Caveat: as if you would live forever

I wrote this exactly one year ago, as a possible blog entry. I never published it in my blog. I’m not sure why – it feels kind of important. I guess I didn’t feel it was “finished” and subsequently forgot about it. Now that I’m scraping the bottom of my barrel-o’-blog-ideas, I’ll go ahead and throw it down here.

Walking home last night [i.e. January 12, 2016], I was thinking about pain and my old, neglected aphorism, “Live each day as if you would live forever.” That aphorism worked for me at a time when the only limit to my youthful immortality was my own undying death wish. Essentially, it served as a way to subvert that death wish. But now that there are more threats to my survival coming from outside my mind (i.e. mostly coming from my own treacherous, aging body), I find it hard to maintain the suspension of disbelief necessary to live by that aphorism. Thinking about pain, my thought has always been: if I knew, confidently, that I was immortal, I should think I would find any pain bearable, over the long run. The reason pain is unbearable is because it is a kind of ur-premonition of our mortality. This idea is related to why I always found descriptions of the traditional Christian hell unpersuasive – I always thought, well, if you’re there, suffering for an eternity, wouldn’t you gradually get used to it? Eventually, after the first few thousand years at the worst, you might even grow to need it – it’d be part of the routine. At worst, you’d develop a kind of asceticism toward it, a kind of zen-like “let it pass through me.” To be honest, I would find the idea of actual, permanent death for sinners and eternal life for the saved much more compelling. This is known as the doctrine of conditional mortality – currently held by Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other such peripheral Christian groups.

I was experiencing a great deal of pain last January, related to the necrosis and tooth problem which reached a kind of resolution yesterday, as the doctor pronounced my “tooth extraction point” more-or-less healed, despite the necrosis in the jaw. So this seems a very appropriate point to revisit that pain, at its nadir.

[daily log: walking, 7km]

Caveat: Tárrases

I’m not exactly in the closet about my geofiction hobby – I’ve blogged about it once or twice before, and in fact I link to it in my blog’s sidebar, too – so alert blog-readers will have known it is something I do.
Nevertheless, I’ve always felt oddly reticent about broadcasting this hobby too actively. It’s a “strange” hobby in many people’s minds, and many aren’t sure what to make of it. Many who hear of it percieve it to be perhaps a bit childish, or at the least unserious. It’s not a “real” hobby, neither artistic, like writing or drawing, nor technical, like coding or building databases. Yet geofiction, as a hobby, involves some of all of those skills: writing, drawing, coding and database-building.
Shortly after my cancer surgery, I discovered the website called OpenGeofiction (“OGF”). It uses open source tools related to the OpenStreetmap project to allow users to pursue their geofiction hobby in a community of similar people, and “publish” their geofictions (both maps and encyclopedic compositions) online.
Early last year, I became one of the volunteer administrators for the website. In fact, much of what you see on the “wiki” side of the OGF website is my work (including the wiki’s main page, where the current “featured article” is also mine), or at the least, my collaboration with other “power users” at the site. I guess I enjoy this work, even though my online people skills are not always great. Certainly, I have appreciated the way that some of my skills related to my last career, in database design and business systems analysis, have proven useful in the context of a hobby. It means that if I ever need to return to that former career, I now have additional skills in the areas of GIS (geographic information systems) and wiki deployment.
Given how much time I’ve been spending on this hobby, lately, I have been feeling like my silence about it on my blog was becoming inappropriate, if my blog is truly meant to reflect “who I am.”
So here is a snapshot of what I’ve been working on. It’s a small island city-state, at high latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, with both “real-world” hispanic and fully fictional cultural elements. Its name is Tárrases, on the OGF world map here.
Here is a “zoomable and slidable” map window, linked to the area I’ve been creating, made using the leaflet tool.

There were some interesting technical challenges to get this to display correctly on my blog, involving several hours of research and coding trial and error. If anyone is interested in how to get the javascript-based leaflet map extension to work on a webpage (with either real or imaginary map links), including blogs such as typepad that don’t support it with a native plugin, I’m happy to help.
I have made a topo layer, too. I am one of only 2-3 users on the OGF website to attempt this – But the result is quite pleasing.

I have always loved maps, and since childhood, I have sometimes spent time drawing maps of imaginary places. However, I never dreamed that I’d be producing professional-quality, internet-accessible maps of imaginary places. I believe it is a kind of artform.
So that’s where my time off sometimes disappears to.
UPDATE NOTE 1, 2016-12-05: The topo view is currently broken due to some work I’m doing. It will be repaired eventually.
UPDATE NOTE 2, 2017-02-16: The topo view has been repaired.
UPDATE NOTE 3, 2019-08-15: I noticed while doing other blog maintenance that the leaflet embeds were broken. I spent a few hours fixing them – apparently some recent leaflet.js update wasn’t backward-compatible (argh).
UPDATE NOTE 4, 2021-10-13: I noticed while doing other blog maintenance that the leaflet embeds were broken (again). I spent some time fixing them (again). Using a leaflet plugin for wordpress, now. Let’s see how long that works…. 
[daily log: walking, 1.5km]

Caveat: The Wall of Incomprehension, Episode #3196

I’ve not been working very hard these last few days – I’m in the second week of my “naesin vacation” – that break in my schedule when I have only elementary classes because the middle-schoolers are engaged in their intensive test-prep schedule. So I have a 50% class load. I think I benefit from this – it gives me a chance to “recharge” between the harder push during the regular schedule.
Nevertheless, I’ve had a rough couple of days. Not from overwhelming teaching load but essentially for affective reasons – I just have been feeling negative about my work lately. I’ve been working at Karma for 5 years. That’s the second-longest I’ve ever held a single job, and certainly Curt is now the person who’s been my boss for the longest continuous stretch of time in my life, by far.
Yet Wednesday night I sat in a staff meeting on the topic of student placement for the next term, feeling like no one really gave a damn what I had to say, or what my opinions were about the students or about what we should do. I feel like I am dismissed for being too demanding, in one moment, then dismissed for being too lax, in another moment. This is dissonant. I realize it boils down to different cultural perceptions, not just just about appropriate teaching methodology but about more fundamental questions on how child development is conceptualized and how teacher’s roles are defined.
Then yesterday I had an interaction with a coworker that reinforced this feeling of dissonance.
The very complicated background to this is a problematic student who goes by Ken. He is not academically inclined, and he is morbidly shy. Several months went by before I got any kind of sustained utterance out of him of any kind – even in Korean, not just English. In fact, he’s not that far below level in terms of his English ability, but his penmanship is atrocious, so I would describe his issue as being one of “intense communication avoidance” – by never speaking on the one hand, and by writing illegibly on the other.
Anyway, Ken nevertheless is not in any way handicapped. In testing, he tests at level, as long as there’s no production component (i.e. only short-answer writing and no speaking). Ken has one additional habit that is annoying: he frequently tries to “cheat.” I put that word in quotation marks because in fact, it has the feel of an elaborate ritual. He expects and intends to be caught. He makes these little cue cards with information he could use on a vocabulary test or speech test, and he almost flamboyantly mimes through a process of placing them somewhere “out of sight.”
The theatrics of it convinced me, early on, that instead of being hard-nosed about it, I should try for a different kind of approach. I decided to accept it as an invitation to a conversation, and, remarkably, it has in fact worked out exactly that way. He makes and places his cue cards, I inevitably find them and ask him what he’s doing, and at first he would say “nothing,” or some other monosyllable. But then he started adding things. “I need more time [to prepare].” “No, I need that.”
This might seem trivial, but I’m a language teacher first, and what I saw was that here he was, actually using English to communicate. So these little exchanges have emerged between us. I will answer, something like, “Oh, you’ve had lots of time.” “No, I need more.” “Why?” “To study. There’s too many words on this list.”
You see? He actually knows spoken English pretty well, and here was a communicative situation where he felt safe and compelled to demonstrate that by interacting with me. So with respect to what you might call the “moral dimension” of the cheating issue, I decided to just let it be. It was a kind of game, I rationalized. Perhaps that’s all it is, I don’t know. I would tease him, saying that if he put as much energy into studying as he put into creating his cheat cards, he wouldn’t need to cheat. He would smile with a kind of secret satisfaction. He understands what I’m saying, but just studying is not an interesting approach for him.
As long as this was a “game” confined to our class, which didn’t disrupt my interactions with the other students, I guess it’s no problem. But last night another teacher caught him cheating. And she asked me if I knew he did that.
I said, “of course, he tries, all the time. But… it’s complicated.” You can imagine the conversation that followed. I was faced with a wall of blank incomprehension as I tried explain all of the above.
“But it’s just… wrong. How could you let him do that?”
My point, and my defense, is that I don’t let him actually cheat. I always catch him. That’s how it works. But the other teacher had no sympathy for the idea that I was using it as a means to engage with and draw out an otherwise voiceless student.
In retrospect, of course, I have to second guess myself. Was it wrong of me to do this? The theatrics of his “cheating” always made me assume he meant to be caught, which meant that I assumed the same thing happened with the other teachers. But then, there arises the situation of a teacher who is too dense to notice. What then? Who’s been irresponsible? Me, for allowing the game, or her, for not noticing Ken’s “performance?”
I don’t have an answer, but what really has me depressed is the “wall of incomprehension” vis-a-vis my intended communicative approach, as it underscores the feeling from Wednesday’s meeting that my opinions and notions of pedagogy are fundamentally unwelcome.

When I tried to talk about the problem with Helen, the elementary section director, she was just as incomprehending. A little more sympathetic, if only because she’s become used to these weird cultural mis-matches, with me, but in the end she was mildly disapproving and, more significantly, completely dismissive of the whole thing – which redounds on my feelings about the meeting, that my opinions and ideas are ultimately sufficiently alien to my coworkers that their main way of dealing with them is to ignore them.

It’s not that I’m left second-guessing my fundamental beliefs about pedagogy or what makes for best practice in interacting with kids – I still hew to the essential idea summed up in the aphorism that “kids learn from what we do, not from what we say.” I therefore insist that haranging and getting angry at kids for bad their behavior is not just useless, but is teaching them exactly the wrong thing – even while admitting sometimes I am guilty of it, too. This is to say, it teaches them that haranging and getting angry are appropriate social responses. Yet anyone familiar with Korean society will realize that this is, obviously, in fact a belief broadly held in Korean culture. And that is because that’s universally how kids are disciplined.

The real issue, which is causing me distress in the present moment, is just a kind of despair with respect to the idea that I could ever, truly, adapt. The thing that I should emphasize is that I could easily have the same problem in some school in some other conservative cultural setting, including in the US. I recognize that this isn’t really about Korea. It’s about my own stubborn instance on difference, and my own maladaptive alienation.

There’s no conclusion. It’s just the anecdote. Life goes on.
[daily log: walking, 6.5km]

Caveat: At the place where the machines and their acolytes extend human life

It has become a bit of a tradition for me to post to my blog from the waiting room at the hospital. I guess I do it partly because sitting in the hospital waiting room is boring, but mostly it’s to remind myself of the time when posting to my blog from my phone was the only way I could do it, because I was in the hospital without a normal internet-connected computer.

I am at the hospital for one of my periodic follow-ups, where they do a CAT scan and look around, to make sure I don’t have any metastasis.

Always here I get a strange feeling of stress-mediated calmness. I think the place evokes that paradoxical mix as it is strongly associated with such intense memories, traumatic but ultimately life affirming. The mental state is similar to something I feel in a temple or church or sacred-seeming place of natural beauty. . . a feeling of sublimity tempered by pathos.

I lie down inside the machine and let the acolytes read the signs under my skin.

Update (a few hours later): The signs having been read, the acolytes spoke in short obliquities of long life and long odds overcome. My earth-residency visa has been extended.

picture[daily log: walking, 10.5km]

Caveat: The Wall of Unfame

At work, there is a wall next to the reception desk where, over the last few days, someone (I assume Curt or Helen?) has been putting up these little post-it notes, upon which are written spontaneous student feedback to the prompt “What do you think of Karma?” There is no explanation for this – there are only the post-its. I had to ask someone to explain what they were about, and it was far from obvious, even reading the notes, because all the post-its are of that variety that are free because they contain advertising (promotional) material, from a discount store chain called E-Mart (Korean Wal-Mart). So it looks, at first glance, like the students are expressing their opinion of E-Mart, which would be a silly thing to put up next to the reception desk at Karma.

Once I learned what the notes were about, however, I studied them carefully. I’m deeply curious what the students think of Karma, and there is not enough of this kind of information that, at least that I have ready access to, given my linguistic handicaps.

A few of the notes are entertainingly negative. One student wrote a very laconic: 없다 – “there’s nothing.” I assume that the question-prompt had been something like “what do you think of when you think of Karma?” or “what’s the first thing that pops into your head on the subject of Karma?”

Another note said the single word, “Stay” (in English), which refers to when we make students stay late to finish homework or re-take a quiz.

The largest number of notes said something to the effect of “재미있다,” which is, roughly, “it’s fun.”

Another bunch of notes expressed ideas related to, “쌤 친절해요,” which is something like “the teachers are kind.” This can give a nice feeling. Many of this class of note got more specific, naming individual teachers, including Grace, Helen, and Kay.

It was in observing this that my heart fell. Among all the notes, several dozen at least, not one mentioned my name. It was a wall of unfame, at least with respect to me.

I’m not actually interested in fame. But I’m interested in trying to be memorable to my students.

A few weeks ago, I had a really bad week. It was one of those weeks where, as a means of coping, I begin to compose a resignation letter to my boss.

I have done this many times in my life – it’s not something that I allow to come to fruition – at least, not in recent decades. It’s a way of coping, I guess, and a way of documenting various frustrations.

There had been ongoing problems at work, and one class, in particular, had kind of reached a crisis. I wrote about that, already. The mistake I made, after that crisis, was calling on my bosses to help me deal with it. That was a mistake, because it left me feeling weak and ineffective about my job, and, in the Korean context, I lost a lot of “face” with my coworkers. Mostly, my coworkers claim not to care about this issue, but it does leave subtle tells in their behavior and interactions with me, and thus the last several weeks have felt a little bit “frosty.”

Anyway, I have subsequently felt better about that particular class. The reformation and resolution was probably a combination of some stern talking-to by the other teachers and my own effort to swallow my anger and remember they’re just kids, and don’t have a clue how to behave.

That week from hell had other lasting consequences for my general state of mind.

On Tuesday, somehow I managed to stub my toe. That may sound innocuous enough – but it was a bad toe-stubbing. I bled all over the floor of my apartment, and almost thought I should go to the hospital before it finally stopped. Somehow, the toe-stubbing aggravated my old broken metatarsil bone from my bicycle accident (1993), where I had a metal pin inserted. Now I’m limping around, and in pain in my foot. Even several weeks later, I still feel tender down there – clearly I reactivated the old injury. It is a kind of special supplement to the permanent low-grade post-surgery pain I experience in my mouth and neck.

With tensions high at work, I ended up yelling with my boss on Wednesday – and as I said, things have felt a little bit frosty.

On Thursday of that week, I accidentally deleted an online draft document where I keep my kind of personal journal supplement to my blog – it’s like a place to brainstorm ideas, and record thoughts that I decide not to record in the public record of the blog. Let’s just say, I managed to delete about 6 months of personal journaling.

I haven’t had a computer disaster of that level for quite a while. It’s ironic because I had just been telling a coworker a few days before that I was confident I was backing up everything I wrote really effectively. That document managed to slip through a kind of crack I allowed to develop in my backup system. It’s my own fault of course. Anyway, I lost quite a bit of writing.

I was struggling with anger. I spent a lot of energy on “watching” myself as I dealt with it. I was particularly struck by what might be termed an “ascetic” response. When I’m angry, it’s almost always combined with a severe self-condemnation, as I generally blame myself for things that have gone wrong. In fact, with things that are genuinely out of my own control, my anger tends to be more ephemeral. Thus the kind of anger that is hardest for me to cope with is anger at myself.

That kind of anger is insidious.

Anger is dangerous. It insinuates, reproduces, perpetuates, like a virus in the body or an ideology in a culture, anger is immanent at the level of a single mind. It can cloud your mind, because it’s seeking to stay in charge and reproduce. It is not a single voice, but a tribe of voices and assertions and emotionalized perceptions, which reach out an hijack other voices and perceptions. It’s a demonic possession, it’s a contamination, it’s an error.

My psychological response has been to seek out deadness, numbness. I remember many years ago, I coined a term for it. I called it “ascetic narcotism.” I’m not sure it’s completely accurate, but I was trying to capture the way that the impulse to purify takes over and becomes an obsession, like a kind of addiction.

I kept trying to be more ascetic. Restricting my diet. Restricting my “fun activities,” like surfing blogs or drawing maps.

In fact, I don’t like purity narratives. I’ve tried to write about that, before, but I think eventually I should make a book about it.

So now, it’s several weeks later.

Gradually, I had been feeling better, and more positive, although work is feeling desperate, still. And then I stood and studied the wall of unfame, and all my insecurities and frustrations came back to me.

As I walked home on Friday night, I found myself thinking a lot about what it is I’m trying to get out of being a teacher. I do hope to have some impact on kids’ lives, I guess. But I also view it a relatively low-stress career – it was my own personal rejection of the rat-race careerism that had absorbed me during my years working with databases and IT. So my frustration isn’t just with the frustrating aspects of the job, but with the very fact that it is frustrating, because the point is to get away from things that are frustrating. If my low-stress career is stressful, I’m doing it wrong.

Here is the “resignation letter” that I’d started, before. I suppose this is a kind of passive-aggressive way of publishing it, to the extent that this blog is public. But I’m not actually resigining – I’m just trying to work out my feelings.

Until now, the reason that I do this job is because I enjoy it.

If I cannot enjoy the job, I should quit. I can get other jobs that I don’t enjoy. I can get jobs that pay much better. I have a lot of skills. 

I have a huge amount of gratitude to my current place of work for the kindness people have shown me. But gratitude alone cannot nourish my soul.

I really don’t think I’m that great of a teacher. I am a bit lazy, definitely, and I rely on my in-class enthusiasm and rhetorical skills to scrape by. I have a pretty good grounding in and awareness of pedagogical theory and the issues around it, but I often take shortcuts that disregard my knowledge. In teaching, in any event, perfectionism is dangerous, as it can be paralyzing, because a class never goes perfectly.

It’s weird, because the teachers from my own past that I think about most frequently and remember most vividly are not, likely, the “best” teachers. In some cases, they are not even the teachers whom I liked the most at the time. The teachers I tend to think about are the ones who constructed narratives – ongoing narratives and consistent patterns through many classes.

I try to be that kind of teacher, but I’m not feeling very successful. The wall of unfame feels like a confirmation that I’m not.

picture[daily log: walking, 1km]

Caveat: My Hermitage

I have been undergoing a bit of a depressing realization, lately, about my character and about my life. The fact is that I am quite bad at all social relations that go beyond a certain, superficial level. Really, more accurately this is not a "realization" (because I already have known it), but rather a reinforcement, or a reminder.

I am good within what you might call "well-defined" or "bounded" social interactions, I think. This is why I don't have problems with teaching, or work in general, or with making a good impression on sociable strangers whom I meet on the street – if I need to. But for the closest, most important social relations, I'm terrible. I am, perhaps, too self-centered. I come by this trait quite legitimately, of course. That does not really excuse it, however. It is a substantial moral failing, in my own opinion.

When it comes to my family, I don't really stay in touch very well. The same is true with close friends. Some of my friends and family tolerate this poor performance, and so they periodically reach out to me – meeting me on my own terms, so to speak. They read my blog, because that's how I choose to make myself accessible to them. Many other relatives and friends, however, do not do this. Because of this, I quickly drift out of touch with them.

Last weekend, this shortcoming of mine was hammered home to me in the most shocking, sobering, disconcerting way possible.

As many know, quite a while back I essentially quit the facebook. I maintain my account there, but I almost never log in. In fact, it had been at least 3 or 4 months since I last logged in.

A few days ago, I decided to log in just to check if anyone was trying to get in touch with me but was too stubborn to realize I wasn't using facebook anymore. There are quite a few people in this category, of course – many of whom are quite close friends or family, or at least were such at some point in the past.

I logged into facebook, and discovered that my stepson, Jeffrey, is now a father. That makes me, um… a grandfather. Stepgrandfather, yes, but… as close as I'm likely to get in this life. Although Jeffrey and I are not close, now, there was time when he was young when we were quite close, and he called me "dad." I have mostly good memories of those interactions. I have many regrets about my own failures in my role as parent.

Clearly, however, Jeffrey is not one of those people who will reach out to me "on my terms." That means that it's up to me to stay in touch. I have been failing to do that. This has led to this huge surprise.

I don't want to intrude on his privacy. He has his life. I am mostly grateful that he seems to have turned out OK, despite the difficulties of his adolescence, especially with his mom Michelle's death in 2000. I have tried to help him in various ways, at various times, over the years, but I doubt he sees me as particularly reliable. I expect that he perceives me to be that flaky stepdad that wasn't there for him or Michelle at those critical moments when I might have been most needed.


Thus I understand his reticence to reach out to me in any way but the most peremptory manner. Indeed, I'm sympathetic – there were many years when I've had a similar level of distance between myself and my own parents – I was, ironically, just discussing this with my mother recently, too. It's been 6 months since I traded emails with my father. Even worse with my sister.

There is a realization that being left out of the loop with respect to Jeffrey's life hurts a little bit. Just as my mother was telling me how it hurt her to have been left out of mine, years ago.

I choose not to feel anger, though. My reaction is to simply decide to accept my own flakiness, I guess. I am simply not meant for social intimacy. Not meant for family. Not meant for marriage. A certain residual sadness, such as comes with the first cool days of autumn.

For many years I have been a kind of de facto urban hermit. I have my work, but it is, as I already said, well-bounded. I go to work, I am social and even caring about my students and coworkers, but this is possible for me, psychologically, precisely because I am able to walk away from it each day and mostly not think about it the rest of the time.

This is my hermitage. It's not really a new realization, either – I've realized it [broken link! FIXME] before. I have long been drawn to, and most comfortable with, a kind of eremetic lifestyle. It becomes more and clear to me, however. I exist at the center of my solitude.

I watch the world. Someday, I will stop watching the world.

[daily log: walking, 6 km]

Caveat: One Year Cancer Free

Well, it hasn’t gone perfectly. Being alive, however, means I am lucky.

I grossly underestimated my ability to meet the challenges of the long-term, despite having coped pretty remarkably well on the short term. The great challenge, frankly, has been that the centrality of eating to daily life, not just for sustenance but for socializing, has collided with the fact that eating has been rendered permanently unpleasant. Eating is a chore, now – on par with cleaning the toilet or jogging, with genuine unpleasantness being inevitable during the task, and only a residual and mostly hollow sense of accomplishment afterward.

Last night, we went to a work dinner (회식) for a coworker’s birthday, and Curt said to me – incidental to something else we were discussing – “Life is nothing.” I reminded him that exactly one year ago, on 2013-07-03, he’d said the same aphorism to me, on the eve of my surgery (and reprising previous uses of the same, vaguely Buddhist expression, such as on the date of my biopsy). It’s meant to be reassuring, and sometimes, it is.

I will summarize here the past year, just for completeness sake (and then I can point people to this blog entry for the “short version” of my cancer story).

I was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue on 2013-06-25 and things moved very fast. By the following week I was checking into Korea’s National Cancer Center (국립암센터) – possibly one of the best cancer hospitals in the world but which happens to be in my neighborhood – and I underwent a 9 hour surgery to remove the tumor from the root of my tongue on 2013-07-04. I spent three nightmarish, hallucinatory days in the ICU before finally being released out into the general ward.

My hospital stay was 23 days. I had a pretty good recovery although I had an infection that necessitated an additional “emergency” surgery to remove some badly behaved parts in my neck and tongue again.

My friends Peter and Grace and my coworkers Helen and Curt all provided immense amounts of emotional support and material support. I haven’t in any way adequately repaid any of them their kindness during this time.

My brother arrived a week or so into my hospital stay, and his help was quite useful, too – Korean hospitals expect family members to do a lot of the work done by nurse-assistant types in western hospitals.

By the time I was discharged, I was feeling quite elated, and that lasted until a week or two into my radiation treatment phase, which began in September. As the radiation treatments progressed, my brother left but stepmother visited. I was on a very limited schedule for work, and so I did a lot of daytripping around with them during that long, complicated summer. In early October, I had finished the 30 days of radiation by the time my mother came to visit, but I was also feeling much less elated and much grumpier about my health. Ultimately, it seems that the post-radiation discomforts were mostly permanent – or at the least very long-term.

I have lost a great deal of my sense of taste: especially sweetness – sweet things are kind of just bland. I have a saliva shortage in my mouth, which is the main cause of my difficulty eating – when I chew foods they turn in to dry, unswollowable blobs that my handicapped tongue is unable to push to the appropriate place in my mouth. Sometimes, I will have to shove a finger into my mouth and manually push the bolus of food to the right spot for swallowing. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t really feel comfortable eating in public, anymore. I have to be very careful or can end up with a choking fit. This problem, however, is in ironic conjunction with a horrible phlegm problem in my sinuses and throat such as I never suffered from before the surgery. I am constantly hacking up gobs of nasty gunk, despite having a dry mouth. I experience “ghost” pain sometimes in my my missing nerves in my tongue, neck, and wrist, all places where nerves were severed for the surgery. My tongue gets “sore” after talking a lot, which despite everything, is still a tendency of mine (not to mention my profession, as a language teacher).

I think I have a pretty high tolerance for pain – I almost never take pain medication but suspect that I would be a candidate based on a best guess at comparing my symptoms to those of others. It’s possible that this chronic low-grade, permanent pain (in mouth, tongue, neck, throat) has to do with my affective struggles of, especially, the last few months.

My eating difficulty has had a side effect of being a very effective diet plan. If you want to lose a lot of weight, tongue cancer is a great way to do it! It seems like I have managed to stabilize at about 70 kg.  We’ll see if I can stick with that.

I have been going in on a three-monthly basis to the hospital for CT scans to make sure I’m still cancer-free. In two weeks, I’m due for my first annual scan, which will be more thorough and include a PET scan.

There are times when I feel I made a deal with the devil. I worry that my post-cancer quality-of-life wasn’t “worth it.” Mostly, however, I remain grateful to be alive, knowing that it might not have worked out that way under different circumstances.

I’m going to discontinue these “X months cancer free” blog posts and perhaps even try to avoid discussing the post-cancer aspect of my existence much, as I feel it leads me to dwell more on the negative than I should. This entry is meant to be a kind of closing entry, then. Obviously, if something “new” comes along, I’ll share it.

picture[daily log: walking, 5.5 km]

Caveat: ius linguae

There are two main systems for deriving citizenship, which, being essentially legal concepts, go under their Latin names: ius sanguinis and ius solis. The idea of ius sanguinis, or “right of blood,” is that citizenship derives primarily from the bloodline. This is the traditional way of determining citizenship in countries that are primarily monocultural, as the nations of Europe were in the early modern era. Modern Asian countries also mostly use this model. The alternative is ius solis, or “right of soil,” where citizenship is derived from where one is born. I’m not sure that any modern country has a strictly ius solis model, but most modern “Western” countries – especially immigration-driven countries like the US, Canada or Argentina for example – use a combination of ius solis and ius sanguinis to decide citizenship.

I have thought about the issues around these definitions a lot, first of all as someone who was something of an immigration reform activist in the US prior to my own somewhat unintended emmigration (I say unintended in that I never meant for my emmigration to be permanent or even so long-term, but it has definitely evolved that way), but also as someone who is intrigued by the slow, difficult path Korean society and government is navigating toward a more open attitude toward immigration.

I have been observing with some degree of fascination my recent coworker Razel, who is Philippine-Korean. She acquired her status via marriage, but the extent to which she is integrated into Korean culture and society is breathtaking, and although I have no doubt that she occasionally experiences racism and prejudice, she says it’s in no way the defining feature of her experience. I feel jealousy for her level of Korean Language speaking ability – listening to her on the phone talking to her friends, code-switching between English, Korean, Tagalog and Visayan (the latter being her “native” Philippine languages) leaves me in quiet admiration.

Korean culture is uncomfortable with the idea of immigration. They welcome ethnic Korean “returnees,” called 교포 [gyopo], because they can be more confident of their ability to integrate into Korean society, and they more-or-less accept the idea of mixed marriages as an inevitability, too – as in the example of my coworker. But Koreans resist the idea of foreign individuals or families arriving and simply becoming Korean. It doesn’t sit well with their traditional Confucian concept of the predominance of ancestry and their ius sanguinis model of citizenship.

The other day, however, I had a weird brainstorm as I was thinking about my coworker’s mostly successful integration into Korean society. What if we could define a new, third model of citizenship? Specifically, for a more culturally and linguistically homogeneous society such as Korea, we could grant citizenship rights based, essentially, on the ability to participate in the culture – which is to say, the capacity for the language. It wouldn’t be that hard to say something to the effect of “citizenship for those who pass the language test” – though this would require an ethical and corruption-free administration of a well-designed test, which I’m not sure is the current status of Korea’s de facto standard Korean Language test, the TOPIK. But it would be a workable goal. So that would be ius linguae, “right of language.”

One thought that springs to mind is that this is a model that many in the US would be pleased to adopt – force all those “damn immigrants” to learn English before they get a green card or citizenship! Yet even as I’m happy to propose ius linguae for Korea, I recoil at the idea of applying it in the US. What is the difference? Mostly, history. Korea is historically essentially a single language / culture / state – for hundreds at least if not thousands of years. The US, on the other hand, was almost from the beginning a state defined by some concept of essentially “right of arrival” – to recall one of my favorite quotes on immigration, from Herman Melville, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come.”

There are tensions within this, but that is the essence. Further, the US project is complicated by the preexistence of linguistic minorities – both Native American and French, Spanish, etc. – groups of people who were in place when the US essentially appeared “over” them through war or annexation. The US is an empire, not a unitary state. It hardly seems fair to impose as a requirement for citizenship the imperial language, since to do so guarantees the possibility of stateless permanent residents within your country, similar to the horrific legal status of Koreans living in Japan even today, 70 years after the end of the War. That Japanese example is a perfect one: the inevitable consquence of applying a ius sanguinis citizenship model in the context of empire is inequality and injustice.

I think Korea, however, is sufficiently compact and homogeneous that applying this type of ius linguae model of citizenship might represent an excellent compromise path between the traditional and inevitably racist ius sanguinis and the more modern ius solis / sanguinis hybrids, the latter of which would lead to an increasintly multi-cultural society and the emergence of linguistic / cultural ghettos – Korea already is beginning to have these in places where there are large numbers of foreigners, such as the area I call “Russiatown” that I like to visit sometimes. Granting citizenship only to immigrants who have already shown a commitment to integrating into Korean culture via the acquisition of the language would be a great solution, maybe.

This is just a brainstorm – a first draft – that occured to me mostly while walking back and forth to work over several days. I’m sure it’s subject to plenty of criticisms and refinements, but I wanted to record my thoughts and put them down.

In other news: yesterday, I turned off the internet and my phone and did almost nothing. It was a lazy day but I think I needed it. I am in danger of social burnout given the teaching load I have taken on (willingly), so I’m going to nurse my off-time for maximum isolation, as my alone time is recuperative for me.

[daily log (1100 pm): walking, 5 km]

Caveat: The Thing About Trees

(Poem #13 on new numbering scheme)

The thing about trees

Here’s the thing about trees: they are always trying to escape the groping gravity of the earth.

Look at them. They strain and push up toward the sky, in their slow-motion way. You can see, easily, how they are trying to escape. The leaves have no other purpose but to reach for the sky.

Sometimes, the trees even need to be tied down. You see how people have applied ropes or wooden structures to the trees, to keep them from flying away when unobserved.

You see, the  trees know when we are watching, too. They know that if they succeed in escaping, they have to be careful not to get caught – no one will trust a tree, anymore, if people see one running off into the sky.

So the trees wait until no one is looking. Trees, as might be expected, are amazingly patient.

In the depth of the night, when no one is around to see or hear, a tree will succeed in escaping. The branches will finally reach and thrust with sufficient force to pull the roots free of the grasping, jealous earth, and they will rise rapidly into space, finally finding their freedom. All that is left is a small upturned mound of earth, puckered like a small wound, where the roots pulled out.

A strong wind can help, but if the weather is too stormy, the trees can be injured and then they will fall back to the brutish earth, broken and shattered.

Sometimes, after a storm, you can see the evidence of this – broken trees thrown over, as if by wind. What is not so clear to us watchers is that some of that violence is self-inflicted by the trees upon themselves, in their desperate efforts to escape the unkind earth.

[UPDATE: This is tree # -1]

caveat: so many private battles

with the night shift came a new batch of medicine to be administered, and the increasingly routine perforation party. its a vicious cycle. . . as more and more of my veins get "used," those remaining are less and less optimal. in a given persons arm there are a limited number of "good" iv insertion points. the problem is generalized too much to all staff who try for it to be a competence problem. . . its just a loss of suitable real estate.

and it becomes impossible to stay upset about it for long. this is a cancer hospital, and my problems are minor. as i stand at the counter complaining of my perforation-induced headache, my neighbor two beds over, undergoing chemo and suffering a permanent case of hiccups, shambles out managing to vomit and bleed at the same time. now, theres a guy needing attention. i humbly withdraw and remember to thank the stressed nurse with a smile and a 수고하셨습니다 [you worked hard, a standard korean thank you].

all around me are men and women fighting their private battles, many much worse than mine. for each case of jealousy-arousing snip-snap-its-done-now-go-home colon cancer surgeries like mr parks last week, there are nausea-inducing cases that leave patients curled in knots of pain and fear on the corridor floors for hours, and render others into many-bandaged zombies, groping for their morphine buttons with only grimmaces of shame to offer to their helpless relatives.

i can only retreat into my own affirmation to move past this, in my own case.

pacing my orbit, i affirm: i am strong. i am healthy. i am fearless. i am resiliant. i feel no pain. i am strong. i am healthy. . . .

caveat: things untrue of such sublime beauty

sitting in my bed, propped just so on my pillows, headphones on, eyes closed, i can imagine im on a train. but scenery never changes, and there seems to be very little interest in the destination. . . its just a ride, without an objective.

after my 5 am pre breakfast of fruit and yogurt, i brush my teeth, clean up a little, walk an orbit or two, put on some music and soon drift to sleep. i had a transparently symbolic dream.

in the dream, i wake up to see a child, maybe five or six years old, standing at the foot of my bed. she has a shy smile, she beckons. i follow her, dragging my iv-stand like a ball and chain. in the hallway there is a half-open door. she races through it, glancing back to make sure i am following.

beyond the door, narnia like, the is a tall stand of creaking redwood trees, and a bumpy, sun-drenched clearing with a scattering of picnic tables. i quickly realize it is nearly impossible to follow the girl, with the cumbersome iv-stand and its tiny, squeaky wheels.

she beckons, but i shake my head and sit down, heart heavy. she quickly becomes distracted chasing a remarkable blue butterfly over, under and around the tables. she laughs, and comes close to me, shyly.

"do you like that butterfly?" i ask.

she nods, makes a fluttering gesture. 

who is this girl? i think to myself but do not say aloud.

she comes close and leans against me, whispering in my ear. the simple korean of a child, easy for me to understand. "네 딸" [your daughter] she giggles. in spanish, then, "no sabias?" [you didnt know?]. in a whisper, "물론." [of course]

i awake, then, choked with tears.

things untrue, of such sublime beauty.

Caveat: Life is nothing and that is sublime

One unexpected but happy outcome of my recent announcement on this blog (and hence in facebookland, too) that I have been diagnosed with cancer, is the outpouring messages and notes from distant friends, relatives, and acquaintances. I'm utterly grateful for all of that.

It really makes a difference in my ability to keep a positive outlook on this experience – please don't stop no matter what! Thank you – I love you all so much.

Among these messages, however, there have been some examples of what I can only term "religious outreach and sharing." I don't mean people who are saying they are praying for me – this is nigh universal, and completely unproblematic from my perspective. I mean people who take the opportunity to share something of their beliefs, or experiences with Jesus, etc., and who inquire as to my own religious standing.

Viewed charitably, people are offering me solace with displays of where, in their own lives, they have found their own meaning and solace. Taking a less charitable view, they're seeking to exploit me in a moment of weakness and hoping to gain a "deathbed" convert.

For the record, my faith is quite strong.

I realize these solicitations are meant in all kindness, but I don't take them as kindness. Efforts to convert me – even in the best of times – will, if anything, turn me against the belief system being advocated.

Perhaps it is the case that aggressive evangelism is in some ways admirable. Certainly it is worth noting the level of commitment and strength of faith that it requires, and the depth of human character that it draws upon. I deeply respect if not downright envy people of strong faith of all kinds. Nevertheless, that kind of "vested outreach" ("caring, but with a dogmatic agenda") strikes me as disrespectful to the intellectual autonomy of others.

Try to consider it from my point of view: "So sorry to hear your news about your being sick, but, by the way, what you believe is completely wrong. I sure hope that you can fix up your deficient belief system in the time remaining to you on this Earth, or… you-know-what!"

Ah. Thank you so much for making me feel better.

I am an atheist. If that changes, over time, then so be it, but in this moment, my faith is unshaken, firm and unwavering.

"All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit." – Thomas Paine

Paine was called a "a demihuman archbeast" in an American newspaper contemporary to him. That being the case, how can we say that the voices in the current media are so alarming?

To digress further, briefly, for no reason, in a different vein: I once owned a horse that I named "Thomas Paine." I thought it a fitting name, as the horse seemed strongly anti-authoritarian and freethinking in character. I probably thought of the name because I was carrying around a slim copy of Paine's Age of Unreason at the time, which was the period of my disillusion with my previous "Quaker" identity. Thomas Paine was the only horse I ever owned. I didn't own him for long. When my several-months-long horseback oddessy in the mountains of Michoacan ended unpleasantly in the Spring of 1987, I gifted Thomas Paine to my friend Jon, who sold the horse later.

Thus when I think of Thomas Paine, and so too of religion and anti-religion and freethought, those meditations enchain to visceral memories of sitting atop a spirited horse in the pine forests of the high country of southwestern Mexico, or of eating carnitas and fresh tortillas and inhaling wood-smoke and shaking scorpions out of my shoes in the early morning.

For me there is a literal, viscerally-felt smell to be evoked for that sense of freedom from the anxieties of dogmas.

I should return to the question at hand: some of my friends' and acquaintances' sudden evangelical zealousness.

I assert that I am a "faith-based" atheist.

Some people might protest that I have repeatedly represented myself as Buddhist in this blog, and… isn't that a religion too?

Well yes… but no. Buddhism is indeed a religon, for many.

For me, though, Buddhism is only a practice, nothing more. It requires me to believe absolutely nothing. When my Buddhist friends talk to me of karma, I choose to interpret it metaphorically, and when they speak of reincarnation I nod politely and try to smile. Most pointedly, though, no one has ever suggested to me that it is a requirement that I believe such nonsense. So I very much appreciate that there exists a group of people that for the most part not only steadfastly refuses to dogmatize their beliefs but is even willing to affirm that I can be "one of them" without having to make any changes or adjustments of any kind to my own beliefs.

I suppose that when I was an active Quaker, 25 years ago, it was similar. Christianity, though, has an undeniable and unavoidable dogmatic burden: it requires of each believer the unambivalent affirmation of God's personal and accessible existence to each of us. No church, therefore – not even the Quakers or the Unitarians – are really able to dispense with all the metaphysical hocus pocus. If you're going to hold the Bible to some standard of eternal truth or even the broadest symbolic sacredness, you're joined at the hip to an irrational worldview. I could never feel comfortable pretending about that. I disliked my own imagined hypocrisy too intensely when I was an openly atheist "Quaker," and I felt unwelcome among Unitarians, too, for the exact same reason. They welcome all views, but, caveat: "hey, don't you think you're being a little close-minded, being an atheist?"

My "faith-based atheism" is strange to many people. Probably, it is even utterly unfathomable. People may ask, "How is it possible to have such a strong belief in, um… nothing?" As if atheism was an affirmational belief in "nothing." It's not nihilism. From my perspective, God is only one thing. So… Everything, minus one thing, is still almost everything. And that's what I believe in: I believe in everything that is in the world, everything that I can hear and feel and touch and see and taste and know and learn and achieve through my own rational mind.

In a way, I even derive some significant comfort from my atheism, in this difficult moment in my life. Where others, who have strong belief systems in benevolent or purposeful deities, would find their faith challenged or shaken by a revelation of their own possible imminent mortality, I am merely affirmed.

Of course life has no purpose, I can affirm in this moment, with a broad smile. And yet… what beauty there is in the world! What kindness other people can show! And how remarkable, then, that this happens for no reason whatsoever.

A miracle – utterly sublime.

Caveat: Cancer


I’ll just stick to the facts, mostly, for now.

The doctor said: “You have cancer.” Well. No ambiguity, there.

It’s cancer of the tongue, possibly lymph, too. What stage? “It’s a gray area.” We can’t know what ‘stage’ until surgery – that will include exploratory surgery and excision of lymph area on left side of neck.

Surgery will be in 2 weeks. Depending on how bad things look once they’re inside, looking around, it could be a simple 2-hour surgery or up to a 7-hour long surgery, including tracheotomy and extensive reconstruction after excision. Just to be clear: they will be removing some portion of the back of my tongue, and putting what’s left of it back together again, regardless of the other aspects (i.e. lymph etc.).

I will miss at least one month of work. Because of my relative “youth,” prognosis is good as far as recovery of functionality: speaking, eating, tasting. Still, I’m not sure what kind of “speaking teacher” I’m going to be, after this. Curt is being very kind.

There’s some irony, to be a linguist with tongue cancer…

Following surgery and recovery, radiation is standard for this type of diagnosis. Six weeks of daily radiation, starting probably in August at some point.

Statistics: survival rate is about 65%.

Insurance: with Korean National Health Insurance my copay will not exceed 5%. At that, probably still in the thousands of dollars.

Work: I need to find a short-term (one or two month) replacement. I will remain an employee of KarmaPlus.

Later, I can wax philosophical or journalistic or literary.

CaveatDumpTruck Logo

Caveat: The God-Shaped Hole / Azathoth and Buddha

There's a blogger over at the Website Whose Name I Don't Like, who writes by the name of Jason Kuznicki. I'm never sure on that site who's going by pseudonyms and and who's "real." But regardless, I agree with so much of what he writes. I may have just run across a post he made last year that dovetails nicely with some of my own feelings about the nature of the universe, of god, and the "purpose of life."

I'm not really interested in trying to summarize his ideas, as he makes his point very well, himself, talking as he does about evolution and Azathoth and God-shaped holes (which is a concept originally due to St Augustine, if I recall correctly), so I suggest you go read that post of his and then come back and read the rest of my thinking here, if you're really interested in watching me think about my faith.

Jason seems to be a variety of transhumanist. I think I am  too, though perhaps not so optimistic as he is, but still more optimistic than many bitter atheists of my sort. It's interesting that he brings Azathoth into it – I perhaps had Azathothian tendencies long before I "became" atheist. I see my own atheism as a defense against that sort thinking. I think Azathoth makes a good symbol (OK! like most Lovecraft, a great symbol), but nothing more than that.

You might have noticed I have described myself as an atheist, and yet I used the words "my faith," above, too. I don't see any contradiction in that. It may sound like a joke, but I genuinely consider myself to be a "faith-based atheist." That's because while I am atheist at core, I arrived at my atheism through irrational experience: it came to me as part of a near-death experience and was as bright and clear as the many Saul-to-Paul-like conversions associated with other religious traditions. Furthermore, I am utterly uninterested in challenging or arguing religion with other people – I feel no need, a la Dawkins or Dennett or Hitchens, to change other people's minds. I accept that my atheism is my belief, and other people have other beliefs. When people try to convert me, I get deeply annoyed, and I assume they would feel the same way if I tried to do the same to them. Let's all treat others the way they would like to be treated.

Some of my Christian friends are, of course, deeply puzzled by the fact that I am adamantly atheist and yet also have become increasingly comfortable calling myself a Buddhist. This is like a sort of double-blasphemy vis-a-vis Christianity, and the most hardcore among such friends seem to feel almost affronted, wondering if I'm somehow deliberately doubling down on my heresies.

There are two key reasons for my embrace of Buddhism. First, unlike with many other religious traditions, there is no requirement, in the Buddhist framework, that we believe anything in particular, or anything at all. There are Buddhist dogmas, but there are very few Buddhist dogmatists. I'm speaking of my own experience of course – and that's not to say that I haven't run across a few dogmatic Buddhists in my time. Ultimately, though, Buddhism seems to be not so much a dogma or a religion (although it can be be that, for those who want it or need it or grew up in such traditions) as it is a practice. As such, it's open to anyone who sees benefit it its practices. The second reason I'm comfortable calling myself a Buddhist is even simpler: it's because the Buddhists don't seem to mind having an atheist among them, whereas I've never met a Christian, however kind-hearted and tolerant he or she may be, who didn't carry in his or her heart at least some germ of discomfort with my assertion to my peculiar brand of born-again atheism. For the Christian (or any Christian, anyway, who buys into the key Christian messages of salvation and forgiveness and grace), there will always be an underlying hope or desire or expectation that I will somehow see the light. Unfortunately, I already did see the light – and it made me who I am. No group of Christians, no matter how liberal and tolerant and touchy-feely they may have been (I'm pointing at UUs and Quakers here, among others), has ever succeeded in making me feel welcome as I am, without offering up some subtext of, "gee, we hope you can see what we see, someday." What they see is God, of course.

Jason writes, in his transhumanist vein: "Either we are the immortals, or we are their progenitors. We should live accordingly." This is something that dovetails nicely with Buddhist practice, as I, at least, conceptualize it.

Here are some pictures from my walk home earlier today – Spring treeblossoms on a drizzly April day in Ilsan: Azathoth doing some ineluctable thing.

The back side of Munhwa Elementary.

Drizzle 003

A pedestrian area nearby.

Drizzle 005

The intersection at Gangseonno and Daesanno, halfway between work and home.

Drizzle 008

Caveat: Channeling Colonel Kasun in Korea


It was mostly just incidental that I happened to learn that Joseph Kasun passed away recently – I'm not in touch with any of my onetime high school teachers, but someone's posting on facebook caught my attention and so I came to know that my high school history teacher, Mr (Col) Kasun had died. His obituary is here, in the Times-Standard, Humboldt's newspaper-of-record. Here's an internet picture (right) showing him with ice-cream in front of a recognizably Arcata High Schoolish building – perhaps even his classroom (at the windows)?

I didn't have much of a personal connection with Mr Kasun. As a student, I remember not thinking much of him – he seemed theatrical and reactionary and prone to pendantic declamations that suited his record as a veteran and former Army officer perfectly. As a disconsolate youth with hippie-commune parents, to me he seemed both dangerous and buffoonish, like the bizarre uncle in the movie Harold and Maude. But he was, in fact, a fairly effective and most definitely memorable teacher, and he was principled enough not to spout his extreme conservative agenda too blatently into the classroom – I knew he was conservative (his wife was a major figure in the Humboldt pro-life movement and a Reagan activist) but I didn't ever feel he was trying to convince me to be conservative.

And here's the thing – I think of old Col Kasun often. Not quite on a daily basis, but he comes to mind several times a week, and in fact he'd been on my mind the same evening that I got home and saw the facebook post reporting his death. How is it that this should be so?

I'm a teacher. I'm not a high school teacher, but I teach gifted middle-schoolers, which is close enough. And even though I am, primarily, an EFL teacher, my methodology is deeply wrapped up with teaching "subjects-but-in-English." Specifically, I often find myself being a history and social studies teacher, such as was Mr Kasun. It's inevitable when talking about topics such as democracy, fights for independence, or social policy, that Mr Kasun's passionate and sincere style will sometimes come to mind. He would stand up at the front of the class and gesture his pointing finger while making oratory on the topic of our hard-won American freedoms or American exceptionalism. What's weird is that I can unintentionally channel Mr Kasun in gesture or tone, while the topic is, instead, Korean hard-won freedoms or Korean exceptionalism, while the kids stare up in that perfect teenage mixture of awe and boredom. And I find myself thinking to myself, 'jeez, that was a fine Colonel Kasun you just did, wasn't it?'

And I go home to read that he has died. I never had been in touch with him, since high school.

There are teachers you really like, in school. But as a teacher, those aren't always the teachers you think about, much less the ones you channel or become.

I really liked Mr Mauney, and Mr Meeks, and Mrs Williams (who had a different name, maybe, later, due to divorce or remarriage) and Mme Dalsant. But I rarely think of them in my teaching. Instead, I meditate on Mr Kasun or Mr Dohrman (sp?), both of whom I find myself channeling, sometimes to my own deep chagrin. Or I contemplete Mr Allan Edwards, who terrified me so much as a high school freshman that I never really recovered, and all these years later, I sometimes remind myself that, whatever else I may have as positives or negatives as a teacher, at the least I'm not terrifying my students to the extent they contemplate suicide. At least… I desperately hope not. I admit I've caused the occasional first or second grader to burst into tears – who hasn't? – but that's a far cry from inducing so much fear and loathing in a 15 year-old that he still has nightmares about you 30 years later.

That's a little bit off track, vis-a-vis a sort of obituary on Mr Joseph Frank Kasun. But the point is, I think of one past teacher or another almost every day – especially those teachers that left indelible impressions, be they good or bad. I think there may be something to the aphorsim that goes something like:  it's better to be remembered as a teacher, even if disliked, than to be forgotten.

RIP Col Kasun.

Caveat: The Drama Of The White Down Feather

This is a completely true story.

Imagine there is a classroom full of eighth-graders – Korean eighth-graders, attending a typical Korean evening English class. There is a girl, who is named Shy But Intelligent Girl, giving an interminably long, well-written but painfully-delivered speech.

Meanwhile, there is boy sitting in the front row who is named Oblivious Boy. He already gave his speech, so he is relaxed: he is on the verge of dozing off, even. Oblivious Boy is pretty handsome, in a KPop sort of way, and the girls seem a little bit intimidated by him, which in 14-year-olds tends to come off more as a dismissiveness, in their mannerisms.

Unfortunately, Oblivious Boy is wearing a black sweater, and attached to the middle of his back, in the midst of the clean black sweater, is a large white down feather – the kind of white down feather that sometimes sneaks out between the seams of popular North Face brand down winter jackets. The white feather is protruding well over a centimeter from the back of his sweater, as he sits motionless in the front row, gazing up, absent-mindedly, at Shy But Intelligent Girl who is giving her interminable but well-written speech.

This white down feather is too noticeable. It's an affront to fashion. Who better to decide this than the girl seated two rows behind him? Her name is Fashionable Girl, of course. She is seated with her friend, Confident And Sociable Girl. They are giggling because of the protruding white down feather on Oblivious Boy's black-sweatered back.

Washed_white_goose_feather Greenscissors_imagesThis distraction demands a solution. Fashionable Girl quietly extracts a pair of green-handled scissors from her bag. Straining across the intervening desk, she clearly intends to remove, or decapitate, the offending white down feather. But she hasn't quite reached Oblivious Boy's black-sweatered back with her snipping scissors when her friend, Confident And Sociable Girl, realizes what Fashionable Girl intends,  and so she whispers for her to stop. Stop! She makes a mime to her friend which – as anyone fluent in Korean teenager gesture-language could recognize – means, "omigod what if he notices?"
Fashionable Girl pouts, and then she has an idea.

She tears off a square of paper from her notebook, about the same size as the offending white down feather. She whispers something in Confident And Sociable Girl's ear, and the latter turns and leans forward. Fashionable Girl the places the square of paper in the same position as the offending white down feather, and then she proceeds to use the green-handled scissors to pluck the square of paper off of her friend's back.

Confident And Sociable Girl turns around and gives a jubilant thumbs up. Their experiment was clearly a stunning success – the offending piece of paper was successfully removed with the green-handled scissors, without being detectable!

Meanwhile, Shy But Intelligent Girl's interminable speech continues apace – if, well… rather interminably.
Having conducted their successful experiment, Fashionable Girl resumes leaning across the intervening desk in her effort to assault the offending white down feather on Oblivious Boy's black-sweatered back.

Snip, snip, snip. She can't. Quite. Reach.

At this particular moment, it occurs to Confident And Sociable Girl to take a moment to look around the room. Much to her alarm, several sets of eyes have drifted away from Shy But Intelligent Girl's interminable but well-written speech, and are instead following the drama of the white down feather avidly. It's not just several students either, but The Teacher, too. He's standing at the back of the room, and he watching curiously.


Confident And Sociable slaps her friend's green-handled scissors-wielding hand down in panic, and immediately, both girls collapse into giggles, face down on their respective desks.

Shy But Intelligent Girl pauses in mid-delivery of her interminable but well-written speech, with a combination of annoyance and mortification on her face. "Why are these other girls interrupting my speech?" her expression demands.

Oblivious Boy, however, remains oblivious.

The Teacher returns his attention to the interminable but well-written but now-interrupted speech, and prompts Shy But Intelligent Girl to continue. The Teacher makes a "cut it out" face at the two giggling girls. Minutes later, the speech has resumed, and the green-handled scissors have reappeared, and have resumed their snipping adventures, shakily snaking across the gap between the two grinning girls and the boy at the front.

But they just can't. Quite. Reach.

Unfortunately, at this moment, Shy But Intelligent Girl's interminable speech suddenly terminates.

The Teacher says, quite unexpectedly, "Yudam. Put the scissors away, please."

"Yes." Fashionable Girl sits back and gives a look of pure innocence, and she looks around the room as if it was some other kid in trouble. Confident And Sociable Girl giggles again, and whispers to her friend.

Oblivious Boy, however, remains oblivious.

Another speech begins, and this chapter comes to a close.

Caveat: Love Never Ends


I sat and watched a 4 hour movie basically straight through, this evening. I’m a little bit hesitant to recommend this movie in this venue – it was most definitely NSFW, if you catch my drift.

But it was epic, and fascinating. It was half Cervantes, half William S. Burroughs, and executed like a live-action anime cartoon. If you can stomach strong sexual content (perversions!), vast amounts of blood and gore (homage to Kill Bill), insults to religion and capitalism galore, Lacanian psychosexual philosophizing and sadomasochistic parenting … well, then… if you can stomach those things, then I heartily recommend: Love Exposure (愛のむきだし [ai no mukidashi]).

It was really about 4 or 5 different movies. I would have been interested to watch any of them, though for different reasons. It’s not a a very optimistic view of human nature, frankly, despite the “love-triumphs” ending. The significant quote that runs thematically through movie is 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

But don’t misunderstand – it’s not at all clear that the message is “pro-Christian.” Or even pro-Love. I didn’t come away with that impression. And, as a product of 99% non-Christian Japan, that’s understandable. It’s messing with the symbolism, as a lot of Japanese pop culture does, but without any deference or loyalty or, for that matter, sincerity. But just because a movie is contrived and insincere doesn’t mean it can’t be a great work of art. It’s horribly contrived, and complicatedly switches between a kind of plausible emotional realism and a two-dimensional, adolescent, comic-book view of the world. Certainly, it is the case that Love Never Ends, if by love, you mean “lust” and by never ends you mean rape and bloody murder. For all that, the Corinthians quote is nevertheless perfect.

So much for trying to review it.

I liked the soundtrack, too.

What I’m listening to right now.

[UPDATE 2018-01-23: The old youtube video has disappeared from the internet. Probably gobbled up by the copyright police. But I like the song. So I found a “cover” of the song by another artist. That’s the current video embedded.]

ゆらゆら帝国 [Yurayurateikoku], “空洞です” [kūdōdesu = Hollow Me].
The lyrics:

Boku no kokoro o anata wa ubai satta
俺は空洞 でかい空洞
Ore wa kūdō dekai kūdō
Subete nokorazu anata wa ubai satta
俺は空洞 面白い
Ore wa kūdō omoshiroi
バカな子どもが ふざけて駆け抜ける
Bakana kodomo ga fuzakete kakenukeru
は空洞 でかい空洞
Ore wa kūdō dekai kūdō
いいよ くぐりぬけてみな 穴の中
Ī yo kugurinukete mina ana no naka
どうぞ 空洞
Dōzo kūdō

Naze ka machi ni wa daijina mono ga nai
それはムード 甘いムード
Sore wa mūdo amai mūdo
Irikunda roji de anata ni deaitai
それはムード とろけそうな
Sore wa mūdo toroke-sō na
Irikunda roji de anata ni deaitai
それはムード 甘いムード
Sore wa mūdo amai mūdo
誰か 味見をしてみな 踊りたい
Dare ka ajimi o shite mina odoritai
さあどうぞ ムード
Sā dōzo mūdo

Boku no kokoro o anata wa ubai satta
俺は空洞 でかい空洞
Ore wa kūdō dekai kūdō
Subete nokorazu anata wa ubai satta
俺は空洞 面白い
Ore wa kūdō omoshiroi
バカな子どもが ふざけて駆け抜ける
Bakana kodomo ga fuzakete kakenukeru
俺は空洞 でかい空洞
Ore wa kūdō dekai kūdō
いいよ くぐりぬけてみな 穴の中
Ī yo kugurinukete mina ana no naka
さあどうぞ 空洞
Sā dōzo kūdō

Caveat: Mormonism, Community, Belief

Mormonism is in the news a lot, lately – because of Mitt Romney. I have a strange fascination or attraction to Mormonism, for a constellation of reasons, not just one.

Foremost, my parents had no idea when they picked an obscure Old Testament patriarch's name for me at my birth, that they would be setting me up for decades of being mistakenly taken for a Mormon. You see, although "Jared" is only an obscure Old Testament Patriarch, it's also a book in the Book of Mormon, and there are Jaredites in the book of Mormon, and Jared is a very, very common and typical Mormon name.

Starting in the fifth or sixth grade, I remember constantly being assumed to be Mormon – by neighbors, peers, teachers. Partly, it was because there was a relatively high proportion of Mormons in my home town – I suspect the percentage may have been as high as 10% of the local population. Further, I grew up in a house basically across the street from the Arcata Ward meetinghouse, with its brick facade (uncommon in rural northern California) and crossless spire and immense parking lots (because Mormons seem prosperous and they all have cars). I played at the Mormon church throughout my childhood.

Even the Mormons seemed to think I was Mormon. They probably suspected I was somehow lapsed, or rather that my parents were lapsed. And thus I always was in for special evangelical attention. So by the time I graduated high school, I'd received maybe a half-dozen copies of the Book of Mormon, and, what's more, I'd actually read it – because I'm a curious person and it struck me as the fair thing to do. I read the Book of Mormon before I read the Old or New Testaments, given my parents were not practicing Christians and never exposed me to the Bible except that it sat there on the shelf in our living room. I was a senior in high school when I found out my mother wasn't an atheist – I'd just assumed she was. And my father… I still don't know what he believes. He maybe doesn't, himself. He seems to be a Unitarian mostly out of habit, at this point.

My impression of the Book of Mormon was that it was patently absurd. I remember long conversations with one of my best friends in high school, Wade, about Mormonism, faith, the existence of God. He was Mormon, but an odd one – he was rather abandoned by his natural parents, but somehow some Mormons had taken him in and he was therefore kind of an adoptive Mormon. Mormons do this a lot, actually.

And that's the flipside of my finding the Book absurd – I found most Mormons I met to be profoundly kind, decent, caring people. I was very impressed by that.

Recently, I found online an interesting little memoir by Walter Kirn at The New Republic. It was one of the most rivetting religiously-themed memoirs I've read recently. Because what he's doing is – from a position as a lapsed Mormon – he's pointing out that Mormons aren't that "weird." They're really quite remarkable, and not just in cultish ways, but in the most positive way immaginable. He writes: "Mormonism is more than a ceremonial endeavor; it constitutes our country's longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences."

This concept of religion as being about not doctrine but community made a profound impression on me. And it was utterly lacking in my own upbringing and life. I was fishing around for something. In college, I began to solve this problem by groping around for my own religous roots – my father was a non-practicing Quaker and my mother's mother had converted from Quakerism to a rather Calvinistic Episcopalianism primarily out of deference to her husband. So, I argued to myself, I was three-quarters Quaker. My increasing political radicalism also drew me to Quakerism, of course, and I occasionally attended meeting for worship.

And then, a series of coincidences put me in the center of an essentially religious community in Mexico City – the Casa de los Amigos, which was the Quaker mission  there, where my own uncle (my father's brother) had worked several decades before. I became a practicing Quaker.

Nevertheless, I struggled. Because the fact was that I found the more conventional Christian narrative that most Quakers hold to to be just as absurd as the more esoteric Book of Mormon. I was then as I remain, today, an uncompromising materialist, philosophically, and an atheist and skeptic, though it would be another decade before I "made peace" with my atheism.

I still tried. I told myself I would overlook the mythological or cosmological absurdities, and focus on the community. And here, I find Kirn's memoir reflecting a very similar process. Speaking of his own youthful enthusiasm for his Mormon faith, he says, "My time in the ward had shown me at close range that God doesn’t work in mysterious ways at all, but by enlisting assistants on the ground." This is nigh identical to how I viewed my time among the Quakers in Mexico City. I thought it mildly ridiculous, talking about the light of Christ speaking through me, as I sat in meeting. It wasn't what I believed. But I thought just like Kirn:

The “sacred underwear”? It was underwear. Everyone wears it, so why not make it sacred? Why not make everything sacred? It is, in some ways. And most sacred of all are people, not wondrous stories, whose job is to help people feel their sacredness. Sometimes the stories don’t work, or they stop working. Forget about them; find others. Revise. Refocus. A church is the people in it, and their errors. The errors they make while striving to get things right.

OK. Where am I going with this, now?

Two points, the first about politics, and the second about myself and my faith.

I dislike Romney intensely. But not because he's a Mormon. On the contrary, if Romney were a "good" Mormon I'd be deeply impressed by him. In fact, I despise him mostly because he seems to be a pretty crappy Mormon: he's a hypocrite. He changes and adjusts his "faith" to match his political and business ambitions. The evidence is incontrovertible. Hypocrisy is a thousand times more reprehensible, in my book, than sincere belief in absurdities leading to genuine kindness and peace of mind. Ultimately, as Obama is revealed to be a similar sort of hypocrite, I am forced to say I will not be able to vote for either of them.

On a personal note: at some point, I began telling people I was a Buddhist. Not because I believe the particular Buddhist absurdities over and above those Christian or Mormon or Muslim absurdities, but rather because Buddhists have a tendency to react differently to my skepticism: when I tell a Buddhist that I'm an atheist, they say, "that's ok," and not, "Oh no, you're going to hell!" as a typical Christian tends to do. Which is to say, Buddhists don't make a big deal over compliance with doctrine, and they do this explicitly – rather than the sort of behind-the-curtain winking of Quakers for the materialists among them, or the hippy-dippy believe-what-you-want-it's-all-true of the Unitarians (which frankly always turned me off). Buddhists don't say "it's all true" but instead that "truth is impossible to determine." That's something I can get on board with. But I retain a deep respect for committed, non-hypocritical members of all faiths, including the "strange" ones, such as Mormonism or Scientology or whatever.

And that… is perhaps as close as you're going to ever get from me, as a statement of faith.

Caveat: Free-Will Inspection

Koreans (like most Asians) often wear T-shirts with incomprehensible English on them. It’s like the clothing companies have hired unemployed Nigerian spamists to write their T-shirt slogans. I wish I took a picture of the phrase I saw today. I was walking to work earlier and saw one of those modern Korean dads – pushing the baby stroller, talking on his cell phone, dressed super-casually in jeans and T-shirt.

But then, in large maroon letters on the back of his shirt, it said, “Free-Will Inspection.” I didn’t get to see the front.

But I wonder what “Free-Will Inspection” is supposed to be. How does it work? If I decided to undergo Free-Will Inspection, would I get a positive result? If I flunk my Free-Will Inspection, does that mean I have a free will or don’t have a free will? Which is the preferable outcome?

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Caveat: The Story About The Time I Got Shot At While I Was Riding A Horse

I often tell slightly edited but mostly truthful stories from my life to my students, as a kind of reward at the end of a good class. I’ve had an interesting life, and so some of the stories are pretty remarkable, I suppose. One of the stories that the students seem to most enjoy is The Story About The Time I Got Shot At While I Was Riding A Horse.

I really did get shot at while riding on a horse – but the bullet missed. Here is a slightly less-edited version of this autobiographical cowboy story.

After I quit my job in Mexico City in January of 1987, I went to visit a friend of mine named Jon who was living at that time in Morelia, in Michoacan state, about 8 hours by bus west of Mexico City. Jon was actually quite a bit older than me, but he sort of treated me as a younger brother. So we hung out for a while in Morelia, and one day he made an outrageous proposal. Well, actually, he made many outrageous proposals, but this is one outrageous proposal that I actually assented to, and this was it: we should buy some horses and travel around the mountains of Michoacan by horseback for a few months.

We did that. We bought horses (quite inexpensive in rural Mexico in the 80’s) and some low-tech camping gear, and we played cowboys in the mountains. We met many Mexicans, and even Native Americans (in that part of Michoacan, they were P’urep’echa indians, known sometimes as Tarascos). We visited villages which were not connected to civilization by automobile. We found scorpions in our shoes and drank raw eggs mixed with coca-cola, which seemed to be a sort of local delicacy, offered by gap-toothed farmers by way of hospitality.

We met a tribe of American exiles (superannuated draft-dodgers) and Mexican hippies living on a farm in a town called Ihuatzio, and while my friend Jon flirted with resuming his previously defeated drug habit, I read back issues of Co-Evolution quarterly and Mexican comic books about Condorito and a battered copy of El Poema de Mio Cid, which conveniently had the 12th century Spanish and modern Spanish translations on facing pages.

After some time in Ihuatzio, we continued on around the Lago Patzcuaro to a town which was called, if I recall correctly, Santa Fulana de Tal, or something in that vein. Now, I should first explain, that my friend Jon had acquired a puppy. It was a husky, dirty white in coloration, which Jon, in his infinite naivite, dubbed “Negrita.” Negrita, unfortunately, although funny in a punny sort of way for a white dog, is a very bad idea for a name for your dog, becaues “negrita” is a way to call the attention of a woman of low-repute, in that part of Mexico: “Ey, negrita, negrita!” means something like “Hey, bitch,” or “Hey, baby.” That kind of thing. Or you could remark on the not-quite-accidental etymological relation it bears to a certain English-language slur, too.

So in this village named Santa Fulana de Tal, Negrita the dog ran off, and Jon, in his infinite naivite, began yelling at the top of his voice, “Negrita, negrita!”

Let’s just say, this was a bad idea.

Several of the women on the street appeared alarmed. It was a conservative village, where people came through on horseback frequently enough, but where gringos on horseback yelling “negrita” after their dogs where perhaps less well-known. One of the women who were inadvertently being offended by Jon’s yelling (and yes, I was yelling the name too, honestly, though I should have known better – my Spanish was better than Jon’s) had a husband or father who overheard this yelling, and this man decided to take offense.

Unfortunately, he was drunk.

Unfortunately, he had a gun, and so he decided to begin shooting at us.

Fortunately, he was drunk.

Fortunately, his aim was therefore really terrible. He hit my shoe. He hit Jon’s foot, with a graze. He was shooting low. For all I know, he hit a horse, though we found no wound on the horses later. Jon’s horse ditched him, leaving Jon sprawled on the cobblestone. My horse ran like the dickens, but I held on tightly. Several kilometers later, feeling more like Paul Revere than ever before or since, my horse stopped.

When Jon finally caught up to me, later, he blamed me for abandoning him. I said it was the horse’s fault, and I was just along for the ride. I blamed him for so stupidly naming the dog. Jon said I was saying the dog’s name too, and if I knew the dog’s name was offensive, why didn’t I say anything. I said that I had said something, but that Jon had been too drug-addled to pay attention at that time. And so we argued, for a while, there on the side of that hill among some scrub and cactus.

Our friendship effectively ended, that day. I ceded ownership of the horse to Jon, forfeiting my investment. I walked up the hill to a local road, and found a bus back to Mexico City.

My passport was stolen later that same week. It was a bad week. By the end of the month, I was back in Minneapolis. But it was a grand conclusion to my year-and-a-half in Mexico.

What I’m listening to right now.

Mexican Institute of Sound, “Mi negra a bailal.”

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Caveat: Epiphania Berzerk

I was walking to work today, and feeling stressed. And a pair of tracks from Apoptygma Berzerk came through my mp3 player, and I had an epiphanic moment.

Those Apoptygma Berzerk tunes were part of my "crisis soundtrack" during the difficult fall of 2008, when I was working at LBridge and hating my decision to be in Korea, hating my job, just generally really stressing out. And during that time, I made some decisions about how I would organize my life and prioritize things and indentify what was important, which I began slowly to implement. Today, I realized I'd mostly carried through with those "promises to myself" – not in terms of goals so much as in the manner in which I would live my life.

The fact is, my job is very nearly the least stressful job I've ever had. Not because it's inherently unstressful, but because I've made it that way.

"But why is it, then," I asked myself, "that I'm feeling so stressed lately?"

The job has nothing to do with my stress. And unlike in Yeonggwang last year, the auxiliaries of the job – housing, location, social context – those things aren't stressing me, either. Those things are much more stable here in Ilsan, and most definitely much more under my control. I would hazard to guess that if I had to look at things carefully, my job is actually a net stress reducer. The kids (except for certain ones who must remain unnamed, here) wash away my stress and make me feel happy.

So, then. Where is this stress coming from? I can know, easily enough (and what a Konglishy turn of phrase that is, yet it comes so naturally to me, now). That was my breakthrough, today.

I'm making this stress for myself. It's about those personal goals, personal self-perceptions, and how those aren't working out for me.

I have set goals such as "learn Korean," that I can't seem to do. I feel unhealthy, and rather than work harder or make behavioral changes to get healthier, I stress out over how I'm unhealthy. I even beat myself up for not meditating. As if… as if getting angry over not meditating would bring me closer to inner peace, right?

I've got all of these stressors in my life, but they're not from my job, for the most part. They're traps of my own devising.

This is only a breakthrough in the sense that I thought it all through from start to end today, with a high degree of clarity (not to mention a dose or two of ironic self-honesty). I've not been unaware of these things. And… to announce here that I've "figured it out" is only another invitation to stress out later when it doesn't lead to some improved lifestyle change, I suppose. But This Here Blog Thingy (the runner-up title for Caveatdumptruck – jus' sayin') is nothing if not a place where I can unlaconically overshare my personal mental hygiene activities. So there.

What I'm listening to right now.

Apoptygma Berzerk, "In This Together."

Caveat: That Chlorinated Water Smell

When I was a child, I had not one but several traumatic experiences around learning to swim. There was the rather unenlightened “throw them in the deep end and they’ll figure it out” approach that I got around age 7 or 8 at the Humboldt State University pool for some community-based children’s swimming class. And there was an event a few years later, I think, at the pool at College of the Redwoods, where some people in my extended family had taken me, where I ended up cracking my face open and filling the pool with blood and getting stitches later. Finally, feeling the deficit of my swimming ability, I enrolled, on my own initiative, in a private beginning swimming class one summer at the Arcata community pool. After 8 weeks of flailing around, my instructor pronounced me that most unusual of cases: I was, apparently, “unteachable.” Though this last was just a wounding of my ego, it was perhaps the most traumatic of all.

The consequences of these experiences were twofold. The first, obviously, is that I retain some anxiety around swimming, to this day. I did manage, in fact, to pass a “tread water” test while in the Army, and I feel confident that I could perhaps manage to get across a short stretch of water if I had to, in an emergency. But I’ve never enjoyed swimming recreationally, and I’m not a confident swimmer. The second is less obvious: whenever I feel anxiety, that smell of chlorinated pool water makes an appearance, like an olefactory memory but just as vivid as any visual or aural one, if not more so.

This is perhaps interesting – it’s like a sort of special-case synesthesia that comes to me in moments of despair and high anxiety, which, thankfully, don’t hit me that often these days. In high school during exams, I would smell chlorine. In university, while struggling to write papers during all-nighters, I would smell chlorine. Once, when I asked a certain someone on a date, I smelled chlorine.

Today, I had a weird experience. It was what you might call a case of empathetic anxiety-related synesthesia.

We are giving all the students at the hagwon special year-end “level tests,” which is because, effective with the new year, they technically move up a grade level. So the hagwon needs to re-place them in their appropriate ability level. This is especially important for the students moving up from the elementary curriculum to the middle-school curriculum.

The level test, being a level test, is astoundingly difficult. I’d say it’s almost SAT-ish. These are Korean kids who sometimes struggle to emit a coherent English sentence about how they feel, under relaxed conditions. For these… well, it’s basically just gobbledygook to some of them. Specifically, the PN반. PN is the lowest ability middle-school level at Karma. Don’t ask me what PN stands for – something involving “Pioneers,” I think.

When I went in to monitor their test-taking experience, already in progress, I swear several of them were in tears. Others had long given up and were sleeping, face-planted at their desks, with more than an hour still remaining of test time.

I tried to rouse their enthusiasm, and few of the more communicative ones just said, “oh. very, very hard.” Heavy sighs all around.

Several of the students were drawing pictures on the test paper. One was using his pencil as a random number generator (to give him the answers), by spinning it and seeing which point of the compass it indicated (this is a near-universal test-taking strategy in Korea, The Land of the Morning Multiple-Choice Test).

I had this moment of deep, deep empathy. I realized that if I were confronted with a test of the Korean Language at the same rough level as the test these kids were facing (and given that I long ago concluded that I was a PN반-type student of Korean, and not one of the more advanced ones), I would, even at 46 years of age, be in tears, too. And I don’t even have to worry about getting into a good high-school so I can get into a good university so I can get a good job so I can be successful so I can fulfill my obligations to my family and, most importantly, to my ancestors.

Watching my students tugging at their hair, playing with their pencils, making red sleep-marks on their cheeks by sleeping against the corner of the desk, I felt rising up in me the most profound empathy. It wasn’t fair!

And then I smelled that chlorinated water smell. Perhaps for one of the few times in my life, it came to me not because of my own anxiety and pain and despair but because of an awareness of those feelings in those around me.

Maybe… it’s like being the kind of person who cries at the movies. Maybe.

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Caveat: “Maude Sanders”

I awoke from a strange, very vivid dream, this morning.

Sometimes my dreams offer up details that seem amazingly realistic, and I have no idea where my subconscious might have dredged up such details. Case in point, this dream was almost like a short story, or the beginning to a novel, or a scene from a Wim Wenders movie. There was a main character, who was named Maude Sanders. Really.

When I woke up, I wondered, who in the world is Maude Sanders? Why is she in my dream? I googled the name, but nothing popped out as being the kind of thing that might have lodged in my subconscious. Maude Sanders appears to be an entirely fictional person that decided to make an appearance in my dream. But somehow, her name was clearly known and repeatedly stated in the dream – it was somehow important.

The dream.  Or the story. Or whatever it was.

Maude Sanders

I am walking around some dusty Korean town – the sort that’s so rural, and so forgotten by the last 20 or 30 years of economic miracles, that it has an atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of Mexico: there are chickens being carried around and clucking in vacant lots, men smoking while squatting on street corners, old women carting bags vegetables on their heads. There is a woman selling knives laid out on a blanket on the sidewalk, but she seems to be dozing under her broad-brimmed hat. It’s summer or early fall, the air is clear and unhumid. The sun is beating down.

It’s not actually clear to me why I’m there. I’m really hungry, and I’m looking at the posted menus of the various restaurants strung out along the street leading from the bus station. I’m trying to work up the nerve to go into one of the restaurants and negotiate the Korean language, so I can order some food. I’m craving kimchi bokkeumbap, but none of the menus that I can see have it.

I finally walk into a cavernous place that is largely empty. There is a large television playing Korean pop music videos, but no one is watching. There are some men chatting with a waitress in by the back counter, leading to the kitchen area.

There’s a thin, frail-looking Western woman, with dusty blond hair, sitting at a table alone in the center of the room. Some Korean men are regarding her speculatively, and when I walk in – yet another “foreigner” – they look up in surprise, and maybe assume she and I must know each other.

She introduces herself by the unusual method of showing her discharge papers from a psychiatric facility. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

I sit down along one of the walls, not anywhere near the young woman. The waitress comes and takes my order, and for some reason I order jjajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce), even though I don’t actually like jjajangmyeon.

Right from the start, I could see that she is really, clearly, a very strange person. But she is young and attractive, and shortly after I have sat down, I see her go over and begin chatting with several middle-aged Korean men. This is before I have yet spoken with her.

I am surprised and jealous to see that she is speaking stunningly good Korean – clearly with a foreign accent, but fluent and effective. The men seem more taken with that aspect of her than her gaunt beauty or her bizarre proposition.

What is the bizarre proposition? I gathered, early on, that she is talking about something illicit or unexpected with the men – I can see their shocked, uncomfortable reactions. It is unclear what it might be. These men she is talking to seem more stunned by it than genuinely interested in whatever it is she is saying. Perhaps they are put off by the introduction – the frank announcement that she has recently exited a mental hospital. That is probably a bit overwhelming for a typical Korean man of limited world-view and provincial mentality.

By the time I get my food, she has returned to her table in the center of the room and is again sitting alone, toying with, but not eating, some jjambbong – a spicy noodle and seafood concoction that goes under the rubric of “Chinese food” in Korea, but which no self-respecting Chinese person would cook. It is “Chinese” in kind of the same way “Chinese food” in rural America doesn’t seem very Chinese to Chinese people, either. Although it’s quite different, jjambbong always reminds me of Chilean curanto  – I think it’s the combination of pork and seafood in a stew.

I distinctly remember thinking about curanto, and Chile, in the dream. That’s always strange, when there are reflective moments of just thinking, inside of a dream-memory.

The woman, seeing me alone, and having been not-so-politely brushed off by the bewildered Korean men, comes over and bluntly introduces herself, now, to me. This is when I come to understand that the papers she’s showing are the discharge papers from the psychiatric hospital.

“I’m Maude Sanders,” she explains. She has a non-North American accent, but not British. Perhaps Australian, or Irish. It’s not clear. It’s another of those moments of inside-the-dream just thinking, as I meditate on this.

“You speak very good Korean,” I answer, noncommittally. I am fascinated by her unusual mode of introduction.

“It’s not hard to pick up when you spend a few years in mental hospital in Korea,” she explains, with a shrug. This does, indeed, make sense. But how is it that she came to spend a few years in a Korean nut house? I feel afraid to ask. There is a short, awkward silence, then. I look at the TV. She looks over at the Korean men, as if wishing they’d cooperated with her proposition, earlier.

She lowers her voice and leans in close. I am drawn in by her attractiveness, but I can tell I am not going to like what she has to say. It’s a kind of inside-the-dream premonition.

“Wanna watch me kill myself?”

There are some disconnected images of me actually agreeing to this, right at the end: signing some kind of waiver.

But that was so shocking, that I woke up.

Dreams are so very strange. Except for the name, this dream isn’t really that hard for me to interpret, actually. If you know me well, you will understand what I mean. 

But the name has me puzzled. Why “Maude Sanders”? Why did the dream emphasize it, almost giving it as a title? Was it trying to help me make it into a short story?

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Caveat: Dreaming the Dialectic

I was dreaming…

that I was trying to explain “the dialectic” to someone. I said that it’s like if you are showing how thinking about a story about a girl isn’t really about a girl. I pulled up an image of a girl, a kind of black-and-white, 1950’s photograph of a rather nondescript girl. “This girl looks like… just a girl. But the dialectic is realizing that something else is actually going on,” I explained.

I said to my invisible interlocutor, “It’s about that moment when you wake up.”

And then I woke up. It was perhaps 11 pm. I had fallen asleep with my face in the book – very much not my tendency or habit, these days. I had fallen asleep, while studying.

This was a former character trait of mine; I was reprising it from years ago: it’s from old, academic years. It developed due to the inevitable sleep deprivations of graduate school, perhaps.

The air around me was close and thick and hot – my window was open, but the earlier rain had stopped. The florescent light, on in the apartment directly across the alley from mine, seemed extraordinarily, unnaturally bright.  It was shining rudely out and illuminating all the unmovingness outside with its overconfident yet highly limited repertoire of wavelengths. I listened to the sounds of the city, vague echoes of a woman singing, buses trundling past on the Jungang-no. I lay very still.

And I lay there, breathing a little bit fast, feeling like I was on the edge of understanding. I felt surprised at how I could have just woken myself up from a dream by suggesting, in the dream, that I could reach a moment of understanding at the moment of waking up. Really, it was nothing short of startling myself awake by confronting the concept of waking up.


The clear image of that story about the girl, from the dream, was falling apart very quickly, like a wet piece of tissue paper.  I’m not sure it was important, though. It didn’t feel important, at all, to what had just happened.  It was arbitrary, I felt myself thinking. I watched myself thinking….

I tried to visualize a slug walking along the edge of a very sharp knife: it just doesn’t work. Not funny. What if it was a fly, landing on that edge – would it… hurt itself? I was momentarily embedded in the digression of a Haruki Murakami novel. I’d been working on digressions earlier in the day – my own writing.  Polishing a few novelistic digressions, like so much antique silverware – wishing they were whales.

I feel like this strange, crystaline moment hasn’t brought me one iota closer to understanding the dialectic; but it was nevertheless a very surprising, lucid dream. It was like an epiphany devoid of epiphanic content. Epiphany for epiphany’s sake.

One might ask, why was I dreaming definitions of the dialectic? The answer is not so obscure… I’d fallen asleep reading a recently purchased book: Valences of the Dialectic, by Fredric Jameson. I’m barely to page 15, in the first chapter, which bears the title, “Three names of the dialectic.”  How about that Diego Rivera on the cover, by the way?

I’ll get back to you if I figure it out. I might not figure it out, though. I’ve not made much progress with feeling comfortable with this essential philosphical tool, over the years. Perhaps I’ve always invested too much in it. Perhaps, with Karl Popper, I am at core uncomfortable with the seeming solution-in-contradiction. But I’m particularly drawn to it as it is so ancient, so inherent – it’s one of the underlying intellectual tools that unifies Eastern and Western philosohpy. It is possibly something innate… even structural, a la Chomsky’s “language faculty.” A dialectical instinct? The insight presented by the dream, if any, is that there exists the possibility of a sort of recursive definition of dialectical practice.

Hmm… recursion as praxis? That’s a whole other post, maybe.

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Caveat: the metaphysic of the test

Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the test.

pictureThis blog entry emerges from a typo I found in a book I’m rather casually perusing.  The book is Formalism and Marxism, by Tony Bennett.  The book is one of those lit-crit books that I picked up out of my mother’s collection during my last visit to Queensland in January.  It examines the relationship between the Russian Formalists and more recent works – I was attracted to it because it discusses Althusser and Eagleton, specifically.

Anyway, I’m not reading it very deeply.  Some of it is familiar if somewhat stale territory, and certainly the fact that it’s now almost 40 years old dates it somewhat in the realm of lit-crit.  But actually I don’t want to talk about marxist literary criticism or Terry Eagleton (who would have been one of my marxist muses had I ever written that PhD thesis on Cervantes, perhaps, along with Frederic Jameson and Gilles Deleuze).

You see, on page 157 of the paperback edition of Bennett’s book, there is a typo.  Instead of saying “metaphysic of the text” it says “metaphysic of the test.”  And the thing is, I’ve been thinking about tests a lot lately.  Tests are a big part of work in education, and especially, Korean education, and more especially, Korean hagwon-based eduction.  The test is the thingthe only thing.

I have been developing a new feeling about testing.  Part of this is influenced by certain fragments of data emerging from the bigger world (see my  blog entry from a few weeks ago, for example).   Part of it is trying to make peace with the huge discrepancy between my dreams and ideals about education (which are vaguely Waldorfian and deeply influenced by my own unusual educational experiences in alternative “hippy schools” during my elementary years, during which tests were essentially verboten) and the reality-on-the-ground here in Korea (which is that testing is god and all bow down before it).

Running across this typo, in Bennett’s text, caused me to perform a bizarre mental experiment.  Instead of replacing the word “test” with “text” in the evident error, I decided to replace the word “text” with “test” in the subsequent paragraph.  Here is my sublime paraphrasing of Bennett’s idea, then, reframed as being about tests, rather than texts (I’ve italicized the original typo and bolded my substitutions).   Bennett is writing about the thought of Pierre Macherey, so my substitution game has inflicted on Macherey some thoughts about tests that I’m sure he never had.

More radically, Macherey breaks unequivocally with what we have called ‘the metaphysic of the test‘.  Urging that the concept of the ‘test‘ or the ‘work’ that has for so long been the mainstay of criticism should be abandoned, he advances the argument we have noted above: that there are no such ‘things’ as works or tests which exist independently of the functions which they serve or the uses to which they are put and that these latter should constitute the focal point of analysis.  The test must be studied not as an abstraction but in the light of the determinations which, in the course of its history, successfully rework that test, producing for it different and historically concrete in modifying the conditions of its reception.

The thing is, the quote mostly still works fine, despite this substitution.  This is because texts and tests are obviously related, from a metaphysical standpoint.  They both are functional, performative emissions of a broader cultural and ideological context.   And it leads me to an insight about my changing attitude to testing:  tests are not abstractions, but emerge from concrete cultural conditions and serve broad social purposes above and beyond just pedagogy:  they’re disciplinary systems and indoctrination engines as much as they are evaluative tools.

Here’s what I’m beginning to think:  it’s not so wrong to “teach to the test” as we say.  But let’s teach to the test in an enlightened way, making kids aware of the functions these tests serve, and openly discussing the role they serve in society and their strengths and weaknesses.  I recall, specifically, some concepts about “conscientization” in the context of Liberation Theology, to which I owe a huge debt to a certain professor Hernan Vidal at the University of Minnesota – one of those incredible teachers that leaves a permanent change with a person’s way of thinking about and seeing the world.

The idea of teaching to the test with an admixture of “conscientization” regarding the ideologies of the modes of production that are embedded in these tests, in the context of trying to be an elementary and middle school English as a Foreign Language teacher in Korea – well… let’s just summarize by saying:  “easier said than done.”

But… it’s possible.  With a modicum of humor, hints can be dropped.  Smart kids get it – I’ve done it before.  Now, I’m starting to feel I have a philosophical frame or justification for doing so.  And I’m making peace with the test.


Caveat: Consumption and Environmental Impact

Last week I posted a blog entry in which I mentioned my belief that a high-density urban lifestyle is more “sustainable” and has lower environmental impact.  This was in the context of a cartoon which I posted there, which included the words:  “Do you use roads?  Do you live in civilization?  You are responsible for cruelty to animals.”

An old-new acquaintance of mine, Jeannine (really, my absolute oldest friend – she was my best friend sometime around second grade), commented on facebook as follows: “I think that whether high-density urban living vs. country living is “more impact” depends on how one lives one’s life in either environment. And well, then, there is ‘do you use roads?’ So it’s probably a draw.”

Now, the thing is, I respect her opinion highly, on this matter, because I happen to know that she is a professional ecologist of some kind. I’m not one of them types o’ people. The best I can say is that I completed a minor in botany in college (which I failed to declare because I already had two other minors and the paperwork was annoying, but trust me, I did the course work, and it was fun). Oh… and I was once a card-carrying member of the Green Party.

But I have thought long and hard about this stuff, and all during the past week, I tried thinking through just how strongly I believe this. Here’s a modified (somewhat caveat’ed) version of my statement:

All things being equal, a high-density urban lifestyle has lower environmental impact than a rural one.

The key phrase is “all things being equal” – I mean by this, that “to the extent we can make the same lifestyle choices in different environments.” Lifestyle, obviously – in the broadest interpretation – is where the greatest environmental impact comes into play. And lifestyle includes a great deal more than the binary choice of urban vs. rural.

Here’s my thought experiment, at its most simple.

It’s related to the Econ 101 idea conveyed by the phrase “economies of scale.” If you live in a giant apartment building, with your workplace near by and/or easily accessible by good public transportation, your day-to-day existence will have less impact on the environment, overall, than if you tried to live a basically equivalent lifestyle in a single-dwelling house in the suburbs or out in the country. That’s because, for example, in an apartment building, you use less energy to heat your apartment, since you share resources with your neighbor. And you drive less to get the same results in terms of commuting for work and leisure.

But it’s key to remember that I’m assuming equivalent lifestyle – to the greatest extent possible.

Obviously, one can make choices about how one lives, in either context, that increase or decrease one’s environmental impact. Some of those choices are easier in the country, and some are easier in the city. My personal choice of recent years – not to own a car – is much easier in the city, now, than it was living in the country, last year. Someone else’s choice, say, to consume only locally grown, organic produce would maybe be much, much easier in the country.

The thing about country life that perhaps makes it seem like it has lower environmental impact is that you’re not surrounded by millions of others also having an impact on their environment. The other thing about the rural life that must be noted is that, unlike the urban lifestyle, it can be “unplugged” completely – which obviously is a very, very low impact lifestyle. But just because such a choice is possible in a rural environment doesn’t mean many people actually bother to make such a choice, and the fact of the matter is that in developed countries, country people and city people mostly make very similar lifestyle choices, which means their overall impact is quite comparable.

Ultimately, in my thinking at least, it comes down to the issue of per capita environmental impact. And that’s crucial. I think the inhabitants of Seoul City have devastating overall environmental impact in comparison with, say, the residents of Molokai (which I choose since Jeannine lives there, and which happens to be almost exactly the same size, in square kilometers, as the area enclosed by the Seoul City limits).

But, if you look at per capita impact, I bet Seoul, with its 10 million, has Molokai, with its 7,000, beat. Hands down. I mean, I can’t guarantee that, obviously – I don’t know enough about all the components of what environmental impact really even means. But how likely is it that a individual Seoul resident, on average, has more impact on his or her environment than an individual Molokai resident?

One thing I do when I think about this, is that I try to find some intellectually comfortable, more simple proxy for the concept of overall environmental impact. I think one good proxy is the much touted (recently touted, anyway) concept of carbon footprint. Again, Seoul’s carbon footprint is greater than Molokai’s – but on a per capita basis, and accounting for inflows and outflows (meaning imports and exports of goods made by / consumed by inhabitants), I would bet that Seoul’s is lower than Molokai’s.

This is really just a thought experiment. Another thing that I think about, a lot, is that for most of us, figuring out our overall environmental impact is stunningly difficult. There’s carbon, of course, but there’s also all the other chemicals we put out, directly or by virtue of what we buy. There are disrupted ecologies, due to infrastructure ranging from farms to factories to highways to human-oriented “parks.”

I remember reading somewhere that, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps by causation, our rate of overall consumption, in dollar terms (or in terms of whatever currency we’re using), is an almost perfect proxy for our carbon footprint. Which is to say, if someone consumes at a rate of $40000 per year, their carbon footprint for everything they do (travel, food, etc.) will be double a person’s who consumes at $20000 per year and half of a person’s who consumes at $80000. It’s just a more or less perfect statistical correlation, obviously grounded in the way our human ecology (which we call economy) happens to match up with our natural ecology (which includes our carbon footprint). Of course this is hardly an accident – just as it’s not an accident that both “ecology” and “economy” start with “eco-.”

I therefore imagine that there might, in fact, be a strong correlation between our rate of economic consumption and our overall environmental impact, too. This makes it much easier for amateurs in ecology to think about, and evaluate, their environmental impact. It boils down to a simple question, with easy ways to make changes and adjustments in behaviors.

We can ask ourselves: how much am I consuming, in dollar terms? And, in most societies for most people, this isn’t that different a number than what we’re earning – very few of us are socking our income away at high rates and spending low proportions of it.

The end of this metaphor or analogy is that we can simply look at our tax return and decide what our environmental impact is. I mean… very roughly speaking.

Some time back, once I decided this analogy or way of thinking made sense to me, I made a very conscious decision, starting in about 2006, that I was going to lower my environmental impact by simply attempting to reduce my rate of consumption. I set for myself a somewhat conscious goal of lowering my income. That sounds horribly un-American.  But it’s not hard to do – you have to admit that. I changed careers from something lucrative (computer programming) to something unlucrative (teaching – and overseas, at that!). I gave up driving – except for road trips. I happily live in a smaller apartment than an average American would consider acceptable. I limit meat consumption (as I’ve described here many times before, I basically only eat meat when in the company of others, in the context of them deciding what to order). I buy mostly locally grown produce (easy to do in Korea since they grow everything here in hothouses and discourage food imports through massive tarriffs – those Chilean grapes in the store ain’t cheap like in the US). Etc.

I don’t mean to come off sounding “high and mighty” or superior. I am certainly not blind to the irony of the fact that my previous post was about consumption, and about my “stuff” and how happy I was to have some “stuff.” My only point is that trying to understand and control our overall environmental impact is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, without degrees in economics or ecology. But if we just think in terms of consumption, then we have a ton of options in front of us, and anyone can make lifestyle changes that lower consumption, and thus, almost inevitably, also lower environmental impact and/or increase sustainability. And to return to the urban vs. rural dilemma, I can say that urban lifestyles are more easily adaptable to patterns of lowered consumption in the context of maintaining certain minimum “privileges,” vis-a-vis the Western, modern lifestyle, and thus they’re more sustainable.

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Caveat: What If Testing Didn’t Matter At All?

A few days back, I ran across a review in a Forbes magazine blog that discussed Finland’s educational system, which apparently foregoes most standardized testing and yet produces some of the best results of any educational system in the world. I have my own skepticisms about the usefulness of standardized testing, but in my curiosity, I found a chart on another website ( that I reproduce via screenshot, here.


A little fact in the above chart leaped out at me, and blew my mind.

Yes, Finland is near the top of this little chart. But look what country is right above it, in position #1. Korea (which one has to assume means South Korea, and not the charming utopia a little bit to the north of here). And you see, this blew my mind because South Korea’s educational system is far from free of standardized testing – rather, the Koreans’ obsession with testing of all kinds is unparalleled and downright obnoxious.

And so I had an insight – a moment when everything became clear. The two top countries on the chart achieve their stunning world rankings in education with widely divergent approaches to standardized testing. What if standardized testing actually didn’t have any impact, either way, on education? What if not only was standardized testing useless but also relatively harmless? That would explain a lot.

My personal opinion, or gut feeling, about what we see on the chart, is that what drives countries like Finland and South Korea to the top of charts like this has very little to do with education policy and a great deal to do with cultural valuations of education – which is to say, what the government does about education (or fails to do) is much less meaningful to outcomes than what individuals and families feel about education.

By the by, this doesn’t bode well for the sorry state of American education. Because if it’s a cultural problem, and not a policy failure, the solution is much more difficult.

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Caveat: 얄러뷰

Two of my first-grade students, Min-gyeong and Dan-bi, wrote “I love you 얄러뷰” in a big heart in their good-bye message.
I was trying to figure out “얄러뷰” – but it’s not Korean. I think “yal-leo-byu” is a transliteration of “I love you” – sound it out!
I got portraits of the fourth-graders today. Here they are.
The 4-2 class did some role-plays today, and I took a few pictures.
I am going to miss Ye-won especially (on the left, below).  The other day, she said to me:  “I will hate the new teacher, already, because you are the best teacher.”  That’s way too good for my ego.  Plus, her English is pretty good, eh?
Here I am goofing around with some fifth- and sixth-graders during recess today.  Note that the girls provided me with a disguise – can you tell it’s me?
Here are some memento photos of the cafeteria during lunch time.
My lunch tray, and my co-teacher Ms Lee across from me.
Here are some boys hamming for the camera.
Finally, here are some kids brushing their teeth at the communal teeth-brushing place:
I am going to miss this school so much. Should I have stayed?  Maybe.
I will not miss the feeling of isolation, which was exacerbated by a school administrative office that is xenophobic and stunningly incompetent, and which conducted itself without exception with utter disregard for my status as a fellow human being, despite my substantial dependence upon them for my outside-of-work day-to-day living.
I think that one way to put it is that I will miss the weekday 9am~5pm part of this experience intensely, but I will not miss the weekday 5pm~9am part of it not at all. And that, when you get right down to it, is not a good proportion for a sustainable lifestyle.
I have learned hugely, this past year – about myself, about teaching, about children and about what’s important in the world. I hope I can keep these lessons alive in my heart and carry them back to Ilsan and my next job.

Caveat: 情

It was several years ago, now, that my Korean friend Curt told me: “You have no jeong.” Many Koreans have an exceptionalist view of this emotion that is described by the word jeong [정 (情)] – they will explain that it is a uniquely Korean emotion, or that Koreans uniquely tend toward it in contrast to members of other cultures.

The dictionary tells us that jeong means something like:  love, affection, attachment, sentiment, strong feeling, concern, matter-of-the-heart.

I found a fascinating academic write up on the word online, which I unfortunately cannot recommend to non-linguists because of its utterly obtuse non-standard romanization of Korean, which renders 정 as [ceng] – I believe this is called the “Yale” romanization, and while as a linguist I understand the motivations behind it, I dislike it intensely because it is very remote from being accessible to non-specialists, leading to inevitable mutilations of pronunciation.

Here is a more typical exceptionalist presentation of the concept from a “study English” website (i.e. it’s an essay talking about jeong as unique to Korean culture, written in English to provide a chance to study aspects of English – this kind of thing is everywhere in Korean English educaction at all levels).

At the time that Curt made his assertion, I was skeptical, on two counts. I discounted the exceptionalist view that there could exist a basic “emotion” that was unique to one culture, and I also rejected the idea that I lacked it.  I suppose, in part, my feelings were hurt.  And when it comes to notions of language and culture, I tend toward universalism – I assume that basic human emotions, for example, are the same for all humans.

So I attributed his statement regarding my lack of jeong as a simple issue of there being a language barrier – surely a truly bilingual person could identify the proper English equivalent, both in linguistic and cultural terms.

But now, several years later, I have begun to genuinely harbor reservations about my prior rejection. I find the workings of Korean jeong mysterious and impenetrable.  It seems to be a hybrid of irrational loyalty and intense platonic love, with a strong seasoning of smarmy sentimentality. And I’ve come to accept that, as a Westerner, I probably “lack” it – in that I have no reductive mental category that encompasses these sorts feelings in simple conjuct.

When Mr Choi throws his arm around me at the staff volleyball game, that’s jeong. And when the staff take up a collection of cash to help my fellow teacher pay his outrageous electricity bill, that’s somehow also jeong.  When a teacher admonishes a student to study harder, that might be jeong, too.

I keep trying to figure it out.

Caveat: Day One – “Go Home!”

The semi-annual Hongnong Elementary School staff field trip – an epic adventure in Korean cultural immersion, over two days.
The Named Characters.

  • Jared – yours truly, a-bloggin’.
  • Mr Moyer – the new “other” foreign English teacher at Hongnong, Casandra’s replacement. A nice guy.
  • Ms Ryu – the English department head (direct supervisor) and a 3rd grade homeroom teacher. My favorite person at Hongnong.
  • Mr Lee – the “vice-vice” principal (#3 in the school’s administration), a very kind and intelligent man, and a 2nd grade homeroom teacher (2-1). I like Mr Lee a lot.
  • Mr Choi – An older 2nd grade homeroom teacher (2-3), who has been very kind an generous with me.
  • Mr Kim – A 3rd grade homeroom teacher who will be retiring NEXT WEEK. He has been kind to me but I have sensed he’s not popular with the other teachers. He’s got some “short-timer” attitude and is very traditional. Also, he mumbles, and I’m not the only person who finds him hard to understand – the other teachers and the kids too, often have no idea what he’s going on about.
  • Mr Song – the school’s bus driver, an uncomplicated but friendly man, and maybe a bit of a “party animal.”
  • Ms Lee (I think?) – the really kind preschool teacher whose Korean I find eerily easy to understand. Perhaps she’s realized that if she talks to me like she talks to her students, she can be understood for the most part – she talks very slowly and methodically, with a kind of sing-song rhythm, and enunciates those difficult Korean vowels very clearly.

The Unnamed Characters (Korean culture can make it hard to learn people’s names. These are people I know and interact with by their roles or titles rather than by their names, although for many of them, if pressed, I could probably figure out their names).

  • The Principal – the king, on his throne.
  • The Elementary Vice Principal – the will to power.
  • The Preschool Vice Principal – the always-smiling queen, with her many highly cute micro-minions. Actually, all the preschool leadership and teachers are much nicer, more fun, and less machiavellian, on average. Probably, this comes with the territory.
  • The 6-1 Teacher – also the technology queen of the school, but she’s always so stressed out… so the school’s technology infrastructure suffers. Her English is excellent, however. Lately, since Haewon has left, she’s sometimes gotten stuck with translator duty, when Ms Ryu and Ms Lee (Ji-eun) aren’t around.
  • The Preschool Administration Lady – I don’t even know her job title, but I think she’s #2 over there at the preschool. She helped me with my internet problem last spring. Of course, now, I have a new internet problem. Sigh.
  • The 3-1 Teacher – one of the teachers I wish I knew better. I sometimes decide which teachers must be “great” teachers based on the collective behavior of their homeroom kids, and her class is one of my absolute favorites at Hongnong.
  • The 4-1 Teacher – the school’s main music-person. Very cheerful and positive. And another great group of kids, too.
  • The Social Studies Teacher – he’s a floater, like us English teachers – a kind of specialist with no homeroom. He’s a younger guy… I really envy the amazing rapport he has with most of the kids. I think he’s one of the most popular teachers in the school, with the kids, and he’s also extremely conscientious and kind-hearted with his fellow teachers. One of the new generation of Korean teachers that are of a very high caliber.
  • The Male Preschool Teacher – this is so rare in Korea that often the school staff refer to him in this way, as if it were his title. He’s a really nice guy and although he doesn’t often show it because he’s rather shy, his English is quite good.
  • The 4-2 Teacher (I think it’s 4-2 … one of the 4th grade classes, anyway) – this is the guy I would end up being, if I were a Korean. He’s full of rambling, intellectual trivia about history, science, culture, etc., and he will talk long after others have lost interest, but they keep listening because he’s also sometimes funny, not to mention the fact that he’s a nice guy.
  • The New 5th Grade Teacher – she’s so young and small, she could pass for one of her students, and, being at the utter bottom of the hierarchy, she’s the recipient of a lot of crap and mistreatment by the other teachers. I don’t feel like I have any kind of interaction with her, but I feel sorry for her sometimes.
  • The Quiet, Mysterious Administration Guy – he’s new, and seems to have replaced the man known as “the big-headed administration guy.” Or something like that, anyway.
  • The Tall, Bitterly Resentful Physical Plant Guy – he’s the one I pissed off last spring, with my complaining. One of the reasons why I don’t really get along with the admin office people.
  • A half-dozen other teachers, all female

A final note regarding the people: not all the teachers or staff attended. Many stayed away – and I understand their various reasons. But from what I’ve come to understand, staying away is only an option for those unmotivated, career-wise. So if you want to advance your elementary teaching career, you’ve got to play the politics, and that means coming on these kinds of trips.

The trip started at 11 AM. We piled onto a bus and drove off into the hazy, mountainous southern extremities of the peninsula. Snacks were passed out: tteok (rice cakes, both savory and sweet), almonds, beef and squid jerky (with dipping hotsauce), beer (I had one can). After about one and half hours, we arrived at a restaurant, somewhere between Naju and Jangheung.
We ate saeng-go-gi (raw beef) and other delicacies. I avoided alcohol, except for one shot of soju (soju, for those uninformed, is Korean drinking ethanol, a sort of vodka-like substance) poured by the vice principal.

The 4-2 teacher discoursed at length, on subjects including local history, the evolution of Korean agricultural practices, Thomas Jefferson, architecure, King Sejong the Great, Julius Caesar, the Egyptian political situation, and other topics I wasn’t even able to identify. Listening to him is a bit like listening to someone reading out loud from the Korean version of wikipedia. I only understand about 15% of what he’s saying, though. But I enjoy it, nevertheless.

When we finished lunch, we stood outside the restaurant while some of the staff smoked. There was a cat in a tree. The principal, entirely deadpan, explained that this was a rare Korean cat-tree, and that the cat in the tree appeared ready to harvest. This is the first time I understood one of his jokes.



We got back on the bus and drove to the ferry terminal below Jang-heung. There’s a fast (hydrofoil) ferry that runs from there to the eastern tip of Jeju Island. The ferry terminal was very crowded, but our little group of people was well-organized, relative to the prevailing chaos. We boarded the ferry at about 3:30.


The ferry is one of those environments more amenable to mass transportation than to sightseeing. They only allowed us out on the deck for a short time, and ALL 500 PASSENGERS wanted to be out there. It was crowded.




The Male Preschool Teacher bought and passed out ice cream sandwiches with bean paste (kind of like sugary refried beans, a Korean favorite), in the shape of carp.


Some of the male teachers and staff began to drink in earnest. A lot of soju was consumed, and some of the other teachers got seasick – but only the Bitterly Resentful Administration Guy got both drunk AND seasick. There was general amazement at Moyer’s ability to consume alcohol – perhaps I’d led them to believe that all foreigners are weak pushovers. But no… it’s only me.

We arrived at Seongsanpo around 6:30. Mr Song was waving and happy with his new-found friend, Moyer.



The principal needed a cigarette.


We got onto a new bus. We drove to a restaurant in Jeju City, about an hour west (a quarter of the way around Jeju Island, which is a little bit bigger than Oahu in area, but similar in its overall degree of urbanization, I would guess). The island is volcanic, and there was an extinct caldera hovering on the coast shortly after departing the ferry terminal.


There are a lot of palm trees in Jeju, which strikes me an effort at horticultural fantasy on the part of the Koreans, for, although Jeju is at the same latitude as Los Angeles, it gets snow in winter even at sea level – I saw many patches of old snow alongside the road as the sun set.

At the restaurant, we had a very traditional dinner of hweh (sashimi, with some sushi and other seafoodish things). Moyer and Mr Song continued to drink soju.


Many of the others were drinking heavily, but I only drank when required to do so by protocol (i.e. when the principal or vice-principal offered) and otherwise stuck to beer. I thus avoided getting drunk.

The principal, vice principal, and the preschool leadership began hosting the long, drawn-out process of having the various members of the staff come and sit in front of them and offer and be offered shots of soju. It’s rather ritualized.


Meanwhile, I spent some time talking earnestly with Ms Ryu, and subsequently Mr Lee, about my decision to not renew. I shared my “decision spreadsheet” in its final form with Mr Lee, and he was very thoughtful, but he felt I wasn’t being fair in how I had made my decision. He, and later Ms Lee (of the preschool, and unrelated – remember, Lee in Korea is like “Smith”), both felt that the most compelling argument for my staying was one of continuity – for the kids. And in that, I am very much in agreement.

I found myself mulling, somewhat fuzzily, the idea of changing my mind. Which was their point, of course. I’m as vulnerable to flattery as the next person, and the three of them were piling it on. But then…

The worst moments came when I was ushered to sit at the table in front of the Principal, and he “talked” with me for a good 15 minutes, including many impossible-to-answer (almost zen-koan-like) rhetorical questions and remonstrances and possibly humorous cultural observations that failed to translate. One of the teachers with fairly good English (the 6-1 teacher whose name I always seem to forget) sat at my side and made some effort to translate as I got lost in his Korean.

Most of the specifics of his speechifying were lost on me, but I remember some things. A lot of it seemed to be, obliquely, about the fact that I wasn’t renewing at the school. He asked me repeatedly if I was able to understand “Korean culture,” only to repeatedly trap me in such a way that it was clear I did not, based on my failure to say the right thing to his questions or requests. He said he thought foreigners can never understand Korean culture, but offered few hints as to why. He did discuss the “we” not “I” issue. He told me that as far working in a Korean school, “it’s for the children” – I could hardly argue with that although so much of what they do (from my perspective) seems to forget children are even around. Things are structured so differently.

He complained that in fact, English is NOT important. It’s not a global language, he insisted. He expressed some xenophobic commonplaces about what “foreigners” and specifically Americans are doing in Korea. And his conclusion: “Jared: Go home” – this last in English.

Actually, given his age and geographical origin, I can easily imagine that 30 or 40 years ago, he stood in some anti-government protest and shouted this exact phrase at some gathering of American diplomats or US Army personnel. Anti-Western sentiment runs deep, in “red” Jeolla.

Context: He was very drunk. He always gets very drunk at these gatherings. Several teachers (including the one translating at my side and Ms Ryu, later) offered that as an excuse for his rhetoric. But I’m one of those people who believes, strongly, in the aphorism, “the drunk man reveals the truth in his heart.”

The principal showed his xenophobe credentials plainly. Not that I wasn’t already aware of them. And that’s that. Some people in Korea are xenophobic, and there’s very little that I can do, as a foreigner, except avoid those people and focus on the rest – don’t try to imagine you can change a xenophobe’s mind through some combination of argumentation or behavior. I don’t think it’s possible. In any event, in my experience, xenophobes are not a very high proportion of the population – maybe 10%.

Afterward, Ms Ryu began a song-and-dance of excuses, seeing the damage the principal’s behavior had done to any vestigial will to renew that I might have had up to that point. As she points out, it’s complicated. He’s not an unkind man, clearly, in his rigid, paternalistic, Korean-traditional fashion. He likes children, which is good to see in a school principal. He’s charismatic, which is great to see in a school’s leader.

Ms Ryu tried to tell me that the principal tended always to say the opposite of what he desired or believed, to those under him. For example, he would tell her that she did a bad job when he thought she did a good job, or that when he would tell her not to worry about something, this meant it was important. At some simplistic level, I might see this as being true. As an explanation that he presumes a kind of obstinacy in those around him – such that he is always compelled to operate on the assumptions of reverse-psychology… well, this struck me as more a coping mechanism on her part than anything with even a grain of real psychological truth in it. Ultimately, the idea that by “Go home” he meant “stay” is patently silly – it seems to be grasping at straws.

No. He said “go home,” and that’s exactly what he meant, from the depth of his Korean-patriotic heart.

Needless to say, I felt depressed. I wasn’t extremely drunk, but I wasn’t sober, either, and everyone knows, I’m not a happy drunk. I’m a moody, grumpy drunk. So the principal’s words combined with that factor to produce a very gloomy feeling for me. I lay down, and listened to my three roommates in my hotel snoring in synchrony (well, only after several had stayed up for several more hours still, playing poker and eating and drinking yet more).

I didn’t sleep well – Korean hotel rooms are always over heated, which I cope with when alone by opening windows, but with Korean roommates, this is not really an option.
Perhaps for the first time in more than a year, I found myself meditating on the possibility of simply giving up my quixotic “Korea project” and moving on to something else in life.

[this is a “back-post” added 2011-02-20.]

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Caveat: Phenomimes and Psychomimes

All languages have onomatopoeia:  words like “woof woof” (a dog barking), or “whirr” (a spinning thing or a dragonfly), etc.  But Korean (and apparently Japanese, too) possesses an abundant class of words known as phenomimes and psychomimes.  These are words that use “sound symbolism” (q.v. in wikipedia) to represent concepts that aren’t, per se, auditory, but in a symbolic way. Most of the Korean ones include a great deal of reduplication and vowel harmony – in fact, it could be argued that these are actually some fossilized productive reduplicative semantic feature of proto-Korean, and not really “phenomimes” or “psychomimes” at all – it’s all in the definition of those concepts, I guess. Most of them are adverbial, in syntactic terms.
I love these things.  They’re one of the reasons the Korean language is magical, for me.
Some examples, from my “bible” (Korean Grammar for International Learners, by Ihm Ho Bin et al.):
반짝반짝 [ban-jjak-ban-jjak] sparklingly
슬슬 [seul-seul] gently
주렁주렁 [ju-reong-ju-reong] richly, with fullness
흔들흔들 [heun-deul-heun-deul] shakily
옹기종기 [ong-gi-jong-gi] closely together
방긋방긋 [bang-geut-bang-geut] broadly [as in a smile]
드르르 [deu-reu-reu] excellently, smoothly
부둑부둑 [bu-dok-bu-dok] damp-dry, a bit damp mostly dry
[Update: I have blogged about this topic again with many more examples, 2012-06-04 and 2012-10-19. I have also modified this original post somewhat since it’s one of the number one draws of my blog from the broader internet, when people google “phenomimes” and “psychomimes” with “korean”, and I have been crosslinked, too.]
[Update 2 (2015-10-08): I decided to create a consolidated list of examples, which I can update periodically.]

Caveat: up to page 9 – empirical syntax?

Twice before, I’ve referenced my efforts to read a recently-acquired book entitled Understanding Minimalism (Hornstein, et al.). In my last entry about it, I’d made it up to page 5, and I was making some initial complaints.

HornsteinetalNow I’ve progressed to page 9, and I’m regaining some positivity about why it is I decided to try to undertake reading this book. I have long felt that the “traditional” Chomskyan approach to syntax theory is epistemologically naive. It relies far too much on a sort of ideologically blinkered introspection with respect to the “syntactic evidence,” and thus disregards the real linguistic production that’s out there in the “real world” – with all its strange, un-sentence-like constructions, incompletions, ellipses, mispronunciations (or typos, in text-based communication), etc., ad nauseum.

All these things are fully understandable, and “typical,” unsophisticated native-speakers rarely are able to enunciate, much less elucidate, judgments of “grammaticality” such as abound in most linguists’ efforts at syntactic theory (as I discover, almost daily, when trying to get Koreans to help me understand their language, in my own efforts to acquire it).

So this “minimalist project” is appealing to me because it promises a return to empiricism. Here is a quote from page 9, spanning the end of one paragraph and the beginning of another, that expresses something I’ve wished I could do myself, before (if I was actually a linguist and not just a dilettante):

…one minimalist project would be to show that all levels other than LF [Logical Form = representation of meaning in the brain] and PF [Phonological/Phonetic Form = actual spoken language passing through the air] can be dispensed with, without empirical prejudice. More concretely, in the context of a GB [Government and Binding]-style theory, for example, this would amount to showing that D-Structure (DS) and S-Structure (SS) [DS and SS are components of “traditional” Chomskyan syntax, e.g. Government and Binding and antecedent theories] are in principle eliminable without any empirical loss.

I remain suspicious about what level of empiricism will be achieved – there still is a reliance on “introspective judgments of grammaticality” which I always have disliked.  And worse, there is the mere fact of labeling the “internal representation” end of any linguistic faculty as a “Logical Form.” The problem with this conception is that it flies in the face of most of what we understand from neurology or empirical psychology: human brains don’t do much logic, on the inside. “Logic” such as is used in LF engines in syntactic theory is artificial, external, mathematicized, philosophical. It’s precious Montague semantics and beloved lambda calculus. Such things may have some “real” correlates in neuronal/synaptic architecture, but I don’t think we’re going to make much progress with the “brain as logic engine” model – if we were going to make such progress, we’d also be making progress with artificial intelligence (which is simply the inversion: “logic engine as brain”) – which we’re most definitely not.

I would prefer a more neutral conception of the “internal representation,” that doesn’t betray such preconceptions – as the term “Logical Form” does – about how it might actually work. Semantics strikes me as by far the shakiest of the foundations of contemporary linguistic theory – we really don’t seem to know a lot about how semantics work.

What is meaning? In passing, I will return to pointing at Taylor’s important work, Linguistic Categorization – which addresses the important intersection between semantics and what one might call meta-syntax – what do we really know (as unreflective speakers, not as epistemologically well-grounded linguists) about the grammaticality of what we are saying?

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Caveat: A Single Day’s Journal [less incomplete than before]

I don’t love every incidental of my job. I fear and distrust the caricature of bureaucratic malevolence that is my vice principal. My principal seems to judge his staff largely on the basis of their skill as volleyball players, rather than on their competence as teachers – and because of this, I rate as a liability rather than as an asset, in his view of the school organization. The administrative office has epically bungled my housing situation, and I have consequently endured interminable and yet untellable travails of minor expense and mild inconvenience. Some of my coworkers are either so shy or so xenophobic that I dread interacting with them. And of course, the Korean Communication Taboo frequently imposes its unexpected and unforeseeable frustrations.

Oh, yesterday, I had a really difficult day. I ended up grumpy and frustrated. The thing is… I’ve been having some really good days, and feeling really good about my job, lately. So yesterday was frustrating because it felt like a major loss of progress, a major step backwards. The sixth graders during the regular morning classes were being rude, rowdy, and there was nothing my coteacher or I could do to bring things back under control. I felt like a lot of the problem was that my coteacher and I don’t know how to “use” each other effectively, and I blame myself and my lack of experience for that.

So. Hard day.

Yet, despite these issues, and despite yesterday, the fact is that my “on the ground” work, in the classroom, has been going simply great. I am not a perfect teacher, I’m sure. I’m probably deficient in many ways, that I can’t even perceive. But I have fun. Even yesterday, I had great fun with my afterschool classes, where I have a lot of autonomy and control.

Mostly, I really like my job, in a sincere and deep-felt way, and I derive immense satisfaction from my interactions with the children and even many of my coworkers.

On this most recent past Monday, for some reason, I felt this even more strongly than usual. As I arrived home after a tiring yet overall satisfying day, I had this weird, unwonted, utterly guileless thought: “I like my job.” The several days since then haven’t gone so smoothly, but regardless – perhaps this is a kind of pep-talk to myself – I’ve decided to make a little journal of Monday’s minutiae, as a record of a “typical” good day in my current career.


[Monday, October 18, 2010]

I awoke at 5:20, roughly. I have an alarm set, always, but most days, I wake up before the alarm. I wake up very slowly. I think about things. I doze, and let the “snooze” feature of my alarm earn its keep. Finally, at about 5:45, I get up, turn on the electric kettle, and get out some instant coffee. I love brewed coffee, but I’m a deeply lazy person, especially first thing in the morning, and I love convenience much more than brewed coffee. For that reason, I use instant coffee. I need the caffeine more than any kind of spectacular taste.

I put on something warmer to wear. I still keep my window wide open 24/7, and the nights, these days, are cool. Under my cover, I don’t need extra clothing, but up and about, I feel the slight chill. I open my little netbook computer, and begin to wonder what I will write in the blog. I write some fragments of dreams in my more private journal, and I open a text file of a story-in-progress, in the off chance that I’ll think of what to put next. Not likely, but it’s perhaps good to be optimistic, right?

I surf to my most typical websites: LA Times, The Atlantic magazine, Facebook. What’s happening in the world? I find an article in a blog, that interests me, and follow links to something new. I record notes in my “websurfing journal” – mostly just pasting links with one- or two- word observations or snippets of thought. I am an unrequited but unrepentant scholar, at heart.

I drink some coffee. This morning, I decide to have toast for breakfast, with my approximately four cups of coffee. I generally have either toast, or, if I’ve got left over rice, I’ll have a Korean breakfast of rice and kimchi.

I finally choose something to put into my blog – many times, I have things partially or even completely “pre-written” in my journal, and I just copy and paste them into the blog. Other times, I just write it out, right at the moment, in the box on the administrative website. This morning, I do the latter, pasting in a long quote from a blog site I have open.

I motivate myself, finally, and jump up. I brush my teeth, use the bathroom, shave, shower, get dressed. Pretty fast. As usual, I’ve put off motivating until the last possible moment. I rush out the door at 7:30. I’d committed myself to getting to school early, this morning, because there is a lesson plan I promised my coteacher that I would to put together for our 6-2 class (6-2 means 6th grade, 2nd classroom). I’m really running rather late, this morning. I live just under 2 km from the bus terminal. I have to jog the whole way, to make it on time. Casually, I can walk the distance in about 16 minutes. Marching “quick time,” I can make it in 12, which is my normal pace. Today, I made it in 8 minutes. So, I don’t miss the 7:40 bus. Oh well… I needed the exercise.

I listen to my mp3 player on the bus. I’ve got a folder with some tracks by Brit alterna band, Muse, looping. I’m particularly fixated on a track called “Map of the Problematique” (which sounds like the name of a chapter in a book of contemporary literary criticism). I look out the window at the stunningly beautiful although unspectacular, rural scenery of my world. I read random pages in my Korean dictionary. I’m not sure this really helps me that much, but I’ve always been a compulsive consumer of reference materials, and at least this way, I’m staying topical vis-a-vis my desire to improve my Korean.

I arrive at work at around 8:15, after walking the just-under-one-kilometer length of Hongnong’s “high street”, from the town’s bus terminal.

I step into the still silent halls of the school, I switch out of my street shoes and into my one dollar plastic sandals, greet the school caretaker, and go down to the new English classroom. I hate this new English classroom: it is stark and uninteresting, when viewed from a child’s eye, and it fails to take into account myriad details of the sorts of things real teachers actually need or use: no bulletin boards, bland and generic decoration such as might be found in a high-end travel agency, poorly configured storage space with unused bookshelves but zero closets. Numerous gadgets, but no rainbows. It is the embodiment of that philosophy of education that holds that technology and military-style organization can make up for poor leadership and a lack of teaching skill and a lack of teaching “heart.” Which isn’t to say I believe my coteachers or myself lack teaching skill or “heart”.. .but I often suspect that the school’s administration feels this way.

I put together a lesson plan for the 6-2 class that involves a gameshow concept that I’ve been riffing on lately. I’ve been using it in some of my afterschool classes: give an “answer,” Jeopardy-style, and wait for the kids to come up with a question. Pay out “cash” (my ubiquitous play money) for good “questions.” The kids seem to like it, and the 6-2 class is exceptional, in that they’re much better behaved than the other two sixth grade classes, and therefore my coteacher and I had agreed that they “deserved” something more fun.

School starts, and we go to the 6-1 class first. 6-1 is not the class of angels that 6-2 is. There are rowdy elements, but it’s not the “Welcome Back Kotter” basket case of academic rejects that 6-3 is, either. It’s the “middle” group. We have a hard but treadmill-like class, reviewing the ridiculous memorization material that the county education office mandates for the English curriculum. I’m not philosophically opposed to memorization, per se, but the stuff put out by the education office is so devoid of context, and so full of mistakes and unnatural, non-native-speaker-style language, that it almost defeats its own purpose. I try to keep my criticisms of this to myself, but it can tend to sap one’s enthusiasm, when required to focus so much on such poor curriculum.

Then, the 6-2 class is – lo and behold – canceled. This is the way things go, when working in Korea. Last minute changes with no warning, for no clear reason. There’s an upcoming sixth grade assembly, and the 6-2 teacher wants to focus their time on preparing, rather than have an English class. I respect the 6-2 teacher a lot – her class is not a group of angels just by virtue of fate or coincidence, obviously – I assume there’s something in her teaching style and classroom management skills that has created this behavioral miracle. For this reason, I don’t resent or in any way criticize her cancellation of the class, even to myself – it’s her judgment call. But I’ll miss the positivity of that particular group of kids, and I’m not sure when I’ll get to use the lesson plan I came in early to put together.

So I have a free period, after recess. I spend the time preparing for my afterschool classes. I go online to check my email, but only briefly – the new classroom configuration is not hospitable to lurking and web-surfing. In this respect, I wonder if there was some intentionality on the part of the administration, because they were in some way trying to discourage this kind of behavior on the part of their English department. But I doubt it. Nothing about the new classroom spells out “planning” or kid-centered “intentionality,” to be honest. It’s the sort of classroom that someone who doesn’t work with children would come up with. That isn’t far from the truth, I expect.

At 12:30, we have lunch. Lunch is always one of my favorite times of the day, even when the food is of dubious quality. I love seeing all the kids, hyper and yet somehow managing to stay within the behavioral constraints of feeding themselves. They grab their steel trays, chopsticks and spoons, and go past the lunch ladies scooping out rice and soup and kimchi and a few other random things. They zigzag in weird patterns as they emerge from the food line, trying to find the row of tables where their particular class has been sited by their homeroom teacher – each time it’s different. The homeroom teacher may or may not be paying any attention whatsoever. You can learn a lot about homeroom teachers by watching how they manage their kids in the lunchroom. Some sit with their kids reliably, and inspect trays. Others join other teachers and seem unaware their kids are in the lunchroom. I’m not sure either pattern represents something optimal – I could seen benefits to both approaches. But it’s interesting to watch, sociologically.

I don’t remember what was actually given to eat, on Monday. The kimchi has been atrocious, lately – a byproduct of a national cabbage shortage crisis. It ends up meaning that the lunchroom is skimping on quality, I suppose. Unlike the kids, the adults don’t get served by the lunch ladies – we have our own line where we serve ourselves. I try to fill my tray in such a way that I know I confidently empty my tray completely. I like that feeling of closure of having an empty tray at the end of lunch – I hate seeing how much food is wasted, to be honest. Koreans, having been a nation on the verge of starvation 50 years ago, have become very cavalier with how they throw around food, I think. It makes me a little bit sad.

I love lunch because dozens of kids say a soft “hello, teacher” as they walk past me. I always try to say hello back – although sometimes it makes me feel like a greeter at a party. After lunch, kids will chase after us (the four English teachers – we always eat lunch as a “team,” which seems to be nearly unique to our department, and I’m not sure where this tradition comes from or who came up with it) and say “hello” or ask the random, peculiar questions that ten year olds can come up with, given very limited English. “Do you like tigers?” “I’m a crazy monkey!”

I have adopted the Korean habit (not universal, but definitely encouraged and broadly popular) of brushing my teeth directly after lunch. I stand at the hand-washing sinks that are outdoors in the courtyard, next to the English classroom. The result is that I always have an audience of between two and twenty children, when I brush my teeth. When I finish, I talk to any that are around. To the first student: “Hello. What are you doing?” “No.” Haha… “no” meaning “I have no idea how to answer this question you’ve asked me.” “Are you playing?” Quiet, shy, vigorous nod of the head. Second student: “Teacher! Teacher! That boy is crazy!” “Yes, I see that.” Confident, cheerful, vigorous nod of the head.

I go back to the English classroom, and discuss ways to improve the sixth grade class with my coteacher. Not much progress has been made here, obviously. But we keep trying. “We must work hard to learn to be better teachers,” she always says. I agree. She’s right. It’s why I respect her, even in her mistakes.

The afterschool classes are always what I look forward too. Even the hyperactive, difficult-to-control first graders. The first grader class starts at 2:30.

[… uh oh… out of time. I will post the rest, later… ]

[OK. Look, here’s the rest – as of 2010-10-22 07:00]

No lesson plan I’ve ever made has survived an encounter with these children. They’re more difficult to manage than a herd of cats. If I look away from any given student, odds run about 70% that that kid will be hitting, jumping on, racing against, or mischievously distracting another student. No matter which student. That’s just the way it works. Yet, despite this, they’ve grown on me. A lot. And I can feel confident that although sometimes I yell or lose my cool with them, they seem to like me, and look forward to my class.

The plan today was to read a little story in this series of ultra-beginner-level story books. The stories literally consist of a single sentence repeated with different nouns, which are shown in photograph illustrations. Today, the sentence is: the x is up in the tree. We had a parrot up in the tree. We had a lizard up there. We had a cat, I think. There was an ant, which, looking at the picture, I thought was a spider, until Ji-min officiously corrected me. I admitted my mistake. Then we did a little bit of TPR (I give commands like “hands up!”, “sit down” etc.) while I took roll-call. Lately I’ve been not using my little paper cut-out tokens with their names on them, to take roll, partly because I’ve reached a point where I know 90% of their Korean names and it’s easier for me to just tick them off from my list.

After the TPR, I get them in a chair, and I pass out some animal puppets. This never goes smoothly. About half the students immediately become weirdly transformed into hopped up crack addicts when they see the puppets, and they crowd around grabbing and pawing for them to get the “best” ones. The other half hold back and look on their peers disdainfully, almost preternaturally like bored teenagers. But as soon as the first riot dies down, they come up in a second wave and gather the dregs. Any puppets unselected by the students are to be seen lying on the floor like the detritus of an epic battle with Noah’s ark as the setting.

So I begin the plan: we’re going to role-play this little storyline. “The X is up in the tree.”

Here, look: I’m a tree. Here’s a hippo (holding puppet at my shoulder). “Repeat / 말하세요 [mar-a-se-yo = please say]: The hippo is in the tree.” The students get the conceit, because the immediately begin to debate the possibility of a hippo in a tree, in Korean. Oh, that’s funny. Definitely.

Now, volunteers? One student raises her hand: Ji-min. Much better English than the rest, and very serious, a lot of the time, but sneaky, too. She comes up to me. She has a mouse puppet, I think. She puts the puppet at my shoulder, while I pretend to look like a tree. “The mouse is in the tree,” I say. She repeats, easily. But something’s going wrong. The other students are racing forward. There will be no turn-taking, here. All the animals want to get into the tree, at the same time. Uh oh.

I decide that I have to go with the flow, here. I am tackled by 20 first graders with animal puppets, all wacking me (*gently*) as they try to attain the best real-estate in the “tree.” I begin to sink to my knees, and the game becomes: knock down the tree under the weight of elephants, lions, bears, cats, dogs, ducks, monkeys, etc., who all want to be in the tree. But I think. Hmm… maybe someone else would like to be the tree. So I get them all sitting back in their chairs, more or less, and I ask for volunteers, again. It’s the boy named Jeong-an, of course. He’s sees the possibilities, already. I even have a little corollary to Murphy’s Law, that I coined: instead of “If it can go wrong, it will,” it goes “if it can go wrong, Jeong-an will appear.” But he’s a cute kid.

The kids get excited when they realize I’m going to let them repeat the tree game, this time with one of their own as victim, and that it’s not a one-off moment of fun. I’m thinking to myself that the main concern, here, is to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. Different kids have different levels of tolerance for being wacked (*gently*) by animal puppets until they’ve collapsed to the floor in fits of giggles, while everyone’s yelling vague variations on “The X is in the tree.” But that’s what we do. The similarity to trying to teach first graders American-style tackle football is more than passing.

Time goes quickly. My next class is already lurking in the halls, peering in through doors and windows in amazement at the kinds of fun my first graders seem to be permitted to get up to. Finally, I release the first graders with a last “Hands up! Bye” – which is a little routine of mine. The third graders are a little bit moody. They suspect (accurately) that they’re not in for as much fun, because Ms Ryu has me on a mission: we’re trying to put together a little English-language musical that’s coming at the beginning of November, and so for that, we need to practice, practice, practice.

The practices never go super smoothly. The kids know their lines pretty well, already, but the issue is a matter of focus – there is too much “down time” between each individual kid’s lines, and during that “down time,” attention tends to wander. Fast. And far. The musical is a variation on Peter and the Wolf (it’s the same thing I attempted over the summer, but now, with more support from Ms Ryu and the kids’ homeroom teachers, and knowing it will be “real,” on stage, in a couple of weeks, the kids are taking it more seriously).

There are a bunch of wolf characters, and while I’m working with the wolf characters on something, I turn around to see that my duck (So-hyeon – a diminutive and innocent little “angel” who goes by Angelina) is viciously assaulting my sheep (Je-won – who insists his English name is Barack, much to my delight). And a few moments later, when I’m working with these animals in Peter’s menagerie, several of the wolves decide to have a spa, and begin lounging on stage left playing with each other’s hair. But who can complain? They’re good-spirited kids, and at least, unlike the first graders, they notice when I’m yelling at them to stop, most of the time.

Finally, at 4:10, Peter, the wolves, and their animal friends file out, and the advanced class files in. It’s still on the books as the sixth grade afterschool class, but at some point, the original definition broke down, because my sixth grade class has exactly one sixth grader who attends regularly, at this point. And then it has about three fifth graders, a fourth grader, and a third grader. I think what’s happened is that the kids mom’s who either believe or want to believe that their kids are the best at English in their school, should be “with the sixth graders” because that, naturally, would be the most advanced class, which is where little Gil-dong or I-seul needs to be. It’s a lot like hagwon biz, that way: the parents decide the level of competence of their child, overriding any judgment on the part of the teachers or administration. And parents’ judgment of their kids ability will tend to be infused with a little bit of – shall we say? – vanity. Which is not to say that my advanced class isn’t pretty advanced. These kids are pretty good, definitely.

In my advanced class, we’re making “diaries.” Not really diaries – I’m modeling myself on a kids’ book I bought back in the US last fall (at my niece and nephew’s school book sale in suburban Denver), called Junie B’s Essential Survival Guide to School. It has a sort of “kids view” of life at school, with sections on school supplies, school transportation to and from, school personalities, etc. So I’m having the kids make their own versions, one chapter per class. The chapter in progress today is “How to go to school” – focusing on transportation. But I encourage the students to get whimsical, and I love some of the results. Nam-su writes that he goes to school by ant – and he draws a picture of a stick figure standing on the back of about a 100 tiny ants. Da-yeon writes that some days, she goes to school “by Simpsons,” and she draws extremely accurate depictions of Bart and Lisa, but with new jobs working as a pair of draft horses drawing a chariot. And Challie (Charlie? – I can’t ever remember his Korean name, I hate to admit) draws a great little picture of a character teleporting into school “by brain.” Awesome.

The advanced class is small and well-behaved. There are no hyper children in that group, really. So it’s a nice kind of calming, “cool down” class for the end of the day. I let the kids leave at 4:50, and begin to clean up. Between the chaos of the first graders and the rearranged desks of the third grade class, there’s a lot to do. I operate in a “borrowed” classroom, that belongs to my colleague Mr Choi, so I feel obligated to try to leave it in reasonably decent condition. And I always bring so much paraphernalia to class: puppets, paper, crayons, attendance folders, etc., that it takes two or three trips back down to the English classroom to get everything moved back. I put the desks back in neat rows, and try to pick up the worst of the trash on the floor, and put the redistributed pens and pencils in neat piles on one of the side boards (who knows where these pens and pencils come from – I suspect that the kids “steal” them from inside the desks of the second graders whose homeroom this is).

Mondays and Fridays, because my last class ends at 4:50 and because I then have to move my stuff back to the English classroom and get it put away, I sometimes miss my regular 5:15 bus back home to Yeonggwang. I can tell from the clock that that will be the case today, so I don’t even bother trying to race to the Hongnong bus terminal, but decide to wait a little bit longer and then catch the 5:40. I go online and check my email, and do a google search for some kind of online “list randomizer” – I’m looking for something that can be used to entertainingly select kids at random from a list. My coteacher already has such a tool, but I keep thinking “there’s got to be a better way.” I find a few candidates to investigate further, later. Sometimes, though, I think going “low tech” and going back to a cup with pencils with names on them would be best. If teaching in a Korean public school classroom is having any major, profound effect on my teaching philosophy, it’s that more and more, I am becoming “anti-technology.” I just don’t think gadgets and technology make for better teaching. They tend to distract the children from the interpersonal interaction, which in language learning is especially important. Maybe there are ways to use technology that aren’t so distracting, but I’ve yet to see good examples.

I walk down to the bus terminal and get on the bus for home. The bus is utterly empty except for me and one old lady. I suspect it’s too early for the power plant commuters (who mostly tend to commute on company-owned buses anyway, if they don’t have their own cars), and too late for the school workers. And who else commutes away from Hongnong at the end of the day? It’s an end-of-the-line kind of town.

I listen to tracks by Talking Heads on my mp3 player. There’s a track called “Found A Job” that I absolutely think is one of my favorite music tracks of all time. The lyrics are both concrete – telling a story – yet also philosophically complex, raising interesting issues about popular culture. And I love the rhythm and music, too, perhaps partly because it’s always a bit of a nostalgia trip for me. The summer that I was living in my car, traveling from Duluth across the Upper Peninsula, in Ottawa and finally in Boston, I had only three (3!) cassettes that worked in my decrepit Sony Walkman that I’d wired into a rube-goldberg car stereo for myself: Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings and Food, Psychedelic Furs Mirror Moves, and David Bowie Space Oddity. So all the songs from those three albums are engraved upon my brain at a very deep level, I think.

A bunch of middle schoolers and high schoolers get on the bus at Beopseongpo, and I always get some low-grade entertainment out of their efforts to pretend to be cool and not notice there’s a foreigner on the bus (or, on the other hand, the blustery, “Hello! How are you?” that they will sometimes deliver). When we arrive in Yeonggwang, I set off across the bus terminal bus-parking-area, and enter the warren of market stalls behind the terminal. I can see the old ladies swatting flies laconically as they squat behind their buckets of octopi and raw fish. I love to watch the still-alive crabs trying to escape from their buckets, which are already filled with soy sauce and chopped onions. Do they realize they’re soup? It’s poignant.

I go out the “secret” back way from the market, and up the grade, through the corner of the main market area, and then behind the Co-op grocery (축협하나로마트 [chukhyeop hanaro mateu]) and across the vast gravel parking lot where the every-five-days market is held. I slip between two buildings and cross the rotary (traffic circle), climb the hill (not steep) past the various apartments, past the “Glory Tourist Hotel” and finally behind the gas station to my building.

I am inspired to call my mom. I don’t do this as often as I should. It’s not that I don’t like talking to my mom. I get stuck in routines, and my attention wanders away from getting around to it, a little bit. And then I’ll remember, but when I remember, it’s not a good time to call, or I’m too busy to be able to sit down and call. Queensland is only an hour ahead of South Korea, and neither celebrates Daylight Savings concepts, so I don’t even have the “time zone excuse.” I remember the complexities of calling from Chile to the US, where the time zones lined up, but both countries have daylight savings time, but on opposite seasonal schedules that don’t quite match up. So depending on the month, I was either same time, one hour ahead, or one hour behind Minneapolis. It was like a speeded up version of continental drift.

So anyway, it’s been a long time since I talked to my mother. And it turns out she’s got company coming for dinner. So we don’t talk long. Hopefully, I’ll call her again before too much time goes by. I decide I need to use a few of the tomatoes that are over-ripening on my shelf, and in a moment of culinary inspiration, I create grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed with tomatoes and horseradish sauce (which also seems to be on the verge of going bad in my fridge). Hey, that’s pretty tasty.

I end the day by listening to Minnesota Public Radio online, and begin the initial draft of what becomes this narrative. I fall asleep earlier than usual – maybe around 10:00. I guess I’m tired.

I’m still not sure this little daily journal is in final form. I’ll keep tweaking and making small changes, I expect. Stay tuned. Or not.

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