my opinion, those words, "you never asked," are always and inevitably a complete cop-out on the part of a presumed manager of people.  I liken it to teaching:  do you wait for children to "ask" to be helped?  to be corrected?  to have some error pointed out to them?  no… you must be proactive, when teaching.   And managers must be teachers.

I know many will say, but… what about cultural differences?  What about Korea's pervasive hierarchicalism and Confucian values?  Is it possible such things interfere with being a proactive, teaching manager?  On the contrary!  Unless I have radically misunderstood the core confucian value system, part of the tradeoff for all that filial respect (etc., etc.) is that the elders are supposed to "mentor" the juniors.    That is, they are supposed to be caring, even nurturing, teachers.  So when Korean manager types fall back on the "you never asked" excuse, they are not only being bad managers in the western way of things, but they're being damn bad confucians, as well.   Or have I really misunderstood things that badly? 

Don't wait for the people you manage to fall on their faces, don't wait for them to make mistakes, and then, when they fail, shoot a scathing "you never asked" at them.  This doesn't help.  It damages them, and it damages your enterprise, too.   Identify possible points of failure, just like with the children you're supposed to be teaching, and proactively show them how to solve the problem.  Uh, well… many Koreans don't really manage their classrooms that way, either.   They don't explain how to do things… they expect the kids to figure it out, and then flunk, berate, and punish the kids for failing to do so.  

Does this maybe teach a degree of emotional self-sufficiency?  Is there a positive side to it all?  I can't imagine there is, but perhaps I am wrong.  And it is entirely possible that there IS something confucian in saying to the failing student:  "you never asked."  Something I just don't quite GET.

Caveat: Beat the keyboard

"The piano is easy to play.  Beat the keyboard."  – Shaina, 5th grade.  And here, all this time, I thought it was difficult.  That it required some kind of finesse.  Maybe I should give it a try. 

I found a phrase that just drove me nuts: 
우리학원을 오시려면 이렇게 오세요

The breakdown, as far as I can figure out:
우리학원을  =our school+[OBJ]
이렇게 = being thus+[-LY] ("thusly")

So, from all that:
if your honorable self might come to our school, come like this [i.e. here are some directions for getting here? or, i.e. come "as you are"?]

Meanwhile, babelfish alleged:
"Our school five cotton come coldly like this"

Hahaha.  Never trust babelfish.  That looks like it should be on a tshirt, though.

Other Korean Vocab:
회원 = member

셀프입니다 = self serve (this is konglish sel-peu =self with a deferential be-verb ending)

금상=gold (first) prize

은상=silver (second) prize
장려상="honorable mention" prize
상담실=conference room 
여름휴가=summer holiday

Caveat: Still Grumpy.

I'm still grumpy.  I spent the day feeling resentful about my language struggles, instead of doing something about it.  And I have a long week ahead of me.

More later, then…

Caveat: Frustrated

I have been feeling increasingly annoyed and frustrated with myself.  I've been in Korea for 20 months.  I was here a year, before that, in 1991.  I still haven't learned but the barest modicum of Korean language.

I spent 16 months in Mexico, when I was twenty, and bootstrapped myself into near-fluency.  I'm willing to acknowledge all the differences:  difference in age, difference in personal attitude and outlook, difference in the "luck" of my work situation and friendships (in Mexico) or lack thereof (in Korea).  But it still angers me that I can't seem to make anything even close to the same progress with this language.

I'm a fundamentally shy person.  That doesn't help.  I'm 20 years older, which is a handicap for both reason of brain chemistry as well as for reasons of culture:  Korea's ageism is profound and pervasive, and it seems to make building friendships even harder than they would otherwise be for me.

I'm really sad and depressed about learning Korean, right now.  I often make excuses, but it is, at core, the main reason I came here.  So what gives?  Why can't I?  I blame my laziness.  I feel guilty whenever I don't study, or when linguistic anxiety prevents me from taking on a challenging situation.  I feel guilty constantly, about it.  And feeling guilty doesn't help, either. 

I have a student who, in the bottom left of her paper, almost always writes:  "If you smile, you will be happy."  I assume this is a sort of motto or pep-talk to herself.  But I need to do something with it, too.  Still… that doesn't make learning Korean any easier, either.

Caveat: Delusions

Good to see a lolcat is getting thoughtful about life, the universe, and everything.

Caveat: Tacuba, DF, 1986

En la Ciudad de México, yo vivía en la entonces llamada Colonia Revolución (que hoy en día se llama Colonia Tabacaleros, no sé por qué). Quedaba a la vuelta del Metro Revolución, también a unas tres cuadras del monumento.
pictureMis amigos Tony y Aura vivían en Tacuba, y era bastante fácil salir de mi trabajo, después terminar mis deberes, y meterme en la línea azul del metro para subir hacia Metro Tacuba en la misma línea. Creo que un día, en alrededores del agosto o setiembre, una tarde lluviosa, salí del Metro Tacuba y emprendé la caminata de 5 minutos para donde la casa de ellos en la calle Lago Ontario (todas las calles del barrio de Tacuba llevan nombres de mares y lagos, si me acuerdo).
Habían todos los vendedores ambulantes de todo el menudeo que se encontraba en cualquier estación del metro, y me fijé en un LP (un album disco de vinilo, ya desaparecida aquella tecnología) del grupo Dream Academy. En el disco, había la canción Life in a Northern Town, que se tocaba en la radio top 40 de la época.  Es una canción bastante sentimental, pero en aquel entonces, me gustaba. Por alguna razón, compré el disco.
Llegado ya a la casa de la puerta azul en la Lago Ontario, me puse a abrir el disco, porque Tony y Aura tenían un tocadiscos.  Resultó que el disco sobraba de imperfecciones, con que al tocarlo, se oía un ligero accelerar-decelerar del ritmo de la música. En mi propía casa, faltaba de tocadiscos, así que me dediqué a grabar el disco allá donde Tony y Aura en un casete que podría escuchar en mi Walkman.
Durante muchos años, tenía esta grabación entre mi collección de casetes. Habiendo grabado el album del disco imperfecto, llegué a imaginar que las imperfecciones rítmicas de las canciones eran todo lo natural. Hace dos o tres años, compre un CD del mismo album, de que después hice un rip para trasladarlo a mi computadora.  Y de ahí, a mi MP3.
Ayer, caminando hacia el trabajo acá en Corea, salió la canción “Life in a Northern Town” (por Dream Academy) en el albedrío de mi MP3. Me puse a recordar aquella tarde en Tacuba, entre las lluvias veranales del gran valle de México.  Sin embargo, la canción parecía imperfecta, por faltar de las imperfecciones grabadas hace tanto tiempo.
Lo que escucho en este momento.

Dream Academy, “Life In A Northern Town.”
[youtube embed added 2011 as part of of background noise.]

Caveat: Ellison’s Sun, Rising or Setting…

I've been contemplating Oracle's proposed takeover of Sun Microsystems.   As an erstwhile programmer, I'm concerned about Oracle's ability to be faithful to Sun's many relatively "open" software infrastructure undertakings:  the Java programming language, OpenOffice, and, most importantly, MySQL, which has been a direct competitor of Oracle's core database products.

I don't trust Oracle to stay committed to any of these product lines.  The best case scenario would involve them spinning them off, somehow, but if I'm guessing correctly, it was for these "periferal" lines-of-business that Oracle decided to take on Sun in the first place — the hardware line that most analysts view as the central part of Sun's business is both shrinking, and uninteresting to Larry Ellison's empire-building schemes. 

As a shareholder (I own a tiny number of shares in each company), I'm more sanguine.  It means I don't have to fear a bankruptcy by Sun (which seemed possible, especially after the failed IBM bid), and I can therefore recover at least some of my invested value  in that company.  And Oracle has a good record of profitably absorbing other businesses.

Oracle will struggle more with Sun than many of its previous acquisitions, due not least to that hardware business, but I expect there's a very good chance they will figure out how to make money from the whole deal, eventually.  Oracle is stunningly good at manipulating their long-term revenue streams and cross-selling products.

After all, it was my experience as an IT worker of a major Oracle customer that convinced me they were a good stock to own – those people sell some of the most well-marketed vaporware in the world of ERP applications.  And I don't really mean vaporware negatively – all major ERP systems are basically vaporware at the moment of sale:  those kinds of million-dollar sales are little more than a handshake that says, "we will build what you need."

Caveat: Ambiguous

Most of the time, Korean t-shirts are funny because they don’t make sense. But Steven’s shirt was funny because it was exactly right:  it suited his personality perfectly.

Caveat: 장수에 주말 여행했어요

On Saturday at 12 o’clock my friend Curt called me and asked if I wanted to accompany him to his home town, Jangsu, for a quick overnight trip. He had to go down for a “family meeting” and many relatives would be there. “It will be an adventure for you,” he commented.
I felt spontaneous, and said, “sure!” I met him at his hagwon at around 5:30, but at the last minute his daughter (who is 8) decided she wanted to come along, so we had to go collect her, and then he forgot to take a computer that he was going to give to his sister, so we had to drive back to the hagwon and get that. The result was that we didn’t get on the road until around 7:30.
The traffic wasn’t too bad driving down – most people who flee Seoul on the weekends do so earlier on Saturday, is my guess. We arrived at his home village at around 1 AM. The moon was full and the air was already summery, although fairly dry.
Koreans like to sleep in hot, stuffy homes, as far as I can determine, and Curt’s family homestead was no exception. But I was tired and slept soundly, and was awoken at 6AM sharp by the rapid, nonstop Korean of Curt’s mother’s voice. She is in her 70’s, but seems quite healthy and strong-spirited, like any good Korean matron.  She kept a running commentary the entire day. Curt, at one point, observed with a wry deference that his mother “loves to talk.”  I was enjoying the language input, without understanding more than a small amount. I perhaps would have tired of it, had I understood more, but as it was, it was just like being tuned to a Korean talk-radio station, but with all sorts of contextual clues to make it on the edge-of-comprehensible.
We did a small sightseeing drive at around 7 AM, to see the new dam that rose above his old village. Here is a picture I took looking down from the dam into the valley – the village proper is in the foreground, and the family compound is just out of sight among the alfalfa fields behind the trees in the lower left.
We walked around and I took some pictures of the family using both their camera and mine. Keep in mind, this is not the whole clan – just those who happened to come along on the sightseeing drive: Curt, his older sister, his daughter, his niece, and his mother.
After that, we drank some coffee back at the house, as more people showed up. Then at around nine, everyone went down to the restaurant that’s along the stream at the village turnoff at the main highway (highway 19). There were some 50 relatives there, quickly and systematically eating a typical Korean breakfast: rice, several kimchis (including a delicious and memorable cucumber kimchi I’d never tasted before), fish, other vegetable side-dishes, and a thin broth-type soup with some slices of what I thought was potato in it. After the breakfast there was to be the “family meeting.”
Curt snuck away to smoke a cigarette beforehand, and hinted that I might want to go do something else (which was a polite way of saying I wasn’t invited, I suppose – I wasn’t offended). Here is a picture of the spot behind the restaurant by the stream and the highway across the stream, where we talked.
So I walked back across the fields to the house. The house was swarming with children, who had no interest in practicing English with me (and who can blame them?), but they also seemed befuddled and frustrated by my poor Korean. I felt like I was embedded in a Kafka novel, for a while: lots of talking, but no communication whatsoever. One of the girls took my camera, and this is a picture I found in it later.
Eventually, feeling exhausted by the language-overload, I went on a walk. I went into the village and looked at the Buddhist temple complex there – apparently Curt’s father, who passed away in 2007, had been a major philanthropist in the restoration and expansion of the temple. Here is a view approaching the temple, and another showing the intricate woodwork and painting on one of the buildings.
Finally, the family meeting down at the restaurant was over, and Curt came and found me strolling around the village, along the river below the dam behind the temple complex.  “Do you want to come while I pay my respects to my father?” “Sure,” I agreed, amenably. I didn’t want to intrude or be the uncomfortable foreigner in what was no doubt an intimate and personal thing, but I was dreading spending the next several hours waiting for him with nothing structured to do.
The drive to his father’s grave was quite long, unexpectedly. Almost an hour, as he is interred at a veterans cemetery southwest of Imsil, which is some ways west of Jangsu.  We passed over a winding mountain road and into a much wider, more populated valley to get there.  Curt placed a lighted cigarette on his father’s grave.  “He loved to smoke,” he said.  He poured a bit of Soju onto the grass, and his sister placed a plate with some fruit on the grave stone.  Curt and his sister bowed deeply to the grave, and then his mother also bowed to her late husband.
After the ceremony, and after making sure it was OK, I took a picture of Curt standing by his father’s grave.  He was teary and emotional. I felt awkward, and stayed mostly quiet, during the first part of the drive back to the house at Jangsu. We went back a different way, through Namwon and along a bit of the “88 Olympic Expressway” which reminded me in terms of feel and scenery of those odd, depression-era, two-lane tollways that snake around parts of Appalachia in Kentucky or West Virginia.
Returned to the house, we had a very quick but homemade lunch.  I especially liked the fried dubu (tofu) and kimchi – much better than restaurant varieties. And then it was suddenly over.  After some lounging around watching Korean music videos and listening to the grandmother lecture the granddaughters about who-knows-what, Curt, his daughter and I said our goodbyes and were back on the road at around 3 PM – although I embarrassed myself with some incorrect Korean in trying to say “nice to have met you.” I think I may have said something like, “That [romantic] date went well,” if it meant anything at all. But it wasn’t a date, was it?

Caveat: Roadtrip

Very spontaneously, my friend Curt called yesterday and invited me along on a drive with him down to his hometown in Jangsu (near Namwon, in Jeollabuk province). It’s a 4-6 hour drive, depending on traffic (we managed about 5 hours down, not counting time to go back to his hagwon for something he forgot).
So, I met his family, ate a lot, and saw a very different, rural part of Korea, all in a whirlwind that got me back home tonight at 10 pm. Just as it was starting to rain.  I’ll write some more details later… I’m feeling exhausted, partly because after getting in very late last night we all rose at the crack of dawn this morning.  It was a kind of annual family reunion (“family meeting” he termed it).
So, my thought for this evening, after a total of 12 hours in the car in just around 28 hours, is only this: tollway rest areas are roughly the same everywhere in the world. See picture.

Caveat: blade haaku

I was surfing wikipedia, and as usual gravitating to language-geek-appealing things.  I was reading about the Kannada language – a Dravidian language of west-central India.  And there was a list of interesting phrases, and I found that included "Blade haaku – to talk at length to an uninterested listener."  Every language needs a phrase that means this!

It might be a good name for a blog, too.  This blog?  I don't know.  I definitely have the strong gut feeling that most of the time, I am, in fact, talking at length to an uninterested listener.  But anyway, life goes on, right? 

Caveat: Book of Endings

In trying to understand Korean, it's all about the endings, I've decided.

Sometimes it seems that the Korean language boils down to:  tens of thousands of nouns (seemingly mostly borrowed from Chinese or English), a few hundred verbs, a couple dozen pronouns and fossilized adverbs, and all the rest is endings, endings, endings.  Endings.

The endings can change nouns to verbs, verbs to nouns, verbs to adjectives, verbs to adverbs and adnominals, etc., etc.  Verb endings convey social status of speaker, listener, subject and object, as well as mood, degrees of certainty, connectivity, causality, tense, etc.  Other endings convey noun roles in sentences (subject, object, topic, etc.), the peculiar configurations of counted things (flat, round, mechanical, etc.), and so much more!. 

But the problem is, endings are hard to look up.  My best resource is the pretty-good index in the book, Korean Grammar for International Learners.  But there are so many variations on the endings, that sometimes the index falls short.  I have to go guessing and fishing around.  A lot of time, endings just stay mysterious. 

What's needed is a "Book of Endings" to help learners make sense of it all.  Maybe some kind of novel organization on the basis of "hangul order" but from the ends of words?  Or a website with the ability to look things up.  The online dictionaries sometimes parse endings if you type in whole forms, and will lead you to roots, but they don't let you figure out the endings themselves. 

Just over the last few days, here some endings I've run across and tried to make sense of.

-서 subordinating causal connector, meaning "… V so … V"

-면 subordinating conditional connector, meaning "if/when … subV … mainV "
when it is followed by 좋다 as a main verb (좋아요 (pres) / 좋겠어요 (future) / 좋았어요 (past)), it indicates "wish, hope"

-고 coordinating connector ("and"), but also
-고 싶다 "I/you want to …"
-고 싶어하다 "he/she/they want to"
-고 있다 progressive

-ㄴ / -는 the wonderful relativizer of anything (ie. adjective-o-matic — I tend to think of it as a past/present participle, but that's not really how it works)

-ㄹ 것같다 "… looks like…"

-ㄹ까요 propositive "shall we…?" "do you think we should…?";  opinion "do you think that…?"; used also for presenting alternatives

Some other phrases
사람들이 많아요 "there are many people"

바쁜데요 "[I'm sorry] I'm busy" (sorriness conveyed by the -ㄴ데- ending)

My friend Mark said in a recent email that it looked like I was gaining fluency in Korean.  No way.  So far to go…

Caveat: Koreagraphy

I had a student write “Koreagraphy – study Korea” for the vocabulary word (said out loud) “choreography.” I thought that was clever.
I’m feeling very scattered, lately. Today is a holiday: 어린이날 = Children’s Day.  Pues, ¡feliz cinco de mayo!
The children were out in force, and being spoiled hither and yon, all over Seoul. I’ve never seen so many hyperactive children using public transportation. It was sunny and summery. I went on another long walk (as I suggested I might try to do, in my execrable Korean post from yesterday). And I came home, turned on my fancy new fan, and got crazy/creative in my little kitchen.
Always dangerous. I started out with a plan to make some stir-fry rice (bokkeumbap) but ended up using very unconventional ingredients: to the Korean standards (rice, onion, garlic, sesame seeds, red pepper) in some olive oil, I threw in peanuts, curry powder, dried cranberries, and in a moment of inspiration, half a can of pre-cooked lentils that I’d found at Homeplus a week or so back. Delicious.
Okay, then.  Here’s a picture taken during my wanderings the other day:  a view from the Guri subway station.

Caveat: 블로그!

내일은 어린이날이에요. 재가 일할 필요없어요. 어쩌면 다시 긴 산책할 거예요. 이번 저녁에 파스타를 먹고 있고 맛있어요. 그리고 음악을 들어요. 한국어를 연습하기 위하여 저는 이것을 쓰고 있어요.
A random picture from a bus ride: the National Assembly (legislature) building on 여의도 (Yeouido Island).

Caveat: What Recession?

South Korea is definitely struggling a little bit.  But not a day goes by when I don't see some news item that seems to indicate that, at least so far, they're weathering things pretty well here, compared to many places.  Of course, many "developing" countries seem to be handling this thing better than the "developed" ones, which lends some credence to my periodic casual assertion that despite its apparent prosperity, its membership in the OECD, etc., South Korea is still, at heart, a developing country.

The evidence today was more direct, if entirely subjective.  I've been doing a lot of random-bus-riding.  Well, not entirely random.  But bravely just getting on buses to see where they take me.  Today I ended up in Yeongdeungpo on a #9706, and then after walking around some, I took a subway to Gangnam.  And there, lo and behold, there was a new Starbucks opening up, near the Nonhyeon subway station.  Here I thought Starbucks was closing hundreds (even thousands) of stores, worldwide, to try to survive the recession.  But not in Gangnam.  Brand new Starbucks… only blocks away from two other Starbucks I've been to.  I mean… as a shareholder, I have to go, don't I?  Hah.  Well, anyway.  New Starbucks.

I studied Korean for a while, and then I read the most recent copy of the Economist and finally took yet another random bus back home.  I had to stand the whole trip, which made me remember traveling in Mexico, where I remember at least once standing for an eight hour bus trip from DF to Morelia. 

Caveat: Goyang City Limits; Happy Birthday, Buddha

I went on a really long walk. North from Ilsan to the edge of the Goyang Municipality (Ilsan is just a borough, or district, within Goyang City). I took some pictures, and then rode the #90 bus back. The bus was very crowded, because today is Buddha’s Birthday – everyone is going somewhere else.
Here is a road disappearing into the newly tilled rice paddies:
Here is a view of Geumchon in the afternoon haze (or actually, a fog was maybe rolling in off the Yellow Sea – the breeze smelled vaguely of salt):

Back to Top