Monday, October 26, 2009



A word on confidentiality: being a writer and keeping good confidences are goals that are not entirely incompatible, but which are very difficult to reconcile. Take, for example, my final days in Germany, which happen to coincide with the beginning signs of neglect of this blog. I was working at a start-up restaurant in Munich, and watching it gradually fail. There was no shortage of stories during that period, but I didn't write them. On a different front, I now work for an English hagwon, and while it is far from failing, there is no shortage of stories to tell...but I don't. I don't because it's important not to betray confidences, but, as a writer, good story-telling involves not shrinking away from the truth, and this may have some little to do with why I don't just churn out work the way I used to. I have to think, sometimes deeply, about what I'm going to say, and I often find that central parts of the story must be left out for reasons of confidentiality. Similar thing this last weekend: I actually flew back to the US for a total of two days to interview for Teach For America, and while the trip and the interview process were fascinating, there's a lot I need to keep out of the story. Suffice to say, as with the CELTA earlier this year, regardless of the outcome, the process was enlightening. I feel I did my best, and made a lot of decisions that should make me an attractive candidate, but I've read too many blogs in which people talked about the process, felt certain they did well, then later updated the blog to report that they'd not been selected. Fact is, I've been thinking a lot about my responses during the interview, and I can think of fifteen reasons why I think I did well, and another fifteen reasons why they'll eventually say no. Most of those reasons, on both sides, probably have to do with styles of leadership. At the end of the process, I simply do not know enough about TFA's preferred style of leadership to even begin to guess as to how they'll ultimately decide. I'll know on November 10th, though, and that's not terribly long to wait.

As to the trip: if the travel arrangements themselves were used as a measure of how well I did in the interview, I should come out great--things couldn't have gone more to plan than they did: all flights on time, all luggage accounted for, all connections made, everything. Plus some extras: on the way to LA, was seated beside an elderly couple who struck up conversation largely because they needed a hand now and again, and I was courteous in giving them one. Turns out, the man is 84 years old, holds a PhD in mechanical engineering, and was born in Shanghai. Think about that. He was born in Shanghai in 1925. Actually moved to Taiwan shortly after WWII, then America seven years later. Landed in Stillwater, OK for college, and then moved to Chicago (this is in '57). At one point, after we'd discovered we'd both spent some time in Oklahoma, the man says, "I'm sorry if this offends you, but a lot of people in Oklahoma weren't very friendly to outsiders back then. Sometimes when I greeted them they'd pretend they hadn't heard anything. The fellow who lived in the dormitory next to mine was like that...when I said "hi" he'd just walk on by. Then there was this one night when I heard a knock on my dormitory door. So I answer it, and he's standing there with a book in his hand, and he says "Excuse me, you wouldn't happen to know anything about calculus, would you?" So I looked at the problem, and of course, it was very simple for me, so I showed him the answer, and after that, he was so nice..."

Beijing--as much as I would have liked to explore--I only got to see the inside of the airport, but already got the sense that China'd be a hard place to adjust to. Often guidebooks will tell you how conservative South Korea is, but I think if a Chinese woman is standing side-to-side with a South Korean woman, the difference is very clear, very quickly. South Korea seems a bastion of liberal thought in comparison. Mind you, I only saw airport workers and a few airplane passengers, but...well, for example, there was an H1N1 PSA on heavy rotation in the Beijing airport that I felt caught a lot of the spirit of the place (I especially appreciated the line "Social morality!"), and might fairly be offered up, in comparison, to a parody of a recently popular South Korean song, also addressing H1N1, as one touchstone of the differences between the two societies. I'm certainly not anti-collectivist, and often think we could benefit, as a species, from a little less adherence to individualist dogma, but I can also see how even someone with an open mind about the matter might find it hard to make the adjustment from one to the other.

In LA...well, first you should probably know that I have a mortal terror of LA. I think it's because when I first get to know a place, I prefer to learn about it by walking around in it, and LA makes that very hard to do. I really wasn't there to check out the sites. For the most part, I did the interview and did some shopping for the girls. Other than that, it was TV, eating, and trying to regulate my sleep schedule so I wasn't too whipped when I got back to Gangneung (well's about 40 minutes from my usual bedtime now, and I'm fading...). Spent more time at the airport than most probably would have, just because I really didn't want to go see the Getty museum or Universal Studios or really anything. While waiting to check in, I ended up nursing a beer at one of the airport bars and watching college football (USC v. Oregon State, I think...) with one eye, and watching a very flirty woman fall in love with the young bartender with the other. The woman was older, maybe late thirties to mid forties, and the bartender mid to late 20's. The bartender was making friendly chat, but the woman...well, it was clear that the woman would have been very happy to have taken the bartender home. As often happens, it became clearer as time went on. The bartender's co-workers were, of course, mildly ribbing him about the situation, but at some point, the whole process came to a head--for whatever legitimate or trumped up reason, the bartender ended up excusing himself from bar duties and going into the kitchen, and the woman, becoming aware of his absence, suddenly stood up from the bar with this terrible lost look on her face. The staff, at her insistence, guided her to where the bartender was, and she issued apologies and kisses and whatnot before taking off. The look on her face was absolutely heartwrenching, and seeing that moment of realization actually triggered in me a real need to record the incident--to write--which I resisted as best I could (you'll note this description has not veered toward the violet end of the spectrum, nor has it toyed with the idea of looking at the situation from either the barkeep or the woman's p.o.v...), and was made the more so for the fact that the woman could not have been gone from the scene for more than thirty seconds, tops, before all the guys central to the drama: the barkeep, the customers at the bar, the two waiters, and the manager, were having some pretty pointed laughs about the whole situation. Not that there wasn't humor in the situation--there certainly was--but I couldn't help thinking that the woman was probably still close enough to hear that laughter, and maybe close enough to see them laughing, and that she was already in bad emotional shape prior to this moment.

Other notes as well. Being away for the weekend, got to slip into that anonymous skin and just watch for a while...once I was done with the interview. Which, to get back to the point I made about confidentiality at the beginning of this post, I cannot talk about. I can, however, say that I did my level best on the work they presented me with, and that this passage Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, will likely be a factor in the decision that's ultimately made.

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

How so? Can't say. But regardless of the outcome, I'm grateful for the application process' having reminded me of this passage, which, I found quite recently, I've held quite close for many years now. Wish me luck...and until next time--tchitch

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


더 발칙한 한국학

It's been a hella long time since I wrote on this thing, and while some of that has to do with time, it's also had to do with motivation and with really, really needing a sense of something worth saying. These days, there are a few things afoot that may be worth saying...I'll know a lot more in a couple of weeks, and right now, I'm still pretty swamped in meatspace (I'm actually going to be on a flight to LA in about 36 hours...will explain more about that when I'm not pressed to be doing about 15 other things first), but suffice to say, with a little luck, and a lot of effort, there may be a major shift in life direction in the near future. Or decidedly not. We'll see. Suffice to say, after about 4 years of planning, I'm soon going to see if recent efforts are ready to bear fruit, or still need a year or two's worth of nurturing to get there.

Right now, it's still life in Korea--in my third year in the same hagwon, have good relations with my director and because of this, haven't moved on to more lucrative or prestigious jobs as yet, though I've been trying to get things together so that I can keep developing my own teaching skills with an eye toward positions that may be more satisfying than my current one. I enjoy my work, especially the kids I teach, but I also very much feel that I could be doing more, and I've been rapidly coming to the conclusion that I very much enjoy teaching. Also been working with this friend and that friend making something approaching music, and trying my best not to regret the fact that I didn't pick up a drum in earnest much earlier in my life. And Korean studies, and regular classes in Hapkido (not at black belt yet...but with luck, before I leave Korea...), so I keep busy.

One point of business that I did not mention was a Korean publication--mention of it did show up in a blog comment, but I never really mentioned it. If you remember, during my first year in South Korea, I was fortunate enough to not only encounter a particularly fun, particularly irreverent book on Korean culture (as seen very much with a oegugin eye) by one J. Scott Burgeson entitled "Korea Bug", but also to enjoy a long e-mail exchange with the editor that culminated in an interview over at Triplopia. We ended up meeting later at the Buddha's Birthday celebration--a fine night in which I was treated to Scott in all his grumpy glory: he was then living in a flat and had rooftop access to a view of the Buddhist temple where all the floats were going, and while everyone else was busy celebrating Buddhism in general, Scott was facing down a temple that had been constructing near his apartment, the staff of which he'd had enough confrontations with over the noise that he was essentially persona non grata on the temple grounds. He invited me and one of my friends--who was interested in getting some photos from above the blanket of colored lanterns hanging from the trees above--to come up to the rooftop, but my young friends were so busy playing on the temple grounds that they seemed pretty much oblivious to Scott's discomfort while I nervously hovered between those friends I had daily dealings with and Scott, and the temple staff loomed ever closer. The whole night was one of those marvelous instances of complete social awkwardness that seem always to signal that something really special is going on...and so it was. Scott eventually waited too long, was quietly but pointedly followed off the grounds, I ended up going with him, signaling to my young friend with the camera that he really needed to follow us, Scott consulted with his landlord about having a couple of guests up to the rooftop (a suggestion to which the landlord was clearly opposed) and then Scott snuck us in anyway. The view was a fine one, but, to top the whole thing off, my friend's photos came out poorly, and he ended up dumping them. Aside from a very odd evening's memories, I also came away from the meeting with a set of copies of the original Bug zines to fill out my incomplete collection. Then I served my year and was out, and Scott's books were decidedly among my trophies.

When, as circumstances dictated, I came back 9 months later, Scott approached me about contributing to a new project, a book with the working title of "Incredibly Strange Foreigners." I wasn't in a writing mood, to be honest, but it did feel like something I wanted to contribute to, so, after passing deadline after deadline, and finally being given a final date, I snuck a story in to Scott, and yes, was published in a slim volume with a stark black cover and the title (in white) of "Outlanders: Tales of Korea." I'm not sure where it can be purchased. In fact, I'm not sure if Outlanders was ever actually for sale--although I did get 10 copies for contributing.

Anyway, to cut a long wind-up short, I got a personal e-mail from Scott recently describing his most recent project, along with a link to a video that's actually pretty hilarious if you've ever spent any time seeing Korea from a "foreign" perspective. It's a land of fascinating, often outrageously humorous paradoxes, and the inward realities that are masked by the outward forms of Korean society are fascinating both for the fact that they are hidden and for the relief into which those outward forms thrusts them. You can get depressed about it, you can try to analyze it, or, you can just acknowledge your outsider status and poke gentle fun at it all in the hopes that it will serve as one small chink in the armor of tradition for tradition's sake. For your sanity, that last banner is the best to fly under, and that's where Scott's books land. His most recent book, 더 발칙한 한국학 (yes, in Korean) appears to be making precisely the kind of change described above: a tiny linguistic shift that may, given time, actually serve to break down some of the near impenetrable barriers between Korea's expat community and Koreans themselves.

Scott closes his previous book, "Korea Bug," with a (to my mind) fascinating piece entitled "Outside Country People," in which he uses material from an internet exchange on life in Korea from the point of view of foreigners. The piece is in turns (depending on who is speaking) starkly cynical and heartbreaking in its hopefulness. Scott explains his choice of title as follows:

In English, a oeguk saram (or oegugin) could be described as a "foreigner" "expatriate" or "alien." But none of these translations really fits. The term alien is both narrowly legalistic and suggestive of extraterrestrial difference; "expatriate," reverses and thus glosses over the oppositional nuance of oeguk saram, since the "ex-" prefix defines the individual as simply outside of their own home country, rather than the host nation; as for "foreigner," it is the most commonly used, but also the vaguest, since it fails to convey the essential Koreanness of oeguk saram (for native Korean speakers, "oeguk" implicitly and invariably means "not Korea," which is why, for example, it is technically correct when Koreans abroad refer to locals as oeguk sarams, since they are, indeed, "outside Korea people"). And so I prefer the literal translation "outside country people," because it best preserves the flavor and spirit of the original term, and because it is not a bad example of localized English or Konglish--cute, clunky, familiar and weird all at the same time.

...and "outside country people" is pretty much what I've heard when I hear "oegugin" ever since. But the term "oegugin" is somewhat of a sticky point for English teachers in Korea--many of the countries from which those "oegugin" come have adopted a brand of English that would look very poorly indeed upon any institution that referred to a native teacher of Korean as, not a "Korean teacher," but as a "foreign teacher." Suffice to say, on the ground in South Korea, there are zero qualms about so designating teachers from another country.

This is the chink that Scott aims his weaponry at, and it appears to be gaining a little--just a little--traction. His most recent book has shot up to the 11th spot in Kyobo's Politics and Society section. The book, comprised of Scott's work and of others, includes Scott's note about the preference, amongst those who are not tourists, at least, for the term "expat." And in its quiet way, it's working, as a number of reviews--published in Korean, aimed at a Korean reading public--often make note of this point. It all makes me wish my Korean skills were considerably better than they are, so I could have a good crack at the book. They're getting there, but they've a ways to go. It does suggest itself as a potential suggestion to adult students of English, as it might provide them with an interesting look at their own culture from the eyes of foreigners that are sympathetic, but not uncritical.

Anyway, always happy to hear of the continued success of Triplopia contributors, and, as I'm still on the ground, especially happy to hear of Scott's most recent successes. In language, it's always the small victories that are the most important and the most lasting, even if they're rarely won in a single lifetime.

All right...wrote way later than I meant to, but the good news is, for the first time in a while, it actually felt good to do so. We'll see how I'm feeling in a few weeks, but something tells me that just now, I'm getting tired of sitting in my room clutching my ball, and getting really antsy to get busy playing the game again. Now all I gotta do is find time enough to follow that impulse.

Right. Sleep. Be well, folks. --tchitch

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?