Caveat: Gazes of Incomprehension

I'm just feeling very frustrated about my progress with Korean.  I feel like no matter what I do, I can't seem to remember essential vocabulary.  And I say the same things, over and over, to clerks in convenience stores or to the manager at the guesthouse, and I'm never understood.

Gazes of incomprehension.

And people say things I should understand, and I just stare, with the thought, I should be understanding this, but I can't.  I dream in Korean, sometimes, but it's always that specific type of Korean that I can't understand at all… it's just dreaming in confusing babble.  So dreaming in a language isn't a guarantee of progress, after all.

At moments like this, my resolve to stay and try to learn this language wavers dangerously, and I think, oh, hell, I'll just go back to the US and do something else.  I feel intimidated by the job search, depressed by my lack of progress in the language, unimpressed with my lack of diligence in the tasks that I set for myself.   I'm feeling too old, insufficiently competent.

OK… so here I am, venting my despondency in this very open forum.  Maybe, it's just springtime blues?   Well… "아자아자!"

Caveat: 환갑

Yesterday I was invited by the owner of the guesthouse where I’m staying to accompany him to his older sister’s 환갑 [hwan-gap]. This is a special ceremony/event that accompanies one’s 60th birthday party, which is considered quite significant. It really wasn’t that different from a 돌 [dol = child’s first birthday party, one of which I attended last year], nor was it different from a wedding or catered business party, for that matter. But it was interesting to once again be an observer at another Korean social function – not really a fly-on-the-wall, as I’m too conspicuous for that, but I don’t think anyone’s behavior is that different because I’m there, either.

pictureI felt proud of the fact that it seemed my Korean was improving, in small ways. Still, sometimes I hate to write about feelings of improvement, not just for fear of “jinxing” my progress, but also because it makes it sound like I’m out there in the world having actual conversations, when in fact, I’m still stuttering along with occasional good sentences, a few chunks and phrases now and then, but mostly just incomprehending smiling, and barely understanding the things said around me.

Later that day, I joined an “English class” that the owner here coordinates for occasional Sundays, where some neighborhood children (the building’s owner’s son [building owner is distinct from guesthouse owner], for example) showed up and I pestered them about their likes and dislikes in English. One boy, Jun, was quite good, especially at his ability to listen to what I said and synthesize it in succinct Korean for his less-comprehending peers.

After that, Mr Choi (the guesthouse owner), took me to a traditional Chinese tea-maker’s establishment (I have no idea what better term to use for this guy’s profession). The man was some acquaintance of his who lives and runs his business a few blocks away from the guesthouse.  This was a fascinating experience, and the people – the tea-makerand his wife – were quite kind. They struck me as a sort of wonderful syncretism of the very traditional Korean, mixed in with some loopy western counter-culture. They had a computer playing mp3 tracks of western music, and a wine-cabinet on one wall with all these European wines, but he was sitting at a traditional-looking tea table and doing all these elaborate things making tea, talking about 30-year fermentations and the fact that evidently (based on my face?) I needed something for my kidneys. And there was a lot of beautiful traditional pottery and furniture around.

Caveat: Zina’s Musical

Last year around this time, I went to see my student Zina in a musical production. I blogged about it. This year, I had the opportunity to go again, even though she’s not now my student anymore.

pictureThis time, I had my video camera with me. Here are some clips from the musical. I’m still working on figuring out the plot (I bought the CD and the words are in the extended program, so I can spend as much time as I want deciphering it), but the basic idea is that some kids who live in a futuristic “ecologically sustainable” village get bored and decide to go to visit the big, dirty, polluted, future-city, and have some interesting and scary experiences. It was pretty cute, although I liked the plot of last year’s production better (nothing is better than the idea of mosquitoes bringing lawsuits!).

Note that although the kids are lip-syncing during the performance, I’m pretty certain it’s their own voices, that were pre-recorded so as to raise the production value a little bit – Zina’s voice defintely sounds like Zina’s voice to me.


Caveat: Eerie Synchronicities

[this is a "back-post" written 2010-03-01]

I was riding the subway on my way up to Ilsan, this afternoon.  There was a giant earthquake near Concepción, Chile.  And at almost exactly the time that the earthquake was occuring, I was reading Pinochet's chapter in his autobiography about his own experience in the January 24, 1939, earthquake in near Concepción.  Of course, I didn't realize the synchronicity until hours later, when I heard about the Chilean quake.  But it struck me profoundly.  Obviously, pure coincidence.  But still kind of eerie. 

Caveat: 잠잤어요 (heterosyntactic reduplication)

Korean has lots of “normal” phonological reduplication, which is a common linguistic phenomenon in many languages, notably in micronesian and polynesian groups, for example.  Opening my dictionary at random, I can locate words such as:  붉다 (bulk-da, “red”) => 붉다붉다 (bulk-da-bulk-da, “very deep red”).   This is a “classic” sort of linguistic reduplication, as might be taught in Linguistics 101.
But recently, in my Korean class, I was introduced to a strange sort of reduplicative process that crosses syntactic boundaries.  I tried to invent a term for it, and came up with “semantic reduplication,” but that seems to be already taken for a slightly different process.  So I’m not sure what to call it – maybe something like heterosyntactic reduplication?  The idea being that the word element is repeated, but under different semantic categories (in this Korean case, a verb stem gets repeated, first in a derived gerund form and then in the basic verb form).  Maybe someone’s already named it, but I was unable to find anything on a cursory search.
Here are some examples, that were given in class (accusative particle -을 in parenthesis is optional).

잠(을) 자다 (jam-eul ja-da, “to sleep a sleeping”)
춤(을) 추다 (chum-eul chu-da, “to dance a dancing”)
꿈(을) 꾸다 (kkum-eul kku-da, “to dream a dreaming”)

I have no idea how “productive” this type of reduplication is, but I know that at least for those verbs with which it used, it is common – not a day after my class where I was introduced to this concept, my friend sent me a text message where he used it, in the phrase “잠잤어요” (jamjasseoyo, “[you] slept a sleeping”).
In any event, I think it’s rather interesting, linguistically.  Someone could write a dissertation on it.

Caveat: 메롱

I always like learning “non-dictionary Korean” when I can.  The above took me a while to find the meaning for, but finally I found some forum postings that aluded to its meaning:  roughly, it means “nyah-nyah” – like teasing someone.  So that’s what 메롱 (meh-rong) means.

Caveat: The Literate Dictator (Dreams of His Father[land])

One of my many eccentricities is my strange fascination for the now deceased former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet.  I've been carrying around and re-reading the first volume of his autobiography, "Camino Recorrido:  memorias de un soldado." 

I'm hardly an apologist.  He was a brutal dictator, and his actions on September 11, 1973, and subsequent misrule and corruption are indefensible.  But several things stand out about this man, that make him different from most historical personages of the "evil dictator" stripe. 

First, of course, is the very existence of a fairly well-written, reflective autobiography.  And although some will disagree, I'm almost certain it was not ghost-written.  Firstly, there's the fact that he was a published author (mostly in the area of social sciences and military history) prior to becoming dictator of Chile.  Not very many evil dictators moved into that latter career from academia, but arguably, Gen. Pinochet did.   Secondly, the book is too stylistically immature to be ghost-written.   What I mean, is that its tone veers from petty-defensive to philosophical to nostalgic to sociological, without much logic or consistency, yet, for all that, it's got some very well-written passages.

Secondly, there is the fact that, unlike most evil dictators, Pinochet accepted the results of a plebescite and stood down, after 15 years in power, and willingly allowed the dismantling of the undemocratic 1980 constitution that he himself had created.   Again, his late-career actions hardly excuse his behavior at the height of his rule, but… well, not all evil dictators are equally evil, perhaps.

Lastly, I for one am inclined to believe the speculation that he was not an entirely willing participant in the initial coup, despite his own efforts to rewrite history after the fact to make his role more prominent.  In essence, I believe that he attached himself "at the last minute" to the CIA's plot, because he saw the writing on the wall, and that, as bad as things were, there were few leaders in the Chilean military who would've been "better," and many, many, who would have been much worse, and much scarier.  In essence, I would argue that his role was, paradoxically, a moderating one vis-a-vis the ultraconservative establishment in Chile.

Again, it's not my intention to defend him – but having access to his autobiography, and to sit on the bus this morning reading his nostalgic prose about his high-school years in Valparaiso and his time as a cadet at the military school in Santiago in the 1930's… well, even evil dictators can be humanized.  I've always thought that there were eerie and unintended similarites between his autobiography and, for example, Garcia Marquez's El otoño del patriarca.

And, how can I deny that I relish the sheer eccentricity of being an American on a commuter bus in Seoul reading Pinochet's autobiography – it's one of those moments when you get to think:  "Wow, I bet no one has ever done this, before.  Ever."

Caveat: Hermit Kingdom 2.0

I've commented before about South Korea's stunning loyalty to Microsoft – that company's 90-something-% market-share is the highest of anywhere in the world, I believe.  And I think I've noted before that it's driven been by one major thing:  early adoption of internet-banking and online secure-transaction tools, under the aegis of extensive government mandates regarding middleware and security features, that coincidently relied on Microsoft's proprietary ActiveX technology. 

Mozilla has recently taken the time to post an excellent blog entry on the subject of South Korea's "Monoculture" vis-a-vis browsers and operating systems (and no wonder, being Microsoft's most successful competitor in the browser market).  They provide a good summary of the issues, and implicitly explain why iPhone and Android will fail in South Korea, despite their huge cachet and positive brand images.

Given that Samsung recently announced they were going to try joining the crowded field of smartphone OS design, with their "Bada" product (I think that's what it's called – I'm writing from memory on this), I wonder if this will change?  Or will Samsung go ahead and pay some kind of royalty to MS in order to license and use ActiveX and/or internet explorer, in exchange for being able to exploit the current monoculture to protect and enhance their potential for suceess in their home market and suppress their most innovative potential competitors (e.g. Google, Apple, RIM)?  Hmm… I bet there's some kind of dealing going on, there.   I wonder how many shares in tech chaebol Bill Gates owns?  He should own a lot.

Caveat: The Magical Syntax of the Korean Language

I have found a really excellent example of one of the things I find so amazing and fabulous about the Korean Language. I’ve been watching a TV drama called “커피프린스 1호점” (from 2009), and there’s a scene where the characters are eating together while playing intensely with language as they try top each other’s insults.

They make each other’s names into verbs, they make them into adjectives, they make them into adverbs. Korean syntax is extremely flexible in its ability to make new vocabulary, and also in its ability to change any given part of speech into another part of speech through the use of endings and particles of various kinds. It’s highly systematic, driven by complex rules, yet it’s also mind-bogglingly creative. Really, it’s exactly my kind of thing. Korean rocks!

Here is a youtube clip of the scene that I like so much. Ignore the romantic song at the start, and focus on the scene from minute ~2:30 up to about minute ~3:30, and watch the characters as they talk to each other. The subtitling only weakly begins to capture the amazing things that are done first to Eun-chan’s name, and then to Han-kyul’s.

[UPDATE: the video was removed from youtube, and since I was stupid and didn’t record the Episode number, it’s nearly impossible for me to relocate this clip. Regrettable.]


Caveat: I am not a criminal

Finally, after more than a month of sending off the paperwork and waiting, I have received my "apostille" criminal background check, which is a document that I will require when I apply for my Korean alien registration card – at least, presumeably.  The last time I was asked to present such a document, I was told when I finally took it in that I didn't need it.  But, it's important to be prepared, and no one will offer me a contract unless I can show that I'm prepared.

On Thursday, I'll get my copy of the medical checkup I did last week, which should mean that at least from a bureaucratic standpoint, I'm 100% employable in Korea.  Then, of course, there's the matter of finding a job.  But, as I've mentioned before, I haven't been looking that hard, to date – because the fact is that I'm enjoying putting my energy full-time into trying to learn the language, and I can afford to do so, at least for now.

Caveat: Caffeine

Sunday evening, after getting back from my templestay, I had a splitting headache.   At first, I thought it was something about the long journey and/or about the experience that was making me feel terrible, but then I thought back to the last time I'd felt that way:  my first few days in Tokyo last fall.   I must really be a terrible caffeine addict!  It's withdrawal, of course – there was no caffeine in the food/drink we consumed at the temple, and I'd neglected to bring a backup supply.

So a few cans of cold coffee later, everything was fine.  But jeez… I need to cut back, I think.  This will be difficult.

Caveat: 금산사…

I went on a “templestay” tour to Geumsansa over the weekend.  Here are some pictures.
Here is the main entrance to the provincial park that hosts the temple, down by the parking lot:
This is a turtle statue near the entrance to the temple complex:
Here is a view of the main stupa (left, over a 1000 years old, though repeatedly rebuilt) and big old main temple (right, 400 years old, currently being restored due to arson by some right-wing Christian group):
Architectural detail on the structure housing the old drum, bell, and gong:
A cool painting on the side of a side-building:
The entranceway to a small temple dedicated to Chijang Boddhisattva (I think), with the statues visible inside (this is where I did my 108 prostrations, see farther down):
A view of the main temple courtyard looking back toward the entrance building (a modern building but in the traditional style), and the gong structure off to the right:
The ancient stupa that is the core of the temple site (i.e. the oldest part, dating in one form or another to at least the 500’s AD):
A cool statue I saw (well-armed, indeed):
The men’s dorm where I slept Saturday night (bathrooms are around back – this is a modern building built to look traditional, but women’s dorm out of sight to the right is quite old and traditional, with a fire-burning ondol heating system) :

Walking from the dorm area across the stream to the side gate into the main temple courtyard:
A waterfall that I found while wandering around a ways up the stream beyond the dorm area:
These beads below represent my 108 bows (or prostrations) to the Chijang Boddhisattva. I really did this – it was quite tiring, and yet an old woman came into the temple, about the time I was working on bow number 50 or so, and she did 108 of her own, and finished and had left when I had gotten to my own number 70! I will keep these beads as a souvenir, because each one represents a bow that I actually did:
This is the charismatic monk who led the templestay guests around and led us in meditation, etc. He was very friendly, positive, and interesting (despite having an incoherent interpreter):

Caveat: Baru Gongyang

Korean Buddhism has a tradition called 바루공양 (sp? = baru gongyang), which is the idea of eating in a very structured, formalized manner and making sure that absolutely no food is wasted.  It's a bit similar in concept to a Japanese tea ceremony, I suppose.

So for breakfast this morning we had a baru gongyang meal.  There were four bowls.  Food between the bowls should not be mixed during eating, and the sound of chopsticks and spoons against the bowls should be minimized.  Also, bowls should be held while eating so that the mouth is hidden from others around you as much as possible.

Before eating, there is a chant:

Where has this food come from?

My virtues are so little that I am hardly worthy to receive it.

I will take this as medicine, to get rid of greed in my mind and to maintain my physical being so as to be able to achieve enlightenment.

The following etiquette rules are given:

Sit cross-legged

No speaking except for chants or recitations

Be careful not to make noise while eating

Always hold bowl while eating

Do not mix food from separate bowls

Do not let your eyes wander while eating

Be mindful of equlity, purity and tranquility

After the chant, we bow, and begin eating.  There are four bowls:

Rice (Buddha) bowl



Side dish (kimchi, radish, some greens)

After finishing, place chopsticks in bowl 2, receive warm water in bowl 1.  Clean bowls with the water and a piece of radish that you've reserved, and drink this water – this ensures that no food goes to waste.  A second washing is performed and the water is placed into pots.  The monk told us that there are hungry ghosts who will drink this cleaning water, but that if there are particles of food in the water, the ghosts will choke and disturb the peace of the monastery.

Finally, you wipe the bowls dry and wrap them up again.  You bow and put the bowls away.

I did all this, this morning.  It was very interesting.  [This is a "back-post" written 2010-02-24]

Caveat: The Left

Yesterday, on the subway, I saw my first left-handed Korean. 

I'm sure there have been others, but I know it's exceedingly rare.  I was teaching here for over two years, and never saw a student writing with his or her left hand.  The pressure toward social conformity is very great, even in the pre-school and kindergarten years when things like what hand one writes with are established.

But on the subway, yesterday, there was a young woman writing diligently in a notebook with her left hand.  I felt this startling feeling of recognition, and then a weird kinship with her.  Totally unjustified, I'm sure.

Koreans sometimes notice that I'm left handed, and although they're clearly not offended by it, they nevertheless seem to find it even more alien than, for example, my bluish eyes.

So, anyway.  Today, I'm going to Geumsansa, which is a major temple complex a few hours south of here that's important historically and that's also important to contemporary Korean Buddhism.

Caveat: inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected

The title to this post is an obscure reference to a 60's cultural phenomenon. 

Actually, I went to get a medical check-up, yesterday afternoon.  In order to qualify for an E-2 visa in Korea, a person has to have a medical clearance:  drug test, HIV check, etc.

The check-up I got yesterday was quite thorough.  For 55 bucks, I had my vision and hearing tested, got blood and urine tests, dental checkup (not cleaning, just looking around), TB x-ray… and it was all quite efficient.  I'm not sure how much of this is actually required for the visa.

The one thing that disturbed me:  my blood pressure is much higher than I'm used to seeing.  Not in the "danger" level, but higher than accustomed, certainly.  I haven't had it checked in quite a while, and after losing all that weight 3 years ago, I've been pretty blase about it, but obviously I should be trying to get back into that exercise routine I had when I was living in Ilsan.  And maybe cut back on coffee.

In other news, my blog received it's first "spam" comment recently.  These things are a plague.  I hope it doesn't become a serious problem.

Caveat: Trade Secrets

Apparently, five Silicon Valley giants (Google, Apple, Oracle, Applied Materials, Yahoo) have managed to convince a judge that being required to release statistics about the race and gender of their employees would reveal too much of their business strategy to competitors.  I saw this in an article inthe Mercury News.  In other words, the race and gender breakdown of their employees is some kind of trade secret.  This seems creepy, to me.

What would such statistics reveal?  That their employees include a preponderance of immigrants from Russia and India?  That they're whiter than the general population?  That there are almost no Mexicans?   That they are mostly male?  These are my personal speculations, based on experience in the IT industry.  But how could this kind of information reveal business strategy?  What weird facts would studying the statistics reveal?

These companies (well, except for Applied Materials, which I know nothing about) kind of creep me out even on good days – kind of the tech equivalents of the "banks too big to fail," perhaps.   But this is disturbing, especially in light of the fact that some other large Silicon Valley companies (including Intel, Cisco, and Sun [which has now been swallowed up by Oracle]) had no problem disclosing the same sorts of statistics.

Caveat: Classroom Chaos

Yesterday morning I did a demo teaching in a real classroom.   I felt very nervous.  I knew the job was a long-shot, and I'm pretty sure that the demo teaching wasn't, ultimately, a deciding factor, either way.  The fact was that the potential employer, a rather posh private elementary school in Northeast Seoul, seems disinclined to hire me due to bureaucratic obstacles (i.e. the complications of getting me a "fresh" E-2 visa by working with the Korean immigration authorities, as opposed to the convenience of hiring someone already on a valid visa, either E-series or F-series, where it's fairly simple to set up). 

I don't know why I was so nervous.  I think I had a pretty good lesson plan, although the main caveat (yes, caveat) would have to be that no lesson plan survives actual contact with children, at least not 100%.   And I'm experienced enough to know this.  The kids were first-graders – younger than most that I've worked with, at least in Korea.  But they seemed very entertained by what I'd put together:  I had them going around asking each other questions about what they would like to eat, based on the contents of a story they'd been reading that the school gave to me ahead of time. 

My thoughts:  probably, it was a more chaotic classroom than the Korean teachers were used to seeing.  I have always striven for a "student-centered" classroom, as much as is possible given any particular curriculum.  And since they'd only given me the story, without any other curricular guidelines, I simply did what seemed like the best thing:  make a lesson that kept the students moving around and talking in English to each other as much as possible, without worrying too much about "controlling" it. 

The result was apparent classroom chaos – any time you get a dozen first graders on their feet, you can hardly expect anything less.  But I saw two important things:  they were speaking English to each other, and they were having fun.  That, in my opinion, is success.  Hmm… I feel like I'm trying to defend myself, here.  And, as I pointed out at the top of this post, I don't think I need to – I actually think that they understood what I was doing and were not disappointed in it.  But I think, too, that they were just "going through the motions."

Hard to read the Koreans, on this matter – my Korean language comprehension is still quite weak, and I therefore don't pick up what they're saying to each other during or after the class with much accuracy or detail.   But I could tell the native English-speaking teacher they had watching me was cool with it – he was quite friendly to me after we finished, and said something like, "go ahead and just stay with them as long as you'd like," which was a pretty positive evaluation, I thought.

Conclusions:  I will only get the job if the school still finds itself without any other viable, "easier" candidate several weeks down the road and becomes "desperate" to fill their position.  Not to mention the fact that I'm still missing one piece of paper I need to present (it's in the mail, hopefully).   But, as far as the demo teaching, I was feeling pretty happy with it, afterward.

Caveat: 난 드라마를 보면서 한국말을 배울 수있습니다.

I’m getting back into the habit I had last year of watching Korean “dramas” on my computer. I prefer to download and watch them on my computer, rather than on broadcast television, because that way it’s possible to find subtitles for the shows (there exists a vast “fansubbing” community whose members freely create and post English subtitles for Korean shows, online).

pictureThe drawback is that I mostly end up watching “what I can find,” and I don’t get to watch the series in real time, because there’s the delay waiting for a subtitled version to show up. But with the subtitles, I can actually learn a great deal of Korean sometimes by watching the shows. And, the fact is, these shows can kind of grow on you.

Lately, I’ve been watching episodes of a series called “별을 따다 줘” (officially translated as “Wish upon a star” but maybe more accurately “choose a star”). Like most Korean dramedies that I’ve seen, it’s a weird combination of drama and comedy that’s hard to find in American television, and it’s not a series or soap opera in the western sense – more like a mini-series in that Korean dramas generally have a planned, fixed time frame from their outset, and aren’t meant to be episodic in nature but rather tell a plot (sometimes is a drawn out, complicated plot, but it’s still just a single “story”).

The fact is, I’m a pushover for these types of shows. They’re sappy and romantic and they are full of little moral parables and endless repetitions of unlikely coincidences and ridiculous plot complications. Yet they present the most compelling and also the most annoying aspects of Korean society and culture side-by-side, somewhat glamorized and somewhat exaggerated, but hardly simplified, at least in my opinion. This particular show I’ve been watching has me hooked.  I’m waiting impatiently for the next subtitled episode to appear.

Caveat: We made our down payment a decade ago

The other night I was discussing with my friend Seung-bae Korea's apparently rather efficacious management of the current world financial crisis – of all the OECD countries, Korea has experienced the least recession and least impact on economic statistics such as growth and recession, although there has been some inflation, linked to the somewhat-managed slow-motion "crash" of the won (currency) a year and a half ago. 

My friend Seung-bae made the following wry observation:  "we made our down payment a decade ago."  This is a reference to Korea's "IMF" crisis that occured in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.  That's true – from everything I've read, that was quite a mess.  What's perhaps disorienting or odd, at least to me, is the idea that the country's government and economic leadership may have actually learned some lessons from that experience that have allowed them to better weather the current crisis.  To me, it doesn't seem like very often that economic leadership is actually capable of learning lessons.

Caveat: Continuous

It's been snowing continuously for about three days.  Actually, I know it hasn't, but it has sort of felt that way.  The first half of the week was all about rain.  It rained a lot, and felt like part of an impending Korean Spring.  But I think it was Thursday, it changed to snow.  Quite a bit accumulated (well, by Korean standards – a few inches), but then it sort of slacked off into a very light snowflake-floating-down-now-and-then.   But that's been going on now, ever since.  Sometimes fewer snowflakes, sometimes more, but it's not been possible to walk around outside without crashing into an occasionaly airborne, fluffy blob of snow.  It's quite beautiful.  It doens't seem to be accumulating much.  But it's keeping traffic snarled (of course, the giant Lunar New Year Holiday, starting today, hardly helps either).

Caveat: So, ya wanna teach English

I have a job interview later today.

[update, 8 pm KST … it didn't go that well, but I don't blame myself.  I didn't have the impression they were that interested in hiring me.  It was more of a "go through the motions" type action on their part.  Considering those circumstances, I don't feel I did badly.  Let's call it "practice."]

Caveat: Plateaux

Learning a language has lots of little plateaux of ability.  I was feeling good yesterday, as I was feeling that I was finally climbing off the one I'd been feeling stuck on since starting my class.   Small things:  being able to simply repeat, with comprehension, some little bits of a short dialog we working on in class.

But then after the class I went into a cafe to sit and study and tried to order, and I thought I was doing fine, but the guy behind the counter looked at me with incomprehension.   The thing is, it wasn't even hard, weird stuff to order:  it was pure "konglish" – a coffee and scone are simply keopi-hago seukon….  Oh well.

Caveat: 3rd Class

Some people have observed that being a foreigner on a work visa in Korea is like being a 2nd class citizen.  I've always said that, in fact, that's perfectly logical – really, a foreigner working in Korea isn't a citizen at all, so by the logic of national chauvanism, a term like "2nd class citizen" really is actually too good.   I mean, "citizen" is exactly what a person is not, in those circumstances.

I'm not writing to complain about that, however, but rather I want to talk about what it's like to try to spend time in Korea as a foreigner without holding even a work visa.  I'm not talking about working illegally, either.  I'm doing exactly what a tourist should do:  I'm sitting in the country, spending my money. But things can be so difficult.

First, there was the cell-phone thing.  I couldn't get a "normal" cell phone, because I had no National ID card.  I have to subsist with a rental.  It's not actually that much more expensive, but it's just the hassle of it.  Next, I've realized there is a lot of free wi-fi in the country (e.g. at every single Starbucks location) that I simply cannot use, because there's a sign-on page where you have to put in that same National ID card number.   It's all about tracking what people do online, I'm sure, and enforcing that national firewall.  But still – it's not very "tourist friendly."  Finally, last night I realized I can't watch Korean TV online, because I don't have that number.  If I was outside of the country, I could, as they make allowances for that.  But within the country (which my IP-address tells them that I am), the only way to register for the website is to put in the National ID number, which I don't have.  Argh.

Caveat: A World Worthy of Invention

I used to read a lot of science fiction.  I liked the complex, imagined futures, the invented civilizations and cultures.   It was a sort of escape, obviously. 

I hardly ever read science fiction anymore.  I haven't stopped, entirely, but I will plow through less than half-a-dozen novels of the genre in any given year, anymore.  I had a weird insight, yesterday, as to a possible reason:  the real world is more interesting, more complex.

Take, as an example, one particular aspect of the sort of thing I like about those science fiction and fantasy novels:  imaginary languages.  I used to spend time inventing languages, myself.  A strange hobby, I know.  And at least once before in this blog, I've alluded to the fact that the Korean Language is in many ways a surrogate for those invented languages:  whenever I feel that language-inventing impulse, I simply pull out my Korean reference grammar and browse a few pages.

Yesterday, I was walking down the street, watching the people, looking at signs, thinking about the world's complexity, and realized the whole of Korean culture was the same kind of surrogate.  At some point, the real world became just as interesting and complex as any possible imaginary one.  In that sense, the sort of escapism I used to achieve by reading a book  I can now achieve simply by looking around.   Maybe that seems strange.  Or even trivial.  But it felt like a great insight, at the moment.

Caveat: Flaming Decrepitude

I watch Jon Stewart's Daily Show online sometimes.  A dose of American current events seen through a very sarcastic lens.  

There was a bit he did with John Oliver, where they were mocking the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, making parallels between old age (senators) and possible gayness in soldiers.  John Oliver used the line, [approximately]  "I choose to ignore your flaming decrepitude."  It was a very funny line.

Caveat: The Party Crasher

As I've said, I've kind of made friends with the proprietor of this guesthouse that I'm staying at.  Two nights ago, he said he was going to a "younger brother's" opening ceremony, and asked if I wanted to go along.  I really didn't know what this meant.  But I went along.

Koreans use brother and sister to mean anyone in their social cohort.  And the fact of being younger or older is important:  it's about rank in the social hierarchy.  They have specialized vocabulary for all of this:  "older brother of a male," "younger brother of male," etc. – all are separate words.

After some quizzing and discussion, I figured out that this wasn't his "real" younger brother, but a colleague from his high school years that had been a few grades behind him.  In the U.S., we'd call such a person, having been in contact with him all the years since, simply a "friend."  But Koreans maintain these historical hierarchical relations throughout life.

Anyway, the friend was a successful businessman.  And the opening ceremony in question was in fact an anniversary celebration of the man's business.  A kind of business birthday party, which they labelled, in giant letters on a big sign in bad English, "Renewal Open!" 

It was definitely a business party.  A catered affair in a place similar to a wedding reception hall.  These kinds of events are mind-numbingly common in Korea.   They'll have a catered business event of some kind or another at the drop of a hat.  There'll be a DJ, some contests, some exhortations to work hard in the year to come from various vice presidents in dull black suits, too-loud music, a few aimless children running around having been dragged along by their parents, dancing girls (entirely G-rated and vaguely silly), karaoke events, a buffet table, soju and beer on each table, a company song to be sung, etc., etc.

I felt like an alien, of course.  The only obvious foreigner there, and no clear reason to be there except that I probably represented some kind of bragging rights for my newfound friend, the guesthouse proprietor.  I was a  "pet wegugin [foreigner]".

I had some food from the buffet and sat and tried to be friendly with the various men he introduced me to:  the founder/president of the business in question, his "younger brother";  some man of uncertain profession;  an alleged "artist."  It was interesting, to see one of these parties for a line of business outside of the realm of the hagwon industry.  Basically it was the same thing, but with a different crowd.  This was an advertising and marketing company, so there was a patina of creative types in attendence – Korean "longhairs" who wore no ties and had hollywoodesque goatees.  I've seen the type plenty on Seoul's streets and on television, but in the hagwon industry you don't get to interact with them much.

Their English was all stunningly atrocious.  But they were pleased and amazed at my own halting efforts at Korean.  At one point I had an almost-conversation with a man:  I'm here with a friend;  I'm American; I work as an English teacher;  Korean is very difficult.

I had a weird thought, I guess as sort of short story idea:  a foreigner such as myself, with a smattering of Korean, could perhaps almost subsist by crashing business events of this sort.  They're always going on, and by visiting the sort of catered halls where they take place, he'd find them easily enough.  As a foreigner, everyone would be afraid to ask too many questions as to who he was or what he was doing there.   Such a foreign party-crasher could avoid confrontation completely, with simple protestations of "sorry I don't quite understand, my friend is around here somewhere."  And many would be friendly just to be friendly.

It would be like a sort of perpetual party-crasher adrift in a Kafkaesque Confucian paradise, free soju, free food, hospitable people.  One would never have to buy one's own meal, and every night would be different.

Caveat: Commuting

I have had such terrible experiences with being a “commuter,” in the past, that I had some apprehension about how I’d organized my life, temporarily, around the long commute into Gangnam each day from Suwon, where I’m staying.

But it’s turning out that I actually really like it. I’m sure part of it is that there’s a giant difference between a commute that involves getting in a car and driving for an hour, generally in terrible traffic, and getting into a bus or train and riding for an hour – even if it’s riding standing up.  Driving requires concentration and singe-mindedness, whereas riding, one can daydream, doze, read, study….

Some of the worst periods of my life were when I had a driving commute: the hour and fifteen minutes from northwest Philly to Cherry Hill, when I was teaching H.S. in the late 90’s, was truly horrendous, and the hour from Long Beach to Newport Beach in 2005-2006 was almost as bad.  Yet I recall actually liking the hour-long commute into West Philly in 1996 when I was in grad school – because I had the option of taking the train in that case, I suspect, and I often did.

Anyway, the commute now, on the bus, is cool. I always assume it will take over an hour, but some mornings, if the timing is right at the bus stop and the traffic on the expressway isn’t terrible, it can be over in 50 minutes. It’s always nice to get a seat – standing on a bus for an hour is pretty uncomfortable, but not unbearable. I can lean on the side of a seat or against a rail or something, listen to my mp3 player, and doze. It’s very cool as the bus plunges through the 3 tunnels through the mountains separating Suwon from Seoul – the last tunnel must be about 2 km long, and as we pop out of that tunnel right into the heart of Seocho-gu with its high-rises and right-angled streets, it feels like arriving in Manhattan through the Lincoln Tunnel or something.

I love the feeling when I get off the bus at Gangnam-yeok and walk toward the subway entrance. I go into the subway station and through it but I don’t get on the subway – it’s just a convenient way to get across the main Gangnam intersection at Teheran-no (yes, the main east-west street in Gangnam is named after the Iranian capital – it’s kind of as if Park Avenue in NYC was called Teheran Street). Everyone is busily going to work or school or wherever they’re going, and Gangnam has a very different feel than later in the day when people are strolling around shopping or on dates or beginning a long evening of nightclubbing.

The picture shows the pre-dawn light as I arrive at my bus stop at about 7 AM, with that weird Suwon First Church in the distance down an alleyway. Keep in mind that it was about -10 C (15 F) and windy. It’s not an idyllic, gentle dawn.


Caveat: 어제

어제 5시반에 일어났습니다.  일기를 썼습니다.  일기를 쓴 후에 또 블로그를 했습니다.  6시반에 샤워한 후에 아침을 먹었습니다.  강님에서 7시에 버스를 탔습니다.  도착한 후에 카페에 갔습니다.  8시반부터 9시40분까지 한국말을 공부했습니다.  9시50분에 한국어 학원에 갔습니다.  한국어 수업에서 학생 다섯명 있습니다: 중국 한명, 태국 한명, 필리핀 한명, 캐나다 한명 하고 미국 한명 있습니다. 어제 12시에 우리 같이 점심을 먹으러 멕시코 식당에 갔습니다.  1시부터 1시30분까지 교보문고에서 지냈습니다.  1시반부터 버스로 수원에서 돌라왔습니다.

Caveat: Wishing for the disease

The shuffle function on my mp3 player was making me feel international, yesterday, during my bus ride.  I heard Korean (임형주), English (Depeche Mode), Portuguese (Elis Regina), Japanese (LAST ALLIANCE), Spanish (Silvio Rodriguez), Senegalese (Youssou N'Dour) and French (Yelle), all in succession.  I guess that's cool.

I wonder if I will learn Korean better, or more quickly, if I only eat Korean food?  I wish language truly functioned as a disease, as William Burroughs once suggested.  I could just get infected, and I would be able to speak it.

Caveat: Random Wanderings-Around

I went to class yesterday. And then studied for like 4 hours. Solid. Then I decided to go on one of my random wanderings-around. I ended up “downtown” (the old part of Seoul), and it seemed very cosmopolitan and crowded. There’s this one high-rise at Jonggak that I’ve always thought looks really cool:


After that, I went back to Suwon on an oddly-uncrowded #1 subway train, and walked back to my guesthouse. I studied for another 3 hours. 한국말을 힘들어요.

Back to Top