Caveat: 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈

picture“좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈” is the title of a Korean western. Yes, western, as in western genre movie. It takes place in 1930’s Manchuria, which was a bit of a wild land at the time, with the Japanese trying to exert imperial control, while the Chinese, British, Germans and Russians tried to regain spheres of influence, and with disgruntled and outlaw-ish Korean freedom fighters and Mongolian tribesmen thrown into the mix.

The title is an homage to Eastwood’s classic American western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” – it translates as “the Good, the Bad and the Weird.” The title itself tells you there will be some interesting post-modern things going on. It’s over-the-top in terms of violence, but worth seeing.

I love how it includes all these seemingly out-of-sync cultural objects and references – 1920’s big-band dance music, Japanese soldiers, Korean merchants or black-marketeers, Mongolian tribesmen sitting on horses on hilltops looking like Native Americans…  but I would imagine it might not be that far off vis-a-vis what Manchuria must have been like in that era. Of course, everything is exaggerated and re-imagined, just in the way American westerns re-imagine North American history, too.

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Caveat: The faith-based economy


I don’t normally like South Park that much. But sometimes I watch it, because the social and cultural commentary can be so amazingly intelligent and deep-cutting. One such episode I caught recently was the one entitled “Margaritaville” about the way that what we believe really drives the economy. Kyle becomes a Jesus figure, and saves the economy by taking on everyone’s debt (the way that Jesus takes on everyone’s sins) and thus allowing everyone’s lives to return to normal. It’s pretty funny, but scarily accurate in the way that it explains how the government bailouts are supposed to work.

And another episode where Mickey Mouse beats the crap out of the Jonas Brothers is funny, too, although much nastier and cruder, more in alignment with the South Park norm.


[UPDATE 2024-04-18: Originally there was a link to the episodes discussed, but that link rotted and I have no replacement link. Thank you, internet!]

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Caveat: Le Corbusier’s Fantasy, Manifest

Walking along the Juyeop Park Esplanade yesterday in Ilsan in the humid, still evening, I watched the children playing among modernist statuary, parents playing ball with their kids, kids walking to or from hagwon as if they were college students, grandparents strolling, an old woman selling onions and garlic.  All around, a rectilinear park-like environment, punctuated by a seemingly endless array of identical high-rise apartment towers of dubious individual architectural merit.  This is Ilsan, a city of half a million that didn't exist the first time I came here, in 1991.

Yet unlike so many Modernist planned cities, Ilsan seems to work, at a very fundamental level.  Imagine something with all the charm of Cabrini Green (Chicago's infamous 1960's era Modernist housing projects), but inhabited by a mostly Lake Forest demographic.  The children play happily amid the soulless buildings, the parents are a bit overwrought, but deeply bourgeois.  This is not typical Korea, either, but it feels very much like the future.  The future that visionaries such as Le Corbusier and other Modernist "new city" proponents supposedly got so wrong. 

Ilsan represents to me the proof of the fact that although most contemporary urbanist thinking seems to focus a great deal on the way that we can influence lifestyles through how we plan our urban spaces, when you get right down to it, there are very few elements of the physical urban space that are guaranteed to make a difference, positive or negative.  Density is significant, but Ilsan is probably as automobile-reliant as any American city, if only because of the upper-middle-class status of most of its inhabitants – they need their cars, as aspirational objects, above all else.  Perhaps it makes me a bit of a cultural determinist (read:  marxist), but what makes urban spaces work has more to do with the socioeconomic position of the inhabitants than with how they are put together.

Caveat: Masa de Harina Nixtamalera

Seungbae es uno de mis mejores amigos coreanos. Anoche cuando llegué a Suwon, me dijo de inmediato, “I think you need Mexican food.” Así, claro que me conoce bien. Nos metimos en su pequeña van amarilla y manejamos a Osan, donde cenamos fajitas y quesadillas y horchata, todas hechas por cocineros verdaderamente mexicanos. Los chilangos de Osan, Corea, con su improbable proyecto de dar a los gringos (y ¡pochos! porque así son las fuerzas militares estadunidenses, en estos días) de la base aérea ahí un sabor de su continente extrañado.

pictureHablé con el cocinero sobre el problema de encontrar la masa de harina verdademente mexicana. Me explicó lo que ya había sospechado: por alguna extraña regla proteccionista, no se permite importar la harina nixtamalera en Corea. Ésta es la harina de maíz que se usa para hacer tortillas mexicanas frescas, tamales, sopes, pupusas, etc. Me decía que cualquier otra necesidad de la cocina mexicana ha podido encontrar en Seul, menos esta. Incluso a traído maletas desde Los Angeles o Chicago o DF a este país llenas de maseca (la marca mas conocida de masa de harina).

Después de comer Seungbae y yo hablamos algunas horas acerca de las dificultades de la vida, en nuestra singular mescla de español, inglés y coreano. Es un hombre muy inteligente, con buen sentido de humor. Acerca de mis dificultades digamos emocionales con mi lugar de trabajo, me dijo: “there is no good medications except for time.” Que es exactamente la verdad, e?

Estuvo bien. Hoy voy a ver a mi otro buen amigo coreano, en Ilsan.

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Caveat: facebookkeeping

I just realized that facebook hasn't been getting my blog posts recently.  So I need to figure that problem out, again.  I've always loved the word 'bookkeeping' because it has three doubled letters in a row:  ookkee.  Hence the title.

I'm in Suwon.  I have some vacation days.  I'm trying really hard to get past the negativity I was feeling RE my efforts to learn Korean and my job situation, over the weekend.   A little trip is a good idea, but it sure is hard to motivate into starting it – I'm really glued to a non-travel status, these last several months.

Maybe I will go to Ilsan tomorrow, for old times' sake.  Not too much of a plan, although I think I should be back home by Saturday, as there are actually some things I need to get done to prep for my summer courses that start next Monday.

Caveat: The Princess Mafia

Back in 2008 I had a middle-school class called TP1. By sheer distributional accident, it was all girls. And they were not the “good student” type of girls – they were all rebellious, obnoxious, and often lazy as all hell. I tried some various gimmicks to try to keep them engaged, but ultimately the only thing that ever worked was to go “off script” and just talk about stuff. This suits me fine, actually – I think that’s the absolute BEST way to learn a language, talking about things that are interesting to one. But it raised a lot of ire with my bosses because I wasn’t making progress in the text.

pictureAnyway, way back then, I was also reading a lot of manga (Japanese serial comic book novels), and was toying with trying to write my own. The most progress I made was with a sort of concept of essentially recreating this experience of this clueless, fuddy-duddy, middle-aged, American guy trying to teach English to a bunch of trendy but disinterested Korean middle-schoolers, much more fascinated by the cute guy in the next class and their cell phones and their own reflections in the windows than in learning how to take the TOEFL.

I had named the class the “Princess Mafia,” which the girls alleged was offensive to them, but which they nevertheless seemed to adopt as a sort of badge of honor, and would bandy it about. And that became the working title of my little manga.

I did some plotting and framing on it, but my artistic skills are unpracticed. And then it sort of faded from my mind, as a project. Recently, however, I ran across some pages of character studies I’d made. I wonder… it still seems to have some potential. At right:  Hannah.

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Caveat: Sulk. Sulk.

One of the things about the Thursday-Friday school staff fieldtrip that got me really depressed was the fact that I didn’t receive a lot of positive encouragement in my efforts to speak or understand Korean. I felt frequently ridiculed and mocked.

I’ve indicated before, on this blog, that right now, in my life, trying to get better at Korean is near the top of my list of priorities. Call that quixotic, or peculiar, or pointless. But it’s true.

So to the extent that the fieldtrip, and my interactions with some of my coworkers, squashed my optimism and enjoyment of trying to learn the language, it was was a real downer. And so… what have I done, today, in the wake of this?

I felt crappy. I didn’t go off to Seoul, as I’d planned – I lacked motivation. I had zero interest in going out into the Korean-speaking world. I sulked. This is bad behavior. I know.

Here are some pictures taken during the better part of the trip, done with my cell phone, so they have rather poor resolution. We were climbing the mountain Daedun.






And here are the principal and vice principal, plotting some new humiliation – or maybe (more likely) just being clueless and cold-hearted, in a good-natured and paternalistic way.


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Caveat: The Hongnong Alcohol Blacklist

I have just returned from the worst 24 hours I’ve ever spent in Korea. Well, maybe there were a few 24 hour periods back when I was a soldier in the US Army stationed at Camp Edwards, up in Paju, (DMZ/Munsan/Ilsan) that were worse. But I’m just sayin.

My biggest mistake was that I’ve recently been relaxing my formerly teetotaller approach to alcohol – since my trip to Japan, when I made the breakthrough realization (or recollection – call it “personal historical revisionism”) that one of the reasons I managed to learn Spanish effectively in the 1980’s was because I wasn’t adverse to falling under the influence. It lowers inhibitions, which is a big issue with language-learning.

But this school that I work for – well, they’re a tribe of “college-frat-party”-worthy binge alcoholics. And that’s not my thing. Never has been my thing – even when I was doing my own share of binge-drinking myself, back in college.

Maybe I’ll give a detailed breakdown, later.

Let’s just say, I was witness to manifold unkindnesses, and became depressed, despondent and angry. I was in tears when I got home to my tiny Yeonggwang apartment. I haven’t been there, in quite a while – in tears, I mean.

I hold it all in: the anger, the tears. Bottled up. And then it comes out, when I can finally get alone, even though the drunk moment has passed. Alcohol sucks. And I’ve always been a weepy, grumpy, judgmental drunk – I know this about myself.

Hell. I know I can never renew at this school – alcohol reveals depths and truths about people, and although there are many kind and wonderful people working at Hongnong Elementary, none of those kind and wonderful types are the ones running things – the manager-types showed their true selves pretty effectively, as far as I’m concerned. And not in their own favor, frankly.

I will survive this contract. I can avoid the management types, mostly. But they are cruel, unkind people, who furthermore insist on excusing their cruelty as “tradition” and “Korean culture.” Fine. I know, confidently, that there are other types of Korean culture: types that don’t require cajoling people to get drunk, that don’t require laughing at (not with) underlings, that don’t require groping female employees.

Mr Kim (remember him? – the PE teacher) was actually among those who were pretty kind to me. He seemed a bit disgusted with how out of control the alcohol games got, too. He explained to me, mostly in Korean (with a dictionary in hand), that we should make a Hongnong Alcohol Blacklist, and that the first three members included certain highly placed individuals in the school’s administrative staff. I laughed at that, and he was sullenly pleased that he’d managed to make a joke across the cultural and linguistic divide.

Okay. That’s enough.

Looking out the window of the bus, coming home, I saw a cloud with a silver lining. Literally. Korea is a beautiful country. And there were enough “off to the side” kindnesses shown to me in my sadness, today, that I know better than to give up on the humanity of Koreans. Generalization and stereotyping are almost always really bad ideas.

Here’s a mountain or two, that I saw.


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Caveat: Work Related Excursion

I'm in Daejeon with my coworkers.  The whole school staff piles into a bus, the moment the kids have left campus for the start of summer vacation earlier today.  We drive to Daedunsan (Muju), the more ambitious hike some trails (I'll post some cellphone pics later), we drive to Daejeon, and have a hweh-sik with way too much beer, soju and makkeolli flowing.  Now I'm in a hotel, and my roommates, being high on the seniority list, have been socially obligated to go drink some more.  I've bowed out.  Tired, and, as many know, I don't enjoy drinking too much.  I'm feeling deeply melancholy as it is.  I don't need more.

Caveat: 티처 좀 외계인처럼

A student said this to me today:  티처 좀 외계인처럼 [ti-cheo jom weh-gye-in-cheo-reom = teacher a little like an alien].  She was talking about me.  I was flattered.
Sometimes I’m definitely an alien.  Or among aliens.  Or something like that.   This seemed very true when I walked down the hall to the 4-1 classroom, where teachers were seated on the floor playing Korean percussion instruments:  사물놀이 [sa-mul-nor-i].  They were practicing for the school concert that was later this evening (I attended, and may post some video from that, later).
I really like 사물놀이.  Here’s some video.

Caveat: 여름방학

Today is supposedly the last day of school before summer vacation (여름방학).  Summer vacation for students, that is.  And many (if not most) students will be attending summer camps and hagwon for most of the summer – that's the Korean way.  I will be teaching school-run summer classes for the month of August, and I will get next week off.   But I have to continue coming to work this week, as there are many things going on for staff at Hongnong Elementary.  Sometimes it seems a little pointless to have to stay, despite the fact that most of the staff goings-on aren't relevant to a non-Korean-speaking foreigner.

But I'm not sure I really agree with those who vilify the "desk warming" phenomenon.   It's what you make of it.  Most of the staff in a school during these desk-warming days are quite busy:  making plans, rearranging classrooms, preparing presentations for the school talent night, etc.  If one chooses to take the time to interact with these people, and offer to help, you can build a lot of goodwill and it can be a learning experience, too.  

Yesterday, I had only one regular class (the others were "cancelled").  And I did a little desk-warming, I admit – surfing blogs on the internet.  But I also spent some highly productive time developing lesson plans for one of my summer classes, along with the person I'll be co-teaching it with.  And I accompanied one of the third grade teachers with her class to the gym for a highly entertaining PE class, where I kind of had the role of observer / English-speaking kibitzer.  And on Monday, I had my morning classes canceled and the kids for my first grade afternoon class didn't show up, but I was very busy developing detailed program plans for my other summer classes (for which I won't have a co-teacher).  I was working "above and beyond" as they say, making more detailed plans than requested.

Nothing is more effective in building goodwill among unpredictable Korean administrators than unexpected displays of competence and dedication, in my experience.  Actually, that applies to more-or-less competent administrators anywhere.  Korean administrators aren't incompetent – they're just different.   They're operating by different cultural rules, that for them and their underlings are largely transparent.  These rules are only opaque and seem crazy to us Westerners because we haven't grown up within them.

Caveat: Climbing a secret mountain

Living life is like climbing a secret mountain, sometimes.  I climb up, pushing really hard, and then I reach some part of the trail where the terrain follows a ridge for a while, or dips down to a small valley for a time.  The trail is easier, but I also feel as if I'm not making any progress, or I lose sight of my objectives.  The metaphorical peak of the mountain is obscured by metaphorical trees, and I sit down somewhere beside the trail to drink makkeolli and eat kimbap – metaphorically, of course.

I haven't been doing much with my free time, lately.  But that down time… the dead time… feels necessary.  Sometimes I need to do just nothing.

Caveat: Quack

I am listening to A Prairie Home Companion, Saturday night broadcast on MPR (which I listen to at 8 AM Sunday, over here west of the date line).  There's a skit retelling of "The Ugly Duckling."  Lots of good duck puns.  The best:  "All these duck doctors are quacks if you ask me."

Caveat: Eingrsh

This is not a satire.  I had a student recently who actually spelled "English" as "Eingrsh" – which perhaps was an effort to approximate the Konglish pronunciation of said language.

I have finally figured out how to deal with the use of the phrase "nice to meet you" as a general purpose, anytime greeting.  I answer with "저음 뵙겠습니다! [cheo-eum bwep-get-seum-ni-da]"  This translates, literally, as "For the first time I will be seeing your honored person," but it's the general way of saying "how do you do?" upon a first meeting.  By answering their "nice to meet you"'s in this way, I can convey to my students, clearly, that "nice to meet you" isn't what we use, in English, for subsequent meetings.  Why do they say it, then?  Because they're translating the Korean "만나서 반갑습니다 [man-na-seo ban-gap-seum-ni-da]," which translates literally as "nice to meet you" but is used whenever you're glad to see anyone.

Caveat: What you shall do

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body." — Walt Whitman

Caveat: How long should our troops stay?

With a title like that, you will think I'm writing about Afghanistan, or Iraq.

But I'm not.  The U.S. has had a significant, continuous military presence in South Korea since 1950 – 60 years.  That makes our time in the middle east, so far, seem pretty minor.  Admittedly, once the cease-fire was signed with the North in 1953, Korea didn't have the kind low-grade, sustained civil war that U.S. troops have been having to cope with in those other countries.

Perhaps if we could have installed a cozily sympathetic, hard-ass dictator like Syngman Rhee was in South Korea in Iraq or Afghanistan, we could have reached a point where the U.S. troops were out of harm's way and a very long-term occupation would have been more feasible.  It's been more than clear, among the "nation builder" neocons, that Bush and company believed that they could achieve some kind of sustainable situation of this sort. 

But in today's geopolitical context, installing cozy, pro-U.S. dictators ain't what it used to be.  Witness how precarious Karzai's position is in Afghanistan.  He'd have been getting our unequivocal support if this were still the cold war.  

Actually, though, I don't mean to be writing about the these Bushian adventures.  I'm thinking about South Korea, and its love-hate, push-pull affair with the U.S.  I'm particularly disturbed by a recent spat that has erupted over the issue of nuclear power, nuclear fuel reprocessing, and related issues.  I was reading about it in the New York Times (q.v.).

Particularly relevant and important in that article is when it quotes someone named Mr Pomper:  “It is understandable why Seoul would be frustrated that India, a non-N.P.T. state, would be given this deal while South Korea, a loyal U.S. ally and N.P.T. member now in good standing, would face resistance from Washington.”  [NPT means "non-proliferation treaty"]

Why, indeed?  If the U.S. trusts South Korea enough to keep 30-40 thousand troops on the ground in the country, after 60 years, and under nominal unified South Korean command, at that, why not trust them to reprocess their own nuclear fuel? 

I'm not even sure the end of the article is entirely relevant – whether or not Seoul wants to build nuclear weapons isn't, and shouldn't be the issue.  Given the North's transgressions, it seems hard to justify – in terms of sovereignty and peninsular security – making a carte-blanche judgment against the South pursuing its own nuclear security, either via a U.S. "umbrella" (as it currently has), or via its own program (as it once briefly pursued in the 1970's).

I mean, if India and Pakistan and Israel get to keep their bombs, and Iran and North Korea can't be stopped from making theirs… that's a dangerous world.  Why not South Korea, too?  Let's all have bombs, together.  We'll all be super-safe, right?

But… seriously:  how do we stop this?  How do we take control of it?  Shouldn't we at least treat each other as adults capable of rational decisions?  That's all that South Korea is asking that the U.S do for them, I think, with respect to the nuclear fuel issue. 

Caveat: Perseverance Predicted

I sometimes look at tarot cards.

pictureIt’s not that I believe that they’re predictive.  I’m dedicatedly anti-spiritualist; I’m deeply anti-transcendentalist. I don’t believe in any kind of magic, I don’t believe anything supernatural, religious or otherwise. Nevertheless, I’ve always been fascinated by tarot cards. They are symbolically “loaded” and full of interesting interpretative possibilities. In field of semiotics, they might be termed “hypersignifiers.” I guess I view them as a sort of self-administered Rohrsach test, when I lay them out.

Anyway, this morning, I laid out three cards. Recent past, present moment, upcoming near-term future. The meanings of the “past” and “present” cards were unremarkable: ambiguous and uninteresting to me. But the “future” card was striking… in its irrelevance. It was the nine of wands. The interpretative meanings are:

Perseverance — Persisting despite all setbacks and against all odds
Having the hidden reserves to prevail, to defend what is yours
Boundary issues, being defensive
Defining your “space”
“That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

I distinctly remember thinking: that doesn’t seem to apply to my near future. The recent past, maybe. But just now, I feel as if I’ve reached a kind of equilibrium with respect to my living situation and work, finally. I’ve been settling in. I thought: something would have to get much more messed up for that kind of near-term future to be meaningful or important.

But by the end of the day, today, I was muttering “perseverance, perseverance” to myself. Yes, things felt messed up at school, today. Not for me, directly – but I was witness to some majorly messed-up personnel management (which in-and-of-itself is no surprise in a Korean workplace, admittedly). I won’t describe it in detail – it’s an ongoing crisis, and not really my business, and involves people who probably know about this blog, too. Maybe I’ll discuss details later.

For some reason, I have a really hard time watching other people being treated badly in their work. Even when they somewhat deserve it or have brought upon themselves, as I’m certain is the case, here. But the situation still reeks of injustice and inhumane management. And hypocrisy – that always bugs me. And I have to deal with feeling caught in the middle. I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t have a solution that anyone appreciates or even wants to hear. I don’t want to have to watch it play out in slow motion in the staff room beside me. It makes my life unpleasant. So the rest of it checks out as well. Example: boundary issues – why am I being drawn into this? Why do I have to watch and comment on this?

OK.  I still don’t believe tarot are predictive. But, it was a day with interesting psychological resonances. I’m just going to sit by, and try to keep my face looking like the guy in the picture, above.

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Caveat: Kimchee Rockets

Korea has no donkeys, mules or horses. I don’t know if this is characteristically Asian, or if it is more specific to Korea, as a legacy of the total destruction that occurred during the Korean War. But it’s one way in which that makes rural Korea different from other poor or developing countries I’ve visited – mostly these have been in Latin America, where there are strong traditions of using equine beasts of burden, but I also remember seeing a lot of rural animals pulling things in Morocco.

Anyway, rural Koreans use these small, two-wheeled tractors instead. They can pull carts to and from town, they can work in the fields… they are general-purpose, internal combustion beasts of burden – although you can’t eat one if things get rough. Back when I was in Korea with the US Army, the soldiers had a slightly insulting name for these tractors: kimchee rockets. For whatever reason, that term has stuck with my mental vocabulary – it’s difficult for me to think of them as anything else.

We were constantly having to dodge kimchee rockets when we (my support battalion) drove rural highways in northern Gyeonggi province (near the DMZ) back in 1991. There’re a lot of expressways and much more development up there now, so the kimchee rockets are rare on major highways. But there are still a lot around in Korea – especially down in the significantly backward part of Korea that I’m in now.

Here is a picture of a farmer driving his kimchee rocket towing a low-tech, ad hoc trailer, into town on the road in front of my apartment here in Yeonggwang. I took the picture yesterday morning as I watched the fog lift, while waiting for my carpool to arrive.


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Caveat: Dawn over dumptrucks

I would say most mornings here lately are thickly overcast if not foggy.  Unless it's raining.  In fog aspect, the summer here is a bit like in California.  But the rain is what makes it different.  A lot of rain, this weekend – yesterday was just sheets and sheets of it in the morning.

Despite not sleeping well last night, I woke up at dawn, which seems to be becoming my habit.  I had a sore neck – sleeping on it wrong or something.   There was fog out my window… but when I looked up, the sky was pale blue, and streaked with gold and pink.  The forested hills are deep green, and there are shreds of mist across the peaks.   It's like a postcard.  Except for the three dumptrucks arrayed at the gas station in the foreground.

As you might guess from the title of this blog, however, I feel OK about dumptrucks – Korea's national vehicle. 

Caveat: Miscellaneous Quotes

"A Freudian slip is when we say one thing, and we mean a mother."–Rob Long

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."–Winston Churchill

"…doors open to anyone with the will and heart to get here."–Ronald Reagan, on immigration

Caveat: What?

I often tell people that one of my hobbies is writing.  I do write, obviously.  I write things on my blog.  And I often write blog entries that I never post, because they're either uninteresting (even to me), or because they feel too personal, or too ambitious, or something like that.  But I haven't made any forward progress on any of my stories or poetry or "novels" in a long time.   I've been feeling annoyed by this.  And yesterday, I was talking with two of my Korean colleagues, in a homebound carpool, and they wanted to know details.  What was my novel about?  What kind of novel was it?  And I realized I really didn't like what I have.  I certainly wouldn't share it, the way I share these random bloggiations.  Why?  That's hard to understand.  

Caveat: Monkey Meme

pictureThe monkey meme continues to spread like wildfire through the fifth grade. Yesterday I had students announcing to me:

  • 1) “I’m a crazy monkey girl!”;
  • 2) “I’m a zombie monkey! Uh! Ohhh!”;
  • 3) “I’m a lovely [by which I think she meant loving or kind] monkey!”;
  • 4) “I’m a happy monkey!”

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Caveat: Very Important Subject

My morning carpool (riding with two Korean teachers who happen to live in Yeonggwang, most mornings) is sort of an impromptu Korean Language lesson, many times.  But yesterday morning I was unable to grasp on to what they were talking about, and I just sort of zoned out.

As we pulled off the expressway and slowed at the traffic light in Beopseongpo, Cheorho (whose English is pretty good) turned to me and asked, "Do you understand what we've been talking about?"

"No, sorry," I answer, truthfully.

"Alcohol.  술," he explained.  "Beer and soju, which is better."

I respond, laughing slightly, "I think that's a very common topic in Korea."

"Very important subject," he nodded, gravely.

"네," chimed in Hyeongyeon.

Caveat: Hongnong Skyline

The view from the new, probably temporary English-teachers’ staff room, taken last Friday when it was rainy and steamy-hot, right after the chaotic move.


Note that even a town as small as Hongnong has some high-rises, the cookie-cutter 20-storey apartment buildings that are ubiquitous in Korea. The overall population of the town is probably about 15,000, I would estimate. Not big enough for a traffic light, by Korea standards. But they have a 7-11. And about a dozen churches.

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Caveat: Crazy Monkey Boys

One of my favorite movies is “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.” It’s a weird movie, and funny. There’s a line in there in which John Lithgow’s character, Dr Lizardo (AKA John Whorfin, the evil Lectroid from Planet 10), says “Laugh while you can, monkey boy.” And the term “monkey boy” arises at other points in the movie, too.

I was hanging out with some rather hyperactive and English-deficient 5th grade boys during a recess period, recently, and started aping some of the Lithgow lines from the movie, using Dr Lizardo’s over-the-top fake Italian accent. The concept of “monkey boy” was something these boys were able to wrap their minds around, and so it became a bit of an out-of-control meme. I added the prefix “crazy” to it, and in that form it became a form of address, as in, “what are you doing, crazy monkey boy?”

The boys love it. And now, anytime they see me, they say, in good English (if somewhat Italianesque-sounding, a la Dr Lizardo), “I’m a crazy monkey boy!” I think the other English teachers are annoyed with this. But my thinking is: at least one of these boys may never have uttered a coherent sentence in English before this meme took off, and in that sense, I’ve taught some English.

It’s funny to imagine this will be something they always remember. I can imagine a scenario in which one of these boys, someday grown up and in his 20’s or something, is in some setting where he meets a foreigner, and decides to say the only thing he knows in English: “Laugh while you can, monkey boy!”

Here are two pictures of some of these boys, monkeying around in the hall (I’m pretty sure they’re miming some kind of pregnancy and birth scenario – note that the one has his head up under the shirt of the other!):



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