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Saturday, September 04, 2010

My College Redeems Itself, slightly.

This may come across as a little cocky, but so be it.

As you may or may not know, I generated for myself a fair amount of stress last semester by butting heads from time to time with my boss in the following ways:

Category 1: Things I Was Explicitly Told To Do, But Did Not
-Buy dress shoes and wear them to class. (Instead I wore all-black decent-looking non-stylized Pumas.)

Category 2: Less-Than-Subtle Unofficial Requests I Refused To Grant
-Get rid of my ponytail in favor of a more respectable hairstyle.

Category 3: Less-Than-Subtle Unofficial Requests I Deigned To Grant
-Remove my haphazard beard and 'stache.

Category 4: Unspoken Things I Knew Might Be Considered Inappropriate In The Eyes Of Some But Which I Did Nonetheless
-Shaving only on Sunday nights and wearing a shadow to class during the later parts of the week.
-Not changing my dress shirt or pants or tie between Monday and Thursday (socks, undershirts, and boxers changed as needed), except in cases of spillage or extreme, unbearable B.O accumulation.
-Using the text book only intermittently and in particular skipping anything to do with shopping, fashion, status, and pages where too many people were smiling.
-Talking as much about vegetables as possible.
-Making relatively difficult, thorough, and useful assignments and tests.
-Never yelling at or punishing late or talkative students.

Do I have some totalitarian tendencies? Indubitably!

Am I a curmudgeon? Twice over!

And yet...according to the student evaluations, which were filled out either right before midterms or right before finals, I was the second most popular teacher/professor/instructor in the college. Out of 183. (Seven of the ten English teachers made the top 20, and one of my best friends came in at number one, doubtless due in no small part to our Monday morning oh-shit-what'd-you-plan? sessions).

On a personal level this didn't mean a terrible amount to me, since I am betting the students were basing their evaluations criteria like "isn't too pudgy," "can crack jokes," "doesn't bug me too much," etc. Nonetheless, I feel a small sense of victory for having fought the school when I was told that the students wouldn't respect me if I didn't try to intimidate them with a professorial aura. For once, I was the one who refused to be cynical, and it paid off. And not just figuratively speaking - the week before classes started, we had a department meeting and photo shoot at which the semesterly bonuses were given out. I got third place, worth an extra million won; the award speech and letter cite my popularity with students and my "unique" teaching methods. Just as nice, the two guys ahead of me, who received an extra two and an extra three million, worked hard and also deserved it.

So, hats off to my school for, in this instance, recognizing, rewarding, and valuing hard work and an honest commitment to teaching well and all the other good things I like to think I do. It doesn't necessarily mean I'll resign my contract, but at least I'll feel a little more respected and a little less apprehensive during the semester to come.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Brought to you by a basket of mushrooms

For all the bile I have been spewing* lately about consumerism, ecocide, the'Merica, or whatever, I generally do my best to refrain from saying anything derogatory about Korea. I feel like I owe so much to Korea - almost four years now of comfortable living, outstanding eating (this year more than ever), constant linguistic stimulation, good friends, and easy savings which allowed/will hopefully continue to allow long periods of carefree travelling. About the only thing Korea hasn't done for me is pay off my college loans. Thanks, mom and dad(s)!

In my time here I have only met 3 other foreigners [I am, for lack of better terminology, using this term only to refer to other native English teachers, and not to foreigners from other countries who are here for other reasons] who were capable of squeezing any joy out of the Korean language's sometimes infuriating properties; aside from that, though, almost every (English-teaching) foreigner here reaps all the same benefits as I do; and yet I'm more likely to hear someone fly off the handle and make completely unjustified generalizations about the country, people, or culture than I am to hear them thank someone for a meal or to see them offer up their seat to an elder on the subway.

One salient example: on a certain autumn evening back in 2008, I was downtown with some friends. They were drinking, but I was on antibiotics and under doctor's orders to abstain. At about 4AM, having vacated the club, we migrated to KFC, as foreigners here often do. Not being drunk, and thus not craving a break-of-dawn chicken sandwich, I stayed outside. After 10 minutes, my friends still hadn't come out, so I went in. I asked what was up and my friend said he didn't know. I asked the cashier when my friends' food would be ready and she said they hadn't ordered yet.

Of course, this was improbable, as my friends weren't quite that far gone. I told my friends they should just order again, but rather than simply doing so, and understanding that there are a few reasons why someone working the graveyard shift at KFC trying to take orders from drunk people speaking a different language might be liable to make a mistake from time to time, my friends decided to go off on a rant about how stupid and racist Koreans are. Unwisely, I tried to talk some sense, or maybe just some empathy, into them. The results were that 1) I was told that I "always take the Koreans' side" (an accusation so true it hurt) and 2) the argument continued for most of the cab ride home, until it reached a crescendo and my friends got out early, leaving me to pay the fare on my own.

I don't even want to begin to attempt to analyze exactly what sort of feelings and experiences lead to these sort of outbursts. I suppose being linguistically isolated, working a morally ambiguous and often frustrating job, and living a long way from home can be difficult to bear. Anyway, this post is actually not about any of that. The preceding was all meant as a disclaimer, to say that when I do decide to briefly highlight some silly or annoying things that Korean people do to or around me, it is because they stand out against the background of general pleasantness that I experience here. (As long as I'm not thinking about the environment or global justice etc.) Once again, it appears that the introduction has become the climax and now my main stories have been relegated to denouement.

Issue 1: One Korean Acquaintance has some Inductive Reasoning issues

I was at a friend's house the other day. My right elbow was a bit swollen, I believe from a nasty reaction to a mosquito bite, and her mom asked what had happened. I explained and said that it was fairly painful and that it was particularly uncomfortable to write on the board in class. (Oh, yeah, did I mention I started teaching again?)

"Aren't you left handed?" she asked me.

The daughter said "no, of course not, you've seen him using silverware and drinking with his right hand."

And the mom said, "Hrm, I thought all Americans were left-handed?"

My mind was blown. "Huh?"

In an atypically snide manner, I added "That may be the funniest thing I've ever heard," though I massacred the translation and it probably didn't make any sense to anyone but me. [Actually, I think what came out was 'That's the first time I've ever heard something funnier than that." The difference in the Korean for the two may be as small as one word.**}

"Chris" (a common friend) "was left-handed, wasn't he?" asked the mom.

"Yeah. He was. Some Americans are left-handed. Just like some Koreans," I informed her.

"Oh. Well, when a Korean is born left-handed, we usually punish them until they turn right-handed," she said.

"Sure, we used to do the same thing. Even so, not very many people are left-handed. It's probably the exact same percentage as here."

"Huh." (End of debate).

Odd that an intelligent, fully grown woman could harbor such a thought. But, then again, I believe I was 23 when I realized that I had eyelashes growing from my lower eyelids as well as my upper ones. Thus, unlike some friends here to whom I told this story, I am not comfortable drawing conclusions about Koreans, Korean education, Korean racism, or what have you. I'm happy just having been able to boggle someone's mind and unravel a (mostly harmless) stereotype.

Issue 2: One Korean Woman has some Spacial/Spatial Reasoning issues [OR DOES SHE???]

Just a few hours ago, despite my throbbing elbow, I biked down to this awesome new [to me] market I found next to the train station. It's called, in Korean, LIGHTNING MARKET. I even looked in the dictionary to make sure there's no other possible translation for the word "beon-gae." There isn't. The place is definitely called LIGHTNING MARKET. It's pretty much exactly the same as WEST GATE MARKET and SEVEN STARS MARKET, except that it makes sense to write its names in all CAPS, because, well, if you don't know already, nevermind. I go for the thrill, and also because sweet potatoes and lotus roots are 33% cheaper than at the markets with more pedestrian names.

Most people (Korean and not) think I am a bit weird for biking around with a bunch of ziploc bags inside a backpack which is inside one of two bike bags. There are good reasons, though. I bike around for exercise and because it's cleaner and faster and actually less exhausting than the bus. I put the backpack in the bike bag to have a more comfy ride and a less sweaty back, though I wear it if I run out of space. And I carry around (large) ziploc bags so that I don't have to use and dispose of new plastic bags every time I want to buy vegetables from some cute old wrinkly lady.***

So, first I got one lady to put some ginger in a ziploc for me, explaining that I didn't want to have to throw out any plastic. Then I got another lady to do the same with some garlic, and I likewise explained my motives to her. Then I passed another lady selling...you'll never believe this...mushrooms! I had never seen plastic-free mushrooms before and knew instantly that they had to be lightly steamed, then just dipped in a little sesame oil and salt solution. I asked for them and she reached for a plastic bag; I told her I brought my own and that I'd give it to her. She relayed the sentence to her friend ("Check it out, this foreigner knows how to speak with honorifics!") and chuckled. Then, to my amazement, she said "They won't fit in." I assured her they would, but despite my pleas and much to my woe, she threw them into a new black plastic bag.

So far, nothing too strange. It's true, the black bag was a bit more voluminous than my ziploc. Maybe I was wrong, though I was pretty sure that my z would have worked out fine. Until a moment later, when I was completely sure. Because she opened my ziploc bag, which she was still holding, and started to put the black plastic bag inside of it!!! Utterly confused, I told her not to bother, took my goods, and zipped off (to buy some eggplants, lotus roots, and cherry tomatoes.)

The question is, how could she have possibly believed that the mushrooms wouldn't fit in the z-bag if she simultaneously believed that the mushrooms AND the b-bag could BOTH fit into the z-bag? Did she realize her mistake only after filling the b-bag? Does she live in a universe where the axioms of logic don't hold? Has too much red pepper paste or soju or dog soup rattled her old Korean brain?

As much as I hate to admit it, though, honesty compels me to inform you that there is indeed one way to make sense of the fiasco. Actually, that doesn't go far enough. A proper understanding turns the so-called fiasco into a simple misunderstanding on my part. And, not surprisingly, language is to blame.

It hinges on the meaning of 안 들어가겠다 "an deu-reo kagetda." My first instinct was to translate it as "they won't all fit in." But, after replaying the scene in my mind, I realized that, as is often the case in Korean sentences, the subject wasn't specified. Maybe she wasn't talking about the mushrooms ("they"). More likely, she was talking about the basket they were in ("it"), and expressing the fact it was a pain in the ass to try to pour a bunch of mushrooms from a wide-rimmed basket into a z-bag with a (relatively) narrow mouth. The b-bag, being free from the z-parameter, is a fair bit easier to get stuff into. It still pisses me off that she would rather save herself 10 seconds of effort than save the world from one plastic bag, but this attitude is more or less understandable in the light of business as usual.

So, in fact, this lady, who is most likely much better than I will ever be at pouring produce out of baskets and into bags, probably knew what she was talking about. My temporary condescension had its roots in confusing. Interestingly enough, had I been watching her more closely and listening to her less, maybe I would have understood immediately. As it was, my Korean skills were good enough to confuse me, but not good enough to help me understand.

Let this be a lesson to us all.

Please don't forget to read the footnotes.****

*meager compared to the amount I've been holding back, believe you me.

그것보다 웃긴 걸 못 들었어요. Keu-geot boda ootgin geot mot deureosseoyo. that thing more than funny thing couldn't hear / "I've never heard anything funnier than that."(Not a bad sentence!)
그것보다 웃긴 걸 처음 들었어요. Keu-geot boda ootgin geot ch'eo-eum deureosseoyo. that thing more than funny first heard / This is the first time I've heard something funnier than that."(Utter gibberish!)

***The one thing that doesn't make sense is that I'm willing to wash and re-use ziploc bags, but for some reason I don't want to wash and re-use normal black plastic bags.

****I just read Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," which is told from the point of view of a 15 year old boy with an unnamed form of Autism or Apserger's or something in the vicinity. I liked it!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Wisdom #4

"At the moment our only choices are personal ones. Though we may not be able to do anything whatever about genetic engineering or neutron bombs, individually we can say "no" to television. We can throw our sets in the garbage pail where they belong. But while this is an act that may be very satisfying and beneficial, in making this act we must never forget that, like choosing not to drive a car, it is no expression of democratic freedom. In democratic terms, this individual act is meaningless, as it has no effect at all upon the wider society, which continues as before. In fact, this act disconnects us from the system and leaves us less able to participate in and affect it than before. Like Huxley's "savage," or like today's young people who drop out to rural farms, we find ourselves even further removed from participation in the central processes that direct our society, our culture, our politics, and our economic organization. We are struggling in a classic double bind."

Jerry Mander, "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," postscript.