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

Dear Gene -- massively epic!

I plan to buy you a beer at Gyeong-sup's bar soon enough, bearing several more copies of "Outlanders" if you so desire. Everyone I speak with likes your story a lot, so a personal delivery is the very least that I can do!

If we're going to go to Gyeong-sup's, it'll have to be in Seoul--he's moved in to the Hong-dae area. Haven't seen his new bar (also, as is the one in Gangneung, named "Bumpin'", but I hear folks have fun there. I know there's a Korean girl band that works some classic and reggae in the area, and that regularly makes the trek to Gangneung to visit the local basement music bar, Rush...maybe you'll see them. If you're ever drinking a beer and see three Korean girls playing "Sweet Home Alabama," you'll know you've found them. And, if you do, say hi to I-rak for me.

Good news on the book cracking the top ten, btw. Congrats.
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