Tag Archives: teaching english in Korea

Bored in Korea? Read a book!

Slide1Teakettle Mountain, the story of one loser English teacher’s quest to not be a loser, has been re-released on amazon.com. Check out the story reviewers are calling “a joy to read”—available now for $2.99, less than a third the cost of a cup of coffee in our adoptive homeland!

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The Adoration Of The Magi

A strange fatigue overcomes me. A pallor hangs in the gray air, under the white sky and the cigarette-colored trees.

Classes have started at the university. I was so frightened of the beginning of the semester, which was an incredible three weeks ago, but now that I have roared through all that work and time—now that I find myself with a strange sudden moment of quiet peace—I can do nothing, in my exhaustion, except think over everything that has come between then and now.

There is a blurred kaleidoscope of memory flashing through my mind, and it is almost too much for me to pick even a single image to describe. Sleep seems to annihilate most of these glimmering tears of light, and then a new day piles inside and shoves the rest of them into alcoves which I cannot access.

Half of my classes are for writing, and half are for conversation. The writing classes require intensive lecturing on boring but useful subjects, such as how to compose a paragraph; the conversation classes involve listening to and patiently correcting the same mistakes I have heard for years now. The bizarre accents and intonations remain looping inside my mind like commercial catchprases. “I’m habbuh headache.” “Let me take-uh the your chair.”

As I walk around these classes, talking in a friendly way that hopefully does not seem too pompously professorial, observing, listening, reading, whoever I really am separates from this pseudo-professorial character in the new gray suit, and wonders what the hell he is actually doing, and what the reason for all of it is.

When I was in college, and in love with someone who did not love me, I likewise found myself in love with the world spinning beneath my feet. The Adoration of the Magi. I worshipped the dew in the grass, the trees, the wind, the clouds. I wandered the forests, singing and whistling, and explored, and watched for birds. Now that I’m so busy with teaching at this university, and with tutoring on the side, I scarcely have time to even consider “the unfathomable, all-pervading domain of Mystery, which is everywhere under our feet and among our hands,” as Thomas Carlyle puts it in Sartor Resartus—perfectly wording the thoughts I used to have the time to think.

Instead I find myself daily veering back and forth from a very content and satisfied joy to the most intense misery—of the sort that would have me hailing a taxi and telling the driver to head to the train station, there to wait for the next train to Incheon, where I might eventually catch a plane to some other shore—thanks in large part to being married with a young baby in the house. There is always so much to do, so much to be happy about or apologize for, that I almost never find myself dwelling on why I was born a human and not an insect.

Still, the memories come. A girl in a conversation class whispered (and refused to speak) of how she likes to go to some of the casinos in a northern part of this country because she once won around five hundred dollars in the space of two hours while gambling. The hands of a student with the strangest name I have ever encountered in Korea—that is saying quite a lot—it was strange even to his fellow Koreans—were I to reveal it here, it would be easy for you to find him—his filial syllable sometimes doubles as an onomatopoeia for farting—his hands were so dry, almost bleeding, cracked and white, like he’d dipped them in toothpaste which had then hardened to a fluoridinous cake. Another student claimed he was absent last week because his friend died while serving, as a draftee, in the military, during peacetime.

It is interesting to see the students stop working, and start fooling around, and then start working again when I approach them. More interesting still when someone blushes after I ask a direct question. Absurd to think that I have the power to make people blush, or that people take me (or these classes) so seriously.

One of the students was blushing because I asked him where he had bought a certain tourist shirt—one with a cartoon map of Brooklyn pasted to the front. There were the words “Park Slope”, which I had not seen in years. While he was blushing I felt tears rushing to my eyes, and hid them from everyone successfully, beneath my hollow-eyed exhaustion. I am comfortable in Korea, this place is my home, I’m even losing weight because I spend several hours a day walking around, but it would be so nice if I could just hang around someone’s stoop for the weekend—under the smelly gingko trees!

There was a day this week when every single interaction with my fellow English professors was so unbearably awkward I felt as if I had finally answered the question of whether Korea is fucking me up or I was just fucked up to begin with. Then, the next day, with the same people, there was this sudden casual warmth, and a feeling of real friendship.

There is the constant worry that my son will not speak English fluently. That he will not even be comfortable with the language.

It feels good to let myself write, but I’m exhausted now, because I have three more hours of tutoring coming up this evening, which, when added to today’s university classes, will amount to about seven hours of near-continuous talking and lecturing. Three seven-hour days in a row leave me anxiously awaiting those moments when this ridiculous voice goes quiet and I have time to think over the book I’m editing, the books I want to write—should I give colonizing another planet another go? or work on time travel? or get back to historical fiction?—and the TV show I want to make, essentially a parody of Korean television. A filmmaker moonlighting as a professor encouraged me to pursue my idea yesterday while I was sipping at a two dollar kiwi smoothie, but I won’t have the time for years, I think.

If I were to make a movie about all of this, I would model it on some of the opening scenes of Ozu’s Tokyo Story. You would see students sitting at tables before vast windows overlooking the waking trees and the brick buildings and the bare mountains and the white skies and the tar paths clopping with loud skirts, shuffling with the silence of the sneakers worn by the gray-robed monks. These young women and old nuns would always be walking away from you, from left to right. Cigarette smoke would wreathe everything. No one would talk, nothing would happen, and maybe the camera wouldn’t even move: there would just be this infinity of students facing each other, practicing their English, while people walk to their classes outside.

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Chun-So-Ga

There are no bad students, just students who received one too many doses of caesium-137 at birth. Chunsoga was one of these. His name has a far nicer meaning than sound; the mispronounced toneless Chinese characters governing the assemblage of his two personal Korean syllables, 천석, were probably 天石, Tiānshí, “Heavenstone”, and I only remember this ugly name at all—in a nation deprived of a euphonious nomenclature, a place seemingly victimized by J.R.R Tolkien—because this name was constantly being shouted at him, by me, by the otherwise unbearably nice Ms. Nam, and by whoever else happened to be sitting around him.

He would often while away his classtime by attempting to stab innocent bystanders with the enormous pairs of rusty meatcleavers, otherwise known as scissors, which Korean schoolchildren ostensibly use for cutting up papers, although their supple young sweaty limbs often offer far more tempting targets. He could neither read nor write English, and also had plenty of trouble with Korean, which was really an amazing feat of misfortune, as I can’t think of any children his age (the fifth grade) who were unable to write their own names. Even in America this would be cause for some concern, but although Chunsoga probably had a learning disability (the disability of being born into a poor family), and although he had fallen hopelessly behind his fellows, he was just passed along through a system which has little tolerance for those who cannot keep up.

Because he does not fit into his peg, the boy’s fate has already been decided, as a Delta-Minus Heavy Lifter, a miserable laborer of some sort, with little beyond the mindlessness of television to solace his rare hours of rest.

To my great chagrin, toward the end of my tenure at my illustrious elementary school, I was appointed to work with Chunsoga to better his English. Now I was not qualified to teach anything to begin with, having spent approximately zero seconds studying the art of education (beyond a few radical texts related to the no grades/no tests philosophy of Hampshire College, hardly applicable in test-crazy Korea), and I was even more unqualified to teach students with special needs. But teach him I did.

Twice a week for forty minutes I would sit down and do battle with the insurmountable laziness of Chunsoga, who resisted my tables of Korean and English letters and games and encouragement and despair with constant requests to go to the bathroom and get a drink. At best he would give me the bare minimum, and tonelessly repeat what I had said to him, not understanding, not remembering, not caring. I could only get him involved by encouraging him to compete with other unfortunate students, who occasionally joined us, but because they were not quite so unfortunate as Chunsoga, they quickly surpassed him, he no longer had any chance of victory, and so lost all interest. Every time we met it was as if we were meeting for the first time. It took weeks to get him to memorize the alphabet, which I believe he was still unable to recite by the time I finally escaped.

One of my evil co-teachers openly blamed me for his failure. But seriously, guys. I don’t know what else I could have done. Chunsoga was an unfortunate, misguided, nearly brainless child, but he wasn’t bad. If you got him away from the other kids he ceased all attempts to lash out; and in his defense the other children tormented him mercilessly, so of course I saw myself in him, having spent much of elementary school at the mercy of—how else to put it?—fucking shitheads. I wanted him to succeed. I wanted him to break through, somehow. If he could have gained the slightest confidence about his own intelligence, he might have been able to turn everything around. But the boy had no friends and probably no role models. I am fairly certain his parents worked around the clock. He wore the same filthy clothes every single day, for weeks on end, and they were always covered in all kinds of stains. After school ended I sometimes saw him walking around outside a nearby grocery store, his face smeared with ice cream. He would always say hello to me with a great deal of happiness and excitement. If I had been able to communicate with him in Korean, I might have inspired him…and as I think about things now I believe I should have gone to the nice co-teacher, Ms. Nam, and asked her to translate some sort of moving speech. But it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. Every last card was stacked against him.

He is still there now, slightly taller, enduring school as his school endures him, spending most of his life trying to get everything over with, a habit I doubt he will break until his difficult and unfair life is likewise gotten over with.

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Report From Korean University

So what can I say about my new job as an assistant professor at a university in Korea?

I want to steer clear of platitudes, but obviously it’s different from being a student. I was kind of a free spirit at Hampshire College—but certainly far from the freest. I climbed trees, sprinted across open fields of grass, lay in them at night to watch the stars, flapped my wings while riding bikes, photographed absolutely everything, read and edited books under trees, sang, whistled, loafed and talked with anyone who wanted to talk with me, shamelessly people-watched—and did all of this in full view of everyone. It was a great education.

I can’t do any of that now that I’m on the other side of the equation. One of my colleagues gently reminded me that I have to wear formal clothes at this place, which means that my shirt gets untucked if I move the wrong way, and that I am more or less in a constant state of discomfort. When I walk across this campus, which is a fairly forbidding place, being full of strangers who are at least a little curious about me, I cannot dally—I must go straight to wherever I’m going, or I’ll attract even more attention.

It’s also astounding to be working with so many foreigners—although everything and nothing is foreign to me—meaning, Americans (several southerners among them), Canadians, Brits, and one Australian—after an hiatus of two years. I was almost completely submerged in Korea for those two years, and now, to return to the relentless informality of the West, where everyone talks to everyone on a first-name basis, where people are free to swear their heads off and actually, you know, like, disagree; where women and men are not necessarily incredibly awkward when they interact together…it’s astounding, astounding! I can small-talk with people, and I don’t necessarily have to tiptoe around references to sex, drugs, feces, or culture, as I invariably must with the Koreans I worked with before—although the students are always a different matter.

So it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s also frightening because I feel, for the first time in this country, that I actually have to try to do a good job—that experienced, professional people are keeping an eye on me, whereas before in the public school in Sasang I was a monkey and a circus clown no matter what I did. Here, also, at this college the teachers are generally interested in imparting their knowledge of English to the students, while I think in public school everyone just wants to get the hell out as soon as possible. It’s unfortunate that so many people are being taught for their whole lives by teachers who just want to get the whole thing over with.

The students. The greatest thing is that if I turn my back I don’t have to worry that they’re going to start sticking their fingers up each other’s asses. I seriously could not turn my back on any of them, not for an instant, in public school. Korean college students aren’t afraid to yawn right in your face, and they also have a nasty habit of coughing without covering their mouths (an endemic problem in disease-prone Korea), but they do observe certain rules of etiquette—they always, always receive papers from you with two hands, which is a sign of respect and politeness that is meaningless in America but rather important here—so important that I’m definitely offended if someone doesn’t use both of their hands when they give something to me or take something away. This is what happens when you live in a weird foreign culture for so long.

Some of them also have pretensions to intellectualism, which is incredibly refreshing. I had concluded after numerous fruitless attempts to ask people about subjects beyond the pale of TV dramas and KPOP music videos that Koreans Just Aren’t All That Curious About Stuff, and after a fancy ethnological conversation on skype with one of my American friends my wife told me that Koreans never talk the way Westerners sometimes do—confirming at least one racist supposition—because people here are obsessed with their social status relative to one another (speaking from the viewpoint of American culture), which means that the questioning and debating and arguing that are necessary for having an actual in-depth discussion about history or books or movies or whatever just never happens.

But sometimes it does happen with my students. If they’re not with other Koreans.

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Continuing Business English Adventures

So it’s come to the point in my Business English class where I look upon my dozen fully-grown adult students as my own children; actually, secretly, I feel far more affection toward them than I ever did toward the little brats I had to shepherd in elementary school, who would try to stab each other’s eyes out with massive ungainly pairs of rusted steel scissors the moment I turned my back to marker in the date on the white board. When I looked at the faces of some of these kids all I saw was an overwhelming and equally inexplicable urge to stick their fingers as deeply inside my rectum as possible. Not so with the adults.

But in this office tower and even back in elementary school my feelings are mingled with very appropriate existential questions: What am I doing here? Don’t these Very Intelligent People realize I am a complete fool, and that my babbling, my walking, my waving hands and pleasantly shifting tones, are all just instances of the most shameless ventriloquism? That I am not a real teacher, not even a real man, but all pretense? How can they possibly dignify me with the title of seonsaegnim—drawn from the same Chinese characters as the more famous Japanese word, sensai, or master—? How can they pay so much for this unfunny ridiculousness? After all, if I am being remunerated through the roof for these services, the recruiter must be loping off into the darkness with bags full of ringing gold coins.

They were all smiles in this class, they laughed at every one of my stupid jokes, and although it was like pulling out teeth to get them to open their mouths, and although they refused to mingle with anyone outside of their social circles while we were playing a few icebreaker games in the beginning, I did not finish the textbook [which has obviously not been written or proofread by a native speaker, why, why, why, do these companies cut such basic corners?, how hard, how expensive, would it be, to get someone to proofread this??? such idiocy! such arrogance!], and now we’re two days behind, so I feel like quite the fraud, and quite the failure.

These good people may be wondering when we’re going to start learning Business English in our Business English Class.

There were strange, creepy comments from a few of them. One turtle-y fellow who wants to be CEO of the company declared (somewhat in private) that he liked a certain neighborhood in the city because it was filled with clubs. “So many girls”, he uttered, and these are not dance clubs he’s talking about, but brothels, and all I could think of is how uncomfortable this must be for the sole woman in this class, a very nice and thoroughly-pretty-in-the-Korean-sense (skinny as a mannequin, dolled up with more powder and whitening cream than Elizabeth I) lady who constantly attracts the gazes of this sausage fest. I don’t think she heard him. She was a little too busy conversing with the only man in the room who could even possibly be called attractive—yet another pleasant and well-spoken guy who likewise dolls himself up after the fashion of the Elizabethans.

Still, it is so thrilling to talk to them. I know they have a lot of trouble understanding me. I know that they all have questions which they are far too terrified to ask, even if I constantly ask them to ask, and tell them repeatedly that questions are my one true love, my lifeblood, the nectar after the hummingbird’s exile in a flowerless wilderness.

Nonetheless I am closer to attaining my dream of being a professor—one dream nearly opened among a whole gilded bestiary of caged, caterwauling fantasies. I am walking back and forth in front of adults, expounding, exclaiming, making wide Demosthenean gestures, fixing my gaze for lengthy moments on random victims—whose faces can only reply with the expression of the deer caught in the headlights.

I am still certainly a clown, a party entertainer, but I’m not jumping, dancing, or clapping my hands, to the most deranged music, in a prison full of inmates whom I myself want to jailbreak. It’s progress from Korean public school. If I ever attain that position-of-positions, to be shouting about Flaubert or Borges or Tolstoy to a theater packed with alternately rapt and dozing college students, I will certainly, hopefully, say, that this monkey business in an office tower overlooking a bay that hums with cargo ships was a step on the way to that exemplary destination.

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Hustling

Boogie Chillen'.

I climb out of the subway into the whirling afternoon wind, look up and down the roaring street for the address, and of course it’s nowhere in sight, things are never where they’re supposed to be, so I’ve got to hustle—and then there’s the thrill, the sudden thrill of this odd new life of hunting down English students and teaching the shit out of them.

These people are paying through the teeth, they’ve got monetary ebola, they’re bleeding cash out their anuses, they’re financially disemboweling themselves, they’re shitting green Lincoln-faced bricks, because they want me to stand at the head of a table and talk to them. And they know next to nothing about me, how it will be a miracle if a single student learns a single word from my slobbering lips: the Pope will beatify me, people everywhere will devour mountainous platters of kimchi on my feast day, English teachers in Korea will pray to me as their patron saint, if even one word worms its way inside the minds of my students.

So I’ve got to figure out where I’m going.

My heels are clicking and clopping on the sidewalks of the port area in the southwestern part of the city, where enormous cranes rise out of the coasts of curving peninsulas everywhere you look, stretching away into the mist and the ocean. Busan fraughts itself with ships. The blue sea blasts the air, but there are no trees to shake, just tall rectangles of concrete faced with fake bricks and darkened one-way windows. One of them is my building. Salarymen and women are flying in and out of the spinning brass doors, each of them dressed as blandly as possible, and a tuft of my bushy black chest hair is poking out of my radiant pink polo shirt, stained with deepening blotches of sweat.

Corporations!...make it hap-pen!

The conference rooms I find are swank imitations of true style: anything up on this lofty floor that seems elegant is probably made of cardboard, but the windows look out on the bay, and the vast ships checkered with hundreds of varicolored cargo containers, each little box the size of a house. We turn on the air conditioning, but of course Koreans are afraid of air conditioning, so someone opens a window, which means we should just turn the air conditioning off.

The sunset makes everything red before the city fades. The students filter in. About nine fairly awkward thirtysomething corporate slaves, and a single pretty woman in an airy lilac business casual blouse, say hello as they take their seats around a u-shaped conference table. The man who hired me explains everything to them in Korean for about half an hour: he is possibly the sharpest and most charismatic Korean I have ever seen, without even the slightest trace of the pompous, syrupy sleaze that typically oozes out of the pores of anyone in this country who thinks he or she is attractive. He’s kind, trim, well-spoken, polite, and when I look at him I want to wear a nice suit.

And everyone takes this meeting so seriously! They’re so good at pretending that any of this matters! If one is to succeed in the corporate world, one must exude the gravity and significance of eagles perched on mountain aeries, even if one is actually bored to tears, with the soul beating about the bars of one’s ribcage as if thrown into a zoo, desperate to leap out the window and soar over the vast cranes and ships gliding across the blue bay.

Not where I went to work, but still pretty impressive nonetheless!

I do not know where the time goes. We talk. We converse. Ninety minutes of such strain! How can any of them take this seriously! What prevents them from roaring with laughter at my ridiculousness and walking out? Will they get fired if they don’t show up? Don’t they know that I am actually, in fact, an incompetent loser? Isn’t it obvious? The pictures I show them from my life seem to bore them, and as I blab on and on about this or that all I can think of is how few of them must understand me.

The men seem so easy to read. The best speaker is so nervous, scratching his arms, his nose, fingering his pen, forcing his hands together, swaying back and forth, with drips of sweat beading down his forehead—still, no one can speak like him, no one is so articulate. Another freezes midspeech for thirty or forty unbearably long seconds and then gives up. His thoughts must have been racing over how he couldn’t think of anything to say, even as I was gazing into him with the wide-eyed face of a teacher who is desperately trying to draw something, anything, out of his student. Come on! Come on! You can do it! Make a word! Say anything! It doesn’t even matter! But he gives up, apologizes, sits down, looks glum.

I choose him at random to give a short speech in the next class: the burst of rage, sadness, and misery that contorts his face, that microexpression of such agony, makes me pity him even more. I wish I could have randomly chosen someone else…his life seems difficult enough, how he must have slaved and slaved to get this job, and now this

But after we practice a single phrase we’re done, we go. I walk out into the night. People speak nasally, bouncy Russian, homeless men sprawl themselves out into crowds holding empty baseball caps, women wear clothes that leave little to the imagination, I ask a silver-haired Korean vendor with a handsome wolf’s face where his chestnuts are because he’s selling sunglasses now, my wife swears on the other end of the phone when she hears this (“god damnit! sheet!”), and when I ride the subway home I stand near a group of Chinese students whose speech sounds like god knows what, a slurred river of sibilants—darting home, caterwauling through the dark tunnels, with Cortez battling his way across Tlascala in my lap.

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Stealing The Vice Principal’s Heater

The story goes like this: I’d been out of my apartment in Busan for a week because my family was visiting Korea and we were busy in Gyeongju and Seoul. Before I left I turned the heat off because I wanted to save power, and opened the window a little bit because I didn’t want the room to smell too weird when I got back; the must in Korea takes on this uncomfortable sweet odor when you’re away for awhile. Or maybe that’s just the nature of my own specific brand of dead skin. Anyway, when my wife and I returned we discovered that instead of smelling like a mothballed grandmother the apartment was freezing and the ondol heating, which is under the floor, just didn’t work.

I got an idea in my head because I’m just like that sometimes. I went to my school, on my vacation, with the notion to bring back the cheap heater I’d left there. Everyone who works in Korea knows that Koreans think heating is something superfluous, and so in elementary schools the hallways don’t get any heat at all, and in the classrooms a number of teachers are obsessed with keeping the windows open when it’s freezing outside. The evil teacher I often mention here may do this to passive-aggressively torture her own shivering students. It may also have to do with an old maid’s natural desire to match the temperature of her surroundings to the temperature of her own nether regions. So a heater is necessary sometimes, as it’s difficult to deskwarm when you’re freezing your ass off.

But when I got there I found that someone had, over the break, appropriated my heater. Suspecting the evil teacher, whose only purpose in life is to make me unhappy (she must have known about my apartment, too, and perhaps even snuck across town on her broomstick to sabotage it while we were out), I nevertheless had no choice but to go home heaterless. I went downstairs to check the mail for wedding presents on the way, noticed that there was a portable heater in the decidedly toasty main office that no one was using, asked permission to borrow it for a few days, and got it from a very nice man who gave me a rather warm hug this afternoon just before the principal drunkenly told me that I was too beautiful to get married so young.

On the heater there were two words written in marker and Korean: Vice Principal.

I trudged back across the cement with the heater slung over my back as if I had just looted it from an electronics store smashed to bits by a mob of rioters, and stopped along the way to buy some clementines from a fruit truck I’ve been to a thousand times. The seller looked at the heater I had slung over my back and said two words, in Korean:

“Vice Principal.”

And, in Korean, I said back to him: “I’m borrowing it.”

The end.

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More On (Moron) The Hierarchy

I had to take a picture on one of the two occasions where I have seen a Korean man carrying a child---or in this case, two children at once. This is right outside my apartment building.

On another night in Busan the older people, the important people who have passed the age of sixty, are standing around, waiting around, in front of the black subway glass. My friends and I have observed them in this way for almost two years now, and though we have no experience of their lives above the street, all of us have concluded that it is just as dull and pointless as these long moments they spend waiting around with nothing to do. And indeed once they get inside the subway and sit down, they usually either sleep or stare off into space. Although they have reached the hallowed age of sixty, and therefore deserve lower bows and higher verb conjugations and absolutely no disagreements of any kind, I do not think many people would envy their existence.

I’ve written before that speaking the language brings you deeper inside the culture, and a result of this is that I now have a place in the Korean hierarchy, and become furious, instantly, if it is not respected; on the other hand, it is so obviously arbitrary and pointless that I wonder if it is not in fact better to be a more egalitarian outsider.

Recently I found myself yelling at a student in the middle of class, as I often do on Wednesdays and Fridays, which is when I’m forced to stand in the same room as a large group of sixth graders (~30 students), four times a day, and must decide whether I will allow them to spend forty minutes screaming at one another or whether I will be the one doing all the screaming. It makes little difference as to the very low quality of their education. I cannot design the lesson plans, my co-teacher won’t let me, and her utterly boring and useless ideas (largely confined to memorizing dialogues and singing horrible textbook music) only teach students to hate English and to hate learning. I wanted to jump for joy when she told me, recently, that she had decided to quit this job—and according to my fiancé, to be an English teacher in a public school is possibly the easiest occupation in the entire country.

The students despise her. Just last week they cheered when she didn’t come to class. Although I spend so much time disciplining them I hope they don’t feel the same way about me. I’m afraid that they do, as she barely lifts a finger during the actual classes, and while she designs the lesson plans (or, rather, designed one plan several years ago), I do the lion’s share of the actual “teaching”. I hope that she quits soon, and that her replacement is either a young, open-minded woman or an old man who will terrify the children into submission, because the two days a week I spend with her are, slowly but surely, driving me to the brink of insanity.

Anyway, I was yelling at this kid, forcing him to agree with me, and found myself in a position I’ve often observed before: he was saying yes to everything, but actually he was totally defiant, and obviously meant none of what he said. I’ve seen it happen to others but never to me: an outward show of respecting the hierarchy is made so obviously absurd as to be, in reality, a gesture of rebellion. It’s a way to save face. I felt as if the victory was his, but I had no choice, he agreed to everything, so I had to let him go. The only thing the students truly fear is a trip back to their homeroom teachers, a threat I’m forced to make (and sometimes carry out) every time I “teach”—which is to say, every time I stand in the same room as them.

The masks we must wear and take off to survive in this society; what Jung calls personas.

I’ve been on the other end of this equation countless times. Just recently this same co-teacher informed me that I would have to wait outside in the middle of winter for my students to show up to their winter study session (or “camps”); I thought of telling her that this idea was ridiculous, but I knew, as always, that she would force me to agree to it anyway, so I just agreed and decided not to do it (S.N.I.P—Smile, Nod, Ignore, Proceed, is the most effective response to these typically arbitrary demands). I have only seen her venture outside once or twice, in warmer weather.

She does not set a good example and regularly contradicts whatever she tells me to do. She told me not to touch the students (and I really don’t), I have seen her slap students across the face; she encouraged me to make lesson plans that would be applicable to all of the different learners in our large classes, but has not changed her own teaching style and makes no effort to differentiate between those students who can converse with me and those students who cannot read (and will not use these lesson plans anyway, which I mentioned before); while she does almost nothing in her own classes, she regularly trashtalks a different co-teacher and accuses her of laziness, when my experience has been that this other teacher works very hard to create classes that are of a much higher quality; the list goes on and on; hypocrisy is apparently not an issue when you occupy the higher position in the hierarchy.

She will not be attending these winter sessions though she is still, for some reason, in charge of planning them; they’re free of charge this year, which means that we have too many students already, but because she won’t be in the classroom she doesn’t really care, and I believe she’s still accepting anyone who applies. My fiancé has told me that Korean mothers do not like hiring nannies or babysitters; they prefer to send their children to English lessons, which explains away mountains of confusion.

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Politeness in Korea—or, The Deepest Rabbit Hole Imaginable

Searching for the answer to why things are so fucked up here at one of the only places in Korea you can find any nice art---an ancient temple high up in the mountains.

Korean isn’t just a strange language; it’s a language isolate, which means that it is indeed so strange that no one can figure out where it comes from, what it’s related to, or how it got to be where it is today. One of the many odd features of the language is that, in manufacturing a verb or an adjective or god knows what else, the speaker must also choose whether to tack on one of several endings to express his or her social position relative to the listener’s—I must speak up to elders at all times and only speak down to friends or those younger than me.

Some simple examples, in English:

(to an elder) I’m running late-imnida!
(to a child) I’m running late-aw!

The illustration is crude but I hope it makes things clearer.

Now for the longest time I thought there was no equivalent in English. Many Koreans seem to think that English is just all banmal—informal speaking—all the time, but that isn’t the case. Would you greet your grandparents, or an elderly stranger on the subway, in the same way you’d greet an old friend you see every day? Probably not. But English is a bit more subtle, and I think the degree of politeness you express depends far more on your tone than on the words you use. Someone who has gone to grad school isn’t going to speak politely in the same way as someone who hasn’t finished elementary school, but both of them can convey the same effect through tone, body language, and all sorts of other factors, and successfully have a polite conversation with someone whom they respect.

The same is not quite true of Korean. I think you can say “what’s happening?” to your grandmother if you use a positive tone in English, but you can’t speak Korean banmal to an elder under any circumstances. Recently a girl apparently spoke this way to an old lady on the subway in Seoul and all hell broke loose. I’ve heard Koreans say that two men or two women can’t be friends if they aren’t the same age—while friendships between the sexes are impossible—but this sentiment is obviously ridiculous since no one was ever born at the exact same instant as anyone else.

Cut the shit!

To justify this fundamental root of all the madness that is in Korea, a Korean told me that elders have been around longer, they know what’s up, and they can act as role models for the younger generation, so we should automatically defer with them. As with many aspects of Confucianism (wherein this idea supposedly originates; I suspect its roots go deeper into the foundations of this most dysfunctional peninsula) the philosophy is sound but the real-life practice is utterly inane. Many, many people everywhere are just children in grownup bodies, and I do not think age is a significant factor in accumulated wisdom, which depends on so many things. A successful Wall Street pirate cannot navigate the streets of Bamako like a native, therefore, in that situation, the native is wiser; similarly, the native of Bamako probably doesn’t know how to stuff his pockets full of as much cash as the typical trader who amuses himself by wiping his ass with hundred-dollar bills pulled straight from the pockets of the same blue collar workers who just elected a government that will work around the clock to facilitate at least as much robbery and general infamy as we’ve seen since the Supreme Court chose our president ten years ago. So the Bamako man will be clueless on Wall Street, and wisdom is often relative to the circumstance. But I digress. What I’m trying to say is that I think age is the most simpleminded way of determining how wise someone is.

And so many of the old people here abuse their power and their social status. Just today on the subway ride home I witnessed two parallel instances of typical Korean politeness and typical Korean abuse of hierarchy: a man got up to give his seat to an old woman (and had to convince her repeatedly to sit down; she must have politely refused his offer five or six times); just before this happened, a middle-aged man rushed in and snatched up a nearby seat and coolly grimaced at everyone around him, including several women who were obviously older than him who had to stand up—and when I saw this I, as a man who is slowly but surely absorbing a little bit too much of this culture into his psyche, I almost yelled at him and told him to get up for one of the helpless elders.

The hardy ajumma believes standing in the subway for five minutes is more difficult than hiking a mountain for two hours.

For the record, I almost always stand on subways because Koreans, for all their hiking, for all their sprinting in six inch heels whenever they have to get somewhere, are unusually obsessed with finding a place to sit on the subway, and rush in through the doors as if their children will be enslaved if they do not locate a place to sit until they have to get off two minutes later at the next stop. Whereupon they will proceed to stand still on the escalator and prevent anyone from walking past them on the left side. I digress again. This is yet another one of those little things that really, really gets to you after so many months here.

But I said nothing to that guy. If elders are always right, and youths are always wrong, foreigners are shitheads, so I invoked the prime directive and hung back.

Despite this avowed shitheadedness, there are now far more foreigners in Korea than ever before, at least since the war (and the two Japanese invasions…and the Mongolian invasion before that…hmmm…maybe this country isn’t quite so homogenous as everyone says?), and Koreans everywhere are able to take advantage of the fact that they can speak banmal to most of foreigners without any threat of reprieve. So far as I can tell, almost all of this happens to me at school. I’ve spent several months now telling the kids at my school to speak politely to me, which I didn’t care about for a long time until I figured out that they mean to insult me every time they neglected to tack a -yo ending onto their words—that effort, combined with the far more immense effort of studying the language, is bearing fruit, because I think in order to fit into your place in the hierarchy here you have to speak the language—where the culture so obviously expresses itself every time someone opens his or her mouth—and you have to know when someone is deliberately insulting you.

I'll beat the crap out of you unless you realize that enlightenment can come to anyone, young or old!

But the question is obviously this: why, why, why, do Korean children so often speak so impolitely to older foreigners? Some have written here that it’s because Koreans think English is just all banmal, all the time, which gives them an excuse to flagrantly insult foreigners whenever they speak to them; I suspect something else is at work. In this society, virtually everyone is underneath someone else. By the time you’re old enough to be at the top of the hierarchy you’re waiting to die in a hospital bed: therefore you must constantly kowtow to people whom you do not really know and therefore cannot really respect, and because this practice in Korea is so extreme, so omnipresent, so inescapable, and so utterly frustrating—young people can be right and old people can be wrong—there is almost nowhere to release that energy, except, of course, to the 외국인, who probably won’t retaliate or won’t even realize if you speak to him improperly—as you so desperately want to do to all the assholes who are only slightly older than you but use that as an excuse to ignore you and order you around like a slave. That’s why young kids here are so unusually, notoriously bad—the culture is so old-fashioned, so arbitrary, out-of-touch, and oppressive, that when children have an opportunity to escape they cannot help themselves. And, ironically, they take out all the pressure on the one group of people in Korea who probably possess a relatively egalitarian way of looking at things.

If it were easier to go abroad and escape to a certain special place where people are supposedly judged by their character rather than the way they look—whew, what an exodus there would be.

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Current Events In Brief

Now who will win this fight? (from a highrise in Sasang)

So another unremarkable day passed under the concrete skies of Busan: the buses ran without a hitch, only a few people threw themselves (or their cats) into oncoming subways, and the beginning of the summer monsoon season was inaugurated without a single drop of rain. It marked a year of life in the city for just some guy who, one year ago, actually drank Korean instant coffee, the taste of which bears a close resemblance to overheated sinkhole slop (woe on the soul of that ancestor of mine who may have invented it!), but people nevertheless buy huge boxes of this stuff, apparently thinking that the taste of coffee is supposed to induce thoughts of suicide, and many people also buy a more sugary mixture from vending machines. “Vending machine coffee is the best coffee”, says a policeman in one of my favorite Korean movies: Attack the Gas Station.

How far have I come? A year ago I could not even read Korean: today at lunch I stopped a woman in her tracks when she started talking to her friends about the peculiar nature of my meal (just kimchi and rice because everything else was so gross I wouldn’t feed it to a starving dog): I explained the reasons for this selection to her, in English, though I could have done so in Korean (simplistically—“The food is not delicious today”), and now I believe she will think twice before she starts gossiping about the usual stupid “oh the foreigner is so silly” bullshit again.

This morning on the subway: a vibrant dress of fire beside me: hello: annyang hasseyO!: but no, she isn’t, no, she can’t be—yes, of course, one of the stupid hags, a rubbery old chicken who once fluttered her ugly way into my office and proceeded to invite everyone there present, except for me, to her wedding, surely a bacchanal the absence of which has deprived my memory of the sensual beauty it needs as water for stalks of germinating green: an attendee of that saturnalia told me she had never seen that woman (I use the term loosely) look more beautiful than at her wedding: but that is not a difficult feat to accomplish, as you must merely put a brown paper bag over this woman’s head, or dress her in a full ape suit, in order to beautify her beyond her natural endowments—what a regret to mistake her for something interesting out of the corner of my eye.

And yesterday after a swim and a walk along beautiful Gwangali Beach, perhaps the most beautiful in all Korea thanks to the angelic quality of the bridge floating over the sea, I ate sashimi with my girlfriend: downstairs in the aquarium/all-you-can-eat-buffet she selected a fish swimming along happily in its little tank; an old woman proceeded to pluck this fish out and throw it down on a wood cutting board; I watched, rapt, awed with the spectacle of live death, as the old woman pulled a giant viking axe out of nowhere; she raised it into the air and brought it down swiftly on the helpless, flopping, gasping creature; its tail kicked the wood board hard, and the darkest reddest richest blood spurted the air from its flexing gills, opening and closing like an accordion. And indeed the poor little fellow was still going strong even as we brought him upstairs to get him sliced up for our dinner: I told Eunok it how unfortunate it was for him to be so tasty, then remarked that in the evening space aliens would abduct me and say the same thing while salivating over my fish-packed entrails.

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