Caveat: Oh, so that’s what he’s doing…

I’ve always suspected that Kim Jeong-il had a secret life in Ilsan. It’s such a modern, prosperous and exciting city, and it’s well within tunnelling distance of North Korea. He could have his troops put in a new, 15 km tunnel and pop out right at WesternDom (a big mall). There’s great shopping, multiplexes, good hospitals and the giant KINTEX convention center. Beautiful parks, museums (included the famous Korean Toilet Museum, never to be missed) and sports facilities.

Finally, my friend Peter found evidence of Kim Jeong-il’s secret: in the form of a business card he found lying on a sidewalk. It turns out Dear Leader Kim is moonlighting as a nightclub representative. This is a perfect job – he’s got the looks, he’s got the wide network of influential people, not to mention, he’s got “muscle.” The nightclub is a chain called “Shampoo.” With a club name like “Shampoo,” he’s got the hair for it, too. Wow, maybe he owns the whole chain? He could integrate it with his network of spies and tunnels.

Below is a photo of the business card in question.  The name says Kim Jeong Il, of course.

Caveat: Rule of Law

I think "rule of law" is important. 

I have been depressed and alarmed, of late, by the number of offers for illegal employment.  I realize that this is an endemic problem in Korea, and I will acknowledge that the often inconsistent and bizarre application of the poorly designed laws that surround employment of foreigners in Korea probably encourages the practices in question.

But it's just frustrating.  I think one area where Korea's made so much progress in recent decades is in "cleaning up" its reputation for corruption.   It's part of what has led to its remarkable growth and new-found prosperity, too.  Although that's an unsubstantiated opinion. 

Basically, people find out I'm looking for a job, and they make offers for me to teach English (as a tutor or as a classroom teacher) in exchange for cash – without getting a regular work visa and without participating in the formal economy.  On the one hand, my sympathy for the situation of "illegal immigrants" in the US causes me to question my own discomfort with these sorts of arrangements, but I worry a great deal that the Korean immigration authorities are sufficiently competent that if I were ever to be caught, their system of deportation and blacklisting for illegal workers would essentially ban me for life from Korea – I like it here too much to want that to happen.

But there's a broader philosophical concern:  I truly believe in the importance of rule of law.  I'm not going to make the outrageous claim that I'm a 100% law-abiding citizen.  Clearly not.  There are the occasional downloads.  The jaywalking.  The 10 miles-an-hour over-the-speed-limit.  And, when traveling in Latin America, things get much more problematic than that, very quickly.  I've paid bribes to border officials in Central America, for example.  And to cops in Mexico, in the 80's.  Most famously, in my own life, is the fact that my work in Mexico in the 80's was irregular – it was, essentially, the "gringo's revenge," because I was an illegal immigrant in Mexico, working a hotel job without visa or paperwork.

These are part of existing in societies made of imperfect laws.  But, in general, I feel badly about these violations.  I make rationalizations about why they've occured.  I suppose, I could easily make rationalizations about working illegally in Korea, if it came to that.   But I really think that one should make at least some degree of effort to "follow the rules" even when they appear illogical and inconsistent – as Korea's immigration and work-permitting processes so clearly do.

It's one thing to race across the street between crosswalks late at night when the light refuses to change.  It's another, somehow, to take envelopes of cash from people who feel their government places undue restriction on their ability to hire "foreigners."  Maybe the difference has to do with where the petty violations become unduly wrapped up in financial gain – something like the difference between illegal downloading for personal use, which feels OK, and illegal downloading for financial gain, which feels wrong.  Is this irrational?  Probably.  But it's pretty much the way I seem to draw the line, in my own mind.

Caveat: Mole poblano en Osan

He encontrado un nuevo amigo acá en Suwon.  Es un coreano hispanohablante, que parece ser una clase de persona tan rara como un gringo coreanohablante, por ejemplo.  Parece que se ha afiliado conmigo porque se dio cuenta de que yo podría ofrecerle oportunidades de practicar el español.  No siempre hablamos español, porque siente más cómodo en inglés.  También, me brinda lecciones en coreano con mucha paciencia. 

Anoche me llamó y anunció que querría invitarme a cenar en un restorán mexicano que conoce.   Entonces, fuimos manejando casi 40 minutos, partiendo directamente hacia el sur de Suwon, para llegar en la ciudad de Osan.  Lo interesante de Osan es que es una ciudad donde se ubica una de las bases más grandes estadounidenses en toda Corea.  Me acuerdo haber pasado una noche allí en 1991.  Por esta razón, hay muchas tropas estadounidenses residentes en el pueblo, y hay muchos comercios orientados al negocio con estos extranjeros.  Así, se explica la presencia de un restorán mexicano, bastante auténtico (digamos según un estandar norteamericano si no según un estandar mexicano puro).

Comimos una cena temprana de sopes y mole poblano, y tomamos horchata.  Pareció un milagro, poder hacer esto en Osan, Corea.  La comida era bastante bien, aunque el mole era un poco débil, probablemente para mejor adaptarse al gusto de las tropas gringas más que por acomodarse al gusto de los coreanos.

Tuve la oportunidad de hablar con el cocinero, un verdadero mexicano chilango de Ecatepec, bastante amigable si no tan entusiasmado de su estadía en Corea.  Me explicó que al terminar su contrato, volvería a México, pero que la oportunidad de vivir en un país extranjero "tan extranjero" como Corea había sido muy interesante.

Después de nuestra cena, exploramos la ciudad de Osan un poquito, y finalmente volvimos a Suwon.  A las once, mas o menos, comimos otra cena más ligera, como es la costumbre coreana en noches sociales, de 회 (sashimi, pescado crudo). 

Igual con casi todos los coreanos que he tenido la oportunidad de conocer, este nuevo amigo mio tiene un sinfín de conceptos difusos sobre posibilidades de futuros negocios, en el campo de intercambios interenacionales de jovenes y agencias de empleo para extranjeros en corea.  Incluso, me quiere reclutar como partner de negocios.  Siempre hay que aguantar tal clase de vagos ofrecimientos, porque Corea parece ser un reino de entrepreneurs frustrados.  No me molesta de ninguna manera, aunque a veces tengo que cuidar mi cinismo.

Aquel fue mi noche vagamente mexicanizada.  Hoy, vuelvo al estudio del idioma coreano.  Estudia, estudia, estudia!  파이팅!

Caveat: Institutionalized Infantalism

Like most, I'm disappointed with Obama.  It's hard for me to explain why or how – I actually didn't have as high hopes for him as so many of his supporters apparently did.  I saw him as a consummate politician, an insider, and viewed the rhetoric of hope and change as nothing more than that:  rhetoric.  Still, even in that light, I feel dismayed.

A recent blog entry by Jason Linkins at Huffington Post perhaps expressed my frustrations fairly clearly.  He wrote:

I'm particularly struck by the way this proposal [the 3-year spending freeze on certain symbolic sectors of the federal budget] marks a return to the institutionalized infantilism that so defined the Bush presidency. One of the most significant things that Obama promised to do during the campaign was to simply level with the American people — deal with them in straightforward fashion, tell the hard truths, make the tough choices, and go about explaining his decisions as if he were talking to adults. But this plan is so lacking in fundamental seriousness that it cannot be said to play any part of a mature exchange of ideas.

My primary optimism with respect to Obama was merely that he seemed quite intelligent and reasonably honest, and that would have been a nice change from the business-as-usual:  either intelligent or honest but never both in the same president, thank you.

It's almost as if somehow politcs will render otherwise honest people dishonest, or otherwise intelligent people stupid.  And thus it goes…

Caveat: 밥 먹었어요

I ate dinner.

A very Korean dinner. To start with, I went shopping at the market area east of the 팔달문 (Paldalmun, which is the south gate of the city wall), rather than at a 슈퍼 (shu-pa = supermarket).  I got three kinds of kimchi (regular, “white” and radish), I got some tiny dried fish that I still haven’t figured out what they’re called [update, 4 hours later: my friends Christine and Jinhee both made comments and told me what they’re called. 멸치 = myulchi, little dried anchovies. I’ll put a picture down at the bottom of this entry. Thanks!], I got 오뎅 (odeng = “fish sausage”) and a bag of polished (sticky) rice. Finally, I got some 김 (kim = “dried squares of seaweed”).

I came back to the kitchen at my guesthouse. I stir-fried some chopped onions with the odeng and a dash of salt. I cooked rice in the rice cooker.  I put my varieties of kimchi in tupperware buckets. And I sat down with the guesthouse owner-guy to a meal cooked rice, kimchi in containers, tiny fish, kim, and the bokkeum odeng wa yangpa, eating chopsticksfull of each thing from each container with the rice.

I’ve decided to stay in this guesthouse in Suwon. It’s terribly inconvenient, since my class is in Gangnam, but the rent here simply can’t be beat.  And the owner is really friendly without being overbearing. The regular nightly charge is only 20,000 won (around $18 at current exchange rates), but the owner gave me a 50% discount if I committed to staying a full month. That means less than $10 per night – cheaper than rent in a regular studio apartment anywhere in Seoul (and that would require a 1 year contract). There’s internet here, and a kitchen and all the basic necessities.  So even with the cost of the commute (about $5 per day round trip to Gangnam), it’s a pretty darn inexpensive living situation.

I can use the commute time to veg out or study or whatever. It’s about an hour on a direct Suwon-Gangnam bus (the #3000 is almost door-to-door, guesthouse to hagwon), or a slightly circuitous subway + bus takes about an hour and a half (but runs more frequently, so timing is less of an issue).
Finally, Suwon has grown on me a little bit, in its extraordinarily mercantile, unglamorous way – it’s kind of the polar opposite of the Beverly-Hills-like character of Gangnam. A nice antidote, as it were, at the close of each day’s studying.


Caveat: What, me worry?

So, the revanchist Globally Dynamic and Xenophobic Cosmopolis had a little border skirmish with their annoying revanchist neighbor, the Insanely Autarkic Hermit Kingdom, involving artillery and machine guns.  Oh… some 50 km northwest of Ilsan.  Two very different brothers, squabbling in the back seat of the car, over where the dividing line lies.

Is it scarier than living in Los Angeles?   Not really.

Caveat: Visionarily Fashionable

When you see it once, it's just someone being eccentric – or else they're having some kind of bad day, maybe.  When you see it twice, on the same block, it's two schoolgirls trying to make a statement.  When you see it a third time, down at Suwon Station, maybe it's a peculiar local trend.  But when you see it a fourth and fifth time, on the subway around Seoul, you realize it's an all-out fashion movement.

What's this, I'm seeing?  Women wearing heavy-framed plastic eyeglasses, generally high-end designer frames like Ray-Ban or DKNY, without lenses.  Personally, I think it looks cool, but it does strike me as a bit out there, as a fashion statement.  Most of the few comments out in the interwebs that I could find are overwhelmingly negative, attributing the behavior to "emo posers" and the like.  But… whatever.

Caveat: 컴퓨터&효성

My friend text-messaged me the above, saying he’d seen it as a name for a 학원 [hagwon].  It means:  “Computer & Filial Piety.”  Which, in and of itself, just about summarizes the weird tensions in Korean society between old and new, East and West, etc., etc., and all that trite cliche stuff that’s nevertheless totally going on.
I wonder what the classes are like, there?  Is it like a Confucian-style computer-literacy school?  Or is it computer-based Confucian moral education?  Or a little of both?  Or is it just a cool sounding name, and has nothing to do with curriculum or teaching philosophy?  Hmm… I’d vote for that last one, based on my personal experience.  Maybe there’s neither a PC nor an analect in sight.

Caveat: Full-time Student

Well, my class doesn't start until Monday, but I've been contemplating what I'm attempting.  I've been worrying about my ability to really, truly, single-mindedly pursue this.  I always approach things so dilettanteishly, in life.  In fact, I've made a bit of a positive personal philosophy out of being a dilettante in many fields rather than an expert in any one subject.

All of which is to say, I'm actually feeling a bit terrified at the prospect of trying to be a full-time student, with virtually nothing else on my agenda, and no excuses not to study.  Even if it's only a one-month commitment.  Well.  We shall see.

I just barely placed out of the absolute beginning level on the placement test at the hagwon I'll be attending.  I would have been slightly mortified if I'd actually ended up in absolute beginning Korean 101.  As it is, I'm in something roughly equivalent to 102.

The problem, as I suspected, was entirely due to my weak vocabulary.  There was a section where I had to fill in noun case-endings, for example.  I know, quite well, my Korean case-endings.  But getting the right ones is next-to-impossible if you don't what the verbs are in the sentences in question.  So… not such a good score, there.   I actually did better on the spoken section, where the woman asked me questions and I had to answer.  But she said I was too informal, and my tenses were wrong.

I have decided that between now and next Monday, I'll try to work through the first half of the textbook, which is the Korean 101 that I just barely placed out of.  

Caveat: Actual Footage of Me Actually Teaching

I’ve finally done it – only six months later than originally planned. I’ve posted the video clips from my last day at LBridge, and specifically, for that class where I went in and from absolute scratch I taught a simplified debate format and we had an actual debate.

These kids were at best high-beginning or maybe low-intermediate level students. They had never had debate in English class before. So in 35 minutes, we went from zero to exactly what I was doing with my advanced students. Well… obviously, their speeches were quite short and the topic I gave them was quite simple, but  I was very proud of what we accomplished. And I ran the video camera the whole time. So, here it is. [UPDATE: this link was broken when I dismantled this website, some years ago. The videos are still on youtube, however: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV]

Caveat: 내 한국어 능력을 향상하고 싶어요

Today I will make the commitment:  I will take a placement test and pay for my one-month full-time Korean Language class.  Based on grammar and passive understanding abilities, I’d be sure to place out of the beginning level, but my active vocabulary is so poor, I may get stuck in one of the beginning levels anyway.  I’ve been trying to cram vocabulary a little bit, but, as usual, to little real effect.

Caveat: Circumperambulation

My friend Peter came down from Ilsan today and we took a long walk around Suwon, which is where I’m staying for now – just be somewhere interesting and different, if not terribly well-located vis-a-vis the Seoul metropolitan area.

Suwon has old city walls around about 80% of it’s old-city perimeter, but it’s otherwise a rather stark, industrial city. Together the old fortress elements combined with its proletarian character make it seem vaguely European.

Peter and I walked a full circle along the top of the wall.  Here is a view of the weird, gothic-industrial church to be found just southeast of the old city wall.


Here is a picture of a bird.


Here is a picture of Buddha, perched against the mountainside in the western part of the walled-in old city.


Caveat: Navigating

Everyone who knows me knows that I love maps.  And I love online maps, too, and the amazing things that can be done with them, for example, google earth.  Unfortunately, google earth, yahoo maps, and related "international" (really, US- or Europe-based) mapping websites don't have very good data on Korea's mind-numbingly complex urban geography.  Google earth, for example, is inconsistent in their romanization of Korean place-names and therefore it can be impossible to find locations because one has no idea how the google-earthians might have spelled them.

But, in fact, there are excellent online mapping resources for South Korea.  Every single Korean vehicle has a GPS-using map-o-matic device of some kind on the dashboard, which delivers down-to-the-building navigation information.  It's definitely out there.  The problem is that it's not in translation.  You've got to be willing to work in Korean.

So, recently I have begun to feel competent using's map section.  I have figured out bus routes, located ATM's for my bank (외환은행), and located "addresses" (not street-number-based, as in the West, but rather based on "block numbers" and neighborhood names).  It's extremely cool, and I can spend hours poking around with it.

Caveat: The New Me

Per the advice of several people I have been interacting with during my job search, I have been implementing a new website dedicated to presenting myself professionally.  I went "live" with it today. It's still missing some pieces, but I'm fairly happy with it so far.  It's quite spare and simple, but I think that's best for a professional presentation.

I would welcome any feedback or observations.  I'm not always good at following advice, so I won't necessarily follow yours, but I still would gladly hear anything anyone might have to say.

Caveat: 엉덩이에 사과한다

Oh dear, oh dear. Sometimes, I can understand just enough Korean to create hilarity and confusion in my brain.

I was riding the subway, and in a sign above my head, right in front of me, I read “엉덩이에 사과한다.” Now, as best I can figure out, this means “Apologize to your ass.” Really.  Here is a picture of an ad (found via naver image search) that roughly resembles the one I saw.

It’s advertising a product called “apple hip”. There’s a lot going on here, perhaps more than anyone should want to know.

First of all, it’s important to realize that the Korean “엉덩이” can mean all kinds of things, from the innocuous “hip” to the dirty-sounding “ass” – the same word is used for all of these things.  I’ve had humorous moments in the classroom, when a student, after a short session with their little electronic dictionary, will innocently and confidently use the word “ass” where we would use the word “hips.”

Secondly, there is a common pun involving the word “사과” which means both “apology” and “apple”. So they work in the name of their product and make a joke about how you need this product to improve your butt. It is also drawing on the huge popularity of Apple Corp. products (and note the Applesque design look, below), making an English-language pun on the word “hip,” drawing on the Korean meaning of “butt” and the English meaning of “cool”.   Which is to say, you need this product if you want to be “hip,” or cool, butt-wise.

Now, I could get this far, but I still had no idea what the hell the actual “apple hip” product is. Obviously, something to improve your butt, in some way. One of an apparently infinite line of Korean “beauty” products of dubious intent and claim. Some more research… The best I can figure out, it’s some kind of butt massager. Here is another picture I found on naver:

Seriously!  I would expect to see this advertised in my email spam box, not on the subway. But hey (butt, hey?), this is Korea. Strange country.

Caveat: 행복하는 것이 중요해요

I have a little book where I occasionally will write down little aphorisms, that I hear or that I make up.  I found the germ of the following that I’d made up last fall.  I’ve made some changes to it and thought it sounds very… aphoristic.
“I have made the realization that happiness is not a mental state.  It is not something that is given to you, or that you find, or that you can lose, or that can be taken from you.  Happiness something that you do.  And like most things that you do, it is volitional.  You can choose to do happiness, or not.  You have complete freedom with respect to the matter.”
Really, I should point out that this insight partly derives from studying the Korean Language.  In Korean, the predicate “to be happy” is “행복하다” literally means “to do [or to make] happiness”.  When you say “행복해요” (“I am happy”) what you’re really saying is “happiness [I] do.”  “행복한 사람” (“a happy person”) is literally “happiness doing [who-is] person” (taking into account the almost exact reverse word-order compared to English).

Caveat: The Job Situation

A number of people have messaged me or sent emails:  "Jared, what's the job situation?"

So, here's a summary, so I don't have to tell everyone:  I didn't get the job I was hoping to get, but I knew it wasn't a "done deal" when I came here, so I had contingency plans.

Plan B is that I'm now looking for a job in Korea.  But, I'm not in a hurry.  Most (or very many) jobs start in March, since that's when the new school year starts for Korean kids.  And I'm prefectly OK with waiting until then.  I will take my time looking, and be picky about what I can find, at least for now.  If March gets close and still nothing, I'll get less picky.  I've actually already rejected one offer – it looked way too much like another LBridge in terms of excessive hours and unnecessary staff-room rules.

What I'm doing, instead, is trying to work on the Korean thing.  I'm really bad at learning languages – I know all of you think, "oh, Jared, he's studied linguistics, he's studied all these languages, he's so good at it."  Well, just to be clear… that last concept doesn't necessarily follow, logically, from the previous ones.  So, it's a struggle.  I look up the same word dozens of times in my dictionary.  It goes on my flash cards. And still, I hear it and wonder, "now, what the hell did that mean, again?"  Just yesterday I heard 모든 and thought, "I looked that up about 30 minutes ago.  What did it mean?"  I recognize that I should know a word, but not always know what it means.

Anyway, because of that, and because of my "Motivational Deficit Disorder" that I sometimes struggle with, starting around Feb. 1st I'm enrolling in a full-time "Korean Language Hagwon for Foreigners."  I think it will help structure my time, and give me opportunities to practice Korean with Koreans who will be patient and scrupulous with me, because they're being paid to be.

So, in fact, because that's a month-long commitment, I don't actually want a job before March 1st, at this point.  And that's fine.  It will give me time, hopefully, to find something that works well for me.  I'm looking at "after school at public school"-type positions, right now.  They're the latest thing, where, essentially, public schools are elbowing in on the traditional private hagwon market by offering their own higher-level supplemental coursework in the afternoons.

Caveat: Melting…

It was raining yesterday.  And foggy.  And all the snow was melting.

Korean weather has been very weird for the last month (I missed the first part of it).  More Minnesota-like than typical, with lots of snow on the ground and sustained cold. 

Now, the weather is back to "Korean normal":  warm front came through, last several days, with rain.  Then, today, it's clear and bitterly cold.

Caveat: all the buddhas died

I was reading the Economist, yesterday.  Apparently, Tsutomu Yamaguchi died.  He was one of the very few "double survivors" of the US's atomic bombing of Japan in 1945 — meaning, he survived Hiroshima, and then, 4 days later, survived Nagasaki.  What I was struck by were some bits of his poetry, quoted in the magazine:

Carbonised bodies face-down in the nuclear wasteland

all the Buddhas died,

and never heard what killed them.

Caveat: “don’t get caught up on this planet, man, these humans are crazy”

There's a rap artist I've been listening to, lately, called K-os (sounds like an operating system made by anarchists).   He has a track I really like called "Emcee Murdah" with the line "don't get caught up on this planet, man, these humans are crazy."  Great line.

So… it's cool, man.  Personally, I like this planet.  But I agree, the humans are crazy.

I had delicious take-out kimchibokkeumbap last night.

Caveat: La derecha gana en Chile

It's been 20 years since Pinochet yielded power in Chile, and the vaguely leftist Concertacion has won every presidential election since.  I say "vaguely" leftist because, for all their rhetoric, they did not significantly challenge the status quo as established during the dictorship:  Chile retained a neo-liberal economy.  Nevertheless, I was impressed with how the Concertacion, over the years, managed better than most Latin American countries to hang on to a commitment to some kind of social safety net, how they refused to privatize the state-owned copper industry (which is Chile's international income cash cow), and invested, at least a little, in education.

When I studied there in 1994, the dictatorship was still fresh in people's minds, and yet Pinochet could have received 40% of the vote in an open election — which is to say, he was still popular on the right.  Much has changed since then, including the revelations of his financial corruption.  Watching Chilean politics from afar, I was often concerned that the Concertacion was turning Chile into one of those "single-party democracies" a la Mexico under the PRI or Japan under the Liberal Democrats.  So in some ways, I find Piñera's election reassuring — it means there's some kind of real alternation of power going on.

Chile is very interesting, to me.  Aside from having studied there, it's clearly a unique and interesting country from a socioeconomic perspective, over the last 30 years.  It has leaped from middling status among Latin American countries to the very top in economic terms:  they are the wealthiest country south of the US border in GDP terms, now (except maybe Costa Rica?), and recently joined the OECD, a distinction they share only with Mexico (which joined more because of its proximity to the US and sheer size more than because they really deserved to as a "developed" nation, kind of the way Turkey was allowed to join).

Anyway, I doubt (hope not) Piñera will be changing the social contract significantly.  The outgoing president, Bachellet, has implemented some promising reforms in education and civil liberties, helping to cement the Concertacion's "clean-up" of the dregs of the Pinochet era. 

Someday, I need to go back.  Congratulations, Chile, on a successful, peaceful alternation of power.

Caveat: Rosetta

One thing I did before leaving the US, is that I broke down and spent a rather large sum of money on Rosetta Stone language learning software, for Korean.  I had a couple of reasons.

Firstly, of course, there is my desperation to somehow get better with Korean, and therefore a willingness to try new and different things, and spend money doing them.

Secondly, however, was that as linguist, I've been wondering what, exactly, they were doing that allowed them to believe themselves a premium seller of language-learning tools, for that's the way they market themselves.  Are they really that good?  I wonder.  There is so much in the way of really bad materials for language learning, devoid of any apparent familiarity with linguistic theory, often replete with errors and folk-judgements about things like sound change or grammaticality.

I've managed to work through the first 3 lessons of the first unit of my Rosetta Software Korean Level 1.  Here are my thoughts.

As software, it's extremely well designed.  Attractive, easy to figure out, intuitive, just as they claim.  My primary complaint with the interface is the speech-recognition tool… I got lots of answers "wrong" as I worked through it because it simply doesn't seem to "hear" me.  And it seems a little bit buggy in the way it handles not being able to "hear" you, leaping along and going "bing," "bing," (error, error) without giving you time to try again.  Also, A few times, I became frustrated with a new type of exercise and the lack of instructions on how to do it, but ultimately I recognize that this is part of the "method" being used: they want the user to solve each exercise, each section, as a little puzzle, and be engaged at a more-than-analytical level in using the language.

As far as awareness of linguistic theory, I'm less impressed.  They make the same sorts of grammaticality judgements as so many horrible  "beginning Korean" texts, and I'm not sure the focus on the highly stilted, fully inflected forms of the nouns is going to lead me to any kind of communicative efficacy, down the road.  Actual Koreans speaking actual Korean almost never use the kinds of singular-plural inflections they're teaching here, at least in my experience, for example.  I'll try to keep an open mind.

The single most frustrating thing is the speaking exercises.  Not just because of the wonky speech-recognition problems I described above, but because they give you little hangeul prompts for words to pronounce, but they aren't really useful at all — because they're not explaining or displaying or in anyway accommodating the extensive and overwhelming processes of sound change and syllable liaison that operate within Korean words and phrases.  I can figure out what they want me to do, because I have a degree in linguistcs and several years of effort behind me in sounding out Korean hangeul, but I think that if I was a typical, linguistically naive language learner, my simple, heartfelt reaction would be:  WTF!

I'm sure they have a couple lessons in the introductory part, where they're teaching you hangeul (which I didn't work through) — but honestly, exposure to the sound change and liaison rules is not the same as internalizing them — the software needs to hammer these rules home in these speaking exercises.  I've seen plenty of beginning Korean texts that will provide two "spellings" for each word:  a standard spelling and then a "sounded out" spelling that explicitly reflects the sound change and liaison rules in operation.  If the software did this in its presentation of speaking exercises, I think it would be a lot more transparent.  As it is, you hear a pronunciation and read the hanguel on the screen and wonder if the person narrating is looking at the same thing you are.

Lastly, I really think I'd have struggled immensely with making heads or tails of this software, if I hadn't brought with me the extensive background and previous effort in trying to learn the language.   I've already been exposed to much of the vocabulary, and all of the grammatical concepts being covered, on and off over the last couple of years, and most importantly, I'm comfortable with the Korean writing system and can recognize syllables at a glance.  And with all that, I'm getting only 85% correct on most of these units.  How frustrated would I be if I was coming at it "cold"?  I'd be giving up, is my guess, and muttering "impossible!"

So, that's my review based on about 6 hours of hard work with Rosetta.  I'll stick with it, if only because for me, it's very helpful with vocabulary.   But was it worth 400 bucks?  A tentative NO.

Caveat: 떡복기를 먹을 필요했어요

Last night I needed to eat tteokbokki.  This is not the first time I’ve suffered this craving.  It seems to be strong on cold nights.  It’s Korean glutinous rice cakes, simmered with fish-sausage in a slightly sweet carrot-chili-garlic sauce, sometimes with some dregs of vegetables if it’s higher quality.  Served in bags or bowls on street corners for a buck or two.

Caveat: It’s OK

I was having dinner with my friend Peter out in Ilsan last night.  We went to the Hoa Binh (Vietnamese Pho seen through a Korean lens, roughly) at La Festa.  Talking about various things, I was feeling very patient with my current limbo. 

After eating I showed Peter the convenient 하이마트 (Hi-Mart) supermarket that's almost literaly across from his building, that he didn't know was there.  I used to shop there when walking back home from work, because it was right on the way and not out of the way like the other supermarkets I knew about. 

Peter and I parted ways, and I was walking to Juyeop station to take the subway back into Mapo-gu when I spontaneously decided to ride a bus instead.  I stood on the bus-stop island and waited for a bus to go by that had in its destination list a location not too far from where my guesthouse is (near Hapjeong).  I ended up hopping on a Number 72 bound for Sinchon.  Not super close, but I knew how to get from Sinchon to Hapjeong easily — it's only 2 stops away on the circle line and I've walked it before, too.

I felt very pleased and competent to be able to just get on a bus, at 9 pm on bitterly cold winter night (-13 C), in this vast, alien metropolis.  Meaning… it's not so alien to me. I know my way around.

It was a local route, and zigzagged through Ilsan, then Hwajeong, then Susaek.  It was about 50 minutes.  I listened to my mp3 player and gazed out the window.  Life is good.

Sinchon is Seoul's Greenwich Village, basically. Trendy, tons of shopping and nightclubs, a bohemian and university neighborhood.  I like walking through there, although it's so "youth oriented" that I sometimes get melancholy.

I took the circle line (green line #2) back to Hapjeong.   I'm craving tteokbokki really bad – it's great comfort food when it's cold — but I didn't see any places selling it on the walk back to the guesthouse.  Hmm, maybe tomorrow.

Caveat: Deistic Distraction

I formulated this last fall, and wrote in a paper notebook. I googled it, and it's unsaid, at least in this form. So I declare authorship of this aphorism at least for now.

"The reason we should not believe in god isn't because there is no god, but because believing in god distracts us from what's important in life."

Here is another quip written nearby in the same paper notebook, that appears original to my own formulation to the best of my ability to research it.

"It hardly matters at all where I end up. Just being there is what's interesting."

Caveat: Watching My Karma Unwind Around Me

I don't actually believe in Karma.  Not as Buddhist dogma would have it, with reincarnation and sankharas (sp?) and all that.  I believe we each carry a sort of karma within the frame of our own lifespan, as we make decisions, and those have consequences, and things we do to or for others are repaid in part or in full or passed along.  Creative expression is a means of extending the reach of one's own personal karma, in this respect.

I seem to have a tendency, in my life, to seek out and find myself in situations where I've deliberately created too many options for myself.  So many options, that it's very hard to make a move — I sit in a sort flux of indecision, like standing hip-deep in a stream and feeling the current tug at you.

So there I am.  I'm working on the job search.  But that's a slow, evolving process that requires a good deal of patience.  I'm working on studying Korean, but that's an even slower, evolving process that requires more patience than the Buddha himself has.  The Buddha may have lost his equanimity, had he decided to try to learn Korean.  Heh. 

I have a lot of "free" time, and I'm not spending it well. 

Caveat: What we’re here for

OK, I was in limbo for 4 days, and then, this:   discouragement.

I always understood it wasn't a "done deal."  So Curt broke the news to me last night… he can't hire me.  I believe he's sincere when he says he wants to, but he just can't take on the financial burden of hiring a foreigner on an E2 visa — the financial burden in such cases isn't just the matter of my salary (which I was happily and willingly negotiating downward) but a matter of business licenses and legal compliances and such like.   So, in the end, it's too much for his small, start-up hagwon to take on.  Easier and cheaper to hire Korean nationals and/or F-series visa holders who are free to take whatever job they wish.   Curt and I will remain friends, I hope… he has been very kind to me.

Meanwhile, I face one of those flexion points:  what next?   Plan B.  I must plunge into the job market in earnest, because it is truly my intention to stay in Korea.  It will take a lot of further disappointments before I give up and go with plan C.  

I spent some time surveying the online classifieds this morning for the Korean ESL market.  I don't think I need to be that worried… there seems to be an awful lot out there.  Given I'm flexible on location and pay, I should find something.  But of course, there's the gumption trap of getting started.

I've updated my resume, and I really should try to put together one of those "sample teaching videos" I'd been plotting last summer, but then kind of dropped.   I could post it somewhere for potential employers to see.

I've rented a cellphone, finally… this business of trying to get a pre-paid phone (which is cheaper than a rental) on a lowly tourist visa is annoyingly impossible, as far as I've figured out.  I'll put my phone number on resume and facebook if anyone wants to call.

Lastly, one more bit of… argh.

I was up at 5 am, this morning, which has been my wakeup time since settling down from the jet-lag.  It's not going to be optimal, if I get an afternoon teaching job, but I'm very adjustable, that way — it just takes time.   Anyway… this guesthouse I'm staying in is my favorite so far of the various I've sampled in Seoul.  It's a bit of the atmosphere of the Casa, where I worked in Mexico City in the 80s (and have stayed there many times since).  Of course, it doesn't have the same lefty-liberal bent, here, that prevails at the Casa.   So you run into travelers, mostly Japanese and "westerners," and you have occasional conversations.

I had one at 5 am, with this scraggly but friendly fellow American.  He was surprised to see someone else up and about.  I mentioned my jetlag, briefly, and he was shocked I was "getting up" rather than ending my day.  Of course, Koreans are night-owls, so anyone adapted to Korean lifestyle would find it odd, too.  But as the conversation progressed, there was this weird, judgemental tone.  Like somehow I was morally deficient because I was failing to stay up late and go out drinking each night.  "Man, that's what everyone does, in Korea."  Well, yes… and, no.

I felt annoyed.  I began to feel that this guy, he's exactly the sort of ugly American that is partly why so many Koreans dislike or distrust "foreigners."  And then, the icing on the cake:

The conversation had drifted to what I was doing.  The job-hunt.   I was mulling the fact that I wasn't being very productive.  You know, voicing my guilt-feelings, I guess.  And his response was quick and aggressive, locker-room toned: "Yeah, man.  But that's not what we're here for, is it?"   We're not here for being productive?  And.. the alternatives?

No wonder so many Koreans see us Americans as lazy.  Sigh.

So.  파이팅!

Caveat: Lurking

I don't think I have the flu.  I think somehow, my body decided that now was finally a time to try to get some rest.  I know it seems silly, but although all that traveling around and visiting people was great fun, it wasn't very relaxing.

I came out of that meditation thing on the 20th of December feeling very centered and relaxed — and in that sense, despite all my complaining about the Buddhist dogma and all that, it was good for me.  But from then until now I've been pushing very hard.

Anyway, I have had zero motivation.  My friend Curt has placed me in a "wait a few days" limbo around the job prospect.  There's enough positive outlook, that I don't feel justified in going whole out into a job search for other options, but it's hard to just wait.  So I have become a lurker, temporarily.  Doing some reading.  Doing some studying.  Enjoying some walks in the slush and brisk cold of wintery Seoul's Mapo-gu area where my little guesthouse is. 

Caveat: Faceplant, Fragility

Yesterday, walking, I slipped on the ice and fell down.  Hard.  Faceplant on the icey sidewalk which had recently been dusted with a thin layer of fresh snow. 

No excuses… it was just bad luck and poor coordination.  Always, such things are embarrassing, but more so, in Korea as foreigner, where people already stare at you simply for existing.  A woman was very concerned, and it was odd, once I'd done the basic inventory to make sure that I was in one piece, but I found myself feeling pleased that I was communicating (not well, but communicating) that I was fine in Korean:  괜찮아요, 네, 괜찮아요.

I had a bit of a scrape to my face, but it wasn't bad … mostly a blow to the ego.  My wrist hurt, because of how I'd fallen, but it didn't seem bad.  A scrape on the hand, more than on the face but not so publicly visible, so less annoying.

It wasn't until I got back to my little room in the guesthouse that my wrist really started hurting.  I began to worry I'd fractured something.  I held it out, next to the other hand, and looked for swelling.  I carefully felt each part, to identify where the pain was, and decided it was the tendons on the back of wrist that had gotten damaged.  But the pain was pretty bad.  I took some ibuprofin, and lay in my bed in the dark contemplating buying a couple bottles of soju and drinking them to pass out.

I thought, if it's like this tomorrow, I'll have to got to a hospital.  And my life, right then, felt very fragile.  All the contentment, all the comfort with just being out  waiting for whatever's next, all that was missing.  I just felt awful.

But in the morning, my wrist felt better, though not perfect.  That confirmed that I hadn't broken anything… especially when I found I could type fine, again. 

[this is a "back-post" written 2010-01-16]

Caveat: And zombier than before

I think I'm just feeling exhausted from all the travel.  It's finally caught up with me.  I met with Curt yesterday, and we talked some about the job prospect — he's the one I'd like to work for, if it's possible, here.  I think he's torn between wanting to hire me and feeling overwhelmed by the bureaucratic obstacles  he faces that are required for him to be able to do so.  So, as is Korean custom, everything is … "we'll see."

I'm just kind of taking it easy, today.  Trying to get back into a study routine with Korean.

More later.

Caveat: I ♥ Korea

I don't know why.  I just do.  It's not like I have any super close friends here… and there are other countries that have felt friendlier (such as El Salvador) or are more stunningly beautiful (such as Chile).  Just a weird fascination, I guess.

Lots of things are just comfortingly familiar, now.  The convenience store on every corner.  The crazy moped drivers (worse with all the snow and ice).  The heated floors.  The way everyone tries to dress fashionably in an utterly impractical way.   The ubiquitous cell phones (I have got to get one or I will be like a blind guy at at deaf persons' convention).  The smell of kimchi.

OK.  Enough nostalgia.  Am I over the jetlag?  Not really, but feeling more rested.  Time to try to be productive.

Caveat: Jetlag Zombie Fun

Of course, it always happens.  But sometimes it's worse than others… I think it has to do with time of day at departure and arrival, as well as number of time zones, etc.  When I went back to the US, it didn't seem so bad.  It's really bad, this time.  But… at least this time, I don't have to be working or doing anything… I deliberately gave myself a wide open schedule for this return.  So basically yesterday I tried my best to stay awake and do stuff, but by 6 pm I was out.  And that meant that at 2 am, I was up.  But not really doing anything productive.  Hmm… we'll see how this goes.

I tried really hard to go back to sleep, just figuring the extra sleep couldn't hurt in trying to reset the internal clock, but I almost immediately awoke from a terrible, vivid nightmare.  I haven't had a scary dream in a long time, and this one was interesting in one respect:  I was having a car accident on a snowy road, while driving my truck.  Interesting because the dream activated some anxieties that are always there, in winter driving, but apparently they chose not to manifest until I'd safely abandoned my truck in the US and returned to Korea.  I was driving down a steep hill, like the Ramsey Street one in St Paul, maybe.  Lot's of snow and ice.  The car in front of me started spinning, and I stepped on the brakes only to realize I had zero traction, too.  I went over a cliff in my little truck.  

Anyway, that was the end of trying to sleep more.

I'm not in the mood to write.  I'm trying to get into the mode of studying my Korean again… but that's feeling desperate and difficult, at the moment.

More later.

Caveat: All that snow, just for me?

Probably not.  But I have spent 3 winters in greater Seoul over my lifetime, and I've never seen it covered in beautiful snow like it is now.  I'm so glad I came back to this.  And… it's still at least marginally warmer than Minnesota, although a difficult adjustment after running the vehicle's airconditioner yesterday while driving on the 605 in LA.

Which to say, I have safely arrived in Seoul.  Uneventful flight, Korean Airlines is predictably fabulous to fly with.  I don't have a phone yet, but I'm going to look into that, today.

So, here I am!  What's next?  Uh… better start working on that job-thing, eh?

Back to Top