Caveat: Happy Birthday, School

So it turns out that today is my school’s birthday. And, since this is Korea, that means I don’t have to work today. Hmm.

Actually, I’m not really into NOT working, these days. I’ve been really enjoying my job, and not really enjoying my “life-at-home” – because of the frustration and lack of control around my apartment situation. Hopefully, they won’t move me again. But… I’m still trying to come to terms with the latest round of disappointments and frustrations.  But… without complaining to anyone at work, which is hard. I just carry it around bottled up, and vent on this blog. I’m sure everyone is really tired of hearing about it. OK, OK. Change the subject.

I still have no internet, either. And I went to a PC방 last night in Yeonggwang only to find my blog site was blocked there, too. What’s with that, anway?  At this rate, I’m going to have to invest in one of those VPN accounts that Chinese disidents use when they want to surf the firewalled internet. And it’s just because I want to work on my blog? The thing that’s funny is that the blog itself isn’t blocked … anyone at my school or at that PC방 can view the content of it (and presumeably all the other blogs that are out there hosted by typepad) – I just can’t get at the administration website.  What’s the rationale between allowing people to view content but not make updates?  What, exactly, do they think they’re blocking? Is it a mistake?

Hmm.. probably: “Never attribute to malice that which can be more simply explained by stupidity.”

So I came to Gwangju, today, because I know where there’s a cafe with free wi-fi that doesn’t appear to have any annoying IP blocks on it. I’m sitting drinking iced coffee and downloading some episodes of dramas – because on top of everything else, my cable TV in my new apartment appears to work only sporadically. Yet another problem to try to ask for help on without seeming to be complaining about it. Not that cable TV is good for me. I lived just fine for 2 years in Ilsan without it, and never missed it. But given the lack of internet in my apartment, the cable TV was providing some distraction, anyway.

I’m not doing very well at NOT talking about my issues with my living situation, am I? I would go off and travel somewhere, but I’m really a bit burned out on that, too.

Well, back when my cable TV was working, guess what I saw? They were televising a “go-stop” tournament. I blogged about this game a few months ago. Seeing this on TV was almost more bizarre than the 24-hour baduk channel (바둑 is the Korean name for the game we call by the japanese name: “go”). Though it’s maybe not quite as bizarre as the fact that Korean cable TV has two channels devoted to televising Starcraft tournaments (Starcraft is a multiplayer video game).

Here’s a picture of the go-stop game on TV:


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Caveat: Just a bad dream

I awoke from a vivid but unpleasant dream this morning. I was moving into yet another apartment. Go figure. This time, the "apartment" was a traditional style Korean house (perhaps influenced in appearance by the historical drama I was watching yesterday afternoon). But it was full of machinery and network servers (hmm… shades of life in Long Beach). And… it was filthy. Of course. I started trying to clean. I found a corpse under the kitchen sink. The bathroom wall was rotting and full of maggots.

OK. It was just a bad dream.

I had kind of a bad day yesterday. Stewing in my new apartment, but I was feeling sickly — my stomach was upset, either from stress or something I ate Saturday. Or both. I had a "toseuteu" (toast) on Saturday — maybe that was it.

I caught up on watching some Korean dramas. I finished the "Oh My Lady" series, and started two new series: 제중원, which is the first Korean "historical drama" I've found interesting, taking place in 1880's Korea, around the establishment of the first western-style hospital in the country; and 연애시대, a contemporary romantic drama involving a divorced couple that keep gravitating back to each other.

Caveat: The Karmic Consequences of Complaints?

I don't dare complain to anyone about my new apartment – each time something has gone wrong, and I've said something negative about my apartment, the next apartment is worse, in some way.
It's easy to feel like someone in the administrative office hates me. It certainly leaves me feeling unwelcome and unliked. But… I really think they have no idea how this whole process has impacted my feelings. Koreans, in general, don't think about the feelings of others (especially "outsiders") the same way that many in the "West" seem to. And, I think it's possible that they have tended to interpret my complaints about my various apartments as "calls to action," when, in fact, I'm really mostly merely venting my feelings.

Anyway… so what's the new apartment like? It's very small. Smaller, even, than my apartment in Ilsan, by maybe several dozen square feet. But it's very clean. That's the positive. And the smallness doesn't actually bother me, although I admit I'm still missing that first place I was in in Yeonggwang, which, despite it's filth, was roomy and quirky. This new place is just a "box in a building" – but it's clean, and has an A/C unit (which I know I'll appreciate come the dog days of Korean high summer).

My biggest complaint about the new place is: the missing "extras" – many of those things that have been "standard furnishings" in each of my Korean apartments up until now. There is no washing machine (I'm supposed to use a public one in the lobby of my building – I don't see this happening very often, as it seems both inconvenient and fraught with communication difficulties vis-a-vis the other residents and the building manager), there is no microwave (my place in Ilsan had no microwave, but it did come with a toaster oven that functioned as an adequate substitute), there are no broom, trash can, toilet brush, or cleaning supplies of any kind (good thing it's clean, but, it means I'll have to invest in these things, which is a little bit annoying), there is no desk or chair (but the place is so small that I allowed the guys moving me in to convince me there was no point in getting a desk or chair – where would a desk and chair go?), there was no bedding (admittedly, they could see I had my own – that I had bought for my first place, because the stuff given to me at that place was too filthy to use), there were no kitchen dishes of any kind (again, they knew I had some of my own – but my set is incomplete and I'd been relying on things like a fry pan, bowl, etc., being provided).

OK… this is just more venting, right? I'm going to try very, very hard not to complain to the people who put me here, because at the rate things are going, if I do, next they'll stick me in a closet or a barley field somewhere with some chickens.

Caveat: Alligator needs a doctor

Today, I get to move – 3rd time since starting this job, last month. Maybe it will work out. Maybe not.

Meanwhile, busy day ahead of me. Some girls saw that I had used some tissue paper to wrap the mouth of the alligator, and immediately felt this was a medical emergency. They proceeded to operate, although they were also trying to watch Girls’ Generation (소녀시대 = a popular Korean pop group) music videos on the computer.



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Caveat: Staff Volleyball

We had staff volleyball yesterday afternoon. It typically happens on Wednesday afternoons, if it’s going to happen. This time, instead of it being “intramural,” Hongnong Elementary (my school) was playing against Beopseong Elementary (the next school down the road), and so we all piled into various vehicles at around 3 pm and drove over to Beopseong. I thought I would have to play. But they were taking the competition with the other school too seriously, and they had already seen that I wasn’t really very good at volleyball, so, as the game against the other school progressed, it became evident that I wouldn’t be invited to play. I just sat and watched.

First, there were a couple women’s games (female staff vs female staff), and Hongnong won those games. My fellow foreign teacher (who I got to know because she went through orientation training with me at Gwangju last month) played for her school’s team, and really did quite well (better than I have done so far, anyway).

Then it was time for the men’s games. They played three games, and after Beopseong won 2, that meant there was a tie between the schools, 2 games to 2, because Hongnong had won the women’s and Beopseong had won the men’s.

The final game was quite suspenseful, and, honestly, some of the most entertaining volleyball I’ve ever watched. I didn’t resent not being allowed to play – I probably would have messed up. The last game came down to 20 points vs 20 points. There were a lot of amazing volleys, too. And finally, Hongnong won, 22 to 20. The pictures aren’t that good, but here are a few.

First, the women’s game – you can see my colleague Donna, who teaches at Beopseong, looking victorious after a winning a point.


This is the last men’s game, during a long volley after the game was tied 20-20. That’s our vice-principal looking appropriately dynamic in the white shirt in the foreground.


This is a picture of the Beopseong campus.


[this is a “back-post” added 2010-05-29]

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Caveat: Foodie?

Here is a little-known secret fact about me.

There are not that many websites for which I am a "regular." Most you could probably deduce, simply by "reading between the lines" on my blog a little bit: huffingtonpost,, wikipedia, But there was one that surprised even myself, when I caught myself typing this address into my browser this morning:

Hmm… jeez, am I a "foodie"?

Maybe. I sometimes fantasize about my "next career" being that of chef. Not that it will come true. Why, specifically, LA Times? Because it's a pretty good food section – there are so many interesting restaurants and food trends happening in LA. Also, at least so far, the LA Times is one of the few major US newspapers that hasn't taken to experimenting with throwing up "pay barriers" for their online content. Not to mention the fact that I lived in LA for almost 10 years, and that was one of the paper-pulp version's sections that I browsed pretty loyally – sitting in the Burbank Starbucks on Saturday mornings, and all that.

Caveat: it is what it is

monday. less negative than last week. mostly over whatever flu i had, and mostly reached equilibrium RE the housing mess (not to say it's resolved – only that "it is what it is" and life goes on). another good day with the kids – although those first graders are hard to control, sometimes, especially when my co-teacher, who seems to trust in my experience, wanders off to take care of other business and isn't around if a discipline issue might arise (um, which it did, but i managed a stand-off with the kid involved until the end of class, when i found the co-teacher so she could explain my issue to the willful child in question). and for all that, i feel fine about it. now i have to go back to my unloved, internetless and gloomy temporary apartment – it's raining but i might take a long walk regardless. or watch another episode of some korean drama that i downloaded over the weekend. or both.

Caveat: Horses?

I wonder what horses symbolize, for me. I awoke this mornng from a vivid dream that included horses.

I was leading a group of Hongnong kids along a street in Hongnong. This is not something I've done – my activities with the kids so far has been limited to inside the school – but it's easy to visualize, as I see kids that I'm teaching around town quite a bit. But I came to a field at the edge of the town, and there were horses. I was trying to get the kids to try riding the horses, but they were reluctant. I wasn't getting upset, but I was feeling frustrated. Some Korean adults of uncertain identity were looking on. The air smelled of wood-smoke, and it was cloudy, a bit blustery, but not damp.
The weather, these last few days, has reminded me of my winter/spring in Chile in 94, and everything is turning deeply green, as spring advances. I think the weather in the dream was based on that. And there are a lot of horses in Chile. Certainly, there are basically zero horses to be found in rural Korea – I think at the close of the war, in the 50's, they had eaten all their horses, and tractors, jeeps and trucks provided a better substitute than going out and finding a new stock of horses for the country.

But horses must mean something to me, personally. I had a period when horses were a pretty major part of my life, during those months I spent in rural Mexico in 87, when I actually had my own horse and rode every day. Why was I trying to get the kids to ride the horses, in the dream? Why were they refusing? I guess not very much was happening in the dream, but it was very, very vivid.

Caveat: 지난주말 일요일에 사진 많이 찍었어요

Here are some more pictures from last weekend’s hike over to Gamami.
First, of me – the town in the valley behind me is Happy, Harmonious Hongnong.
Next, walking down the highway near Gamami.
A little before that, looking down from the mountain, southward, over the Beopseong inlet.
Last, the (in-)famous nuclear power plant – one of the largest nuclear power production facilities in the world, from what I understand. “Springfield, Korea!”

Caveat: Trying to brainstorm positivities

That sounds stupid.  But drifting through some old haunts, today, I was trying to think of ways that I could try to stay more positive about my new situation.  Actually, as I've said before, I'm not really that down on any aspect of it except for one:  the apartment mess.  But that's such a huge factor, it's influencing my mood too much.  So… one thing I can do, is simply avoid my apartment as much as possible – such as taking this trip, this weekend.  But that can be exhausting.

I need some "out of the house" hobbies, right?  I was jogging somewhat regularly, when I was living in Ilsan last year – that needs to start, again.  There're a lot of interesting places to walk around, in Hongnong – I have to get past the "after work momentum" and make more effort to hike around in the evenings.

Just some thoughts.

Caveat: More Alligators For All

Yesterday with some of the afterschool kids (I don’t have an afterschool class on Thursday, but my co-teacher and fellow foreign teacher Casi have one) were playing with the green plastic alligators.  They were having a lot of fun.  Here is a picture.
Here is a picture of one of my first-graders, Haneul, who insisted I needed to take a picture of her.
Today is Buddha’s Birthday, a national holiday.  Casi and I walked over to that Baekje Buddhism monument this morning (appropriate, right?).   Here is a picture of an unexpectedly ascetic-looking Buddha that we saw there – see his ribs, showing?
Now I’m in Gwangju, where I found a place with FAST free internet wi-fi.  I’m fixing and updating my blog.

Caveat: “Please, I’m hungry.”

In the 3rd grade classes, we've been doing some very simple command forms, as part of the national curriculum. We had a little dialog for our current chapter's "role play" section. There's a little animated cartoon that goes along with it, that's played on the DVD. There is a prince and poor man, and they're having a little conversation. Note that although this is English class, the story being played out seems deeply Korean in character (in my humble opinion). I'm not sure if it's based on a Korean folktale, a European folktale, or is strictly a product of the authors' imaginations. Regardless, it could work in a medieval European setting or in a pre-modern Korean one (meaning… up to, well, just a few years ago). Here's the dialog:

Prince: Sit down, please.
Poor Man: Thank you. I'm hungry.
Prince: Oh no! Look at your hands. Wash your hands.
Poor Man: Oh, please! I'm hungry.
Prince: OK. Open your mouth. [Prince puts some food in the Poor Man's mouth]
Poor Man: Thank you.
Prince: You're welcome.

So we had the kids playing out this extremely simple little tale, in pairs, having memorized their lines. Most of the kids are pretty much playing it "by the book," with very little emoting or "acting." A few get into the role, with some begging gestures when the poor man says "Please," for example, or a supercilious glare from the prince when he remarks on the poor man's dirty hands. But one pair of kids played it over the top, and I was laughing hard when they finished.

The best part was when the boy, who was playing the prince, said "OK. Open your mouth." The girl who was playing the poor man opened her mouth, with an appropriately starving and pleading expression on her face, and the boy, with a great deal of flourish, reached under his desk and pulled out a little thermos. He proceeded to carefully and slowly unscrew the top, and poured out a measured portion of the liquid inside. This was totally unexpected for both me and my co-teacher – we just watched, surprised. The boy, as prince, then glanced, with an arched eyebrow, at the "poor man," and proceeded to… drink the juice himself!

The "poor man" was devastatedly disappointed. Her face showed it, too. The prince poured another small amount into the cup, and only THEN offered some to the poor man. At this point she took the drink – with a perfect expression mixing desperation and disgust – drank it slowly.

It was like watching a tea ceremony, but with the intentional rudeness of the server drinking for himself before serving his guest. Which, of course, captured perfectly the socioeconomic tensions lurking in the little play's subtext. All the students, the co-teacher and I all applauded and laughed together at this excellent performance.

Caveat: Metaphors for a Micromanaged Homelife

At the risk of annoying my loyal and not-so-loyal readers with my ongoing negativity RE my living situation, I'm going to rant some more.

I guess that's what there is to do, given the isolation I'm feeling, sitting in my gloomy, depressing, temporary apartment, internetless and out-of-control.

In order to cope with, specifically, that last element – the feeling of being out-of-control – I let my mind wander to past experiences and fantasies that capture my current experience. I have been obsessing on 4 metaphors.

1) The Army. I served in the US Army in 1990~92, including training in South Carolina and "permanent station" here in Korea (up by the DMZ). The feeling of having no control over where I'm staying, over what's going to happen next with where I'm sleeping, of having my personal life micromanaged – these feelings are something I haven't experienced with such intensity since my Army experience.

2) Prison. I have never been to prison. But I found myself sitting in my little apartment, and coping with my current feelings of frustration by thinking: "this could be prison. As prison, it's not so bad. I can go out and take a walk. I can cook something for myself. I can watch TV. If I'm feeling obsessive, I can kill time by scrubbing the vast quantities of mold in the shower, or by sweeping up the previous occupant's copious stray pubic hairs, to be found in every nook and cranny. Life isn't so bad."

3) Foucault's Panopticon. Related to the prison idea: the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, conceptualized a sort of "ultimate dystopian prison" wherein everyone was constantly being watched, monitored, disciplined. A glass prison. I think of this specifically because my current temporary space has a giant picture window facing the school itself, across a gap of maybe 10 meters. There are no drapes or curtains – and I don't really see how I could justify finding some, given this is, supposedly, temporary – it'll be over in a couple of weeks, right? My coworkers, if they're lurking in the school in the evening, can sit and watch the "foreigner" – what is he doing? Oh… he's watching TV. Oh… he's pacing. Oh… he's picking his nose. Oh… he's cooking something. Wow… he's eating kimchi. Weird foreigner.

4) The Zoo. All foreigners in Korea can sometimes feel like a zoo animal. The above-described "panopticon" feeling contributes to this further. I feel as if I'm constantly being watched, and sometimes it feels like it's strictly for the amusement of those around me. I realized that in actuality, most of these people aren't even aware of me. Koreans, typically (and I hate to stereotype too much), don't really pay attention to their surroundings much. Perhaps no one has even realized that the "foreigner show" is on, in the window across the way. But if they do realize, then surely their curiosity will get the better of them, and they'll be watching me. When I was much younger, I tried writing a short story, in the science fiction genre, about a man who had been kidnapped by aliens and was being kept simply because he was interesting to watch. The story was a bit Kafkaesque: no real point; just living as a zoo animal, for the aliens. I think others have written stories like this, too, although I can't recall any specifics.

These are my metaphors. This is my mental space.

And yet… as you can see from my previous post, if I set these things aside, the work itself is going fine. I'm teaching well, and competently, and it's fun, too. The classroom has become a refuge. This is very similar to my darkest times when teaching at LBridge (hagwon). There, the darkness was caused by feelings of being overwhelmed by the offhanded, randomized and unpredictable nature of life in the staff-room. Here, the darkness is being caused by feeling of being overwhelmed by the offhanded, randomized and unpredictable nature of my housing situation. Not so dissimilar, eh? I'm suddenly wishing I had a much "fatter" schedule – if I had 40 or 50 classes, I could just bury myself in my work and I'd have zero time to meditate on my barracks/prison/panopticon/zoo.

Caveat: Kindergarteners

I finally had my first time with the "kindergarteners." Actually, the Korean term that is translated as kindergarten is 유치원 (yu-chi-won) and it really means any schooling below first grade – so the age range is from "barely out of diapers" right up to 6 or so (western counting). Many public elementary schools don't have kindergartens, but this one that I'm working at, because of the same extra funding that allows them to have two amazing and underappreciated native English teachers, also has a kindergarten wing. And on Wednesday mornings, barring other events, I get to teach the little ones.

I spend 30 minutes with each group: oldest, middle, and youngest. They were great fun. Kids that age are easy to teach language to, because they just sit and soak it up, like sponges. Half-an-hour a week won't get them fluent, but at least it gets them exposed to it, a little – kind of like the Spanish that American kids get so often in lower grades.

I showed them one of my famous plastic finger-chomping alligators (actually, it was my co-teacher's new alligator, who had bought a few after seeing how I used them in class and liking the idea). They were very, very focused. And we did the 코코코 game (ko-ko-ko means nose-nose-nose): you touch parts of your face, and name them, and then at some point you make an intentional mistake, like pointing at your ear and saying "nose." The kids think this is hilarious, and it helps them learn the vocabulary. You can apply it to other things too, like piles of toys in the shapes of food, or whatever. It's a pretty informal game, but those work best.

Finally, we read a story (there are some pretty good Korean-developed curricular materials that include custom-written stories, that I was given to use). Reading picture books to kids is great, you can stop and talk about what's going on in the story much more smoothly than when watching a video or listening to a CD. It becomes more INTERACTIVE, and can work at any level: "Where's the dog?" "On roof!" "Why?" "Hide."

Caveat: Worse than a hagwon job?

I was lying awake last night, overwhelmed and frustrated. Why am I taking this so hard?

I think I always tend to view my "home" (wherever it is and such as it is) as a refuge from whatever frustrations I'm dealing with in life.  So having the "home" situation BE the frustrating situation that I have to cope with leaves me feeling exceptionally naked and vulnerable.

When they gave me my first apartment, and there were issues, I was angry for a little bit, but I told myself: "it looks like they had some BAD foreign teachers before me [meaning dirty, unreliable, etc.] and I can prove myself different, and earn their respect." But when, one month on, they pull that out from under me, shuffle me around like a dog to a kennel, and they put me into a temporary apartment that would make a Guatemalan Discount Hotel look hospitable, well… to put it mildly, I feel underappreciated. 

And never is there clear communication. That's the Korean Communication Taboo … I've written about that before. But when applied to my living situation, it's extra frustrating.  And it strikes me as deeply UNPROFESSIONAL. I'll rant more about professionalism later, in a separate post – Koreans have no monopoly on lack of professionalism in the world. 

I lay awake and found myself thinking: "Can it be that working in hagwon is actually better? Have I DOWNGRADED my career? Have I moved to a third-world country?" Hmmm…. that last point is relevant. I already knew this intellectually, and now I'm coming to grips with the "facts on the ground": Korea IS a third-world country, but Seoul is a first-world city, and so it appears that I'm going to have to reduce and alter expectations in a BIG WAY, to adapt to life in the provinces away from the capital.

But honestly… I have to ask, where's the "pride of place"? Or is this particular school just exceptionally messed up, in that respect?  Is it better at other schools?

Caveat: What am I? A Freakin’ Cleaning Service?

My first reaction to my new living space: "What am I? A Freakin' Cleaning Service?" They have me move into a new apartment, and, because I find living in filth unbearable, I will end up cleaning the hell out of it. And then… they move me to a new place? They could get a lot of apartments cleaned, over a 12 month contract.  I will post pictures. Later. I'm sorry… I keep meaning to stop complaining about this whole mess, but it keeps… staying mess-y.

Caveat: English Teachers

A person dies and goes to Heaven. St Peter asks, "Who is it?" The person replies, "It is I." St Peter says, "Go to Hell, we already have enough English teachers."

Caveat: My life as an inconvenient dog

It was pouring rain last night, and continued this morning. I heard that there is a Korean proverb that says moving on a rainy day brings good luck, but I'm not feeling lucky, at the moment.

Today is the day of my eviction. Today, I have to move out of my so-diligently-cleaned apartment, and into the temporary housing (i.e. staff dorm) for the next two weeks. Today, I feel like an inconvenient pet dog, being shunted into a kennel.

The irony is that yesterday I had a really good day at work – if one disregards the black cloud that was hovering over me because of the housing situation. I felt like I was "doing the right thing" in all of my classes, and that I was able to keep control and stay on target with respect to my lesson plans (although the ones where I was co-teaching all seemed to run a bit long).

There's added irony: during my worst days at LBridge hagwon, I felt very pleased and content with my "home life" (i.e. my living situation, meaning apartment, location, the stability of those things, etc.) and miserable with my "at work" situation. At this moment, I feel things have reversed exactly 180 degrees – now I'm miserable about my "home life" (specifically the instability being foisted on me by my indecisive adminstrators and having to move repeatedly) and pretty content with work.

I guess you can't win them all.

Caveat: President X

I have seen so little discussion of Obama's character that I find genuinely plausible, at a core level.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, blogging for The Atlantic, recently, finally managed to strike a chord for me. He writes:

"My sense, in reading about Obama before he was a national politician or even a politician at all, is that this kind of cultural conservatism is genuine and not a ploy. There's a section in The Bridge where, having graduated from Columbia, Obama becomes a kind of ascetic and basically tries to remove himself from all the worldly things that tend to tempt men. It reminded very much of the kind of thing you see black men go through in prison, the most obvious being Malcolm X. Indeed, I've always thought there was something of Malcolm in Obama–the mix of humor and sternness, the notion of re-invention, the cultural conservatism."

The implication is that far from being the kind of left-wing liberal that the Right caricatures him to be, Obama is a kind of "radical centrist," which, in the long run, they should be much more worried about – because he's the embodiment of what happens when "by any means necessary" meets head-to-head, and then merges, with pragmatism, ambition and perhaps, even, compassion. Indeed, maybe Obama's a sort of "compassionate conservative."

Caveat: 가마미

Today, I went with my friend Peter (who’s finished his contract at hagwon in Ilsan and who is visiting me for a few days) on a long, long hike over to Gamami beach (가마미), which is the coastal part of Hongnong Town. It was a great hike. Here are a few pictures.




[This is a “back-post” added 2010-05-21]

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Caveat: And then came the deluge

Well, it wasn’t really much of a deluge, as deluges go.

There have been some men working on digging up a sidewalk outside of the hallway outside of my classroom, the last few days. I guess they made a mistake, and piled some dirt in a ditch that was important for draining something. The consequence was that water started oozing into the hallway, making a flood.

My 6th grader, Rachel, came into the classroom toward the end of the lunch hour, and said, “Teacher! You must come the hallway. Now! See this!”

I poked my head out into the hall, and saw the flood. But what was really interesting to me was the way that there was a group of students cleaning it up – with no adult supervision. 5th and 6th graders, fetching mops, and moving the water down the hallway and splashing it out the door. They were not working very efficiently, but the fact they had taken the initiative to do this only serves as another confirmation to my speculations yesterday about how Korean culture still has deeply embedded memes about preparing for and coping with an unknowable future.

Maybe that’s too deep. The flood wasn’t that deep. Here’s a picture of the kids with mops, tackling the flood.


It was a day of minor crises. In my afterschool class for the first graders, a new enrollee punched another kid in the nose while my back was turned. I got to experience that inevitable moment, that every elementary teacher gets to experience at least once, of being bled upon profusely by a wailing child. This was not the first time, for me. And interestingly, the whole thing didn’t really phase me.

It’s weird how when the adults around me do stupid shit, I get furious – I’m thinking of my current mess involving my housing. But when kids around me do stupid shit, I just smile and say, “it’ll be OK.” I guess that’s a good thing.

I carried the child to the nurse’s office, down the hall, and she installed some cotton in his nostrils. I separated the two boys involved, and was hopefully appropriately stern – I suspect the new kid had punched the other because the other had been teasing him for being the new kid. So I assume both were at fault.

Anyway – I have a ruined shirt, with bloodstains. I hope my necktie can be saved – I like the one I was wearing (it’s the one I bought in Germany, showing a map of Leipzig, in silk – the kids think it’s cool: “oh, necktie map!”).

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Caveat: Certain Uncertainty

I was so angry yesterday. I was told (not consulted, simply told) that I would have to move out of my apartment at the middle of next week. And that my new apartment wouldn't actually be ready for me to occupy until sometime in early June; consequently, I would have to live in "temporary housing" for around 2 weeks – I guess the school's teacher/staff dormitory. I got to see this dormitory – it's about like my apartment in Ilsan (a small single-room studio), but it seems I will be sharing the space with other employees-in-transit. This was not entirely clear.

I suppose, as I reflect on this, that I brought this on myself: the main thing (really, the only thing) that I complained about, at the start of my job, was the quality of my housing. So for all I know, this little nightmare is the consequence of some bureaucrat in the administrative office getting wind of my complaints and trying to "help" me. I don't feel helped.

First of all, I had worked out a sort of peace with myself about my apartment. I dealt with the filth by buying lots of cleaning supplies and scrubbing the place industriously over the last several weeks. And so part of my resentment now is over this "wasted" investment. Also, I'd been getting comfortable with the positives of the apartment – its large size, it's unique configuration, its very convenient location in downtown Yeonggwang. Mostly, I was just glad to be having a place that I could call "home" again.

And now that's all messed up.

Living and working in Korean society sometimes reminds me, quite a bit, of military life: the sudden, unplanned-for changes in course, the arbitrary announcements, the disconcerting mixture of carrots and sticks, arranged so differently than in American life. So they throw some new thing at you, and you just have to cope. I have been in the habit of calling this "Confucian Immersion Therapy" – but now, I'm not so sure. I'm not so sure how Confucian it all is – a lot of things that make Korean society and culture are attributed to the 500+ years of state-sponsored, orthodox Confucianism (hence the moniker you hear sometimes: more Chinese than the Chinese).

But this pel-mel, from-the-top style of people management doesn't really match my understanding of Confucianism. I think it must arise from something else. My guess is the centuries of oppression, both by conquerers and an internal, highly entrenched and privileged elite, have led to a culture of "adapt to the moment at all costs." And, just like the military embeds uncertainty in its culture as a kind of semi-intentional means of ensuring preparedness among the troops, I suspect Korean society may embed the same sort of military-style uncertainty, for similar reasons: you never know who might come over the mountain next week.

What Confucianism offers (and, prior to that, what Buddhism offered, and, more contemporarily, what Christianity is offering) is a sort of equanimity for dealing with this certain uncertainty. A reason. A why and how for coping. But the uncertainty itself, so prevailing, so dominant, so universal – that's just plain old Korean.

I believe in the selective evolution of cultural traits – so I assume that this arose in Korean culture because it was selected for, by historical factors. Now, it is deeply embedded, and, vis-a-vis the broader, emerging, global culture, it offers both advantages and disadvantages. It makes Koreans great entrepreneurs when they are the minority (think of the millions of Korean diaspora, successful small business people all over the planet). When they're the controlling, dominant majority, as in their own country, it can make the whole enterprise seem a bit… well… challenging to deal with.

Back to my dilemma: I've made my frustrations known. I explained my feelings to a coworker this morning: "I feel like furniture." This simple sentence seemed to be something he could wrap his mind around, and made clear that I was unhappy. But he only shrugged, and said, "sometimes it's like that." See? Equanimity.

Caveat: Hacking

I'm in a bad mood. I'll give more info about that later, but meanwhile, I'm trying an experiment. I'm trying to hack my way around the fact that I'm being blocked from updating my blog host at work. This is a test-post. We'll see if it goes through.

Caveat: 회식

Korean schools (both public schools and private hagwon) seem to have a firm tradition of the periodic 회식 (hoe-sik [the official romanization is misleading, pronunciation is /hwehshik/] = meal of raw fish), where all the staff gathers together to eat sashimi (회), sushi (조밥), etc., and drink soju and beer and bond together as an organization.

[CORRECTION, added 2010-05-23: I guess the word 회 in this phrase actually means “get-together” or “group activity” according to one of my Korean-speaking readers – but I had always assumed it referred to the sashimi, because 회 also means sashimi, and that’s always – without exception – what was served at these get-togethers, in my experience.]

Korean business dinners are highly ritualized affairs, with complex rules for serving and downing shots of soju with the principal, vice-principal, eldest teacher, etc. Everyone sits down cross-legged on the floor at a single long table – the women staff tend to sit toward the ends, the men in the middle arranged roughly by age (not seniority, which isn’t quite the same) so that the oldest are near the middle of the length of the table.

I mostly try to resist ending up drinking to much, but it’s very difficult. It was interesting to see the principal (who seems very “upright” – not quite the right word but you get the image, maybe) ending up very drunk – because he has to drink some for each shot he forces one of his underlings to consume. He “held court” – sitting in his spot and having people come to him and serve him and he would them serve them. Meanwhile, the vice-principal was making rounds doing the exact same thing starting from the other end, but he was mobile and the people he visited were stationary. In this way, by the end of the evening, each of them had done at least one shot with all the main people under them (I don’t think they did it with everyone, but maybe down to the department-head level).

It was much more ritualized than what I have been used to at hagwon 회식, but it also managed to feel more friendly. Hagwon events always felt awkward, with a lot of tension between various bosses and sub-bosses, probably due to the for-profit nature of the hagwon biz, and the fact that that means no one’s job is secure if the CEO decided to cull the ranks. Of course, everyone manages to show up the next morning as if nothing happened.

I wonder how much of Korean civilization has been implemented by people with hangovers?

Caveat: 예…

Every day I have scrupulously greeted the cleaning lady at my new school – slight bow, “안녕하십니까?” [annyeonghasimnikka]  Mostly, I’ve gotten just a gruff “예..” [ye] in response. But then yesterday on the stairs, as I’m dodging her diligent mop, she stops me and says I’m a “good teacher” (in Korean, I didn’t understand perfectly, but something in the vein of “…선생님…좋은데…” [seonsaengnim…joheunde…] so I caught the drift of it. I felt really happy.
In other news, yesterday evening I managed to get my new cellphone (well, actually it’s a new number with a month-to-month contract, on my old handset).  It was a very proud moment – I negotiated the whole thing, by myself, at the “SHOW” store in Yeonggwang, in Korean! It was very bad Korean. But still… ^_^

Caveat: Hantucky

I have decided to call my new home Hantucky – a combination of “Han” meaning “Korea,” and the increasingly productive place-name suffix “-tucky,” meaning “some place kind of like Kentucky” (cf. the popular appellation Fontucky, for Fontana, California).

Here is another picture of my school, looking northwest toward the mountain behind it. Behind that, you will find the infamous nuclear power plant, and the Yellow Sea. I want to go hiking over that mountain, soon.


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Caveat: Monday Morning

My first real Monday.  Feeling very positive and optimistic about work, and everything.   It feels like a "first Monday" because, up until now, I haven't faced a full, regular, normal 5-day workweek.  We'll see how things go.

Caveat: Getting around

This morning I decided to come to Gwangju – it being the last day of my pop-vacation (neologism in the spirit of "pop quiz").   I got the 9:05 from Yeonggwang, and I was planning to coming downtown when I got to Gwangju.  Gwangju has a subway – but it's kind of lame as subways go – only one line, and that single line doesn't make it to either the bus terminal or the train station (although it does manage to pass the airport).  You can walk to the subway from the bus terminal, but it'll take about 10~15 minutes (10 large city blocks).  Or you can figure out a bus or take a taxi.

But as I was coming into Gwangju, zigzagging through the sprawling western suburbs of the city as the bus does, the bus stops at a place called Songjeong-gongwon (Songjeong Park), and I realized that it was really close to one of the far western stations of the subway line.  So I hopped off the bus there instead of at the terminal, walked about 2 blocks to the subway station, and came downtown.  By doing this, I saved a lot of time – it's a very efficient way to get to downtown Gwangju, it seems like.

Caveat: 홍농이나 목포

Today, I went out to Hongnong to hang out with my FFT (“fellow foreign teacher”) and experienced severe apartment envy.  Not only do I envy the fact that she lives within walking distance of work, but also her apartment is just as big as mine and much cleaner and brighter (more and better windows) than mine.  Ah well… such random inequities are inevitable, right?  I will try to focus on the positives of my apartment in Yeonggwang.  It’s more centrally located and convenient to a marketplace and bus station.  And it doesn’t have Jehovah’s Witnesses lurking about on Saturday mornings – we shooed some off at her place this morning.
Anyway… I wanted to walk up the mountain west of Hongnong, but she wasn’t interested.  I’ll do that on my own, some other time, I guess.
Here is a picture of Hongnong Middle School, seen from the main drag.  Note the rural character of the community.  Heh.


Meanwhile, here are some pictures of my long walk around Mokpo yesterday.





[This is a “back-post” added 2010-05-09]

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Caveat: Here and there

I still have no internet at home.  I'm at a public PC since I'm not at work these several days due to the sudden unexpected holiday.  For 500 won I can check my email, etc., but I'm not really missing it that much.  I went on a long wandering exploration today.  I took a bus to Mokpo, a city I've never been to before, and walked for 5 hours.  Down avenues, past the harbor, up a mountain, and through the downtown.  It's a pretty OK city.  The cool thing about walking everywhere in a new city, is that one can get oriented pretty fast to its layout.  I know where the bus terminal, ferry terminal, train terminal and city hall are, as well as the Homeplus department store and the main market and downtown shopping areas.  All by having walked past them.

Anyway, more later.  I'll try to get internet at my home next week - I'll need to have a coworker interact with the company in Korean to pull it off, I think – I'm just not that competent yet.

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