Caveat: Soul mate

Tuesday was the 10th anniversary of my estranged wife’s suicide. That sounds strange: “estranged.” I feel there would be something dishonest to simply write: “my wife’s suicide” – because if she hadn’t died, we’d be divorced by now – I have no doubt. It’s only on technical grounds that I’m a widower and not a run-of-the-mill divorced guy.

pictureBut the imperfection between us was not a perfect imperfection. Which is to say, there were important, significant, good things between us. And I miss those, sometimes. We had agreed, early on, that we were not “soul mates.” Which was something we both, nevertheless, believed in. Which meant that we knew that ours was an imperfect match. But we were friends – even best friends, for a long time. We could talk about stuff. Or argue about stuff.

Some time back, surfing around the internet, I ran across the following quote, embedded in someone’s blog:

People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that’s holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down the walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then they leave.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

This is a definition of “soul mate” that I find challenging. And interesting. Yet… by that definition, there is no doubt that Michelle was, in fact, my soul mate.

[Shown above, one of my favorite pictures of Michelle, with her son (my stepson), Jeffrey, at her University of Minnesota graduation. She had become a chemical engineer, earlier that day.]

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Caveat: Riding down, riding up, riding along…

It was a very up-and-down day.  Or down-and-up day.  Or something like that.  Great mood!  Terrible mood.  Great mood!  Terrible mood!  Great mood.  Like that.

First, I was in a good mood.  I had really good classes with the preschoolers.  I could tell they liked me.  I could tell the Korean teachers over there like me.  I thought we had fun with the kids, too.  We did monkeys jumping on the bed.  We read a story about drawing rainbows, and then we drew rainbows.  We talked about colors.

Then I was in a bad mood.  We were testing the kids, today, for the 4th graders.  It was kind of a last-minute thing.  Maybe not for everyone, but for me, since I'd only heard about it yesterday.  Communication (and lack thereof) works that way, in Korean workplaces.  And my coteacher for the 4th graders changed how she wanted me to do the "speaking part" of the test at literally the very last minute.  So I felt like I was testing the kids without much of a footing.  But I tried my best.  I kind of know where these kids stand, ability-wise, at this point, anyway.  So, as usual, some of that subjectivity came into play.

Then I was in a good mood.  Lunch was tasty, and at least a dozen kids said, "teacher teacher!"  and I said, "what?" and they said, "hi!"  

And then I was in a terrible mood.  Haewon said that lesson plans for the month of July for the afterschool program were due today.  I doubted this (and, retrospectively, I was right – no one said a thing about lesson plans today – they WOULD normally have been due today, but today was staff volleyball day, and volleyball trumps minor administrative things like monthly lesson plans).  I had been planning to work on my lesson plans and finish them tomorrow, since I have an easy schedule on Thursdays.  But grumblingly, I set to work on my plans in my one free period of the day, after lunch.  And I finished them up, roughly.  And printed them out.

And then it was staff volleyball day, and Beopseongpo Elementary came to Hongnong for inter-school staff competition.

And I was in a good mood, because I saw my colleague Donna, who works there at Beopseongpo and who I had gotten to know during training back in April.  Donna's cool.  Very clear headed.  Kind.

And then Mr Kim (the PE teacher, and exactly like PE teachers anywhere, in any culture – he requires no further description) asked me to join the team, during game number three among the men staff.  I was thinking that because it was inter-school play, the game was too important for such a bad volleyball player as myself to be included.  But I took it as a friendly gesture that he was inviting me to join.  But too much was on the line:  it was one game to each school, and Hongnong was losing.  So after about a third of the game, he was making disgusted facial expressions and he switched me out.  I mean… I understand, from a "gotta win" perspective – I don't belong on the volleyball court.  I know this.  But it feels just as humiliating now as it did in highschool PE in 1981.  I'm better at "solitary" sports: running, hiking, etc.  I'm terribly uncoordinated.

And I was in a terrible mood.  I was walking to catch a bus home to Yeonggwang, feeling dejected and grumpy.

And then one of the preschool teachers, with three hyperactive preschoolers bouncing good-naturedly in the back of her car, pulls to a stop beside me on the streets of Hongnong and asks me where I'm going.  In Korean.  And I answer.  And she offers me a ride.  She's going that way – one of these kids isn't hers, and she's got to deliver him to his mom.  So I get in and  I ride with this frazzled mom/teacher and three very happy, excited (because the English foreigner teacher is riding in their car!), loud children down the expressway to Yeonggwang.  

I'm in a great mood.  The mom is talking to me in a sort of gentle Korean monologue of which I understand more than I expect but less than I need, punctuated with entirely comprehensible, repeated reminders to the kids to sit still, stop kicking the seat, don't throw things please, etc., etc.  The life of moms and preschool teachers, anywhere.

And she drops the kid with the kid's mom at the main intersection in Yeonggwang, where's she waiting with her car.  And she drops me off at the traffic circle, a block south closer to my apartment, and goes zooming off, reminding the kids to stop bouncing in the back, but smiling kindly.

And I realize I've left my cellphone on the seat of her car.  Which is bad enough.  But if it was just that, I'd have lived without a cellphone until I could chase her down tomorrow at work.  But my apartment key is dangling on a bauble attached to my cellphone.  I can't get into my apartment.  And I can't call anyone to say that I can't get into my apartment. 

So I'm in a terrible mood.  Trying to think of what I should do.  Stay in a motel for the night?  At least I have my wallet.  Find a pay phone… and call someone who can call someone else to find out this woman's number so I can call her and get my cellphone and apartment key?  What to do, what to do?

And then  I recognize the other mom, driving by.  The one we just left the little boy with, at the other intersection.  I flag her down.  And in my halting Korean, I explain I've left my phone in the other woman's car.  She grins, and scoops up her own cellphone and speed-dials her friend, the woman I'd just had a ride with.  Explains that I'd forgotten my cellphone, and tells me she'll zoom back to the traffic circle shortly.

Did I mention it was raining?

I wait in the rain for 4 minutes, and the white Hyundai zooms back up with the frazzled, friendly mom-slash-coworker, and she rolls down the window and the little boy in the back hands me my cell phone.  "아주 고마워요," I bow gratefully.

I'm in a great mood, as I walk back home to the distant rumbling of thunder.  

Caveat: Knees, Toes and Monkeys

I have been discovering how much fun the younger students have with “TPR songs” – “TPR” is an acronym for “total physical response” which is a rather grandiosely-named language-teaching methodology which basically means “have kids move around because it activates their learning.”  I’ve always been a believer in this – although I was always personally a very visual learner, I know there are kids who learn better when material is connected to movement (kinesthetic learners).  So TPR songs just means songs where there are physical actions that the kids can do. 

I’ve been going out into youtubeland and finding good videos to show the kids.  Some are more successful than others.  Here are two that have been by far the two most popular so far.  I have that CJ version of “5 little monkeys” stuck in my head, and the every time I see a first grader now, she or he will say “teacher!  knees and toes!”

Caveat: Handwriting

I was having a problem, when I started out, with my first graders “lying” about who they were. They would switch names with each other when I was calling attendance. I was generally able to sort things out… but it often would eat up 10 to 15 minutes of class time, and would tend to put them in a rowdy mood.

For that, however, I discovered a fairly elegant solution. I have them write their names on little slips of paper that I hand to them as they enter the classroom. For whatever reason, they don’t seem as comfortable making stuff up in writing – partly, at that age, it’s pride in being able to put their own names in writing. Also, I think part of the fun in name-switching is that it’s a performance for their peers, which having them write mostly eliminates. I insist that they write their Korean names – “English names” are too fluid and their level of ownership of them is weak at best.

But this has the consequence that I have to decipher a bunch of 7 year-olds’ hangeul handwriting. So far, I’ve always managed fine, except in an instance where the kid only put down a family name (이 = Lee) – which, given how Korean family names work, managed to narrow it down to 7 possibilities! Here is a picture 4 examples of hangeul handwriting that I feel particularly proud of having been able to decipher.


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Caveat: Gray overcast days

Summer has arrived in Korea:  humid, warm weather, with clouds and constant promises of rain.   I'm using my weekend-time very efficiently.  Not.

Having had a difficult day on Friday left me carrying around some negativity about my work – or, more specifically, feelings of negativity about my compentency at my work.  I refuse to scapegoat my shortcomings as a foreign English teacher in a Korean school on perceived inadequacies in how Koreans have opted to run their education system, which is the easy course that so many of my colleagues teaching in Korea seem to have taken.  Then again, the most unappealing thing I could pursue here in this blog is to carry on in a negative way about other people's negativity. 


Caveat: Heard on the radio

Listening to NPR, Sunday morning (well, that's Saturday afternoon in NPRland).  "American Routes."

Interviewer:  "What drew you to country music?"

Musician:  "I'm a white man."

Caveat: 10 years

This week is the 10th anniversary of Michelle's suicide.

I was trying to write some long sort of reflection on it all.  But instead…  I just feel kind of desolate.

We had separated, but neither of us had moved to actually divorce.  I was in L.A.   She was in Philadelphia.  We were talking on the phone about once every 2 weeks.  I knew she was in a bad situation.

She asked me, during a phone call in early June, 2000:  "Do you think we could ever be back together, again?"

"No.  I don't think it's possible," I said.

In late June, she called again.  We talked for a long time.  Almost like friends.  But there was a lot of sadness.  "I think there's a better place for me," she said.

I knew what this meant.  I'd already booked a ticket to fly out to Philly when I got the call from her mom that she had died.

Caveat: 쭈쭈!

I’m sorry if that title offends anyone.  Learning a language is fraught with difficulties – and one of them is that people are reluctant to talk about “bad words,” but somehow we must nevertheless learn them.
I had an unfortunate day, today.  Specifically, my afterschool first grade class (difficult to manage even on regular days), was just too wild.  I had one kid throwing things.  I mean, REALLY throwing things.  He nailed me on the head with rather hefty crayon – THWACK!
So I took him aside and yelled at him a bit.  These are little kids.  How do you manage this, when you don’t have a co-teacher who can speak Korean, nearby?  My Korean Language skill isn’t adequate to express my feelings about this kind of behavior in a convincing way to the kids.
And then there was the kid drawing pornography.  I mean, seriously… he’s what, seven (or at most 8 or 9, if you want to count in the Korean style which gives people extra years)?  I suppose kids will be be kids, and draw weird stuff, sometimes.  But he was drawing anatomically correct, adult-looking women and even coloring between the lines!
And that wasn’t enough.  The clincher is that he was then running around the room, yelling “쭈쭈!  쭈쭈!”   And all the kids thought this was hilarious.
This gem of vocabulary isn’t in any dictionary, nor online.  And it’s not something I could figure out by typing “쭈쭈 meaning english” into google, either.  Nevertheless, somewhat eerily, Korean language spellcheckers don’t flag it as wrong, either.  It’s a “secret” word?
My best guess, based on the child’s illustrations, combined with some weird dance moves two of the other boys started doing, is that it means “tits.”  Charming.  If any of my better-at-Korean-than-I readers want to provide me with some reassurance that my reading isn’t too far off, I’d appreciate it, but I realize it may be a bit awkward.
I couldn’t find a Korean teacher anywhere in my wing, when I finally got fed up and decided to try to find someone to talk to the boy in Korean.  I ended up hauling him down to the staff room, but that was a bit awkward, since I walked in saying “쭈쭈” myself, among other things, but I found the principal and vice principal in there, in some kind of high-level-looking meeting.   Ah well, I left the boy with my colleague.  Hopefully things will sort out on Monday.

Caveat: Anosognosia

Thinking about Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns.  What are they?  I was contriving a paradox:  the epistemologist who didn't know he was one.

I'm still weirdly obsessed with the McChrystal drama.  By accepting his resignation, has Obama created a MacArther-type monster, that will be a martyr and icon for the tea partiers?  Isn't that dangerous?  Or… has a back-room deal been cut, that will grant McChrystal some new role after an appropriate cooling-off period?  I understand the chain-of-command / civilian-control argument that said "McChrystal must go," but I think this was a very risky move for Obama politically.  Was there a better solution, though? 

Yesterday, the staff volleyball game wasn't played – most of the teachers were all working hard preparing for some sort of inspection / observation / review that seems to be coming up.  I'm not clear on the details of this.   On the one hand, staff volleyball stresses me out, because I'm really very bad at volleyball, and it's mildly humiliating.  On the other hand, I look forward to it because I actually understand that it is valuable in building a sense of colleague-ship and community with the Korean teachers, which is what it's "for," obviously.

As a foreign teacher, it's so easy to feel isolated and cut-off from everyone, and one thing I find myself shocked to be missing about LBridge is the "staff room" – I used to dread the staff room!  But it did give me a chance to sort of gauge the "mood" of everyone, over time, whereas here, because I have my own classroom to lurk in, I'm quite isolated.

Caveat: Exit Strategy, Squared

Now Obama has to worry not just about an exit strategy for Afghanistan, but he also has to worry about an exit strategy for his relationship with Gen. McChrystal – and it's looking like that "exit" has very few "success scenarios," too.  He can't just fire McChrystal – since that would leave a martyred loose cannon, a la MacArther v. Truman, 1951.  He can't just pat him on the head and say get back to work, since that would leave Obama looking weakened by an insubordinate military man, which is exactly the sort of grist the loony right craves.

The only way I can see Obama getting out of this relatively painlessly is to emerge from some extended head-butting with McChrystal as new best-buddies – perhaps even with a promotion for McChrystal, at least in terms of authority or responsibility, if not outright title.  Which may be exactly what McChrystal was hoping for, when he loosed his tongue for the record.

Perhaps this just goes to confirm something I've long suspected about life in the world:  the truly ambitious can often effectively advance their careers by means of a well-placed insubordination.  McChrystal is someone accustomed to taking risks.  This may all have been a very calculated, manipulative, and inconveniently but necessarily very public request for a heart-to-heart meeting with the boss, and not the gaffe everyone insists on calling it.

Caveat: 또 심심해?

Yesterday at lunchtime, after I finished eating at the cafeteria, I was sitting in my classroom doing some last-minute changes to my lesson plans for my afternoon classes (which I teach on my own). Normally, a tribe of sixth-grade girls comes in and watch music videos on the computer during this stretch of time, but since I was monopolizing the computer, they quickly found something else to do and somewhere else to be, except for the two girls who were formally tasked with lunch-period cleanup duty for my classroom.

Then a first-grade girl appeared beside my desk. It was the same girl who had spent a good 30 minutes loitering in my classroom last Friday – she’s one of the enrollees in my first-grade afterschool class, but since the first-graders get out after lunch (they have no fifth period), these kids often have nothing to do while they wait for fifth period to end so their class can start.

Anyway, this girl has ZERO English. She doesn’t even know the alphabet thoroughly. But she’s clearly quite smart, in my opinion, and very earnest, too. I appreciate that she’s managed to figure out that I actually am able to understand her, if she takes the time to slow down her Korean and repeat herself to me with patience. That’s rare (or nigh impossible) to find in even adult Koreans, to be honest.

She appeared beside my desk.

[The following reported Korean is from memory, and any errors in the grammar or vocabulary on the girl’s part are the result of my poor Korean Language skills combined with my bad memory, rather than things the girl might have said in that way. On the other hand, reported poor Korean Language on my part is probably exactly what I said.]

The student: “뭐이예?” Staring intently at my screen, and hopping up and down slightly.

Jared: “Lesson plan.”

The student: “이멜?”

Jared: “No. Work.”

The student: “오오…” Heavy, dramatic sigh. “또 심심할 것 같아…”

Jared: “Bored, again?” She made wide eyes, so I added, “오늘 다시 심심해?” She had complained of boredom on Friday, too.

The student, giggling: “예. 또 심심해.”

Jared: “Don’t be bored! 심심하기금지!”

The student frowned.

Jared: “뭘 하기 좋겠어?”

The student shrugged. She looks around the classroom speculatively.

Jared, realizing he needs to print something in the staff room: “C’mon. Let’s go.”

The student says something I don’t understand, looking puzzled as I pop out my USB drive from the computer and move out the classroom door. So I add, “가자,” and gesture her to follow me.

The student: “어디 [something something]?”

Jared: “Office. Printer.” She doesn’t understand. Emphasizing the slightly different Korean pronunciation of “printer,” I add, “프린터 피료해.”

The student: “아아… 교실에서 프린터 없으니까…”

Jared: “예, 마자. You’re my assistant.”

The student looked very pleased.

We arrived at the office, and I inserted my USB drive and printed my two pages. I point her to the printer, and she went over and collected them. She carried them right in front of her, looking down at them proudly as if they were her own achievement. She walked all the way back to my classroom that way, as if carrying a religious chalice.

When we got back to the classroom, she raced to my desk and placed them squarely on the corner, ceremoniously, and looked up at me grinning.

Jared: “My assistant. Good job! Thank you.”

Sixth-grade girls, in unison: “Oh. Cute!

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Caveat: Becoming Ajeossi

In many spiritual traditions, there is an experience that involves going out into the wilderness (either psychologically or physically at some level) and "becoming" some kind of animal or creature or spirit. You can think of stories like Carlos Castaneda's "Teachings of Don Juan," for example. The French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari riff on the idea a great deal in their amazing masterpiece, "Mille Plateaux," too. 

Well, this past weekend, I experienced this, in a weird way. In the densely populated wilds of Mudeung Mountain park, in eastern Gwangju City, I had my own weird "becoming." What unexpected creature did I become? The common Korean Ajeossi. What is an ajeossi (아저씨)? It's a term that basically means, "mister" or "middle-aged man," and it's very widely used as a form of address to strangers, of affection for older male friends, or even of disrespect when talking about obnoxious middle-aged male behavior.

I went hiking, or "mountain climbing" as the Koreans insist on calling it in English (due to the semantic field working a bit differently in the Korean language, where 등산하다 covers both activities). My friend Byeongbae took me, along with two of his friends. I realized that Byeongbae is more than just 5 years older than me – he's somewhere around 60 and nearing retirement – both his friends are already retirees. I guess he wears his age pretty well, since I thought he was in his early 50's. Then again, maybe I should just take up the Korean habit of more bluntly inquiring people's ages – but I still have a hard time bringing myself to do that.

We parked in this area at the southwest corner of Mudeungsan park, that was swarming with Sunday-outing hikers. Hiking is predominantly an old-persons' activity in Korea, in my experience – at least the kind of day-hiking that occurs in large parks near urban areas. And it's a high-density affair, too. It is, of course, critical to have the right "equipment" – fancy boots are universal, as are these rather ridiculous-seeming (to Western eyes) aluminum walking-sticks. 

After milling with the crowds for half an hour, waiting to all be together and on the same page, so to speak, we finally set out at about 10 AM. The climb was relatively steep, and being with locals, we took a much less densely populated trail than I've seen before in such settings. Nevertheless, we passed many groups along the way.

I think the reason why I felt I was "becoming" an ajeossi had to do with the fact that the three older men I was with were not treating me like the sideshow attraction one gets used to experiencing as a foreigner hanging out with Korean friends. They mostly ignored me, just as they would a taciturn fellow Korean, which, given my level of fluency, is about right. I understood enough of what they were saying that they didn't have to stop and invent some English to let me know what was going on, which is often a stressful proposition for Koreans. Thus I was managing to avoid being the stress-inducing "foreigner" and they were able to relax and just be themselves.

"Hiking" in Korea seems to invoke the following recipe: take 1 part actual hiking, combined with 1 part "resting," 2 parts eating, and 1 part drinking makkeolli or soju; season liberally with off-color jokes, friendly conversations and exchanges of shots of soju with random strangers met along the trail, and garnish with at least one heated argument about the relative merits of different brands of aluminum walking sticks.

So mostly, I just kind of followed along, occassionally shocking the other groups of Koreans met on the trail with fragments of Korean. There was one moment in particular that I was pleased with: some intensely athletic, youthful mountain bikers passed through an encampment of a dozen ajeossis and paused to rest and bullshit for a bit. The conversation turned to the stunningly high prices of some of the mountain-bikes (up to ten million won = $9000), and I actually added my own brief comment to the effect of "yes they can be very expensive." A dozen faces snapped in my direction, as everyone realized I was actually following the conversation. I felt very proud of my limited ability at that moment, and for once was not bothered by being the center of attention.

I was struggling with the fact that we were eating much more than hiking. I try very hard not to overeat, which is a hard thing to do under most circumstances in Korea. I really am puzzled at the fact that, relatively speaking, Koreans aren't that overweight, although it's a growing problem. If I ate as much as the Koreans around me urge me too, I would balloon back up to my erstwhile 250 pounds quite quickly.

I hope I didn't make my Korean friend uncomfortable by my refusals to eat so much. I did drink some makkeolli, which made the trail a little more challenging. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to work?

At one point, I even laughed at a joke at the right moment. That was a cool feeling of linguistic accomplishment, too. It was a very simple joke, involving a mis-use of vocabulary: two of the guys said to their friend, "come over and eat." He was away to the side, smoking a cigarette. "담배먹고," he replied: "I'm eating my cigarette." One shouldn't use that verb with that activity, but he was making a sort of pun.

We didn't go that far up the mountain, and we came back down through a very peaceful and stunning grove of cypress trees that resembled a sort of scaled-down redwood forest. I'll add some pictures later. At last, around 12:30, we re-emerged at the entrance area after rounding a lovely little reservoir, and the guys were ready for "lunch." I think they found my incomprehension that it was time for lunch amusing.

Overall, I enjoyed my morning of ajeossiness. Ajeossinosity? Something like that.

Caveat: Happylooking Dog

I’m back “home” in Yeonggwang after my weekend adventure(s). I’ll write more later – lots to write about, I suppose, if I really wanted to. But for now, here’s an awesome picture I snapped yesterday evening.


I’ve always loved taking pictures of random dogs when I travel… or of any animal, really.

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Caveat: 원효사

My friend (and colleague at work) Byeongbae took me to his home, where I met his wife. He lives in a very modern and nice apartment in a modern development in the southeast part of Gwangju – the area reminded me a lot of Ilsan, actually. Here is a view from his apartment.


After that, he said every Saturday he goes to a bathhouse. He invited me to accompany him. I’ve always thought the Korean bathhouse tradition was cool, but I admit I often feel uncomfortable as a “foreigner” going to them – so it was nice to go with someone as a “guest.” It was actually very relaxing. After that, he and his wife and I drove out the eastern flank of the city, in Mudeung Mountain Park (actually near the hotel where I stayed during my orientation). We visited a temple there called 원효사 (Wonhyosa). I took some pictures.







His wife joined some friends at maintaining a vegetable garden that is in the woods near the temple.



Here is my friend, hamming it up a little bit beside his car, while we waited for his wife and their friends to get back out of the woods.


[this is a “back-post” added 2010-06-21]

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Caveat: Friends in Failure

I'm going to spend a night with a coworker who invited me to his house in Gwangju, and we're going hiking tomorrow.  He's an older teacher, maybe a half a decade ahead of me, but I think the main reason we've connected is because our respective ability levels in each other's languages are almost identical – we both completely suck:  I suck at Korean, and he sucks at English.  This gives us both lots of opportunity for improvement.  So I'm off for an overnight of communicative inefficacy!

Caveat: Sleeping through Higuain’s Hat-trick

I’m definitely a little bit sick. I was going to watch the World Cup match between Argentina and South Korea last night, and ended up falling asleep before it even started.  What’s with that? I basically slept straight through – I almost never can sleep 11 hours like that – I can barely make 7 hours normally, these days.

Anyway, I see that Argentina beat South Korea. Which is what I expected, though I was hoping SK could hold down the Argentinians a bit. No such luck – Higuain pulled a hat trick, no less. Ah well. SK could still make it out to the elimination round… as the runner-up team from their group – if they can beat Nigeria.

I did an upload from my camera. Here are some random pictures from recent life.

First, this is the bulletin board at the back of class – I’ve put up a bunch of pictures from my first graders. They were supposed to draw a fixed number of animals of their choice (practicing numbers and vocabulary for animals). Some caught on to the concept better than others. There’s some good drawings for that age group, though.


The next picture is the view from sitting at my desk in my classroom, looking out the door to the hallway and the courtyard beyond, where some workmen have parked a push-cart temporarily. The afternoon scene struck me as somehow picturesque and idyllic, right then, so I snapped a picture.


This is a picture of a second grade Korean Language Arts reader that I found in my classroom. I’m trying to read it, but it’s too difficult for me. It keeps me practicing, anyway.


This last picture is from yesterday afternoon, when I accompanied some coworkers out to where the fifth graders are having an overnight camping excursion (near Bulgapsa, at the other end of Yeonggwang county from where Hongnong is). I didn’t get to interact with the kids much, but I got to sit and listen to some of the teachers shoot the breeze with our vice principal and the local groundskeeper over beer and watermelon, while the kids were doing various activities with other teachers. The picture shows the kids finishing setting up their tents. The whole thing has a bit of a military air to it, which is exactly what I would imagine for a school camping trip in Korea. But I’m betting most of them are nevertheless having a blast.


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Caveat: Bracketed Dreaming

I was all achy and exhausted yesterday, after staff volleyball. At least, I availed myself somewhat decently, taking into account my non-athlete status and the fact that the last time I made an effort to play volleyball was probably in the 9th grade at Arcata High PE class. I was watching soccer, Chile vs Honduras. I suppose I've always associated Chile with being "into" soccer, because the time that I lived there, in 1994, was the only time in my life when I followed soccer in a dedicated manner – because I had friends who were into it and it gave us something to talk about, and because I actually had opportunities to attend games. I have a vivid memory of a Catolica vs U Chile match (they are the great #1 and #2 rivals in Chile pro soccer), eating hotdogs in the stands (with mayo and tomato and avocado, as a good Chilean). It was by far the most intense sporting event experience I've ever had.

So I was watching Chile play against Honduras, and fell asleep. I began dreaming of World Cup brackets (because, since having been remonstrated – justly – for not being a "real" soccer fan because I didn't understand the brackets, I had been studying them). And then at 11 pm, I woke up in a burning sweat. What's this, a fever? I turned off the TV. The night outside my window was loud and the air in the room felt sticky. I turned on the air conditioner – only the second time since moving into this micro apartment that happens to have air conditioning. I went back to sleep. Dreams!

There was some kind of tournament going on at Hongnong school, where I work. It was structured like the World Cup. That makes sense, but I never saw what sport it actually was. Anyway, some North Koreans showed up and were participating (or trying to participate), and the locals were resentful. They weren't bothered by the North Koreans' ability, but their behavior – they were being prideful and insensitive.

So the local kids started sabotaging the competitions. It became a big deal when the media became aware of it and began discussing it on Korean news television. But it's not that it was a scandal – more like it was being admired admired, as if it were a sort of kids' "green revolution protests" like had happened in Iran, or something.

Then the dream shifted, and I was living on the streets in some big city. It was definitely an American city, maybe Chicago or Los Angeles. I was looking for a bathroom (such is life on the streets in an American city – a Korean city wouldn't have that issue – Korea is the "land of the convenient public restroom"). I went through a police station, but chickened out about using the criminal-dominated public restroom there to clean up. Then this guy comes up to me on the street, randomly. He's a big guy – like 300 lbs. – but he's clearly well off. He asks me what I want, and he works out that I'm "homeless," although I manage to elide over this a bit in the conversation. Generously, he takes me to his apartment. For some reason, I trust him. He's extremely wealthy, with very eccentric apartment – inside, it looks like the set to Blade Runner or something. I finally go to use his bathroom, after he has told me some about himself, and then I see the bathroom has moldy walls and damp, dirty laundry on the floor. He comes in and says, "I thought maybe you could help me clean this up." There I am, dreaming about cleaning filthy bathrooms again – clearly I was traumatized by my first two apartments in Yeonggwang. Fortunately the dream doesn't go on. What's with my subconscious, anyway?

Then, the dream shifts again, and I'm teaching some kids – 3rd graders. I seem to have developed some fairly high level of rapport with them, in actuality, and I guess the dream reflects that. But… there is another foreign woman "observing" my class, along with me and Lee Ji-eun (which doesn't make sense since Ryu Ju-hui is my coteacher with the 3rd graders). This foreign woman is haughty and detached, but she keeps trying to change the lesson plan, as if she's dissatisfied. Finally she just says something to Lee Ji-eun, and I'm told to sit down, while this woman, apparently named "Pat," takes over our class. Weirdly, she has brought (in a bag!) several of these pre-schoolers – including some toddlers. She puts them out on the desk and begins her lesson. Very weird. Actually, she's doing some very interesting things with them, but I'm feeling grumpy about having my class pre-empted.

I'm not really paying attention… I'm contemplating World Cup brackets again. Then my student Sally comes back to where I'm sitting, and she's looking bored and deeply annoyed with the goings-on (which is generally how she always looks). She whispers, "Pat said you must leave now!" I'm pissed, and I think maybe that's not true – maybe Sally is just being manipulative or trying to trick me. It wouldn't be the first time, for that. So I say, "Fine, but you're coming with me." I pick Sally up and leave the room.

And then we're back on the street of the big city from before, and Sally, far from being angry at having been taken out of the class by me, seems oddly pleased that she's gotten both of us out of there. I realize that that was her plan – so it she had been lying, after all. Somehow, though, she knew how I'd react, and she'd played me to get out of the class herself. Instead of feeling upset, I reward this behavior: I decide it's time to go get some ice cream, in the store I'd noticed next to the police station earlier.

Yes, weird. And then I woke up. 5 AM. I turn off the air conditioner. I open my window – a thick fog has rolled in to Yeonggwang, which seems really common here – not sure if this normal early summer in this part of Korea, or something specific to the relatively dry weather (compared to what I think of as normal Korea summer), which renders things a bit California-y.

Caveat: Corea, Colbertized.

Thanks to fellow Jeollanam teachers Sam and Matt (who I met at orientation in April) for pointing out this clip in facebookland. I couldn’t resist embedding it here – especially given Rain came up in this blog just two posts ago. Cool. Funny. Funnycool.

[UPDATE 2024-04-18: There used to be an embedded video here, but that link rotted some time in history, and I have no replacement.]

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Caveat: Knowing Korean (or not)

Some people seem to be under the mistaken impression that I've learned Korean.  Not hardly at all.  I'm making an effort to post here at least once a week in Korean, but it's just a way to give myself some struture and discipline in my efforts.

You'll notice that what I post is quite short.  My last Korean post was exactly 1 sentence, with a title.  And it took me 15 minutes to write, using both a dictionary and a reference grammar.  And I ran it through google translate just to be sure (although frankly that program has a lot to be desired – quality machine translation is still a long ways off).

I still feel no sense of fluency, and when I went out to dinner spontaneously with co-workers this evening, I was pretty depressed at how little of their conversation I still understood.  My vice principal gave me a little speech, of which all I understood was something to the effect of "if you have a problem, talk to someone" but there was a lot more to it than that.  All I could do was nod stupidly.

The problem boils down to:  vocabulary, vocabulary and vocabulary.  I'm just no good, it seems, at memorizing vocabulary.  Why wasn't Spanish or Russian this hard?  Is it really that much about cognates?

Caveat: Pet Pop Star

We were in the 4th grade class. We were practicing the following simple dialogue pattern: “Who is he/she?” “He/she is ___. He/she is my ___.” For example: “Who is she?” “She is Mary. She is my sister.”

My co-teacher has put up some possible “people” and some possible “relations”: for the “people,” there were pictures of various famous people or characters the kids were sure to know the names of, including Einstein, Hermione (as in the Harry Potter character), and others; for the “relations,” she provided “aunt” “uncle” “brother” and “sister.”

So there is a 4th grade girl who has the English name of Hannah. The teacher pointed at the picture of 정지훈 (Jeong Ji-hun), a Korean pop star and actor who sings under the pseudonym of “Rain” but also uses his real name for action movies. He’s considered quite handsome in Korea. The girl’s English is excellent – probably the best in the class.

The teacher asked, “Who is he?”

Hannah said, unhesitatingly, “He is Jeong Ji-hun. He is my pet.”


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Caveat: Waiting for the secret police

How long until they come knocking on my door. I was online last night, and I was following a trail of articles about North Korea’s soccer team, which is playing in the World Cup in South Africa this year, in the championship for the first time since 1966. We had been talking briefly about it in my 6th grade after-school class yesterday afternoon.

정대세This got me onto the subject of 정대세 (Jeong Dae-se), the North’s star player (see picture). He is, in fact, Korean-Japanese, and has never lived in North Korea (except for recent stints training with the national team). He plays for a pro team in Japan, has done television ads and product sponsorships for South Korean media, and is very publicity-savvy. A fascinating member of the “Chongryon,” which is a weird semi-for-profit pro-North-Korean organization in Japan, that runs everything from businesses to schools to functioning as the North’s de facto embassy to the Western world (since the North has few formalized diplomatic relations). I guess this soccer player grew up attending Chongryon schools.

So I was looking at Chongryon in wikipedialand, and getting all fascinated. And so, curiously, I decided to follow a link to Korea University, which is the Chongryon-run university in Tokyo (hence a training-ground in the North’s official ideology of Juche, among other things. Juche has always fascinated me.

And there, instead of viewing the Korea University website, I was looking at a very scary “police warning” page (in Korean, of course), saying the site was deemed dangerous and banned. Hmm….

One doesn’t run up against the Korean national police firewall very often (at least in my experience). I wonder if they’re going to come looking for me, or open a file in Seoul? Will they come knocking on my door?

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Caveat: Ooh… Regulation! Now there’s a clever idea…

I was listening to Harry Shearer, who always has some scathingly sarcastic things to say about current events.  And he said…

In Canada, apparently, there is a regulation (a simple regulation such as could be implemented in the U.S. without even the approval of Congress, since it's at the level of the sort of thing the EPA could do by decree) that says that when an oil well is dug, a "relief well" must be added within the same season.  If such a regulation had been in place – and obeyed, obviously – in the Gulf of Mexico, then BP's "missing solution" to the oil leak problem would have already been in place, and the oil would not currently be flowing into the Gulf.

Thanks Harry.

Caveat: An Accidental Curry

12 PM rolled around, and, since it's Saturday and I've decided to be a homebody today, I realized I needed to cook lunch for myself – there's no convenient cafeteria, here, to vist at 12:30 promptly, with it's reliable supply of seaweed soup, rice, kimchi, etc.

I didn't really have much to work with.  I put some rice in my rice cooker, and decided to stir fry some vegetables.  But all I had was one green pepper, 2 mushrooms, and plenty of delicious onions.  I chopped them up and threw them in my fry pan.  I gurgled some cooking oil, and added some basil and chopped garlic, a dash of soy sauce (instead of salt, that's what I tend to use), and then I had an inspiration.

I was looking at some fat, juicy apples.  And I had some rather weird, organic, Korean yoghurt that some students had bequeathed on me after a field trip to a dairy last week.  And I thought – aha! – curry.

I chopped up an apple.  I found my raisins (that I sometimes nibble on for a desert type thing).  But the key was that although I had no curry powder, I had all the essentials for making my own:  tumeric (dump, dump, dump), powdered coriander (dump, dump), black pepper (dash, dash), ground clove (dash), Korean red pepper powder (dump).  That makes a passable curry – I've done it before.

Then, in an added inspiration, I looked at the dry-looking development in the fry pan, and thought to moisten it with a half-cup of orange juice.  Curry is most delicious when it's slightly sweet (with e.g. fruit), but spicy as heck.   And so then, after simmering this combo for a while, I added some of  the yoghurt, making it a deep goldenish brown colored glop, and stirred it all together.  And put it over my rice.

It was the most delicious freaking curry I've had in ages!  Certainly better than the pasty, bland Korean and/or Japanese styles I've gotten used to.  And spicy as heck!  I'm sweating.  Sweat.  Sweat.

I experiment a lot in the kitchen.  But  I tend not to talk about the failures. This was defnitely no failure.  Yay.  ^_^

Caveat: The view from my window

With reference to Andrew Sullivan’s blog at The Atlantic: the view from my window, right now.


So, on the good side – my window has a view. When I lived in Ilsan, all I saw was the wall of windows 3 meters across the courtyard. I love when the clouds get heavy and it rains. If you can ignore the heat and humidity, summer in Korea can be beautiful. As you can see, rural Korea isn’t really that rural.

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Caveat: Inside some kind of slow-motion Van Gogh

Driving through the fields south and east of Hongnong, coming into work each morning by carpool or bus, feels like passing through a Van Gogh painting that's been animated, but in very slow motion. The colors are brilliant, and each morning things have subtly changed. Three weeks ago, the fields were almost all barley, and vibrantly green. Then over one weekend, the barley fields all turned to stunning yellow-gold and the sun turned summery. And then field by field, over the last two weeks, the barley has been cut, rendering each field in turn a more pale yellow-white, stubbly color, and then the fields are burned, which renders things brown-black. And then the fields are plowed, and the earthy is a muddy, dark color, and then the fields are flooded, turning them into silver mirrors of the skies. Baby rice plants are laid down by Rube-Goldberg-looking rice-planting contraptions, in neat rows of green shoots across the mirrory fields. The rice plants begin to grow, earnestly, and within days the fields are green-silver, and deeply textured. Finally, the paddies are drained, revealing the slick, red-brown Korean soil, with the rice plants standing in neat rows, preparing to absorb the summer heat and rains.
Each field follows its own rhythm, slightly different from its neighbors, so at any moment there's a whole palette of colors patchworked into squares and triangles across the rolling countryside: Green -> gold -> pale yellow -> black-brown -> silver -> silver-green -> red-brown with green. And so it goes.

Caveat: Homesick.. for Ilsan?

Homesick?   No, not really.  But maybe.  I'm experience a kind of odd missing of Ilsan.  Of the city. 

I knew moving out into the country would be difficult for me.  My new apartment is a long walk from even a convenience store.  There is a vegetable garden, however.  And some chickens, up the road.  And a giant "love motel" called "Glory" with a rainbow themed neon sign.   And an industrial installation across the way, where they like to bang on things.

Caveat: 3, 2, 1…

There were some kids doing science outside on the track/soccerfield/gathering area, with some supervision – although less supervision than would be found for similar activity in a US school. They were launching water and air pressure powered plastic bottles made into rockets. The idea was to see how far and how close to a target at the other end of the field they could get to.

I think they’re going to a science fair at Naju, tomorrow, based on overheard conversations (my ability to figure out what’s going on from overheard conversations continues to improve, but still leaves a lot to be desired – it still requires a lot of context). Here’s the last girl of the evening, launching her rocket – after it occurred to me to take pictures. It flew pretty far, but wasn’t that close to the target.



Korea postponed the launch of its rocket, Naro-II, which, if successful, will be the first successful launch-to-orbit of a satelite by the Korean Space Program from Korea’s new space launch facility. It was supposed to take off yesterday evening around 6 pm, from the Naro space center which is at the southern end of Jeollanam Province. They had an unsuccessful attempt last year (Naro-I). They’re using a combination of Russian heavy-lift rocket technology and home-grown control and satellite vehicle (so, the bottom stage is Russian, the top stage is Korean).

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Caveat: 말이 많으면 쓸말이 적다

There are some workmen doing work on the “staff” bathrooms that I had been in the habit of using.  Actually I have no idea if they’re officially “staff” bathrooms, but they’re across from the Principal’s office so I that what I think of them as.  Anyway, because of that, I started using the bathroom across the little courtyard to the west of my classroom.  Why am I telling you this, you might be wondering?
In this bathroom, someone has posted little Korean aphorisms and proverbs over each urinal.  So while I use the urinal, I get a Korean language lesson – if I can sort out the vocabulary.  I try to choose different urinals, to get some variety.
The above aphorism (말이 많으면 쓸말이 적다 = mal-i manh-eu-myeon sseul-mal-i jeok-da) seemed to make sense – the only word that puzzled me was “쓸” but I guessed it meant “wise,” which would give the meaning of the phrase as “there are many words but few wise ones” which makes sense.  But it turns out (according to my coteacher) that it means “will-be-used” (roughly).  That gives “there are many words but few that will be used.”  I don’t understand this quite as well, but it’s not impossible.
Yesterday, I had a sudden “aha!” moment in thinking about serial verbs in Korean.   Serial verbs are where several different verbs get strung together, each with a finite ending, with only the last bearing all the extra endings (marking politeness, etc.).  A simple example would be “공부해 봤어요” (gong-bu-hae bwass-eo-yo = I tried to study).  I suddenly thought that maybe these serial verbs are the Korean language analogue of periphrastic verbs in English (periphrastics are also sometimes called two-part verbs, like “get up” “get down” “get in” “get out” etc.), not syntactically (obviously), but definitely in terms of what you might term “semantic pragmatics”  – they’re what the language turns to when it needs a new meaning.  I’ll think about this.
In other news:  I am learning a lot from my coteachers.  Ms Ryu, with whom I teach the 3rd graders, is a very patient and kind teacher, and she has an amazing focus on positivity and the kids behave amazingly well for her.  I need to learn to emulate her tricks and style.  She spends a lot of time explaining to the kids what will happen.  This is not a trick I can use effectively, given I’m supposed to be speaking English and that my Korean is so bad that I doubt I could get my ideas across very well anyway.  But it does underscore the importance of being consistent and predictable, which is something I CAN do, and which helps the kids to know what will happen.  She always writes what the lesson objective will be, on the board, and sometimes even has the students read it.  I could do this, in English, too.  [e.g. “Students learn to say:  I like __ / I don’t like __”]
My other coteacher (the “main” one), Ms Lee, with whom I teach the fourth graders, is generally quite focused on keeping things “fun,” and she is a more kid-centered, western-style teacher.  The consequence, with Korean kids, is that there are more moments when the classroom seems out of control, but I think if you can tolerate this state of affairs, it can be good for learning, too.  It’s a fine line between “seems out of control” and “really is out of control.”

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