Monday, December 6, 2010

Things Foreigners Do in Korea That They Aren't Aware They Do

Use KOREA and KOREAN as pejoratives.

It's a patronizing, paternalistic and lazy way to criticize and complain. Don't do it. You have a problem as a teacher? Don't address the issue vis a vis Korea. Why not take a stab at doing the critical work necessary to actually attempt to solve the problem?

Korea's full of haters; 50% of them are foreign teachers.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Working On

1. I'm reading Volume One of Karl Marx's Capital again. This is the second time I'm reading it cover to cover; it will be the third time re-reading many of the more famous sections. I found a copy of David Harvey's lectures about Volume One and am reading it as if I were taking his popular seminar. It reminds me of the class I took at University of Denver (DU) with Robert Urquhart. I miss that man's company. A lot of fun reading Marx and watching John Wayne films. Well, his love for John Ford and Wayne always made me groan, but his screenings were a kick.

2. I'm trying hard to get reinstated as a student at DU while finishing my dissertation. It's difficult trying to do this from Korea. Handling registration and, as a result, student loan issues from overseas is a real headache. What would have taken a day or two of walking papers with signatures between departments on campus is a year-long odyssey of unanswered e-mails and phone calls. I blame nobody on this one, but it does illustrate how educational and financial institutions have failed to usefully implement technology in order to make the students', teachers', consumers' and employees' jobs a little easier.

3. Reading Slavoj Zizek has become a hobby of mine. I follow his lectures as well. I really like the guy, especially his ability to piss off establishment academics and right wing ideologues. His recent work has become much more readable, I think. Whether we agree with everything he argues, his take is creative, aggressive, and concerned. I like the fact that he insists we revisit Hegel. Hegel is one of the most abused western philosophers. He's often misquoted and misunderstood because researchers and theorists use two or three of his most famous works without fully understanding his conception of logic and his entire project. The abuse could be prevented with a little more reading and decision to cease using other authors using other authors using other authors. And of course, literary theorists are always misusing him. Anyway, my engagement with Zizek has me revisiting Kant, Marx, Hegel, Butler. Makes me happy.

4. Wrapping up another semester at Samsung High School in Seoul.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Right to Assemble & Speak & Distribute Information

From The Boston Globe, "SKorean police arrest 4 people over G-20 protests." (I'll try to get out and snag a few photographs of protests and other activities in the next few days and during the summit.)

The G20 looms in Seoul and Koreans will show up in thousands to protest.  There will likely be hundreds of arrests and as many news stories about the protests and arrests--as many as will be published about the political and corporate interests that are represented at the Summit itself.

I think we should remember what's at stake as Korea and Koreans continue to become more significant to the global capitalist market: Korean well-being. For me the highlight of this G20 Summit is the Korean people who have accomplished so much in the last 40 years yet continue to struggle with the cultural impact and realities that a fair and just democratic society imposes upon them as it promises to more or less liberate them. In my opinion, Koreans are at odds with the capitalist market and its ability to exploit democratic institutions to make a profit. Of course, foreign interests in Korea often get blamed and foreign laborers often receive the rhetorical force of the blaming rhetoric. We should not forget that conservative elements in Korea that are not Nationalistic but Corporate are at work behind organizing and disseminating the nationalist fear and rhetoric because it serves their purposes well: it makes the majority of Koreans, the working poor to working middle classes, look immature, petty, bitter, and unable to effectively lead. The resulting sentiment offers a slimy protection of Korea's ruling elite.

We should insist that the highlights of the G20 protests in Seoul, organized by Koreans, are the labor activists protesting cuts to social welfare programs. The Korean left is correct to be concerned and their early protests are a sign of their precise action rather than their often reported disorganization and vitriol.

Nevertheless, the conservative Korean press is likely to highlight any and all nationalist rhetoric within the Korean protests and amongst public Korean dissent. Such press serves an important cultural purpose: it protects Korea's elite. The unfortunate result is that the shitty expat blogging community will find further reason to hate on Korean activism via blogs regarding unfair treatment of foreigners by Korean bigots or regarding behavior non-Koreans find silly, stupid and offensive. It's always one or the other with foreign bloggers: criticize bigotry in Korea or illustrate their stupidity. Especially white bloggers: white folks love to illustrate others' bigotry. You know, it's white power's only effective use: Scapegoating.

Please support Koreans' right to organize, distribute information, protest, assemble and speak in public. Please celebrate that attempt to preserve their rights. In this celebration maybe we can find a little more energy to afford looking after our own back home, which are in fact in jeopardy. The democracy movement is alive and still struggling here. Without positive portrayals, like the Boston Globe's piece this morning, we cannot expect the remaining love of nationalist sentiment and protectionism to lose its popular appeal. And rather than the protests being about how the rest of the world envisions and represents Korea's nationalist sentiment, this should be about insisting Koreans are able to distribute information to shape policy and rhetoric.

Please do stop highlighting the minority nationalist interests as if those ideas are passively supported by the majority of Koreans. They aren't. It's about as silly as claiming the Tea Party represents the majority American sentiment regarding economic and social policies because the press pays so much attention to it. It's damaging to the progressive left (even the progressive right) who's image is often smeared in the right wing/corporate popular press.

Monday, November 8, 2010

시끄러운 교실

The longer I teach in Seoul the more I'm learning about classroom control management as an active and sometimes aggressive yet covert struggle between between my expectations for my students and my students' expectations for me.  I say covert because the traditional classroom does not permit never mind encourage student dissent.  In other words, I don't see the students and me meeting each other in an ideal public space we call a classroom in which we work together to complete a series of tasks and conversations in order to learn.  I see my and my students' expectations meeting in a rhetorical space through which we communicate with each other about lessons I'm more or less obligated to teach them.

I've quickly described two classrooms; neither is an actual room we could call The Real Classroom.  One is an ideal classroom and the other a rhetorical space.  Teaching in an ideal public classroom is an experience I very much want to have.  I'd love to see the promise fulfilled, the promise of democratic discourse in a public classroom that results in learning and an exchange of ideas many of which derived from the original social difference of the individuals in the class.  The latter space, which I refuse to call a classroom, is the space I'm obliged to maintain.  It's a space wherein cultural difference, contractual obligation and the State all work to create turbulence that is always just slightly less than the natural noise in an actual classroom: students, teachers, desks, chairs, the A/V, the fan.  For the students, this turbulence registers in anxiety and discomfort heard in their voices, seen on their faces.  Some simply sleep through it.  A few react violently to its presence.

I don't now how most teachers handle this.  Actually, I do.  Most teachers use their power to maintain order in their classrooms with more or less successful results.  Most teachers teach to maintain order: order in the tradition, order in the room, order in their assumptions, order in their lives, and so on.  In addition, I always assume, and I think I'm correct in making this assumption, that most teachers don't believe this turbulence (as opposed to the everyday noise) exists.  Most teachers I meet seem willing to accept the classroom space a school district provides for what it is and that their task is to instruct students on how to do specific tasks more correctly, more efficiently.  In effect, our public classrooms are nothing more than training students how to be good employees and consumers.  I don't want to pick on most teachers, but I do have a problem with the attitude that for all its claims to appreciate the importance in education actually reinforces the notion that ranking is much more important than understanding and appreciating knowledge.  I don't think it's good for us and I know it's not good for our students.

Most days, teaching public school in Korea is a lesson in humility.  Even when what I teach entertains and educates my students, an honest assessment of the quality and usefulness of my lessons can lead to slight, if not heavy, depression.  I never question my dedication to teaching; don't misunderstand me.  It's that I get depressed when I think of the dirty rooms, decaying infrastructure, smelly uniforms, unhappy employees, horrible food, and incomplete lessons.  Of course, there's much more we, as in society, can do to improve the horrible situation(s) of public education.  In Korea, as in the US, much public discourse concerning educational reform embraces the ideals we all think a healthy democratic society has to offer the classroom.  But much if not all the talk about teachers and students is focused squarely on the outcomes of tests that evaluate performance of students and now teachers.  These ideals are, then, not at all about education, pedagogy, practice, knowledge, discourse and rhetoric.  They are market ideals that help explain, encourage, inculcate, and distribute capitalist cultural myths.  I don't care about these ideals when it comes down to it because I find them facile and vacuous; in the sense that we all know them already, some of us agree with them in spirit, and yet do absolutely nothing to insure we shall attain them.

I'm going to post a lengthy description of my last lesson and attempt to examine what I'm doing here at Samsung High School.  I want to examine the usefulness of the language work I attempt to accomplish on a weekly basis. 

I have titled this post "The Noisy Classroom" because I encourage noise in my classrooms.  The noise in my classes is bilingual--Korean and English.  The noise is outbursts, questions, casual conversation, friendly banter as well as scolding address: all the typical noises are present.  I tend to have students work in groups.  My high school students tend dwell "behind the curve."  They are nowhere near proficient enough to meet Korea's standards for students their age.  In each class, I can expect anywhere from 2 to 6 students who are at a solid intermediate level or above.  I can expect 5 to 10 students who are at a low intermediate level.  I can expect the other students to be at a beginner level or have little to no desire to use English at all.

This poses a problem for me. If I were a teacher who made demands of my students based on the standards, as most teachers do, I'd get no satisfactory work accomplished, no matter how good my lessons were.  No matter what my colleagues think of ESL/EFL standards, theory and praxis, I'm not teaching in an environment where I can use traditional teaching methods to gain positive results.  First, the students aren't at the level that Korea's standards insist we (teachers and students) maintain; second, I have no instutional support.

In addition, the standard serves to remind my students how poorly they perform in comparison to the standard.  It serves no other purpose; I'd argue even at the schools where students outperform the standard the standards do not encourage learning instead instilling habits of competition.  Students are, in fact, oppressed by the standard.  I found in my first year at school that the lessons the Korean teachers encouraged me to instruct were of two kinds: 1) informative lessons meant to encourage students to memorize and repeat certain linguistic structures and/or vocabulary and 2) games meant to entertain as much as teach.  These lessons fulfill two concerns Koreans have about classroom management:  learning and entertainment.

I do believe that Korean teachers, in this respect, are very similar to American teachers.  They want students to enjoy their lessons.  The problem is that the kinds of lessons I was encourage to design, implement and teach do not take students into consideration.  The lessons are actually much more about satisfying what the teachers, administration and culture of education demand.  This is the turbulent noise that most adversely affects my classrooms in Korea.  In the US, in my university classrooms, I could control this noise more effectively.  I am, in fact, part of the problem in Korea.  I'm the colonial presence in Korean culture, the physical manifestation of all that worries Koreans about English-language culture in Korean society.  And my voice, if it is in tune with standards, is a repetitive You're Not Right.  Most teachers I know are unwilling to work this into how they teach, this consciousness of oppression.  Some are unwilling to admit it's presence.  Still others seem to take pleasure in treating students like slaves to their cause.

With the next few posts, I want to share my lesson, consider my classroom, come to a better understanding of what it is I'm doing here and what my work means.  Feel free to participate in the comments.  Share your stories, questions, concerns.

Friday, October 29, 2010

back? i think so... more to come.

i have no idea, and i have been tinkering for weeks now, what has been up with my access to Blogger and my blogs, but the problem seems to have disappeared as if it never existed.

the sites load from school and home without issue and i'm hoping i can begin blogging again.  i've got a lot to share.  it's kind of exciting.

this problem accessing blogger reminds me of the early days of blogger when such things happened quite often.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Two shows in Hongdae tonight

If you're wondering what to do tonight, you should come out to Duriban at 7pm. (A short walk out of exit 4 Hongdae Ipgu Station. Come out of the exit, look for the building standing amongst the others that have been demolished.  It's about 100m or so from the exit.)  After the shows there, head to Children's Park.  Then, end the night at Roots Time.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Well, it's been some time since my last post.  I've been unable to get into from home and from school and have had to resort to a proxy.  This post is little more than proving to myself that it actually works now and that I can get back to blogging about what I blog about...

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tropical Storm Kompasu.

Trying to get accurate English information about typhoons on the Korean peninsula is a real pain in the ass.  The expat sites list weather information sites like The Weather Channel, which absolutely blows unless you'd like to know if it's going to rain out your NASCAR or NFL or College Football event.  {Ed. 942am: Here's one. Thanks, Cliff!  Korea Meteorological Administration.}

Last year, there were no typhoons.  I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  From five to fourteen, 1975-1984ish, I lived in fear that the Arkansas River would flash flood and drown my neighbors.  It did once.  In addition, we survived several massive tornadoes.  I know the use of a bathtub or an oak closet and a mattress.   I lived through Hurrican Gloria in New London, Connecticut.  We had no electricity for a week after that one.  These were all adventures for me.  I remember them not with fear, but still my heart races with excitement each time a big storm passes my way.

So, I want to know about this typhoon that is now crashing its way across Seoul and the peninsula.  The winds are strong, the gusts tremendous.  Schools don't close in Korea, so I'll get to ride it out with students, faculty and staff.  Our school is older and rotten.  It's sturdy, of course, but it's nothing more than concrete and sliding-glass panes.  We'll hear the entire storm as the building should act like a poorly engineered, rectangular ear.  From what I can tell, after the brunt of the storm passes, we're likely to experience some grand thunderstorms through the weekend.

I love the thunder.  I praise the rain.  I like the gray days that sweep me away to my interior best self and blanket me.  I fear the storms but always want to venture outdoors during their mad climaxes.  A result of my young father, in his late twenties and early thirties during the storm years of my youth, dragging us out into the stormy nights after the worst had passed to survey the damage.

Apropos, then, that this great tropical storm, low-grade Typhoon Kompasu, kept me awake rattling windows while I've been negotiating my youth for my novel.  Figuring things out.  Cracking memories like the torn tarp flapping on my scooter, snapping my seat.


***4AM Woken by the trucking wind, rattling windows.  Typhoon Kompasu is motoring through Seoul.

***730AM and the storm is not shutting down schools even as we learn that most subway lines are delayed and that the one or two are no longer running.  I will have to walk all the way to school.  Bound to get soaked.  From what I can tell, it's a level one typhoon.  Not a scary typhoon at all, but winds can gust up to 125mph and remain steady between 70 and 95mph.  We're getting blown by massive winds in my neighborhood, but it's all mostly gusty right now.  From what I can tell, the storm's center should be off the peninsula by late this afternoon.  I'll update with info.  Maybe some pics if anything interesting happens.  ANyway, it's loud at times, but nothing is blowing around.  No electricity out.  I'm glad.  I'm just recovering from my wedding and two week trip to Chicago.  I'd love it to blow and rain a bit but I'd like to do it with comfort.  I'm pooped.  Off to school.

***930AM and the storm is over. Satellite images show the storm has left Seoul and moved Northeast.  I'm sad that it passed through during the wee hours and early morning because I couldn't go out and snap photos of the wind beating the crap out of everything.  Oh well.  There's always the next typhoon.  My colleagues are telling me that the winds were pretty severe with this storm.  It sounded wonderful.  At times like trucks passing by our windows.  Fortunately, no damage was done to our school.  I really don't have any faith that classroom or office damage would be fixed in a timely manner.  Right now, all money goes into the decaying gymnasium.  They've been working on that filthy place since I arrived in 2008.  The rain falling now is that wonderful misty spray that quickly and thoroughly wets without much force, intimidation or show.  I like it.  What don't I like about this now:  humidity.  Lots of humidity.  Adds extra pounds to everyone walking.  Yesterday, the humidity rose so quickly while Praise and I were walking through Myeongdong that it felt to me like she had thrown a wet hot blanket over my back.  I don't mind heat.  I loathe humidity.  Looking forward to autumn.  Chuseok is an entire week off school this year.  Just over two weeks away.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Guilt, the Ineluctable & the Post-Traumatic

I just finished watching the newest episode of Mad Men.
I've learned two things.

I love my wife. That's not the first thing. In the order of things learned while watching TV on my laptop, I didn't first learn I love my wife. And I knew that already. Anyway, that's not exactly a lesson, is it? I think I learned to recognize the guilt I feel about not loving her enough and that this guilt is tied to fidelity. Not fidelity as in "Have you cheated or not, Gary, tell me the truth." It's not that kind of fidelity, or guilt--a being honest with myself, or her, sort of thing. Though, in the show, that's a big part of masculinity on display. But Guilt, nevertheless and capital 'G', in remembering how incapable I feel of doing what she needs done or I think she wants from me to properly love her. Guilt as an address. Guilt as an attempt. The Attempt: to try in spite of knowing I may continuously fail. And quickly after succumbing to guilt, coming to understand that this is my conscience and its means to find something similar to cold feet before the wedding because I don't get cold feet suffering instead, like many of us do, from hot feet. I'm too spontaneous. Too hyperactive. Too compulsive. Obsessed without end to obsession.

What do I have to feel guilty about? I guess, I feel guilty I'm doing this thing I never thought I would do and with this person who should know better than to hang out with a person like me. Certainly, I think that's warranted guilt. But on the show, two men drink New Year's Day away first with one another at work over their loneliness and Separations, then with one another at an early New York City grindhouse over Godzilla, then over steak, then comedy in The Village, then with prostitutes. And the shy one was only too willing. I sympathized with him. And that sympathy made me feel guilty and that feeling got me writing and thinking. The feeling, not the illicit behavior, led to writing about my wife. And that, of course, nourishes further guilt.

I could make the funny pun about being Catholic, but there's the first thing I learned while watching Mad Men. The first thing is that I'm more than a little embarrassed to have discovered I'm still suffering from post-traumatic stress. I mangled my finger beyond repair in the fall of 2005. Well, I was mugged and menaced with a gun on Memorial Day Weekend 2005, as well. And that comes with its own gifts. But this second unintended violent event is what I'm now coping with.

In the fall of 2005, I inadvertently stuck my finger into the moving flywheel of my Vespa while working on its carburetor. We say, I cut if off in the flywheel, but I didn't cut it off at all. I turned it around so that it was pointing at me, tearing everything up inside the finger, including the skin all around the middle joint. I was calm, then. When it happened, I made no sound and asked for an ambulance. I sat on the front porch and waited as firemen showed up as they do for traumatic injuries. I didn't speak when they freed my pointing finger from the hardened pudding of blood and skin within supportive arm. I didn't speak to the man who permitted me to lean against him while we waited.

Eventually, I walked on my own into the back of the ambulance. I smiled at the paramedics. I patiently occupied an Emergency Room bed with a synthetic morphine drip for several hours waiting for the hand specialist to arrive. And while he amputated my torn finger from the middle joint up, I talked with him and his assistant about wine. Though they hid the amputation from me and refused to let me watch the insertion of three pins, they permitted me to observe my finger being sewn shut. It was a nice reward.

You'd think I was over the incident. I behaved like a regular tough, an expert in violence on my own body. And in many ways, I am. Outwardly, I am. Inside me somewhere, though, a whole mess of mangled nerves still reverberates with the violence of a flywheel snapping bone and tearing tendon. Tonight, Joan cut her finger while preparing her husband's dinner. It led to a touching scene for her character and a rare kind moment from her husband's. I just about vomited and had to stand in my kitchen until the scene was over. I can't really describe the intensity of this attack, but it reminds me of what I went through during the months after my amputation. The panic was strong, real, as if it had never not been present.

And so there's the lessons. The practical aspect of tonight's watching me and my wife's favorite show alone: I was reminded of how strong my love for her is and how fragile my grip on reality can be. A twisted moment combining is and being but sewn together only after a violent event. Call it recognition. Call it recollection. I may call it forgotten. But there will remain the persistence of this note.

I'm thinking of Daedalus now, as I often do, blindly walking along a strand. It can be any strand. And in the first novel, his terrible, terrible love poetry. I think I understand what it means now: ineluctable, without light. I exist in the moments I don't think about it all and then, well, it all stops while I find another excuse to continue walking on away from yet another violent event.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Back in September.

The World Cup, Summer Camp for students, and now preparation for my wedding and travel to the US is keeping me away from writing. Back in September.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Some Very Big Bullshit

The World Cup has kept me in my neighborhood and sleepless. It's almost over, but I'm already transformed into a football zombie. It's going to be difficult to return to my routine.

I posted this morning to my blog, Some Very Big Bullshit. If you follow dagSeoul, please follow the new blog, too. The newest post is relevant. White folks in Korea love to claim minority status. I want to write more about this phenomenon because it exists on the most amateur blogs as well as the most academic and professional. Almost every blog about Korea by a white author includes posts illustrating Korean bigotry and, especially on American blogs, how Koreans hate white people. It's tiresome, lazy and repressed nonsense that I'm too happy to write about at the moment. But I'm compiling links, quotes, sites and other data to include in a post discussing it all sometime soon.

Two more World Cup matches to go. These 3:30AM game times are murder.

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Korean Celebrity Edition.

Song Hye Kyo will never do anything better than this McDonald's commercial. Never.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

World Cup Break and Things White People Like to Do

World Cup is keeping me busy. I'll be putting a series of posts out about lesson planning at my high school when classes break beginning next week. Until then, it's crickets time in dagSeoul. We're watching football.

I thought it's worth mentioning. If you're a white girl living in Korea who likes Japan and fancies herself an apprentice courtesan and dresses up in white face for a photo session and posts those pictures for all to see on Facebook as if it's simply wonderful and innocent and amazing that you got to do something that cool, I'm the person on your friend list who's going to burst that white bubble and ask if I'm supposed to take you seriously any more.

Just saying.

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Monday, June 21, 2010


After some consideration, and friends' good points on the subject, I've returned anonymous posting to my blogs. I have reinstated moderation. If you post a comment, give me some time to moderate before posting again.

I agree that my readers' internet privacy is more important than the few minutes it takes me to moderate.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Teachering: Useful and Useless Teaching habits

[edited twice as of this morning, 6/17/10)

I've been thinking about my role as an English teacher in Korea more often lately. I know it's likely due to my approaching contract renewal. I should probably just relax. I know I'm a good teacher, but we don't get much peer review in Korea. Certainly not as much discourse as I'm used to in the US. So, I am anxious.

I took a little time to reflect on my work the last week and discovered, since my 2008 arrival in Seoul, I've weathered a strong revision of my teaching practices yet a strong reaffirmation of my pedagogical principles. My principles are renewed and my practice is more vital than it has ever been in the past. I feel like I know what I'm doing yet I'm doing something new.

I think a lot of Native Speaking English Teachers (NSETs) arrive in Korea with vague notions about how to teach English and little experience. That's problematic and for what are obvious reasons: new teachers, little support, no training, rigid contract, et al. However, many people coming to Korea to teach are dedicated teachers looking for work in a country that respects teachers and looking to teach in Korea, a place they want to know more about. Many teachers arrive here already trained, with strong pedagogical principles and practical experience. As one of the latter, it's often painful and frustrating to be compared to the former. Teachers should be able to gain experience, certainly, but I do believe that experience should be developed at home and in conjunction with the direction of their own teachers. That's for another post.

I'm tired of hearing from my surprised Korean colleagues that I'm such a good, dedicated teacher who has good ideas and loves Korea. (They're always happy I don't show up late, smelling of soju and kimchi, with my shirt untucked, dead tired and unable to teach. Koreans seem to expect the worst as a rule.) I always want to crack wise and stand up for myself. I don't. I just smile and say, Thank You. It's the Korean way, for sure.

I've always thought English is useful as a global language because it's capable of assimilating essential everyday language from other languages without much of a hassle or misunderstanding. However, the teaching of English can be much less democratic and accepting of difference than the language is. For many reasons, many teachers act as if they are guardians of the English language. It's not enough for them to teach it; they like to act as if they own it and are protecting something they bought with their knowledge of it.

One thing I've learned in Korea about English instruction and that I'd offer to anybody seeking advice about teaching ESL and/or EFL in a foreign country is that a teacher must have the ability to strive for excellence while setting classroom standards and expectations appropriately with respect to the students' current needs and demands in contrast to the teacher's own desires. Teachers really do have the power to set this conflict between desires and demands aside, to disengage from it for the benefit of the class by stepping down from doing things for the students and actively engaging with them in classroom discourse. English language instruction and acquisition can be a coming to terms with the language rather than enforcing it: a negotiation rather than a standard.

What I have been coming to terms with in Korea is a strange disconnect between my radicalism (pedagogy) and my pragmatism (my objective). I have learned that balancing the desire to express ourselves in the classroom and department successfully and meaningfully is not the same as managing a classroom in a manner suitable to the students. Only the teacher is in a position to assess what the students need and this gives teachers a lot of power. We know that government is always seeking to proscribe this power. And students often like to rebel against it. Regardless of the situation outside of the classroom, a teacher can make the decision to empower student participation and activate learning in useful and meaningful ways no matter what interference exists.

Judging from the bulk of lesson plans I see circulated and the general discourse about teaching (in Korea,) the less-experienced teachers seem to make the wrong decisions for what may seem like very practical (read, good) reasons. Teachers tend to decide that the requirements of the lessons and demands of the culture are so significant that they must insist students accept a classroom environment the teacher thinks will work best for them to meet curricula-determined goals. I disavow this practice. I guess this could be my reaction to useless lesson planning practices. After all, how long have teachers been composing plans based upon concrete goals that are met only after imposing a strict outline of timed classroom activities? It's stale; it ignores students.

A good lesson plan illustrates a teacher understands how to define an attainable goal. A good plan never addresses how and what students think about it. Moreover, detailed plans always determine how students should approach a lesson. Therefore, plans limit creative and critical discourse. Nowhere in these lesson plans are students visible. Students are unnecessary to its implementation, and they will be present when a lesson is discussed and assigned. They will be given a lesson. I know many teachers who can compose wonderful lesson plans who cannot teach, aren't interested in teaching. They are good plan implementers. And the students' grades are merely numeric representations of the quality of implementation. In fact, that's how both the US and Korean Republic see education. This is the prevailing theory of education: if students receive high test scores, then they are learning.

My Korean colleagues often sadly approach me and apologize because I have had to "lower my expectations" since coming to Samsung High School. When I first arrived, I thought this was because my school's Principal had read my CV to the teachers in a faculty meeting before introducing me. It was embarrassing. I'm proud of my work but I don't brag. And some teachers were intimidated. What was I doing here? They asked it; I asked it. But I have learned that they're thanking me for working hard and trying to be respectful. I'm not good with gratitude. I have a real problem seeing myself as good. And it's even harder for me to figure out how to return gratitude. I'm terrified of obligation and never quite get it right. This, too, is for another post. But it shouldn't be overlooked that when I first arrived, were it not for my experience, I would have been shocked to discover that it's close to impossible for me to properly complete my contracted tasks--that much of my work, in the traditional sense of teaching lessons, is pointless.

But I have learned to stay focused on the students. To love my students and not necessarily their work. And so, when I'm reminded how sad it is that I have to lower my expectations, I respond with a smile and say "No problem." What's the point of explaining that I find such apologies demeaning to the student body? It's not worth it. I know how my colleagues think about my most recent approach to developing lessons: they see my newest take on teaching students here as a lowering of expectations. It is decidedly not that at all.

The level of English in my working-class district is lower than you might expect. I have 2 or 3 out of 35 to 45 students, in 20 classes, who can listen to a question in English and answer using complete sentences or meaningful clauses and phrases. That's about 60 out of 600-700 students I regularly see. As a result, the first thing I ditched was the English-Only Classroom. For me, that was the easiest part of the environment to change.

Even before arriving in Korea, I wholeheartedly disagreed that enforcing English-only in classrooms encourages and supports the students. Now I can say without a doubt that it's merely wishful thinking to suggest a classroom can be English-Only. It's a ridiculously limiting conception of language as well, as if language were only spoken. The students are not thinking in English. No matter what they say or think, the English language is always already in context with Korean language and culture. We might as well use that to our benefit. English-Only classrooms in Korea are much more about making English teachers more comfortable. I hate classroom power trips. Thus, my classrooms are proudly bilingual.

I would suggest that newer teachers in Korea think about ways to assert themselves in the classroom. Co-teachers will attempt to dominate younger and inexperienced teachers. They'll attempt to police your classrooms. If you need help and are a brand new teacher in search of guidance, this might be a happy coincidence. On the other hand, many teachers have practical experience and will find that Korea's classroom culture is odd, possibly alienating. One of the first things to learn while teaching here is how to fairly and positively manage a Korean English classroom. It takes some work. But the conflicts that will arise and headaches that follow are worth the stress. If you're a good teacher, they will respect your different style. If the students dislike you and you can't teach, they're going to get rid of you as quickly as possible anyway. And I agree with them. Korean students shouldn't be the lab rats for Western teacher wannabes. (I don't mean to be overly cynical or rude to younger teachers, but using another culture's student population as a tool to explore your options back home is unethical to say the least. It's something a teacher wouldn't do.)

The second thing I have learned is how to see the classroom as my students do: a boring, uninspired series of lessons about how to properly answer multiple choice questions based on reading, listening and thinking about ideas in English. Korean English teachers handle this aspect of the job. It's a teacher-stands-in-front-of-the-class-and-tells-you-what-things-mean kind of situation. And Korean students are often much more accepting of receiving such lessons from a Korean than a foreigner. Korean education culture mandates this approach as necessary to teach the students how to prepare for their standardized tests. The advanced students take notes and passively listen and the students who are slightly behind sleep or daydream. The issue for me, as an NSET, is a matter of role: What is my role in the Korean high school classroom?

I've decided my role is to be the one consistent English-speaking presence necessary to acclimate students to the sounds and logic of the English language. By using English with them, I'm performing what it sounds like, how it acts, what it means, and when to use it. In addition, I am what it looks like. This role is in opposition to how most foreign teachers work. This is not to say that they aren't well-meaning teachers with strong lessons. But who are they kidding? I have seen videos of lessons about idioms that drive students mad with laughter. But a PowerPoint presentation with videos and an active classroom is still a lesson about an idiom that relies on a stupid comparison between Konglish and English usage of English language words. It's simply not teaching language. It's teaching jokes. At best, it could be referred to as "reaching an understanding" about a routine. And, in many cases, a teacher risks reinforcing bad habits and lazy routines.

Many NSETs attempt to improve on the Korean English teacher's work and talk about teaching as a competition between co-teachers. At times, they wish to correct the mistakes and to encourage more contemporary usage. Many of the lessons online are based on improving the language the students already know. I think this approach almost gets it right but the flaw is in the pedagogy. NSETs like to be The Expert English Person on Campus. They like to own the language. They complain about the mistakes Koreans permit in their lessons and textbooks. They like to correct cultural errors. They like to transmit Western cultural lessons via language lessons. And as a result of playing the leader, they often find themselves very much an outsider in their schools. They become English Language Informers--the tool in their schools to illustrate who knows English well and who doesn't: somebody who is approached only when the locals can't answer a language question without an expert's help. I want nothing to do with this role. It's a means to alienate myself from my students. In addition, I may be an English teacher, but I do not own the language.

All NSETs should meditate on this mantra: I know I am not in Korea to change Korea.

On the other hand, I love Korea. So, why is it not enough for me to simply be myself using the language and being a teacher being myself using the language? It really does boil down to being a teacher or being like a teacher. Am I teaching or teachering?

I do everything I can to work with students on improving classroom discourse to permit as much student participation as possible yet insist that we maintain a useful direction. After all, we must succeed at focused study with a purpose. In my classrooms, even when I'm evaluating the students, I try to encourage them to use the language they have already learned in order to practice it and become more familiar with it. I insist they attempt to speak in coherent sentences when possible.

You may think I have set the bar rather low. I'd disagree. I have renovated the English classroom. Once a week the students feel at ease when an English teacher walks into the room. At ease because I am the Native Speaker, not in spite of it. (Although my co-teachers often feel alienated in my classroom. Yet again, for another post.) This serves an important purpose. I'm the guy you can speak your lousy English with because I'm patient and kind and want you to succeed. I'm not here to inform you that you're incorrect. Quite the opposite, I'm the one who will tell you, "I understand." I'm not concerned with your ranking nor your grade. I'll insist you use English, but I'll support your attempt. In addition, I'll not cater to you nor insult your intelligence. I'm the teacher who knows you know the answer but can't figure out how to say it. We'll figure out a way to say it together. Consequently, I'm the teacher who will insist that English is only possible in conversation with others no matter how much the government and anal Westerners insist it's about correctness.

I'll give you an example. This month we're working on illustrating six themes from the film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. While some of my students are preparing to find jobs and begin a life of hard work, many students are working towards University life. So, it's important that they begin thinking critically about ideas they encounter in texts. They need to be able to generate reasonable statements about those ideas. They need to know how to use examples from texts to support their statements. And they need to improve their English speaking skills.

I don't have enough time with them to work on reading and discussing texts. I do have time to screen films. We watch a film; I hand out vocabulary. We discuss the language in the film and homework is to familiarize themselves with words and phrases that are new to them. I encourage them to use dictionaries but require their answers in class be in their own words. They aren't permitted to speak in dictionary-ese. The following week, groups have to stand and answer questions about the new words and phrases. We spend one week writing sentences about the meaning of familiar words from the narrative. I assign homework to group leaders who must organize their groups and get them to present a discussion about one of six themes. In their presentations the following week, they must use the language from our earlier vocabulary work. Again, I assign homework asking the students to draw an illustration of their group work about a theme. Their illustration must contain a slogan that captures the spirit of their chosen theme. I sneak a little practice on writing a summary into an art project. The following week, group leaders present their work and the class evaluates the presentations.

It sounds like difficult work, doesn't it? It is and it isn't. These are smart lessons that permit duplication. In other words, in any given school year, I can help the students develop comfort with new vocabulary and English language culture using a format that entertains them. The material in each lesson is new, yet it recalls prior work. The students can become comfortable with my teaching style and a classroom routine without me having to give up the complexity I think is necessary to actually promote learning. I have a lesson ideal and a general direction that maintains a focused and accurate purpose.

The most time-consuming part of the preparation is putting students into groups because I make sure the groups contain high-performers and low-performers, students who both know and don't know English. The students teach one another by listening to their group members discuss how to complete the work and other groups present their work. They become the experts. Students learn who to trust and ask one another for help. I encourage the groups to routinely give others the answers. I encourage students who know the answer that a person standing doesn't know to share the answer. Students know there is nothing wrong with hearing an answer and then repeating it. Of course, they must learn to hear the most correct answer. As a result, I have discovered a way to permit a noisy classroom.

It's much more complex and demanding than anything they're accustomed to as students of English, yet they enjoy it. The difference is that we work in groups and share our results and discuss our problems understanding the meaning of the English language in both Korean and English. The classroom becomes less about the assignment and a teacher's evaluation than it does about the discourse needed to address the questions at issue within each stage of the assignment. Moreover, the students are involved with evaluating their performance as the final lesson requires classes to discuss group performance.

Ultimately, I'm satisfied because this is a practice I'd use with Seoul's most privileged students. It's not something developed with my students in mind; it's something that works regardless of social class. The lessons permit useful participation from all kinds of students, and their participation is required to be in concert with their classmates' work. I'm engaging with them on what can be thought of as their terms. In other words, I'm not reinforcing the stupid ranking system where the best and brightest are rewarded as they shame their classmates who haven't scored as high on their tests. (This is a problem in US classrooms, too, where teachers use the smart kids to motivate the kids who aren't doing as well. It's demeaning. As far as I'm concerned, it's a kind of training for corporate life that should be banned from the classroom.)

I've been using a word lately to distinguish between useful and useless teaching practices. Teaching is always useful teaching. Teachering is when what you do in the classroom fulfills your obligations but does not necessarily have anything to do with your students. Teachering is always useless.

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

잔소리 (jansori): Scolding, Nagging, Grumbling

This morning the girls in my first class were more interested in applying make-up and chatting than they were in forming their assigned groups and beginning work. They simply ignored me for the first five minutes of class. They looked at me while chatting, or with one eye still in a mirror. The disobedience was supposed to be a cute challenge to my authority. We had a lot of work to accomplish today, so I was not pleased. I returned their challenge with some rare anger.

Something about the way the girls ignore the teachers is much more of a power play than the way the boys do it. In fact, the boys aren't necessarily ignoring their teachers. They are playing and are always ready for their teacher to join the fun. It's hard to get them to settle down. In my opinion, scolding is useless in these situations. I'm not talking about a sexist "boys will be boys" moment. The girls can be energetic and playful, too, but there is something in the Korean high school classroom that the girls do to invite a particular kind of interjection into their social scene that the boys do not require.

This morning, the girls were evaluating how far they could go without getting in trouble in a way the boys wouldn't experiment with me. In fact, the boys expect to be scolded. (One reason I don't do it when they misbehave: not scolding them confuses them.) The girls will misbehave until they are scolded and then return the scold with practiced contempt. I say practiced in the sense of rehearsed: several minutes after I scold while they regard me with contempt, we are back to full cooperation and an active, well-functioning classroom. If I was to do this with the boys, they'd quit and be silently sad that their teacher is actually mad at them. Maybe it's a maturity thing? I haven't quite figured it out.

Today, I scolded the girls for five minutes. I've been practicing. A good scolding has to have a good pace and consistent tone. There should be well-placed pauses that last from a few seconds to a minute and a half. It can be slightly insulting but never rude. It must put the listener in his or her place yet requires an attempt to illustrate Care. It must require a response, even if only a nod or affected sob or sigh. Some teachers scold students and it sounds rehearsed and fake; good scoldings are sincere and represent a style unique to the scolder.

At school: when I interject, the girls always respond. Today's response: scowls, frowns, open-mouthed disbelief, sighs, slumped shoulders. Some girls nodded their heads, which was a sign that they understood I acted appropriately and at the right time. They were participating in it. Therefore, I can tell you they were scolded. I didn't nag them. I didn't grumble.

Jansori was the first thing I noticed after my arrival in Seoul. I had never heard of the word nor encountered discussion about Korean rhetoric. I got off the plane at Incheon Int'l on a Monday morning and was driven to my school. I was teaching less than two hours after arriving. And though I understood nothing, I was asking about jansori on my second day.

I didn't know the word for it; I didn't know what was being said. I had no context. All I had was a sense that there was some sort of rhetoric being used by the teachers and students that was different than regular discussion. I really did have to ask, What is that?

Jansori is a complex rhetorical system that often gets oversimplified by bloggers, tourists and expats. They (and Koreans) have a stock English language answer. Jansori is nagging. What's worse is the responsibility for the transmission of jansori is given to older Korean women with the ridiculous Konglish phrase, "mother's nag". Jansori is nagging, but it's so much more. And though mothers famously implement it, everybody in Korea participates.

The following are my notes on jansori (so far and minus some notes on scolding because I discuss it above):
Scolding is not nagging. Nagging is not grumbling. Although nagging and grumbling are useful when scolding. Jansori is scolding, nagging, and grumbling.

Nagging is both intentional and unintentional, and it may not serve a purpose other than to relieve anxiety. Scolding has a purpose, a direction; scolding is precise and accurate. Though nagging may be inaccurate and imprecise, it must have a subject and an object. Scolding can be desired and necessary, and so the right to scold can be abused. Nagging tends to be passive-aggressive. Nagging is always abuse.

There is grumbling, too. Grumbling need not be specific and needs neither subject nor object. Somebody might be grumbling near you at a bus stop. Grumbling is grumbled around and about not always at, to or for. Grumbling is small-talk jansori. It can be cute. It's often funny. However, it can be incredibly sad to see somebody alone and grumbling. Especially if you can understand the grumble. Grumbling may endear you to an older friend, stranger or colleague. Grumbling needs no language. A person can grumble with his eyes, eyebrows; her lips curled into a half-grin or quarter-scowl. Grumblers click their tongues, sometimes rudely spit. Grumbling has direction whether or not it's comprehensive or easily received. Grumblers displace and project. In other words, the grumbling might be directed at you even though you did nothing to receive it. This further distinguishes grumbling from nagging.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

In Media Res: Neither for nor against, forever with my students.

On teaching to the middle: I entered my first class this morning with no expectations, demands, concerns, or anxieties regarding the beginning of 150 minutes ( three weeks) of exercises designed to help my students acquire commonly used English regarding "hard work" and "feelings about belonging". Even though the next three weeks include the language work Korean students least enjoy, I'm confident about my lesson plans and tend to enter class ready to find a means to solve one problem: How do I reach the students with the least English knowledge yet encourage the advanced students to learn something new about English they already know?

Some teachers like to talk about teaching to the middle. I abhor the practice. I believe it's an important aspect of anti-intellectualism in the classroom. It resists conflict and complexity in most discourse and does much to insist that the teacher is the sole guide to classroom discourse, which could be called The Status Quo. I only mention this because Arne Duncan's and President Obama's educational policies are on my mind. Maybe I'll write more about this later.

I like to encourage group work in my Korean classes for two reasons. First, when Korean students do not know an answer and/or are confronted with a difficult series of complex tasks, they may decide to quit participating in class and will sleep if permitted. They simply give up. Second, critical thinking is not required in Korean classrooms where following directions and repeating correct answers is more highly valued. I've had to come to terms with my desire to make every thing and space look like me and admit that my job as a Native Speaking English Teacher is not to criticize Korean education culture, which foreigners often purposefully choose to ignore is a public education system with a complex pedagogy developed over many centuries. On the other hand, I am not required to give up my principles and practice simply because I am a guest from a different culture.

Creating groups that contain high, middle and low performing students and designing lessons that focus on specific skills that students should already possess is one very reliable method to insist that critical thinking skills remain a necessary part of my classroom work. I'll discuss my current assignment in the next post.

Monday Class & The Big Picture: My first Monday class is with second grade boys who are at an intermediate level. It's hard to accurately judge my students' English knowledge: they're purposefully reserved when they participate in class and, as a result of study methods, they often know many more words than they can use. It's easy to say they are low-performing when they have more knowledge or high-performing when they have little knowledge. There are maybe ten students in each class who are behind, yet the majority of the class can understand about 80% of what I say to them without needing an explanation from their Korean co-teacher.

My task is to find a way to activate the knowledge students already possess in order to encourage them to acquire new knowledge. I talk to my Korean co-teachers about language acquisition all the time. Korean students are inundated with English everyday yet encouraged to keep it at a distance via signs, fliers, TV, Internet, radio, classroom, homework, and hagwon. English is always something they are in the process of learning and it's implementation involves an objective ranking based on an exam or a promotion or some other opportunity to succeed. Therefore, English remains technical and foreign, always institutionalized and never satisfyingly realized. They're mostly overwhelmed with English, and oppressed by it. I refuse to implement strategies in my classroom that might reinforce this unfortunate, mindless and alienating process.

There are few opportunities for students to daily work on understanding the language in lieu of memorizing meaning. I use my weekly 50-minutes with them to encourage acquiring skills necessary to recall and recognize English they already know to address things using English they may not yet completely understand. It's like I'm teaching them how to construct a complex puzzle. They hold all the pieces in a semi-transparent bag that permits them to see and feel the shape of the pieces yet mostly obscures the images. They have an idea what I'm talking about but nothing approaching clarity.

I'm teaching them to put the puzzle together by teaching them to (fore)see what the final image should look like when the puzzle is complete. I describe the image and not the process of putting it together. They can remove pieces from the bag but are prohibited from putting them back. The pieces accumulate much quicker than an accurate and useful image is constructed. It's a difficult task that requires trial and error because many of the pieces look the same yet have easy to miss differences. No two pieces are alike yet some of them can be used interchangeably.

The key to solving the puzzle is learning to understand how the pieces fit together, understanding how they feel, as much as understanding the bigger picture. Some days it feels wrong and the overall composition of our classes deteriorates and the students can forget what they know for the difficulty in seeing the bigger picture. They don't have a picture of the completed puzzle; they have me. Because of this, I fear abusing their faith in me.

The problem with everyday language: In an attempt to permit them access to what they need in my classroom, I resist using convention to teach. I insist on working together to approach speaking English in everyday situations without insisting that English belong to me. For example, it's easy for Native Speaking English Teachers to teach idioms to their students. It's easy to entertain younger and older students with fun discussions and presentations about common and uncommon idiomatic expressions in English. I wouldn't mind if my students were advanced English speakers learning to fine tune their usage, but my students don't understand what makes the words used in common expressions work they way they do in English sentences. I'm not doing them any favors by skipping the basics in order to make them smile. In addition, teaching idioms is easy work and the first crutch for a lazy foreign teacher.

The longer I teach here, the more I understand why so many people either love or hate their English teachers. The love for teachers always comes from students who learn from energized instructors who attempt to communicate something more than English and its rules in an orderly and entertaining manner. The hate, often a mixture of contempt and frustration, is a reaction to teachers who resort to implementing methods of discipline and punishment through boring lessons that reaffirm the teachers are the masters of English rather than help students find a means to better use English.

I can predict your success as a teacher in Korea in one step: you will not become a better teacher and will not help Koreans speak better English if you teach them to speak and use English the way you use it. I have had to figure out a way to approach teaching my language that permits me to see it as something I need to learn more about. Once again, I insist that we resist finding ourselves in the language doing what we've learned is correct in order to see our students using the language as they will want or need to apply it. Then we should see ourselves in discourse with those students using English. The difference here is that our common perceptions we take for granted in everyday English are no longer there. Rather than teach the accepted cultural conventions for those perceptions to be held in common, we should focus on teaching the English language.

A wonderful moment: I was frustrated this morning when I asked students to get into their assigned groups and quickly discovered that they were not doing the work I had assigned them. They appeared to be working but were actually playing. As I encouraged them, they further ignored me. The students want to please me; sometimes they'll tell me everything I want to hear while doing nothing much at all. It can be infuriating because of the language difference. They address me in English and return to their other Korean conversations. They do this even though I'm studying Korean. They know I can understand them. It's a power trip: at moments like these, I can either compete with them or I can permit the refusal to cooperate until I find an opportunity to steer the class in a more productive manner. Anyway, the students used enough English this morning to move me on to the next group and, once I was out of earshot, they returned to gambling, playing, telling stories, and grooming each other.

I tend to let students help me guide classes. If they take us off course with good reason and we are actually learning something, I let them take control. American students tend to understand this liberty and will take advantage of it: class leaders will step up, understanding their classmates' desires and interests sometimes better than the teacher. They'll take the class into more engaging territory. Sometimes the students you'd least expect to see leading in the classroom take the opportunity to make a point or move classroom discourse somewhere more engaging. It's very empowering for them; it builds trust; it activates critical thinking. A well-prepared teacher can move with the students steering the class discourse to maintain focus on lesson objectives.

Korean students lack the training to create focused critical discourse in their classrooms. This morning my students reminded me of this. More importantly, they did not want to do any work whatsoever. I would have had trouble getting them to focus on an entertaining language game. Anyway, I scolded the boys and they apologized. I assigned them the classwork as homework and we covered two problems together.

While we worked together, I noticed something new. They trust me. I don't know when this happened. After all, I've only been here two years. My reputation as a good teacher, both in the school and community, is a new thing. When I first arrived, I was popular with the kids. I play soccer; I know music; I'm fashionable; I like Korea and the language; I know a little Korean history; I'm not a know-it-all foreigner; etc. My "kind eyes" and style went a long way to promote a welcome spirit. It wasn't hard for the students to like me.

I worried about it, of course. If they hate you, you can't last here. And when the students rebel against a foreign teacher, it's not pretty. There are many horror stories of teachers ruthlessly chased from Korea. It feeds the cynical blog and ESL site culture where critics like to troll. Anyway, my students liked me just fine, yet I didn't have their respect. My co-teachers were in control; I was tolerated. And, I admit it: it hurt my feelings.

This morning after I scolded my students, they quieted down and did the work with me. They actively participated. They smiled at me. They encouraged me. They were trust-ing me. I was touched. It's a rare moment worth sharing: my commitment to my pedagogy and consistent effort in practice was quietly rewarded with public regard not for the work but in spite of it in order to appreciate my effort as a teacher. I don't know if I can tell you how good I feel right now. (Yet, I'm editing this paragraph several hours after writing it and letting you know that this feeling was fleeting. Today was been a very difficult first day of a week that will be filled with frustrated students trying very hard to understand a difficult assignment. See next paragraph.)

The current three-week assignment I have developed is difficult. It requires a lot of classroom work from teachers and students. Though I love an opportunity to teach challenging material, it's not as if I'm looking forward to the inevitable frustrations that accompany attempting to take this job seriously. I think my students get this about me. I was very frustrated and their care transformed that frustration and a poorly functioning classroom into something that works.

The power a student has in difficult classroom situations is the power to (not) cooperate. I believe it's not a bad student who refuses to cooperate. I believe to refuse is an important liberty. Furthermore, my students seem to know that I'd permit their refusal.

Often when my classrooms get unruly, I'll step away from the center of things and silently stand in a corner. I'll patiently wait. In the US, these moments don't last too long. On the other hand, I've stood for two or three excruciating minutes in Korea: stood waiting for the students to be quiet and look my way. All of them. They eventually figure it out. Here, the recognition is often followed with nervous laughter. "What's he doing?" is often asked in Korean. I don't have to tell them they're upsetting me; they decide to participate. Anger is never an issue. Control? Well, you could say "Gary is always in control of his classroom" as my evaluators do say. Actually, I'm waiting my turn to participate. When I get my turn, I make it count. In the worst cases, a class leader will assert authority and invite me back into the class. When I continue, I don't have to raise my voice.

This is not a silly mind game. It's not about power. It's about wanting to talk with students about their work. After all, we both have important roles to fill within the classroom community. It's good that students understand what my role is by discovering that I actually do have one. The younger the students, the easier it is for them to forget. But I spent my first 8 years lecturing in the College and University classroom. I can tell you that they're as bad as the 15 year olds on many days.

Korean language: Tonight, I'm beginning my next class at Seoul National University. Looking forward to it.

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Monday, May 31, 2010

Why do I care about "these issues"?

An anonymous commenter wants to know why I care about "these issues." I guess the commenter thinks I am pretending. At any rate, he posted several times. The same question.

I suppose I take the time to write about "these issues" because I'm engaged with Korean culture and history. I'm learning the language. I have a passion for it. And I tend to study and write about the things I love. But you know this about me already. Don't get me and my motives confused with your messy life and its uncertain future.

Let me try something. My intentions are absolutely unlike my persistent stalking lurker's, who has an unfortunate obsession with sex, finding it easier to take aggressively flirt with women here than at home. If you strike out in the social scene here, you can walk down the street and pay for it. (What is it about straight white guys that they can't see bigotry and oppression in their prurient obsessions with Asian women? They're so geeky, liberal, post-modern, post-colonial until it comes to sex.)

I'm not guessing, am I? No, I'm not. After all, you're really not at all that anonymous, are you? You are aggressive, petty, mean, insincere, and the more I consider it, racist. But the latter might just be a pose you've adopted to try to engage me with your anon comments. I doubt it, but I'm still willing to give you the chance to change my opinion. I hope you're just an obsessed and self-loathing prick and not a racist as well.

Look, you've finally engaged me. But I won't publish your latest comment. And I've disabled anonymous commenting. I won't approve your future comments without a real ID attached. What's the point? After all, I think you should stop all of your creepy lurking and come out in public to debate the issues.

I'm more than happy to debate anything, if you're able to put your name to it.

Anyway, to honestly answer your question. I'll tell you one reason why I love writing about "these issues" online. It's hard to do all of this studying and not have some outlet for it. Most of my foreign friends are in Korea to teach and stay away from home for awhile while working. Many try to learn a little here and there about Korea. It's hard to: after all, we're all working hard while under contract.

As an American, I believe I have a duty to learn about the peninsula, its people, its language, and do what I can to live a thoughtful life that addresses my desire for social justice while I am in Korea. The United States, as you know, is so entwined with the Republic of Korea and yet the overwhelming majority of Americans know fuck all about what Korea is about. And from what I can tell, most don't ever intend to learn. It's not necessarily meant in a bad way;nevertheless, it's a fact.

So, I write about what I'm learning and try to encourage discussion. I also read many of the more thoughtful and thorough blogs by Koreans (written in English) and foreigners in Korea. I just want to be part of the wider and developing discourse. I want to learn from my contemporaries as well as from the books and texts I read online. I do consider Korea my home. I feel like I'm accepted as a guest by everyone I meet. Ultimately, why not participate in the culture?

All that good will and good intentions aside, I have to admit that I get the biggest kick out of how many white boys can't handle it. It's the race traitor in me, to be sure. White men can get annoyed when you write about race and culture. And I am happy to be a part of the cultural discourse that continues to purposefully annoy them.

I'd hope you'd be in the former group, actively engaging in useful discourse about Korea. However, I'm more than willing to accept you into membership of the latter group of cretins who everyday are becoming less relevant in a world aggressively becoming less interested in the cultural politics of decaying Empires.

I forgot to post the question. I already deleted it, so in fairness I should say this isn't a cut and paste quotation, but from my memory: "Gary, are you pretending to care about these issues [to impress your girlfriend]."

You see, I am marrying a woman who isn't white. And because I'm doing that, I'm not permitted to critique white masculinity in Korea. And I will get similar, if not more intense, treatment back in the United States. I guess because I'm guilty of marrying a non-white woman. Apparently, if I were to marry a white woman, I would be permitted to freely criticize whomever I choose. I guess marrying into, in my case, Korean culture is cheating and is not permitted.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reading Notes

I'm reading Michael Breen's The Koreans: Who They are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies (Thomas Dunne Books, 1998. Revised, 2004.)

The book is sold as "[a] splendid work of explication and analysis" for and about Korea and Koreans. If I were Korean, I'd hate these books.

Maybe it's an easy critique to make, but Breen's writing is one moment fair and the next paternalistic, patronizing. He's aware of this and the book, so far, has several sentences sprinkling his intent not to be that way. When a writer has to tell his readers what he's not intending to do, then he needs to reconsider focus, direction, or genre. To be fair, much important work in writing represents an author's failure to accomplish his or her intent.

I don't mind anecdote and memoir, nor do I mind the critical analysis that often accompanies firsthand accounts of other cultures. Breen's observations are not trite. They are complex and careful, though often digressive.

As a reader, I do mind when interesting and anecdotal travel writing poses as vital cultural discourse and attempts to sell an author's illustration and caricaturization of an entire culture to his readers as authoritative vis-a-vis the author's own culture's view of the world and the subjects in his work. Breen is offered expert status on Korea and Koreans because he's an expat journalist who has extensively covered Korean business and politics. I'll write more about this in the coming days, but I can't shake this: when a foreign business and politics journalist claims he knows about the everyday lives of everyday Koreans, he's completely full of shit and gravitas.

It's not that foreigners shouldn't write Chapters on Korea, as Breen does, entitled "Korean Heart". Do share with your Western readers what you've decided is so complex about Korean passions and intellect: how, even though you admit you can't understand it, you have something valuable to say about it. Nothing at all wrong with the attempt. What's improper is the uncritical acceptance and implementation of a mindless binary about Western and Eastern consciousness that itself is based upon a complex series of mutual misrepresentations and generalizations about several cultures. It's as if the binary opposition is in itself an excuse for painting not one but all cultures with broad brush strokes for the purpose of making some rather simple points about other people appear poignant and complex.

Sounds like I am really having a go at Breen, doesn't it? I don't know about that. I'm dissatisfied with the state of intellectual discourse in books about Korea. I think he's a talented writer. It's clear he cares about Korea. I suppose I don't know what to do with his book. I guess I find it intellectually lazy. I'm reviewing it right now and yanking passages to illustrate my points. So, more to come shortly.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rained Out.

It's been raining for several days now.
My students experience weather depression.
Seoul Sunless Mood Disorder. SSMD.

I've always liked cool gray days, lightly
humid, dripping nights, windows open
listening to aimless water dropping on the sill.
Strolling along. Dwelling.

When Late Spring rains in Seoul, the classrooms go dank:
sweat-dampened clothes, unclean bodies.
Crotch. Ass. I'd take feet.
Too-long left unwashed uniforms: gray pants,
plaid or blue skirts. Stinking tights. Socks.
Damp slipper Vans.

"Look at me enjoying something
that feels like, feels like pain
to my brain."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Where you should be this Saturday

I have been focused on language study for the past several weeks. My Seoul National University class was a lot of fun. My next class begins in two weeks. I'm looking forward to it. I'm going to get back to posting here several times a week. Sorry for being absent.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Testing Period at High School

I haven't been posting for two weeks because I have been testing 700 students. I have met with all but 160 of my high school students and tested their conversation skills.

I am tired, but strangely elated and energetic: the kind of flighty feeling you get when you're hungry and tired. Giddy, I guess.

I have much to write about over the next couple of weeks. Keep in touch and don't drift away.
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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Scooters: Riding in Seoul

I've got an hour free from the kids late this morning. It's nice because I am at the beginning of a two-week conversation exam. 2100 minutes of conversation for points! I get to speak with each of my 700 or so students for three minutes: introductions, favorites, memories, personalities. It's difficult for me because of the mind-numbing repetition. It's horrible for the kids because they are acutely aware of their below-expectations conversation skills. I hate that about school here. The students are really ground in to the locale. I'm working hard to make the three minutes as entertaining as possible; I'm only 85 students into the 700-deep kid pool and very tired indeed. In fact, soaked.

During my break. I thought I'd write a little about Spring scooting in Seoul. It's worth thinking about riding safety this month because we had a rather atypical winter. It was very wet and very cold. And winter sucks the humidity right out of Seoul. So, it's dry, too. This is not good for the scooters and the roads.

First, I think it's a good idea to get your scooter tuned after each winter. (Even better, tune it yourself.) On the newer scooters, it might not be necessary for you to change your oil. However, it's worth it to get the brakes checked and get somebody to physically inspect the bike. Also have the variator, its bearings and belt examined.

It's obvious that Seoul bureaucrats didn't anticipate a rough winter because many streets had been newly paved with soft, black asphalt in November just before the first chill and snow. This means a two to three inch layer of asphalt was laid on top of already existing streets and never had time to fully set before the rigors of winter and traffic. Many places in my district, the city didn't bother to demolish the decaying older layer of concrete and asphalt and the roads are now a mess. But we should expect to see problems even in the areas that were torn up to prepare for a new street.

Because of the unseasonable weather, we have streets with soft, crumbling pockets of asphalt in heavily traveled lanes and rightmost bus lanes. In addition, we have very dangerous potholes. Because many new manholes have been created on side streets, you will want to look out for manholes sticking out and above the street. You won't want to be running into those.

I want to address the potholes because they are, in fact, the most difficult road hazard to see. When scooting on an asphalt or concrete road with little traffic, an attentive rider will have little trouble spotting holes. Seoul's traffic makes this cautious, predictive riding difficult. As a result, we have to assume that we will encounter potholes while riding, even if we can't see them. My advice is to ride in the middle lane of traffic whenever you're riding in an area of town you're unfamiliar with.

Most major streets in Seoul have three accessible lanes of traffic. There are typically four lanes, but one is often for the buses or clogged with parked taxis. My advice is to ride in the center lane because the rightmost lanes are always the most heavily traveled and are likely to have the most potholes as a result. The most dangerous potholes will appear in two places in the right lanes: where the driving surface meets the concrete foundation for the curb and to the right of the painted lane divisions where the left tires of most vehicles travel.

The safest place to scoot is in the middle of the middle lane of traffic. Never mind the potholes, it's simply safer than the left or right lanes. While you're learning to ride and learning to ride in Seoul, I think it's a good idea to resist cruising in the right hand lanes. Seoul drivers love to make right hand turns from the middle lanes. They do this because they're impatient and lost, but also because the taxis usually clog the right hand lanes and often pull over to pick up or drop off passengers without any notice. Scooting in the right hand lane, therefore, takes some skill and nerve. If you make a habit of it, you will need to learn how to be cut-off and pinched from your lane without stopping and falling off your scooter or, more likely, causing every driver behind you and to your left to have to quickly stop while you do.

The left lane is also a difficult proposition because Seoul drivers, and especially taxi and bus drivers, love to jockey between lanes without reason and without signaling. I have begun referring to this as "lane protecting". The drivers like to protect a comfortable area in a lane or potential lane. I used to think they were jockeying just to travel faster. After six months of scooting, I have learned that drivers know they are getting nowhere fast. The lane jockeying is often an aggressive (and sometimes violent) reaction to the clogged traffic conditions. Anyway, many will signal but just as they pull into their new lanes.

Lane-jockeying might be the most dangerous habit drivers develop on Seoul streets. It's such a terrible itch for some that they will drive with a quarter of their car occupying the left lane and the rest in the right. And if you try to pass them, they will knee-jerk their car in front of you.

Seoul road conditions make scooting here dangerous and something for the aggressive driver. Seoul is not the place for leisurely scooting: it's dirty, aggressive labor. It's a blast, too, don't get me wrong. Just don't buy a scooter thinking you'll be loving leisurely scoots along the river or through Hongdae or to Itaewon. These are three of the most traffic-bound areas in Seoul and, consequently, the most dangerous places to ride.

Back to lane tactics: I find myself accelerating out of bad situations much more often than decelerating and playing defense. This is necessary because the drivers are often completely unaware of your presence. Be warned: Seoul drivers only use their mirrors to park. When a driver makes a move and cuts you off, you may not be able to slow down because of the tailgating traffic behind you and that may cause you to get pinched in between cars. If that happens you'll likely be bumped into, scared, and scratch the other cars as well as your scooter. And the drivers will likely pretend nothing happened or you'll have an old guy follow you and insist you give him money. If you think I'm exaggerating, take a moment to examine the condition of cars in Seoul (if you haven't already). There are not many that lack physical evidence of minor accidents and collisions. If you get bumped in heavy traffic, you'll likely only receive an ugly stare. To the point, if somebody begins to move into your lane, it's often safer to quickly accelerate (as you can on a good scooter) and travel the 15 feet to get in front of the dangerous idiot cutting you off.

A side note: taxi drivers are often the most aggressive drivers. This is good for us because we can easily see them. And if you keep their driving habits in mind, you'll be the safer for it. On Lane-splitting: If you like to travel between lanes in slow traffic like many scooterists do here, you must keep an eye on the taxis. Many ajeossi will see you coming and turn into the lane you've split to cut off your access to pass. It's a dick move, but they'll do it. (And so will the bus drivers, but asshole bus drivers are for another post. Safe to say, watch out for them. They will run you off the road on purpose.) If you're traveling slow enough, you can simply turn behind the taxi and pass on his right with comfortable room. If you're zooming along at an unsafe speed for lane-splitting, you'll end up stopped near the driver's window and only to be ignored by the man who just got a huge kick out of encumbering your progress.

In addition, taxi drivers are not afraid of moving into a lane you occupy to accelerate beyond slower traffic. They will use the part of the lane you aren't driving in to just make it past a car traveling the speed limit in front of them. Yes, it's dangerous. No, it does absolutely no good to get upset about it. You must be prepared for these kinds of aggressive driving tactics. When they happen to you, you cannot get so frightened you lose control of yourself. Take a breath, don't change your speed, loosen your grip on the accelerator, and swear up a storm. I end up with a taxi driving two inches from my knee at least once each time a drive in traffic. You will get used to it.

  1. If you aren't traveling at full speed, you can often quickly accelerate out of a troubling situation by traveling a mere ten to twenty feet forward and finding/creating new space to ride in.
  2. Never tailgate. Never Never Never. You will end up on the trunk of a car.
  3. You can stop more quickly than you think possible. If you need to stop quickly, don't throw yourself of your scooter. I've seen it happen.
  4. Ride in a lane that will permit you to see as much of the road ahead of you as possible. Good scooterists are able to see the road ahead and reliably forecast what will happen. In addition, you need to see the road in front of you to check for litter, industrial waste, sand, and potholes.
  5. The lane paint in Korea is much more slippery when wet than anything I encountered in the US. I don't know why but it's like ice. It's often slippery when visibly dry. You will lose control if you ride on the lane paint. It's only a matter of when. Stay off of it.

OK, students are returning to continue testing. I'll have more scooter info this week. And some photos and videos to come.

I've met a store owner who wants to sell scooters to foreigners, but he recently changed his phone number. I'll track him down shortly. He treated me fairly, and I think he believes he can create a little business by cultivating a good reputation with knowledgeable foreigners. Of course, before buying a scooter you should know what you want and the kind of bike you want. Otherwise, somebody will take advantage of you and sell you something you don't know anything about. It'll be your fault if things don't work out. If you need help, I have time to help. Ask me a question or two.

You can easily find info about scooters on the Internet. Just a search in Google images can help you discover what you like and help you learn names. My advice is to discover the scooters in our market. They have different names here than in Europe and the US. A quick primer: stay away from Chinese scoots; they need a lot of repair. Japanese scooters will be your best bet because many Korean brands are actually Chinese bikes. Some Taiwanese brands are good, too.

It's not worth it to unload $5,000-7,000 on a nice Vespa because you want to look cute or be hip. And if you don't know vintage scooters, stay away from the Genuine Stella or older Vespas. There are a couple of shops selling vintage and vintage-style scooters here; it's a shitty thing to do to a foreigner who knows nothing about scooters, lives in an officetel, has no garage, can't speak the language, and can't work on her or his own bike. Parts and service for old bikes and vintage-style two strokes are hard to come by in Seoul. There's only two or three trustworthy shops and they will be expensive due to their exclusivity. In addition, if you're like me and would like to work on an old bike, parts must be ordered online and garage space is difficult to come by. Anyway, your cool vintage bike will eventually break and if you know nothing about it, you'll be very pissed with how hard it is to insure its proper repair. And you'll likely be stranded on the side of the road crying about it all as your illusion of hipness evaporates into the Seoul summer heat.

In addition, your bike will get dirty and scratched and you can't do anything about it. Buying a fancy shining luxury item in Seoul is ok if you don't mind it losing half its value immediately and you don't mind the prospect of not finding somebody to buy it when you leave in a couple of years. Who would want to spend that kind of money on a used scooter?

Anyway, stay in touch scooter fans and don't be afraid to ask questions. If you've been waiting for me to respond recently, I have been sick and so busy at work and language school and with family. I apologize. Do get in touch with me now via the site or email. We'll talk. Let's get you a scooter. It's a real kick and the best way to learn about this city.

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Friday, April 2, 2010


I have a music blog. Check it out. New posts on Korean music and other stuff as well.

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