Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Student Profile: Lina

Now that I have the time in my life again (I won NaNoWriMo, by the way), I decided to bring back student profiles.  There's a colorful bunch of students at this school and I like having these sorts of entries to go look on and think, "Oh yeah!  I remember her!" after my job is finished.  Also, my dad complained to me over Skype that I "never write in your blog about teaching anymore."  So, here you go, Pops.  Enjoy.

I'll start with one of my favorite girl students, Lina.  She's in probably the most advanced class at the school, and is pretty much the "leader of the pack," as far as the girls go. Which, since it's a class of three girls and one boy, is most of the class. Lina's very willful and very frank, things which may later make her more frustrating than amusing.  At the moment, though, I like her.

The textbook for this class is a series of essays on more or less random topics, accompanied by writing prompts and a few short answer questions: identity theft, India's economy, artificial intelligence, and most recently, the well-intentioned, if problematic, One Laptop Per Child project.  I started off the class by asking them what they thought was important for a good education:

"Good books."
"Good teachers."

And then Lina chimed in with a firm: "Good educational policy.  Changing Lee Myung-bak."

I always like when my students have firm enough political opinions to rag on presidents.

Sometimes the book is pretty dry, though; it gets pretty repetitive and so a lot of times I'll try to find a salient tangent to what we're talking about.  When discussing India's economy, for example, one of the textbook questions asked what problems poor countries face, and a student said, "Crime."

Ah-hah, says I.

"What about crime in Korea? Do you think there's a lot of crime here?"

"There's a lot of..." Pause to consult her phone dictionary.  The phrase that came out made perfect sense, but it was something we'd never actually say in English.  "Sexual violence," I think it was.

"Ah.  Rape."  Second of week of teaching and we're talking about rape!  None of the girls seem particularly fazed by it so I decided to let this one play itself out.

"Yes."  She nodded her head vigorously.  "There's a lot in Korea."

"How can we fix that?  What can we do so that rape happens less?"

"Teach women how to fight." "Stronger punishment."

"What about the American soldier in Dongducheon? Do you think his punishment was strong enough?"

"What was it?"

"Jail, for ten years."

Lina looked like she was going to punch someone.  "Ten years?!  No, that's not enough.  He should have thirty!"

"Some Americans think that ten years is too strong."

"What?! Really? 헐~."

"I think he should get punched in the face every morning while he's in jail," I declared.  Which I do.

Or, while they were copying down some work from the board: "Teacher, your tee is very...uncommon." (This in response to a Ben Folds concert shirt.)  I'm still not entirely sure what she meant by that.  Either I wear it less often than my other clothes, or it's not the kind of shirt you see in South Korea (but by that logic, all of my shirts you don't really see in South Korea, so why this one in particular?).

There's a note from her to the teacher I replaced that he kept on the fridge, apologizing for being a poor student and promising to work harder.  I'm not surprised that she had been a bad student for him; she chatters a lot in Korean as soon as she's bored and will simply not do pages, but I can't exactly blame her.  The book's extremely repetitive and about as engaging as watching paint dry, especially with this class that's so far above it.  The one benefit is that it provides a whole spectrum of topics to talk about—I've just come to realize that to make it at all engaging, I'm going to have to ignore the book a lot.  I spend a lot of time looking for videos to download from YouTube, or extra reading material, or whatever.

There are moments when the limitations of the student-teacher relationship (and my own low level of Korean) make me sad.  I'm sure if Lina were older, she'd be exactly the kind of woman (Korean or otherwise) I like hanging out with: outspoken and passionate and a take-no-shit attitude.  She has a feisty attitude that I hope will get her far instead of holding her back.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Un-Korean-ness and White Whine

I originally wanted to call this entry title, "Eat a Dick, Chris."  I panned that for obvious reasons.  The next title was going to be, "Let Me Tell You All What It's Like, Being Male, Middle-Class, and White," but that's kind of long. Fortunately, after my knee jerk reaction of "eat a dick," I have moved on. Now, I  just hope Chris was just having a bad day when he wrote up his bit of white whine about embracing his un-korean-ness, and I hope he feels better now.  Because to that Chris, in that moment of time, I still say, "eat a dick."

Before we go any further, I feel that this is an incredibly appropriate soundtrack.  Facebook won't embed any goddamn videos ever, so just read this on my blog at the link here.  I'm also posting the NSFW version with all of the swear words because I'm ~edgy~ like that.  If ever you listened to a song I've posted here, listen to this one.  Never has a song been more apropos.

Korea is not a perfect place.  I don't need to enumerate the many ways in which it is not perfect because that's not my point.  My point is that when white "waygooks" (good Christ, how much do I hate that word, especially in anglicized form?) suddenly complain about racial and ethnic other-ness, about not being able to integrate, about being judged and presumed about based on their race, I have one and only one response: eat a dick.

Never mind the UNSPEAKABLE FUCKING HILARITY of someone from a pretty privileged class complaining about being treated differently because he's a minority, let's just talk about the big reason all of us teachers are here in the first place, the giant elephant in the room when it comes to our lives as teachers.  Okay, yeah, we all love teaching kids or molding minds or kimchi or whatever, but the biggest, fattest reason of them all is


Of course there are people who are just so unfit to teach that no amount of money would make life worth it for them.  And there are people who are glad to be doing the teaching no matter where they are or what they were being paid, because they're saints.  There are people who came for the money but stay now because they have adapted well to the country, put down roots here and have (gasp!) integrated into society. But if you take a quick survey of foreign teachers here, you'd probably find that the vast majority are relatively fresh out of school and in need of a job and this was easier/more exotic/better-paying than back at home.  At some point, it was indeed about the Benjamins.  (Or the Shin Saim-dongs, rather.)

Because of this, we get paid better than the typical Korean does, too—and they're often on their own about the housing, plus the workload-to-payscale ratio from native speaker teachers to Korean teachers is (usually) ridiculous.  Who among us has the typical Korean work schedule?  Who among us has the typical Korean salary? What Korean enjoys the liberty of being able to quit a too-demanding, too-miserable job because their particular demographic is just SO UTTERLY IN DEMAND?

It's not quite an exploitative system, but it's damned close.  Roboseyo (I think?) mentioned a while ago that the overall attitude of English teachers in Korea is a pretty mercenary one and I'd generally agree with that assessment.  Whether it applies to Chris, I don't know, I haven't met him personally (and however much of a person's blog you read, you can never get the full picture).  But to ask a culture to embrace you with open arms (which seems to mean giving you a magical foreigner bubble through which no ajosshis can shove you or ajummas can elbow you, even like they do to other Koreans; through which no biographical details or "typical" foreigner questions can be put to you; through which only the "acceptable" Koreans can pass) while also (presumably) demanding that they pay you a relatively handsome salary and not work you too hard for it? To also have the luxury of never needing to learn even the most basic bits of the language to survive? Jesus Christ, did you also want the happy ending?  Maybe you work ten hour days, six days a week (and spend your Sundays at the Korean hagwon), Chris, but I'm going to go ahead and doubt that.

And yes, I get that sometimes people have bad days, or that sometimes they need to vent, and that no one is perfect.  I have also been an entitled foreigner in Korea, more often than I'd care to remember or admit: I read back on earlier entries and cringe. It's necessary to recognize your entitlement, though, and to see how it affects your attitude towards Korea and Koreans.  For people like, say, Roboseyo, The Grand Narrative, I'm No Picasso, and so on—the "big names" of the K-blog network, you know who you/they are—there is an especial burden/expectation of you to think twice before you post this kind of white whine.  It reflects poorly on other foreigners and it reflects poorly on you, as well.  (I mean, not to beat a dead horse, but mocking Koreans' crappy English accents?  Really?  Especially as an English teacher, that's poor form.)

Instead of closing with another dick joke, I'm just going to say: I hope you feel better, Chris.  I hope writing and posting that was cathartic.  I also hope that next time you're tempted to vent your frustrations, you either take a critical look at them and realize what kind of impression you're giving, or you find another, much less public (and much more anonymous) space to air them out.   What you choose to do with your blog is your own business, of course—I'm a true 'murican at heart and no one but you should dictate what you say in your own space on the Internet—but I think we all expected a little bit better from you.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

2012: The Year Korea Came to Hollywood

Four big name Korean directors have Hollywood films debuting next year. The list includes three of my favorite Korean directors:

  1. Probably the king of contemporary Korean cinema, Park Chan-wook.  Oldboy (and to a lesser extent, the entire "Vengeance" trilogy of which Oldboy is just one volume) has become an international success and has pretty much made Park world-famous.  If you've seen only one Korean movie, it was probably Oldboy.  Park's Hollywood project is a "gothic thriller" called Stoker, though it has nothing to do with vampires, Braham Stoker or Dracula, as people were originally speculating, since people seem to still be into this whole vampires thing.

  2. Bong Jun-ho, director of the megablockbuster The Host.  He's directed a cinematic adaptation of the French graphic novel Snowpiercer, a post-apocalyptic free-for-all, set on a train designed to be impenetrable to the Arctic climate people in the future suffer under due to global warming.  Bonus points for this one: it will feature Song Kang-ho in a supporting role.

  3.  Kim Jee-woon, whose most notable features include A Tale of Two Sisters (which was later remade by Hollywood under the title The Uninvited),  A Bittersweet Life, and my personal favorite, The Good, The Bad, The Weird.  For Hollywood, Kim's working on an action piece called Last Stand, about a drug dealer whose only obstacle on the way to freedom in Mexico is a small town sheriff played by...Arnold Schwarzenegger.  There is no way this can be bad.

Out of all of the films listed, I'm most excited to see Last Stand.  Kim plays really well to big name Western classics (The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, obviously) as well as contemporary hits (Kill Bill) and he creates really original and exciting action scenes.  Take, for example, the final chase scene in The Good, The Bad, The Weird:

This is one of the most awesome things you will ever see in a movie.

All of these releases are really exciting news, though. I've been out of the Korean movie loop for a while (between being in the states and then working too much in Korea) and this is the perfect thing to jump back into.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

I'll let you decide.  That said, some of those prisoners have some pretty sweet dance moves.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Book Recommendation: "This is Paradise!"

Since my first go-round in South Korea, North Korea has become one of my pet interests.  The latest book I read on the subject is one of the few books written by a refugee (with the assistance of a French[?] journalist).  The writing itself is pretty simple and dry; it would be a boring book if it weren't about a first-hand look into what living in North Korea is like.

There's two scenes that I think are pretty telling.


As a student, the narrator had to fulfill quotas of fecal matter to be used in the communal fields as fertilizer.  He and his friends would go around town emptying out outhouses and collecting animal droppings.   Some other people managed to have gardens, though, and would get fiercely protective over their manure.  At one point he almost came to blows with a neighbor over a frozen dog turd.

A fistfight over dog shit.  Over who gets to keep the dog shit.


The other story is less surreal and just plain horrifying. The narrator's father escaped into China, found out you could actually make money and eat and not starve to death, and decided his family needed to get out. Patrol guards caught him as he escaped back into North Korea and threw him into prison.  The prison experience itself was horrendous, but that's not the real story. (Though fortunately the father survived and eventually brought the whole family to South Korea, happy ending!)

As Jong-min put it, "It's a North Korean gulag, not a day spa."  The prisoners were often beaten before being thrown in a cell with eighteen or nineteen other people.  One day, this guy gets thrown in their cell who looks especially like hell.  He had obviously gotten a special round of body blows.  The other prisoners noticed and asked him why.  At first he was really reticent about it.  "I stole some meat." No one buys that, of course.  Eventually the truth comes out.

The man's wife had gone off to look for food, so he was home alone with their young daughter.  They were both starving more or less to death, like everyone in North Korea who isn't a top party cadre.  The girl was so hungry she started crying and asking about food.  The man, irritated, knocked her back.  She fell and cracked her head pretty hard, eyes rolled back and mouth foaming and all of that stuff.

She would either not survive, or would survive with all kinds of brain damage.  So he picked up a hatchet and cracked her a good one on the back of the head.  Then he cooked her up and ate her.

Again: he killed and ate his own daughter.  That is how hungry he was.  That's the kind of hunger that's ongoing in North Korea.

It's a book worth reading, for sure.  It's also a pretty quick read and you'll burn through it in just a day or two.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Funny Because It's True

The image is a link to the original website. Most of them are pretty funny and manage to avoid go-to, "HERP DERP KOREA IS WEIRD" jokes.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Family Pictures

I will be quiet around here again, for a little bit. This time, I will be writing a novel instead of working at a crappy school, so don't worry! My silence means good things! But since today was the first day at my new school, I wanted to share the highlights of my "getting to know you" day. I showed them photos of my friends and family and important places back home. Two pictures in particular I want to pick out.  

This me and my family on Thanksgiving. Clockwise, starting with the person who is very obviously my grandmother: my Mom-mom, me, my brother, my mom, my dad, my Uncle Steve, and my cousin Haley. (Not pictured is Aunt Donna, my mom's sister.)   A pretty textbook "American" picture. Everyone knew it was my family, my older students knew it was Thanksgiving. Then I asked them if they could guess who's who.  Every single student who saw this picture was convinced of two things. One, that my brother was my father. Two, that my father was my grandfather.

 Before they saw that one, though, I showed my kids this one.

This me and the boy on a springtime cruise to Helsinki.  I asked them: "Who is this?"  A not insignificant number replied, in all earnestness: "Your mother and father."

My lifestyle must be aging me faster than I realize!