Friday, June 26, 2009

You can't steal my thunder, Michael Jackson.

One of the things I always liked about my job at Lost River Caverns (among other things, of course!) was that you were guaranteed a cake and an impressive rendition of "Happy Birthday" on your natal day. I wouldn't want to work at a place that didn't bother to stop and celebrate your birthday.

Sherlock Academy did not disappoint—my partner teacher bought a blueberry (!) cake (complete with candles) and a cute little card, and my students sang "Happy Birthday" (in English). I also picked up some adorable birthday presents, including a necklace, a miniature notebook, a plastic folding fan, and candy. One of my students gave me a shoulder rub, and another made a sign that said "I want presents" and taped it to my back.

After work, all the foreigners and a few of the Koreans went out for 닭갈비 (dak galbi), complete with soju and beer. One of the Korean teachers mentioned to me that a class I started teaching for her recently (to cover the gap between one teacher leaving and another teacher arriving) likes me a lot. "They think you're really kind," were her exact words. "They liked Conor, too, but they said sometimes he frightened them."

Too bad I have to hand them over next week.

But I should be getting a birthday package tomorrow! After more customs bullshit than was necessary. Still—better an arrival at my door on Saturday instead of having to wait until Monday.

Early Birthday Present to Myself:

Say hello to "Bernice."

But help me out here—what kind of plant is this? My knowledge of horticulture is embarrassingly lacking.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"It's the little differences."

Rock scissors paper, better known as 가위바위보 ("gawi bawi bo"), is popular here, as I mentioned. My students have played it enough that I've run into multiple variations and little bits of Korean flair you don't see in the states.

First of all, there's an accompanying song that sometimes you can sing before you "shoot," more complicated than the usual "rock paper scissors shoot!" you do in the US. I can't find the words or a video online, unfortunately, but maybe someday I'll be able to record someone singing it. I asked a Korean about it yesterday and she said the song basically translates to "if you don't play a gawi bawi boh hand, you're a loser." I guess it's a way to make sure that no one cheats.

Also, sometimes they do what I call the Gawi Bawi Bodouken, where they pull their hands in a gesture kind of similar to the classic Hadouken move in Street Fighter before they throw their hand. Other times they clasp their hands together and twist them around (like you do for "trust falls," is the best way I can explain it) before they shoot. You're supposed to decide which hand to throw based on the shape your palms make when you look through. The way your right index finger gets scrunched against your left thumb, it can sometimes make a tiny little hole: sometimes shaped like a triangle, sometimes shaped like a square, etc. Different shapes correspond to different gawi bawi bo hands.

Sometimes they up the ante with Muk Chi Ba, a higher level version with multiple "rounds" in just one game. They don't play this in class, though, since gawi bawi bo is used for decisive purposes and not for its own sake. Or they play old-fashioned gawi bawi bo, but then winner slaps the loser on the forearm with two, three, or four fingers. I play this with them from time to time and they can nail you pretty hard. Done properly, such a slap will leave a red mark on your arm for a while. I still haven't quite mastered the art of finger-slapping yet, so I usually goof it up.

Never before have I really appreciated the line from Pulp Fiction quoted in the title. I love Quentin Tarantino, but it's hard to tell when he's being deep and serious and profound and when he's just spouting off a little bit of bullshit to get to the next bit of awesome dialogue. (Or the next idea he's borrowed from someone else, like David Carradine's speech about Superman in Kill Bill 2.) Vince Vega's line about "the little differences" always seemed like one of those pat things Tarantino characters say to sound cool before they go and do something badass. But now—and I don't know if Tarantino was even being serious when he wrote it, but nonetheless—I get it.

When you land in a foreign country, you expect the big differences: different language, different values, different histories, etc. Sometimes they're overwhelming—trying to sound out anything but the names of stores in Hangul makes me feel utterly, utterly stupid, for example; it kills me to not be able to read as well as I do in a Latin or even Cyrillic alphabet—but most of the time you can cope.

But little things—things like "rock, scissors, paper"—you sort of assume will be the same. Of course they're not, but you carry that expectation. It's those little things that form the basis of your day-to-day existence prior to expatriating. Upset those and it jars your thinking in strange ways. No one ever warns you, though, because it's so little that it slips under the radar. What does it matter that Koreans have different rituals regarding "rock-scissors-paper," after all? Well, nothing really. But at the same time—everything.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hit and run post.

Fan death:

Fan death is a South Korean urban legend which states that an electric fan, if left running overnight in a closed room, can cause the death (by suffocation, poisoning, or hypothermia) of those inside. Fans manufactured and sold in Korea are equipped with a timer switch that turns them off after a set number of minutes, which users are frequently urged to set when going to sleep with a fan on.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Post for my Brother

He probably doesn't read this, but still.

John had (still has?) a minor claw machine addiction. When we were little kids, I always thought they were a waste of money and didn't understand how he could just throw his money away just to get ripped off and frustrated. Apparently I was cynical and jaded even at the ripe old age of ten.

Korea takes claw machines...not to another level, but down an interesting detour. They are all over the place, more than I remember seeing wandering around pretty much anywhere in the US.

"Touch Crain"

"Love Push"

Now the tables have turned and I find myself dumping 500 to 1000 won in these things daily. But my efforts are not in vain! I have a small collection of prizes,and it continues to grow—the machines here are not designed to rip you off quite so much: tighter grips, rubber tips on the claws, etc. Here's my little family so far:

Not all of the prizes are this cute, though. The standards for "claw machine prize" are different here than back home:

In addition to flashlights, "mp4 players," and 3-way USB gadgets, I've also seen lighters, matching bra/underwear sets, t-shirts, and a cordless drill. I'm staying away from power tools, though, and sticking strictly with Chinese-imported, probably-toxic bobbleheads.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

More Movie Madness

It turns out Bong Joon-Ho (director of one of the movies I mentioned in the previous entry, The Host) has a new movie out: Mother, or 마더 in Hangul. I saw posters for this the last time I was at the THC 9 cinema in Uijeongbu and thought, "Hm, that might be good." Korea4Expats confirms that it's currently playing at select theaters in Seoul with English subtitles (along with Thirst, do I want to see it again? Yes!).

Of course, Star Trek is still out in theaters too—the same theaters that show the English-subtitled pieces. From what I understand, movies that come with a lot of American backstory (like Star Trek) aren't popular here because most Koreans aren't familiar with said backstory. The THC 9 is out in Uijeongbu, not that many foreigners to be had. But in Seoul proper there are a lot more Americans, and so those theaters benefit from long runs of just those movies. Maybe they even have the American release of Up?

But more to the point: Mother next weekend. Woooo!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

K-movie Recommendations, Part One

In all of the various interviews I had to give and applications I had to fill out before coming to Korea, the question always came up: How much did I actually know about Korea?

"Well," I'd reply, "I've seen a lot of Korean movies."

And if the interview was with a Korean, they'd invariably look at me like I had two heads. "Really?"

I once rattled off "the list" to a Korean-American expat when he asked me which ones I had seen. Probably about halfway through (after the initial shock), he shook his head and had this look on his face like "you are a tremendous dork."

It was amusing at first, but now it just grates on me. Really, why would I lie about something like that? Given the whole hallyu movement going strong in East Asia (and, to an extent, around the world, courtesy of Asian fetishist nerds like Quentin Tarantino and popular movies like Oldboy), it's not at all unreasonable that some goofy-looking weigukin might actually have seen My Sassy Girl or The Host. But I'll grant that, in some respects, I'm a bigger movie geek than nearly any other white person I've run into so far.

I'm getting ahead of myself, here. My point is mainly that South Korea has a pretty decent movie industry going on here, though the budgets are nothing like the giant cesspool clusterfuck of money that is Hollywood.

What I've seen so far has been rather brutal (unsure if East Asia has a different aesthetic or if what gets exported is only the brutal stuff movie nerds have come to expect from East Asia, eg Battle Royale, Takashi Miike stuff, Oldboy, etc), so I'll start off my series of recommendations with a rather cute, inoffensive little piece called Gwishini sanda, internationally titled Ghost House, by Kim Sang-Jin. This was one of the first Korean movies I ever saw (maybe even the first, but by this point I can't remember anymore). Unfortunately, it also seems to be one of the most obscure titles on my list, so the odds of you being able to actually see it are nill; the only movies by Kim Sang-Jin on NetFlix are Attack the Gas Station and Jail Breakers, neither of which I've seen. If I find it here, I'll pick up a copy to gift to someone (since Aspie_Dev already has a copy, it wouldn't make sense to keep it for myself).

It's kind of like the recent Ricky Gervais vehicle Ghost Town: The protagonist finds unwittingly finds himself able to talk to ghosts, a useful skill considering the house he just bought is haunted, and ends up working through the issues of the deceased half of a couple. The similarities end there, though. It's got a bit of the typical South Korean melodramatic sop to it at the end, but nothing over the top. It's also probably one of the few movies I can comfortably recommend watching with your kids, should you have any. (Which is why I put it first on the list—the rest are not so inoffensive.)

Oh! I lied. Here, you get a bonus recommendation in this post, one that NetFlix does carry (and which I've seen for sale even in the FYE at the Palmer Park Mall; if you can get it White Bread Country, PA, you can get it just about anywhere): The Host. It's a bit scarier/more intense than Ghost House but still rather "mainstream." Not to be confused with the new novel by Stephenie Myer (ugh), The Host came out in 2006 and was a phenomenal hit in South Korea, absolutely huge—like Titanic huge.

In 2000, a Korean mortician working for the US military dumped a whole bunch of formaldehyde in the Han river in Seoul, under military orders. That real-life incident was the basis for this Korean version of Godzilla, which is one of the rare South Korean movies to get the thumbs-up from North Korea as well. The movie's take on America and Americans is pretty subtle and nuanced, but there's enough fodder in there for Kim Jong-il to consider it anti-American enough for North Korean consumption.

The story focuses mainly on a dysfunctional-but-lovable family as they, along with the rest of Seoul, find themselves terrorized by a bizarre fish-monster with a voracious appetite and a surprising amount of cunning. Song Kang-Ho pretty much steals the show as Park Gang-du (far left in the poster), though Park Hae-Il was also one of my favorites (far right). Despite being a monster movie, The Host has plenty of laughs, a horror/monster movie more in the tradition of Army of Darkness or The Frighteners than The Exorcist or Jaws.

And that's enough for now, before I geek-out overmuch and start going on about Kim Ji-Woon or Park Chan-Wook or so on. Seriously, go pick up The Host or NetFlix it or whatever it is that you do. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Remember that time I went to Indonesia?

Chris went and uploaded the pictures from his camera, which are plentiful and awesome:

Chris at Prambanan.

There are four big temples at Prambanan, and countless little side ones like this. No windows, so I assume things were done by torches. At this point I was investigating the rock and trying to figure out what it was, exactly—some kind of igneous rock, for sure. I wish the Internet would tell me, but I can't find that kind of information on Prambanan anywhere and YEAH ROCKS ARE REALLY INTERESTING AREN'T THEY.

Giant flower.

Prambanan overlooks the stage for the Ranayama ballet.

Being wheelchair-bound doesn't stop this Javanese fellow from his motorbike.

At Borobudur.

The parade!! Pictured is a traveling gamelan. An Indonesian marching band, kind of.

Chris destroyed me at Carcasonne. Also, check out my post-parade sunburn.

Part of the procession included kids in these masks. When they move their mouth, the mouth of the mask moves too—I guess they have something in their mouth attached to the mask. Best for last; this is my absolute favorite picture from the whole trip.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On Japanese Academics

Which applies, more or less, to Korean academics as well. Of course, this isn't entirely the situation in Korea—homework exists, they may or may not use a similar standardized test full of "gotcha!" questions, and they may or may not have the same weirdo hiring schedule—but from what I hear from people at a university level, it's similar enough.

Slashdot recently posted a story about A Japanese University giving away iPhones to curb truancy. Slashdot comments, as Slashdot is wont to do.

MadMerlin: [Attendance is] still a dumb requirement for graduation. Unless it's different over there, University is optional, paid for entirely by the attendee, and generally not started until one's about 18. There's absolutely no reason to make attendance part of the requirements for graduation, if you choose not to attend, that's completely up to you.

kklein: I saw this come up on Hacker News yesterday and knew it was only a matter of time before it hit Slashdot, and I'd be typing this (more people read Slashdot, so I thought I would just save my energy).

I am an assistant professor at one of the top schools in Japan (Aoyama Gakuin, by the way, is also in the top 10 for sure). Allow me to explain what sounds like crazy-talk to someone from the Western university system.

Here is the lynchpin for the whole thing. You understand this and you understand everything:

In Japan, it's very hard to get into a good college, but once you do, it is customary to do virtually nothing until graduation. Companies hire people largely on the name of the school on their degree, and GPAs don't even exist at most schools, and are most certainly not given to prospective employers. Furthermore, the employer is actually who does most of the real-world education. When I worked at a foreign-language college, I had students--bright, definitely technically-inclined students--being hired by IBM to be system engineers. Except, our school only offered foreign language and other "international studies" classes. No math, no science, no engineering. I don't even think we had any history professors. (The term "university" here does not mean what it means in the West. It really ought to be translated as "post-secondary school.") But our graduates were (correctly, I think) identified as people likely to succeed in IT by IBM-Japan's entrance examinations, and they were hired. The first few years of their "employment," therefore, will actually be CS classes--but only on what IBM does.

Now, the companies aren't really all that stoked about this, especially companies like IBM, but they have hit their work visa limit and can't bring in any more Indian guys who actually know what they're doing, and besides, it's awfully nice to have native speakers of the local language working at your company. But this is how it is going these days, and how it pretty much has always gone. Universities are finishing schools.

Here's the other point that contributes to rampant truancy: The job hunt is a nightmare over here. Companies only hire once a year. Everything in Japan goes on an April-March schedule. So if you don't have a job lined up by the time you graduate in March, you are screwed until next April. Doubly screwed, in fact, because the lingering question next year when you do the rounds of examinations and cattle-call interviews will be "why didn't this person get a job last time?" So Japanese university students tend to cram all their classes for 4 years into the first 2 and a half years. They literally have classes all day every day. They can do this because there's no homework.

You read that right.

I have taught at every level of the Japanese education system, from primary school through university, and I can tell you this: Homework is an anomaly. Yeah, they have it, but nothing like what I had in the US system. So all this shock and horror over "cram schools?" Guys, if these kids' parents didn't send their kids there, they wouldn't get any studying done. Basically, those places are small-group tutor companies, and they do a really important service. Don't feel sorry for the kids because they have to go to "cram school"; feel sorry for them that their academic and vocational lives are going to hinge on a single, poorly-designed, multiple-choice test designed by professors who don't know that "trick questions" are the worst thing you can put on a test, because all they do is create noise (full disclosure: I design standardized language tests; I actually know what I'm talking about here). Unlike the US, which uses highly-reliable, at-least-arguably-valid standardized tests (SAT or ACT) designed by some of the best psychometricians in the world, people are judged here by whether they can figure out the "correct" answer to an item that someone who knows nothing about test design and implementation penned in his spare time.

The "no homework" culture is exacerbated by the fact that we profs are, ourselves, human beings with feelings and understand why our students might be a little more interested in securing food for the rest of their lives than reading a couple of chapters of the textbook and coming in ready to discuss it.

The next difference is that traditional Japanese classes go like this: You come in, some old guy sits down in front, then he pontificates for 90 minutes about what he thinks about the world. There will likely be a test on this, and you might have to write a paper at the end showing that you agree. I don't think that's how it works at my school, as my school (well, my campus, anyway) was built mostly by foreign-educated professors who wanted a more dynamic, um, learning-based university experience for their students.

So let's say that we're at a traditional school like Aoyama. Let's say I'm a traditional Japanese professor. I've got 400 people in my class, but on any given day, there might be like 10-20 in there. I do my schtick every week and we get to the end of the semester. The handful of students who actually came give me their final tests or papers. Then 390 come looking for me asking for "extra work" so they can pass because they have a job all lined up and they need the credit. Except, these people know nothing about the topic, and getting them caught up will take up my entire break, which is when I actually need to be researching, writing, presenting--you know, the stuff that profs actually have to do to keep their jobs. I've got Academic Affairs (which outranks me) pressuring me to figure out something for these people to do, because the school's reputation--the only thing that really matters, because it's how we get students--will suffer if suddenly it turns out that all these students with our name on them can't graduate and can't start work in April. So what do I do?

I start passing people for doing virtually nothing left and right. There is physically nothing else I can do; I can't handle this many "contingencies," and I'm kinda-sorta-not-allowed to fail this many.

So to combat this, schools start having strict attendance policies, which students figure out how to game, and next thing you know, we're handing out iPhones.

Now, some of the stuff I've written here could get me in trouble, but I'm not going to post AC [Ed. Note: AC = "Anonymous Coward," which is to say: anonymously], because, actually, the university I am lucky enough to work at now isn't quite like this (although truancy is a problem). I've got a MicroGrade screen open now just full of red (red means "fail"), and most of those people I've only seen like once or twice in my life. I know that they will come whining to my office here in a few weeks when the semester starts winding down, but I'm lucky enough to work at a school that has no problem telling these people to grow up and take responsibility for their actions.

Finally, let me address some of your other points, very quickly:

University is ... paid for entirely by the attendee

Nope, paid for entirely by their parents. And it's pretty damned affordable too, by US standards. No loans necessary. This also really contributes to an "I don't care" attitude among the students. They still live with their parents, have never had to pay any bills, and are personally/financially invested in exactly fuck-all. The campus culture is just very, very different from that of a US university. The level of maturity and seriousness is much, much lower. Don't get me wrong; there are still serious, brilliant students who really care; but I think they are fewer and farther between. This one little difference makes for a very different university culture.

... generally not started until one's about 18

I already touched on this above, but you're saying that as though that means these people are adults. No. Teaching first-year university classes in Japan is akin to teaching early high school in the US, maturity-wise. They are all laughing and goofing off and you actually have to trick them or con them or charm them or punish them into being quiet. This shouldn't come as a surprise, though, because their lifestyles are very similar to that of a US 15-year-old: They live with their parents; they've never driven a car; they don't have jobs; Mom makes their lunch (okay, I haven't had that since grade school); they just started at a new school and a new beginning in their lives... Add to that that this is the first time they've ever been able to wear their own clothes to school and you get a group of people who are just not very grown up.

There's absolutely no reason to make attendance part of the requirements for graduation, if you choose not to attend, that's completely up to you.

I'm right there with you within the US university system. I hated attendance policies as a student, and I refused to have them when I was teaching US university (in spite of departmental policies). I post due dates for papers and tests; if students can't get those right, then the hell to them, and if they can get good grades on them without coming to class, then they probably were coming in with background information and didn't need my help. If everyone can do it, then obviously my class is too easy or I'm a shitty teacher (luckily, I've never had the problem of my classes being too easy--frequently the other way, which is a lot easier to fix).

Last, even though this is out of order:

Unless it's different over there...

Yes, it's quite different over here! :-)