Caveat: Another Brief Retracing

I arrived in Suwon just now. I had left some things with my friend here who runs the guesthouse where I stayed in February and March, and I’ve come to pick them up: a box of books, and some winter clothes (which, given how chilly this Korean spring has been, I probably should have taken with me to Gwangju two weeks ago… but, I’ve survived).

I’ll spend some time tonight or tomorrow using the convenient intenet to catch up on my blog posting. I could have gone to a PC방 (internet cafe) last week in the evenings and done it, but I was obsessing with cleaning my new apartment, and focused on adapting to school.  Anyway, if it takes longer to get internet in my apartment, I’ll have to develop a PC방 habit, I suppose – I can’t neglect this blog too much, can I?

Here is a picture of my main classroom at my new job. Imagine it filled with a bunch of wiggling first-graders, as it was this afternoon. As an English teacher, I’ll see bits and pieces of all the grade levels in the school, from kindergarten to 6th grade.


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Caveat: The Schedule

I got a fairly final version of my teaching schedule, this morning.  It will be what I have, beginning next Monday.   It’s a little overwhelming only because of the uncertainty of what to do in some of the classes.  But if I compare it to the sorts of schedules I got when working at hagwon, it’s incredibly light on couse-load.  For the week, I see only 23 teaching “hours” (where “hours” represents about 40~50 minutes in the classroom, but it’s conceptually padded with the transition time and just considered to be one hour.
The absolute easiest term I had at hagwon, I had about 28 teaching hours in a week, and once, I had 40, I think.

Caveat: The Apartment

My new apartment is not called an “apartment” by Koreans. The term “apateu” is reserved for the cookie-cutter apartments found in high-rises. Several of my coworkers have told me that I’m living in a “house.”  But, by the standards of American English, it’s still an apartment.

It’s the top, third floor of a commericial building. Maybe it could be called a “flat.” Or, very charitably, a penthouse. Underneath me is a hairdresser’s shop and a tteok store (tteok is Korean rice-cake, in at least 10,000 varieties). The apartment was frighteningly filthy when I got into it on Monday – I was afraid to sleep on the bedding provided, and the floors had enough dust that walking on them barefoot was a bit like a stroll on the beach.

I’ve been cleaning industriously. And I’ve been attempting to decorate. It’s much better, now. And, on the good side, by Korean standards, this apartment is huge. Gigantnormous. And it has access to a rooftop “balcony” area that I could see becoming a nice spot to hang out on summer evenings – as long as I do some cleaning and invest in some kind of patio furniture.

Here are some pictures. Note that the wood-looking floors are just the ubiquitous Korean “wood-flavored linoleum” – they look much better in the pictures than up close and personal.

First, my livingroom, with TV and a few weak efforts at decorating – the textiles strategically placed to cover holes or blemishes on the wall.


The view from the rooftop area, looking north, I think… I haven’t got my directions completely down yet, in my neighborhood.


The kitchen area.


The entry area.


The bedroom. I bought some new bedding, and have been sleeping on the nice firm mattress, but I can confidently say that I will migrate to the floor, Korean style – especially once the weather gets hot and sticky.


The “extra” room – maybe it will be my office/studio?


I’ve lived in worse places. Some cleaning and decorating will make it fine.  nd… it’s the most space I’ve had since … wow, since I was married, maybe. Too bad all my junk is in a storage unit in Minnesota – if it where here, I could unpack it all and sit and admire it.

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Caveat: 꿈을 가꾸는 홍농 어린이


That’s me standing and looking a little bit goofy in front of one of the entrances to my new school. The sign over the entryway reads “꿈을 가꾸는 홍농 어린이” (kkumeul gakkuneun hongnong eorini = “Hongnong children [are] cultivating [their] dreams”).

I think one of the things that impresses me about Korean society is that the children seem so happy. Children everywhere in the world can seem happy, but in many of the places I’ve spent time, the children seem, on average, a lot less happy than in Korea:  e.g. parts of Mexico, south Minneapolis, L.A.  Is my memory or perception distorted? I’m not sure. It’s not a scientific sample, it’s just my gut-level impression.

Anyway… a society with happy children can’t be doing too badly, I think.

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Caveat: Curses! It’s Carl Kwan!

I have some time to kill, sitting in my classroom, and not yet assigned classes. It’s nice to have the time to adjust – so much better than the hagwon way of throwing you into the deep end on the first day. But I can’t work on my blog, because the school’s internet filter blocks my blog-host’s IP address. So I turn to Carl Kwan, to kill some time.

The orientation I attended last week was pretty good. Well-designed, well-paced, with good presenters. But another aspect of working as a pet foreigner for the public schools system in Korea is that the central Education Ministry can come up with some ill-conceived rules, requirements, and initiatives. I’m suffering from one of them now.

They have required everyone to complete a “20 hour online seminar” series about teaching as a foreigner in the public schools. I think it might have once been a good idea – but the badly designed/written curriculum, combined with a stunningly irritating presenter, make the actual completion of the series of videos and quizzes excruciating. Carl Kwan, the Chinese-Canadian presenter, likes to say his own name. I suppose that can be an effective schtick with students, but it gets old fast. And he loves the word “um” – which I very much doubt is effective with English learners.

Well, anyway. Here’s a screenshot of the now infamous (in my mind, at least) Carl Kwan.


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Caveat: 전라남도 영광군 홍농읍 상하리 홍농초등학교

Korean addresses are backwards from what we Westerners are used in most countries I’m familiar with. They list the largest geographical unit first, and then “drill in” or “zoom in” to the most local unit, without using commas. So my new workplace would have a partial address as follows: 전라남도 영광군 홍농읍 상하리 홍농초등학교 (jeollanam-do yeonggwang-gun hongnong-eup sangha-ri hongnongchodeunghakgyo = South-Jeolla-Province Yeonggwang-County Hongnong-Town  Sangha-Village Hongnong-Elementary-School).


The map above shows Yeonggwang County. It’s on the west coast of the peninsula, in the northwestern corner of South Jeolla Province, which is the southwestern mainland province of South Korea.  So you visualize that it’s “facing” China’s Qingdao across the Yellow Sea to the west. The green-bordered blob you see is about 50 km. north-to-south and the same east-to-west, with some islands floating offshore. Maybe I’ll get to visit them sometime.

Hongnong Town is the knob at the top of the map. Yeonggwang Town (the “county seat”) is the cluster of extra roads you can see near the center of the map (but a bit off to the southeast from center).

The county is rural, but it’s not as rural as many might imagine. South Korea has a very high population density, so the number of persons-per-square-kilometer, even in an area like this, is more like New Jersey or Eastern Pennsylvania than it is like Iowa or Idaho. And Korea is crisscrossed by expressways, nowadays, too, so there’s not much left of the long, slow trips on twisting one-and-one-half-lane highways that even I remember vividly from the early 90’s.

I already like my new school. It’s just like any other Korean elementary school, a bit of a cookie cutter architecturally, with the dirt playground in front and the three-story facade of classrooms. But in a town as small as Hongnong, it has a bit of the feel of a community center, too, maybe.

I was shocked and dismayed to learn that my apartment will not be in Hongnong Town, but rather Yeonggwang Town. That seems like a long commute (about 30 km.). Also, when I saw my apartment, it was rather dirty, and definitely a bit shabby. Hmm… lots of cleaning to be done.

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Caveat: Really actually finally starting?

The training is over. Tomorrow I will meet my “co-teacher” and we will go to Hongnong (my new town), where I will meet my school and get to see and settle into my apartment, hopefully.

I’m nervous and excited. It’s been a long 8 months, since I was employed. It’s been largely voluntary, but I’m looking forward to being “settled” again, finally.


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Caveat: 광주 0 : 2 성남

The training program took us to a soccer game yesterday. It was between Gwangju and Seongnam.   The stadium was almost empty – I think our large group of foreigners was about a quarter of the audience.  This one guy, Dave, proposed a bet on the outcome.  I studied the two teams’ rosters, and said, OK, I think Seongnam will win.  And I was right – Seongnam won, 2 to 0.  Was it pure luck?  What was my betting strategy?

I just bet on the team that had foreigners’ names on the roster. My thinking? If the team can afford to put some foreigners on its roster (an expensive proposition, apparently), then they must be serious about winning, and are probably near the top of the league, since very few foreigners play soccer in Korea (baseball and basketball are different, where most teams have several foreigners at least). I suppose it still could have been luck, but Gwangju was pretty clearly out-classed in the game – the Seongnam team (foreign and Korean players equally) was faster, nimbler, and seemed generally better prepared.


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Caveat: Thick on the ground

Here, ancestors are thick on the ground. There in my home country, it’s not like that. Ghosts are far and few between. Flowers on the forest floor, clustering and waiting for sunlight – that’s how ancestors are. Sometimes you see a lot, sometimes, not. Mostly, you never notice them. But they’re thick, here. Thick on the ground.


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Caveat: Field Trip

This large group of “newbie” EFL teachers in the training here were taken on a field trip yesterday. Kind of like a one-day tour of some parts of Jeollanam province. It was cool. I took a lot of pictures. But here are two that actually show me – which are rare. I’ll maybe post some of the “scenery” pictures later.

This first picture is of me with some school girls that were at the Nagan Folk Village – a sort of Korean Historical theme park (tastefully done). Kids in Korea will run up to foreigners – especially large groups of foreigners obviously on tour, and say things like “Hello!” “How are you?” Basically, they want to practice English, and be friendly.  These girls were impressed because I’d managed 3 or 4 phrases of passable Korean, and so I suddenly became a rock star.


This picture is me in front of a small compound gate at a temple complex at Jogyesan National Park.


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Caveat: Trees. Trees.

The last time I talked with my mother, she shared an aphorism with me that’s been rolling around in my brain: “Before enlightenment, there are trees. After enlightenment, there are trees.” This is probably a paraphrase of something aptly Buddhistic, but I like the simplicity of it.

I was thinking of it, and looking at trees, yesterday, as I climbed up the path up the mountain behind my hotel here in Gwangju. There were many trees, in various stages of springing forth, from bare branches to luxuriant pale, glowing green, with lots of blossoms too. Some of the trees had little labels on them placed by the local park service that maintains the park, and so I set to trying to learn some of the Korean names of trees – assuming I could identify the tree in question based on my own somewhat stale knowledge from my classes in botany of 20 years ago.

It was a steep climb – good exercise to reach to top. The view out over Gwanju wasn’t spectacular: there were too many trees. But it was beautiful. And I had the space mostly to myself, since rain was threatening. It’s pretty rare to have park-trails to oneself, in Korea.

Here is a picture.


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Caveat: in praise of pedestrianism

Yesterday, I took the bus out to see my new town for the first time.  The little town of Hongnong-eup (-eup just means "town"), in Yeonggwang-gun (-gun means "county"), on the northwest corner of Jeollanam-do (-do means "province").  I was intending to meet with my fellow "foreign teacher" who is working at the same school that I will be;  however, she ended up having a last minute errand to run, so I was left on my own at the bus station of Hongnong.  I walked the length of the town in about 10 minutes.  And then I was back at the bus station, with nothing to do.

So… I did what I always seem to do, when at a loss as to what to do.  I took a long, long walk.   I think I walked about 10 km.  I walked south of Hongnong, through the rice fields, and ended up at a place called "백제불교문화최초도래지" which roughly translates as "Baekje Buddhist culture first arrival place" – it is the spot in the Korean peninsula where Buddhism first "arrived," probably in the 500's or early 600's CE.

The location has the feel of something like a cross between a national monument and a Buddhist theme park, with flower gardens, trails over and around the mountain, lots of statues, chanting from speakers mounted on lamp-posts, gift shops, temples, etc.   It was, in any event, very interesting.  I had forgotten to take my good camera with me, but I snapped a few photos with my old cellphone (which I carry around for it's pretty-good electronic dictionary function).  I'm having some trouble downloading those photos, now, but when I do, I'll add them here.

I then walked into the town of 법성 (beopseong), an industrious-seeming little fishing port on the inlet in the coast, there (geomorphically, a "ria," or submerged river valley, I believe).   I saw at least ten thousand stores selling "gulbi" which is the local species of croaker fish, very popular to sell to the tourists, apparently.

By this time, it was getting toward 7 PM, so I decided to just come back to Gwangju, since I'm not so into wandering around randomly once the sun sets.   I found the Beopseong bus terminal and got on the next Gwanju bus, and I felt very efficient and knowledgeable when I was able to walk out of the bus terminal and immediately climb onto the correct bus number (1187) that would take me back to the east side of the city to the mountain where my hotel is located.  I got back by 9:30 or so, I think.

I really love just walking around places.  You get such an "honest" feel for how the place is.  You see all of its aspects.  You don't truly know a town, until you've walked down each of its connecting roads at least as far as the next town.   When living in big cities, I often wander for long stretches on public transportation.  But in rural areas, such as will be my new home, the best thing is to wander on foot.

I plan to do a lot of that, over the coming year.  I'm off to a great start.

Caveat: Orientation is disorienting

I am participating in a rather in-depth, week-long orientation and training program related to my new job. This is very disorienting – because I never had so much as an hour of orientation or training at any of my three previous jobs in Korea.

Some of the “cultural content” it is a bit redundant or boring, for someone who’s already been here a few years. But other bits are amazingly useful, and I find myself thinking, “gee, it would have been nice to have known that, say, 3 years ago.”

Overall, I think this will be good. Plus, the hotel where this is taking place is the poshest place I’ve stayed at in a long time – possibly since I had the Oracle 8i/9i certification at that resort in Pennsylvania in 2004.

Here’s a picture from my hotel balcony, looking west-southwest over Gwangju, as the sun is coming up behind the mountain behind me.


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Caveat: Zen pep rally of robots; Confucian riot of saints

I like to invent little metaphors that sound like good names for rock bands.

Yesterday, walking around Gwangju, I ran across some monuments to the Gwangju democracy movement of 1980. Although the movement failed against the dictatorship of that time, it was a significant turning point in the evolution of South Korean politics.

I began to reflect on South Korea’s “protest culture.” A lot of people view this as a sort of political immaturity (even, or especially, South Koreans themselves), but I have a rather different take on it. Firstly, this “protest culture” is as innate and important to modern South Korean democracy as, say, a town hall meeting is to New England democracy. Secondly, however, I think the fact that people in this country feel free to begin a rally or protest at the drop of a hat actually makes South Korean politics a bit more genuinely responsive and, well, “democratic” than a superficial systemic analysis might suggest.  So rather than seeing it as a blemish on the South Korean polity, I see the protest culture as a sort of enhancement, if an imperfect one.

But it seems odd, doesn’t it, that a country still so steeped in Confucian culture and values would adopt protests and riots as a (more or less) legitimate means of political expression?  Thus I stumbled on the idea of a “Confucian riot.” Which sounds cool, and is maybe less oxymoronic than you’d think. And I was contrasting the idea, in my mind, with Japan. Japan doesn’t have the same kind of protest culture as South Korea – not at all. Perhaps, lacking a recent historical experience with in-your-face dictatorship (i.e. at least not since WWII, and arguably even before that), Japan never developed the need.  Japan is a more consensual polity, whether truly democratic or not. More like a “pep rally” than a riot.  And so I stumbled on the contrasting idea of a “zen pep rally.”

I’m just thinking about these things. This is not a polished thesis or even intended to be a well-structured argument. More like a suggestion for two contrasting metaphors for two intimately related but profoundly distinct societies.

Here is a picture of a monument to the “518” movement (the Gwangju uprising of 1980), in front of the central high school. And some other monuments I noticed, not far away.





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Caveat: Sucky Rosetta Sudoku

I don't like sudoku.  Nor do I like crosswords, chess, "brain-teaser" puzzles, etc.  I feel like this fact about myself is somehow a serious violation (nay, betrayal) of my nerdly origins, that I'm like this.  But, I've always lacked enthusiasm for these types of mental recreations.  One memorable example:  I remember when Rubic's Cube first came out, and everyone was obsessively trying to solve it.  I managed to solve it – it wasn't easy, but I managed – but  I genuinely recall my efforts to do so as a profoundly unpleasant experience.  I never picked it up again.  Even today, when I see a Rubik's Cube, I have a sort of visceral reaction of strong distaste, similar to how I react to seeing bananas (to which – it has been verified – I am allergic).

My theory is that this gut reaction is because my perfectionism is stronger, and receives higher priority, than my intellectual curiosity.  That doesn't sound like a very good reflection on my personality.  And… it's not.  But I'm trying to be honest about things, here.

Anyway, that's not what I meant to write about.  I had a major insight, yesterday. 

I'd decided to dedicate some more time to working through the Rosetta Stone software I'd splurged on last fall.  I've been pretty unhappy with it, and so it's hard for me to motivate to use it.  I have only managed to work up to around the middle of the Level 1 Korean package.

So I was slogging through it… I see the value in it, in building some automaticity with respect to grammar points and  vocabulary.  My core criticisms remain the same:  it's not very linguistically sophisticated in its presentation of material (especially of phonological issues and grammar); the speaking sections' "listener/analyzer/scorer" is majorly wonky (I sometimes get so frustrated I just start cussing at it, which tends to lower my score); the grammar points covered sometimes don't match the way actual Koreans around me actually speak, in my experience.

But I found a new reason why I don't like Rosetta Stone, and I found it in a surprising way.  I was reading a recent issue of the Atlantic magazine, and there was an ad for Rosetta Stone.  And the ad said something to the gist of:  "if you like sudoku, you'll love learning a language with Rosetta Stone."

You can see where this is going, right?  Rosetta's software is deliberately designed to activate the same mental processes and reward centers that puzzle-games like sudoku do.  And therefore it's suddenly obvious why I spend most of my time when trying to use the software feeling frustrated and pissed-off.  It's the same reason I feel constantly frustrated and pissed-off when I try to solve sudoku puzzles, or play chess, or other things like that.  I just don't enjoy that type of intellectual challenge.

But this insight also forces me to temper my criticism of Rosetta Stone substantially, in one respect:  it means that it's just my idiosyncrasy, in part,  that causes me not to like it, and to regret having bought it.  If you're like most reasonably intellectual people, and enjoy killing some time solving sudoku or playing chess or the like, then, probably, Rosetta Stone is a great tool for learning a language.  You'll probably think it's really fun.


So… there.

Caveat: 이가방이 무거워요…

I have arrived in Gwangju.
Everyone knows I struggle with memorizing vocabulary.  “Heavy” is a word that I’ve looked up the Korean equivalent for at least 15 or 20 times, and it never has managed to stick with me.  But, as of today, I think I can confidently say I’ve got it well and truly stuck in my brain, finally.
Context is everything, in language learning.  I have some very heavy luggage, today, as I tote my most important worldly possessions down to Gwangju.  Hefting the bag into the taxi, and again, getting help from the assistant at the bus terminal, I had occasion to hear and use “무거워요” (mu-geo-weo-yo = it’s heavy).  And now I know that I know that word.
Travel costs are so reasonable, in Korea, after having been in Japan.  The bus ticket, express “special” (우등) from Suwon to Gwangju was only 21,000 won.  That’s less that 20 bucks, to take me basically across the whole country, north to south.  Admittedly, that “across-the-country” bus trip was exactly 3 hours and 5 minutes long.  Once out of metro Seoul, the expressways are wide, well-engineered and convenient.
I don’t remember when I was last in Gwangju.  I do know I haven’t ever spent much time here – it’s Korea’s 4th or 5th largest metropolis (depending on whom you ask), but possibly it’s the country’s least “international” of the major cities.  Regardless, it’s an important city for the history of modern democratic South Korea, and it’s pretty successful, as cities go, from what I’ve read.
I’m going to look around a bit.  More later.

Caveat: “주둥이 함부로 놀리지 마라”

“Don’t move your muzzle randomly” – this is what my friend Seung-bae said, as we stood in front of a Buddhist temple, discussing the issue of hypocrisy and religion. We had driven up the first part of a mountain called 광교산, past the Suwon reservoir, and at the end of the road near the base of the actual mountain, there was a temple, as is typical.

When he said this, he wasn’t criticizing me – he was teaching me an aphorism, which he is very good at.

Here’s a picture of the temple.

Here’s a picture of the view out over Suwon, as it got dark.

Here, we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall for makkoli (rice beer) and egg/vegetable pancakes with some radish kimchi on the side.

Here’s a picture of a truly bogus chicken joint.

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Caveat: Melancholy Megalopolis

I'm going to head down to Gwangju, tomorrow, since I have to check in for my "training" on Sunday, but I'd like a few days to get oriented myself, first – I'm thinking of taking a day trip out to my new place of employment on my own, just to get the feel of the place.  "Chomping at the bit," I guess is the phrase.

But that means this is my last day in Seoul, and suddenly I'm feeling very nostalgic about my time in Ilsan (north suburbs) and Suwon (south suburbs).  I'm excited and nervous about my new job, but I know I'm taking a risk – especially since I've always been such a "city person" and now I'm moving to a tiny town, for at least a 1 year commitment.

Despite growing up in Arcata, a relatively tiny town of less than 20,000, I became a "city person" – my life in places from Mexico City to Philadelphia to Minneapolis to Los Angeles to Seoul have all agreed with me much more than those times I've been in less urban environments.  I was telling a friend that the smallest place I've lived, for an extended period of time (i.e. over 6 months), since high school, is probably Minneapolis / St Paul – a metropolitan area of about 2 million.  With my move to Hongnong, beginning (I think) week-after-next, it's looking like that will change.

Caveat: pretty long winter

This winter has seemed really long.  Not that I'm complaining – I love winter.   But starting with the fact that I've been traveling and/or rootless since last September (which tends to stretch time out) and add to that the fact there has, indeed, been a lot of wintery weather in the places I've been… well, that makes for a pretty long winter, subjectively speaking.

I saw my first snow back in early October, in Denver, Colorado, at my sister's.  And I saw a scattering of snowflakes today, seven and a half months later, while riding the train up from Suwon to Ilsan.  I love snow.

Caveat: 6 hours, door to door

From my guesthouse in Fukuoka to my guesthouse in Suwon, it took almost exactly 6 hours – of which only an hour and 15 minutes were in the air.  I didn't have to pick coming back to the same guesthouse in Suwon, but I left a bunch of luggage here, and it's familiar. 

I took the subway from the guesthouse in Fukuoka, near Nakasukawabata station, to the airport.  I checked in, and waited around a lot.  I flew.  I landed in Seoul at 10:15, but by the time I got out front at the airport, it was just past 10:40, and the last direct airport bus for Suwon had left.  Minor argh.

Rather than spend an exhorbitant amount on a taxi, I got a little bit clever:  I took a bus #6020 which took me to Gyo-dae-yeok (University of Education Station), and from there I waited for the midnight (last run) of the #3000 bus that dropped me on my doorstep here in Suwon.  It was much more reasonable in price, but a bit lengthy in ride-time.

Well, I'm here now.  I'll post more tomorrow.  It's very late, and I'm waiting for my friend to check me in…

Caveat: Where to stay in Kyushu

I feel like I got pretty lucky with my lodging in Kyushu, in the three places where I found good guesthouses: Kagoshima, Fukuoka, and Nagasaki.

The place to stay in Kagoshima is called Nakazono Ryokan. The place to stay in Nagasaki is called Fujiwara Ryokan – that place is awesome.

But the least expensive place I stayed was also the most convenient. In Fukuoka I stayed at Kaine Guesthouse. For 2500 yen a night (that’s 25~30 bucks, but that’s a steal by Japanese standards) I could sleep in a dorm with a futon fairly comfortably (except for the night there was the loud snoring guy). Very centrally located, I walked most anywhere I needed or wanted to go, but the subway can take you to the airport, trainstation, or Korean consulate easily.

The most important thing – the people are very friendly, and helpful. They were like a little support group as I agonized over not getting my visa number for so long.

Here’s a picture of me with staff member Mizue.


And here’s a picture out front, with two other guys who worked there.


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Caveat: Old Temples and Blossoming Trees

I walked around a lot on Sunday, and took some pictures. Yesterday, it was raining pretty steadily, so I didn’t take as many pictures, and I didn’t walk around as much. Here are a few random pictures from Sunday; I found a temple called Sofukuji in the Northeastern part of the city, and some of the alleyways around it were very interesting too. The last picture is from west of downtown, near the old Fukuoka castle.







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Caveat: The Fukuoka Visa Run

So here, for posterity, I will record my own, personal experience of the slightly infamous Fukuoka "visa run."  There are plenty of online references to this type of experience, as it is nearly universal among Westerners trying to work out long-term livelihoods in Korea to have to make a "visa run" to Japan at some point or another.  I have googled and utilized bits of information from various summaries of other people's experiences over the last several weeks.

My own "visa run" experience was nearly unique, in one respect:  I opted to wait for my authorization number while in Japan, rather than in Korea.  This was an issue of timing – it just so happened that my tourist visa in Korea ran out just as I submitted my application.  Since I didn't see the logic in coming to Japan to "reset" my tourist visa, and then return to Korea only to have to go back to Japan 2 weeks later to get the E2 visa, I decided to just wait in Japan.  This was not a big deal.

My angst and suffering during the waiting period (which is well documented in previous posts) was rooted in my own insecurities, and not in the fact that the waiting was taking place in Japan rather than in Korea (or elsewhere, for that matter).  And now, I feel that I have a sort of "home base" in Japan – I feel very comfortable in the city of Fukuoka;  I know where things are, I know how to get around, etc.  In retrospect, however, I must admit that it would have cost me less to make a "double trip" to Fukuoka, rather than sit in Japan waiting.  The cost of everything in Japan is quite high, compared to Korea:   food, lodging, transportation, etc.

So starting Friday, I had a more typical "visa run" experience.  I got my authorization number via email early Saturday morning.  This morning (Monday), I went to the Korean consulate.  The Korean consulate in Fukuoka is extremely easy to get to:  about a 5 minute walk north of the Toojinmachi subway station (which is on the same "Orange Line" that stops at the airport and at the main Hakata Railroad Station where the shinkansen stop).   I have been using my "SUICA" card to ride the Fukuoka subway, which is the stored-value e-money card that I'd bought in Tokyo last September.  But I think the ride from downtown (Tenjin) runs about 200 yen.  The consulate is basically "across the street" from the Yahoo! Dome (a sports stadium) and the Hawks Town Mall – so if you follow the horizon to those landmarks, you can't get lost.    

Unlike what I'd been told by my recruiter, I did not need copies of my passport, I did not need sealed original university transcripts, I did not need copies of my criminal background check, I did not need copies of anything at all.   The magic authorization number was really all they needed.  That, and a single passport-size photo, and, of course, I surrendered my passport.  I filled out a mini application but that seemed almost a mere formality.

The one piece of information that I did not have that they asked for was a name, address and phone number of my new employer – but, because the woman behind the counter was kind and efficient, she was actually able to retrieve that online using my authorization number, too.  Still, for those using this summary as a reference, I recommend you have that information handy. 

Certainly just because I didn't need any of that additional paperwork doesn't imply that one should show up at the consulate unprepared.  Jared's number one bureaucracy rule:  always carry lots of copies of everything.  I had brought along a copy of my contract and a photocopy of my old Korean "alien card," too – but I noticed the woman behind the counter pulled that information off her computer and filled it into an "office use only" blank on my mini-application.  Unlike what I read in all the various online accounts of the "visa run," I didn't hold any kind of "blue authorization form" from Korean immigration.  So don't worry, I guess, if you don't have that document – just make sure you have an authorization number that they can put into their computer.

Oh, and, of course, I paid a 4500 yen fee.  It must be in Japanese currency – won or dollars are not acceptable.  I'd been worrying that maybe, like in the US, there would be some problem with paying in cash (in the US, many agencies, including consulates of foreign countries, rarely accept cash, and require check or money order).  But paying in cash was fine.

As mentioned, the woman behind the counter was extremely courteous, efficient, and kind.  I can't say the same for the guard at the front gate – he was a bitter gate-gnome with a grudge against everyone (he was unkind to the people in front of me in the little line that developed, too).   I wondered if he might ask me the airborne velocity of an African swallow.  But once past that hurdle, it all went quite smoothly.

Tomorrow morning, I will pick my passport with it's shiny new E2 visa stuck into it, and then I can return to Korea.  I'll have to go to the airport and rearrange my return ticket, but that shouldn't be a problem (although there might be a fee involved).  By the end of the week, I'll be in my new job.  I'm excited, and nervous.

Caveat: Korean Reference Grammar

These are the grammar points from the first two volumes of the Korean language textbook I was using in February and March, 2010.  Given that I finished the courses, I should, in theory, know all this grammar perfectly.  So much for theory.

외국인의 문법
– Things from the textbook, that I
should already know


(terminative inflections), formal register

declarative: Vc+습니다
/ Vv+ㅂ니다

interrogative: Vc+습니까
/ Vv+ㅂ니까

imperative: Vc+으십시오
/ Vv+십시오

propositive: Vc+읍시다
/ Vv+ㅂ시다


honorific V-stem infix (precedes most
other affixes): Vc+으시+
/ Vv++


“how” Adv: 어떻게


“too, also” topicalizing N
suffix particle (follows most other affixes): N+


“the, as for…, speaking of…”
topicalizing N suffix particle (follows most other affixes): Nc+
/ Nv+


predicate affirmative suffix / copula,
“be”: N+이다

(this makes a noun “N” into a
conjugable predicate [verb] “to be N”)


deferential 1st person sing. pronoun,


contraction “my”:
<= 저의
(deferential “I” + genitive case particle)


demonstrative prefixes

“this”: +N

“that [near listener]”: +N

“that [over there]”): +N


“who”: 누구
(note obligatory contraction 누가
<= *누구가)


“we”: 우리
(note that this word often doesn’t seem to accept case


demonstrative pronouns (derived from
demonstrative prefixes +

“this”: 이것

“that [near listener]”: 그것

“that [over there]”): 저것


subject case particle: Nc+
/ Nv+


interrogative pronoun, “what
[thing]”: 무엇


object case particle: Nc+
/ Nv+


note that +
(1.2.2) “overwrites” subject and object (an
perhaps others?) case particles


“where”: 어디


dative case particle “to [action
verbs toward a place], at [a time], in [stative verbs in a place]”:


locative case particle “at [a
place], from [a place], in [action verbs in a place]”: N+에서


“when”: 언제


past/perfective finite verb infix
(invokes vowel harmony with verb stem): V+{//}+

(and note common contractions [some
mostly obligatory, with asterisk]:

<= 하였,
배웠 <=


(numerals, chinese origin)

(used for money, minutes, dates,
months, calendar years, phone numbers, addresses, etc.)


predicate negative suffix / copula,
“not be”: Nc+
/ Nv+

(this makes a noun “N” into a
conjugable predicate [verb] “not to be N”)


“which”: 어느


non-finite verb oppositional suffix,
“but, however”: V+지만














































Caveat: The Republic of Samsung

I read in The Economist that the Samsung chaebol (business conglomerate) represents 20% of South Korea's GDP.  This is utterly stunning, if true.  But I find it plausible.  And if you add in the other major chaebol – groups like Hyundai, LG, etc., it must mean that the South Korean economy is essentially in the hands of a half dozen dynastic families.

I always instinctively knew this, but I think it's important to keep the fact in mind, when trying to make comparisons between Korea and other Asian economies like Japan, China, etc.  None of these other countries has a similar economic system, when looked at in this light.  South Korea's current chaebol-based economy most resembles Japan's pre-War system, with its giant zaibatsu.

Whether it's good or bad, I can't judge.  Certainly, right now, when it comes to "conventional" measures of economic growth and prosperity, it's "working."  The way in which South Korea has weathered the recent global downturn is a veritable miracle, given its reliance on exports.  But I can't see that it's going to keep working indefinitely – such concentrated power strikes me as dangerous.  Especially since nowadays, the chaebol have one of their own, Lee Myung-bak (former Hyundai exec), in the Blue House.

Caveat: and the number is…

I have a visa number.  I got an email which was timestamped at 1:53 AM.

This is what this long, Kafka-esque waiting has been about.  So now, I'm over the hump, and I'd hazard a guess that I can officially consider myself employed by the Yeonggwang County schools.   Monday, I'll go to the Korean consulate, and submit my number in exchange from some shiny stickers for my passport, and then I can return to Korea and begin teaching.

I'm excited.  There will no doubt be a few more bureaucratic humps to pass over, but I feel much more optimistic, now.  I'm trying to decide if there's any last touristic thing I want to do in Fukuoka, before I go, but honestly, as I've been saying, I'm feeling pretty ennervated with regard to the rootless travel experience.  I may decide to just kind of be lazy these last few days.

Caveat: きつねうどん

I had kitsune udon for dinner last night and it was incredibly delicious.  It’s a type of udon (thick wheat noodles) served with broth and fried tofu (called 油揚げ=aburaage).  I think I must have had it a long time ago, but I didn’t remember what it was.  Now I think I will have to remember it and try making it sometime, or some creative derivative.
I keep flirting with vegetarianism, as many people know.  And the last few months, especially, I’ve been feeling really negative about meat, except perhaps seafood.  I’m not sure what’s driving it.  Partly, it’s health – I really think eating a lot of meat must be unhealthy.  The last few times I’ve had beef or pork, I’ve had an upset stomach for days afterward.
Also, there are all the articles I’ve read explaining that consuming meat (especially beef) has a carbon footprint as large as, if not larger than, driving cars, for example (under an average American’s diet, anyway).
Finally, I just seem to find a well-cooked and balanced vegetarian meal quite delicious.  So maybe it’s just a matter of personal aesthetics.
I’m unlikely to take the leap to a full-blown vegetarian commitment, as it’s not really my character.  I almost always eat what people suggest or put in front of me when I’m dining with others, both out of cultural deference and because I like trying new things.  But I will continue to explore vegetarian and vegan cuisine when given the option.

Caveat: the sustainable recession

According to the common wisdom (in economics, that is), Japan has essentially been in recession since around 1990.  I remember the 1980's – everyone talked about Japan the way people now talk about China:  it was going to take over the world, it was breaking all the economic rules, etc., etc.  And now, everyone in economics circles seems to view Japan as a "has been."

So it's unarguable that Japan has been in a sustained recession.  But I have two observations.

First, it really doesn't seem that bad here.  I know that as a tourist, and as a person who is only visiting a fairly small corner of the country (Kyushu's major cities), I'm not getting the full picture.  But countries with depressed economies feel depressed.  There's a dispiritedness in the people, which I was, for example, even conscious of during my driving around the US, last fall.  I don't really feel that, here.  You'd think, after 2 decades of supposed economic "failure," the people would seem broken down and miserable, but the country doesn't really feel that way.  That's my personal, uneducated, anecdotal observation.

My second thought is much more philosophical.  There is so much talk of "sustainability," these days.  And everyone acknowledges that in the very long term, constant material economic growth is unsustainable.  There's a limited amount of stuff on the planet (and in the solar system, and in the universe).  So looking out over thousands or millions of years, assuming our civilization keeps going… at some point, material economics is guaranteed to break down.

So why don't we begin questioning the received wisdom of the need for economic growth?  We can look at Japan as an example of not just a sustained recession, but, perhaps, a sustainable one?  More simply… why does Japan need to start "growing" again?  Can't it just sort of move along, not growing, maybe even shrinking a bit?  The people seem to be dealing with it pretty well.  Who wrote the book that says that economic growth is necessary?

These are just reflections of someone with no training in economics, but with an interest in such matters. 

Caveat: Mechanical Grace

I spent at least an hour yesterday watching a backhoe operator on a barge in the river.  He was dredging sand off the bottom of the river, and putting into a floating receptacle of some kind.   The backhoe was sitting on a floating platform, a simple barge, that also had a little hut and some anchoring devices of some kind that would sink down into the bed of the river.

It was interesting to me because he was operating the backhoe so gracefully. He would use the shovel end of the backhoe to push his barge around in the water, pushing off of another barge, off the side embankment of the river, and mostly pushing around on the bottom of the river. It was like watching a child navigating an inflatable swimming-pool-toy in a shallow pool.  Or maybe like watching a guy operating one of those gondolas in Venice. But it was all scaled up to involve this large machinery.

I wish I had had my video camera with me, to capture the movements, but here’s a picture of the machine, as he uses the shovel to push his barge backwards.


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Caveat: the stranger

I've commented before that in some ways,  I seem to like being an obvious foreigner – it seems to confirm or reinforce my internal feelings of alienation.  Yesterday I was forced to think about this when I found myself feeling uncomfortable because some foreigners, like myself (Westerners), were being friendly to me, and rather than being friendly back, I was being antisocial.   Not blatantly antisocial – just not opening up to the conversation.

Then again, sometimes I get antisocial with everyone, but I was thinking that if it had been locals trying to be friendly with me, I'd have been less antisocial, probably.  I was trying to figure out what was going on in my mind.

I didn't have much luck figuring things out, except to realize that I am (have always been, will probably always be) a loner.  And maybe one reason I don't mind existing in a country where I don't know the language, and where I stand out so much, etc., is because it allows me to be much more existentially alone.  The chances of being understood diminish to near zero.  Which seems to suit me in some weird way – it's like my mental process is:  "no one is going to understand me, anyway, so I might as well spend time around people who won't feel badly that they don't understand me."

Caveat: Best Crow Ever

I climbed up the ACROS building’s rooftop gardens, today. Here is a crow that lives near there.


Still, I’ve heard nothing from my new job (which is to say, I’m still waiting for my visa).  Sigh.  I’m so bad at waiting. I’m not even enjoying this vacation. Vacations are only fun, when you’re escaping from something, perhaps. I’ve nothing to escape from, only something to wait for. So… no fun.

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