Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Coughing Like a Bronte

New fun fact: There is no fluoride in the toothepaste in Korea. I don't know if they fluoridate the water but, given that I'm not supposed to drink it, this may be moot. Recently departed co-worker informed me that two of his teeth shattered while he was here because he did not realize this. Eek!

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Game Update and Some Observations

Team Pirates is now in the lead as one of its members has provided proof of arriving in February! I'd say we should dress like pirates for the occasion but it will be bitterly cold (don't tell her!) and difficult to manage while waddling around under six inches of woolies and jumpers.

In order to keep this educational I wanted to share some observations about everyday interactions in Seoul. These are behaviors I have seen repeatedly and may only be relevant to the city because, as you know, many habits are geographical in nature.

First, you are supposed to get up for old people on the subway. This is common, even in the US. However, in DC I notice that a lot of people are not at all considerate of older riders on the Metro or pregnant women etc. It's actually really disappointing. In Seoul this is much more strictly followed, I think because revering elders is much more specific to the culture whereas in the US it's just about being considerate to those riders that need to sit because of their physical status.

What is hilarious about the elderly riders is that they are like vultures. The moment they step onto a crowded train they look left and right, scouring the train for a victim. They find their prey, usually an adolescent or overly comfortable looking young woman, and then stand right in front of them and give them a stare down. They are very serious about this and the person getting stared down is supposed to get up and move immediately upon eye contact. What is hilarious is that old ladies charge halfway down a train, passing other opportunities and ramming riders in order to reach their intended victim. Frankly, this is what old age is all about: punishing the young and taking advantage of your golden years. What you lose in strength and agility you gain in status and crotchetyness.

Second, lines are for the weak! I get cut in front of a lot here and have learned to accept it. The nice thing is that often cashiers will wave off the person who cuts in front of me and help so, while it is agitating, it isn't worth getting upset about. Apparently there is a way to say "Did you not see the line?" in Korean (slang) but I haven't learned it and it is a really bad idea to fire a warning shot in another language when the rest of your ammunition consists of 'no','yes','foreigner', and 'school'. At the post office the other day (where I nearly mailed pictures of my coworkers at a party to someone in Chicago and gave my coworkers a CD of music and documentation) a woman with a baby cut in front of me from the side only to have a Pizza Hut Delivery guy cut in front of her! Ballsy.

The Sniffles: Week Two (Strange Things One Does When Ill)

Last night I built a model of the Sutro Tower in San Francisco. Some of you know why, others don't. It makes little difference but a part of the set up includes a zombie statue the Captain of the Pittsburgh Department of Zombie Disposal gave me when I left (to remind me of the constant threat of post-mortem animation both at home and abroad*). It glows in the dark and, well, it's a li'l creepy and I wrote a poem in parody of one of my favorite poems by Shel Silverstein:
There's a zombie there,
On my frigidaire,
He stands and stares, too dumb to care.
With his fist on a flag,
And his eyes on the prize,
He reeks of old brains,
Is attracting the flies.
He glows in the dark,
He's guarding the tower,
He's there on a lark,
And could use a shower.
But, all the same,
If he's thinking of brains,
He ought not be there,
Causing a scare,
That zombie on there,
On my frigidaire.

*They're jealous of our precious cerebrums!

Sunday, 25 November 2007

A Demand for Science!

While you are all waddling off your Thanksgiving indulgence or laying in food comas and thinking about the long horizon of turkey sandwiches you are facing, I am seeking the betterment of humanity!

I also present absolute visual evidence that Americans are 3.5 times larger than Koreans, post-cleansing. Perhaps we are more absorptive?

Friday, 23 November 2007

Heisenberg and Travel

First, I should report that I have just returned from the farewell party for a married couple working at the school. It was a learning experience and I generally enjoyed it. I learned a Korean drinking game which is similar to the American "name game" that some of you may be familiar with from camp. There is a beat and one person starts the beat and then on the 3rd count of 4 names someone and on the 4th count of 4 names the number of times they must say their own name (within a range of one to four). If you mess up anywhere in the 4 count you take a drink. I look forward to introducing this to friends.
Jammed in the entrance of my apartment is what I think, in my addled state, is a coffee table. I should say that I find it extremely pleasing that in my current mode of existence "nesting" consists of perusing the neighbors' trash. I am hoping to purchase Settlers of Catan in the near future and that the table that I slightly drunkenly selected and carried to my apartment at 2:30am will be good for gaming. We shall see what the morning brings.
Finally, I am, every so often, struck by the fact that I am living in Korea. It isn't that I don't realize this but that there is a difference between going through the motions of everyday life and that of stepping back and considering the context of your actions. I much prefer living in other countries to merely visiting them and I think I have figured out a good framework for explaining why.
The HUP (Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) states, roughly, that you can know an electron's position and its momentum, but not at the same time. You cannot know both simultaneously because to observe and object is to influence it. I think that travel is the same way. You can develop a point-in-time understanding of a country by visiting for a few days and develop a very limited perspective on the culture or you can live in a country for an extended period of time and get a feel for the culture (its momentum). Living in a country is so necessarily different from visiting because of the differing demands. So I am, strangely, able to forget the sheer magnitude of the difference between living in South Korea and the U.S. because on a day to day level I still have to cope with eating, paying bills, and working. You get lost in the force of the momentum of your existence rather than having a strong, singular impression of where you are.
So that was my big epiphany on the way home from the going-away party. Hopefully it won't seem totally foolish when I crawl out of bed tomorrow.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

In Old Country Turkey Feasts on YOU!

In honor of Thanksgiving Day I wish to share with you my favorite Thanksgiving song.

I still have a cold so quality and enthusiasm are on the wane. Hopefully next week will be healthier and happier.

Here's the smoking beer. It even has a light at the base. One of the things that I think makes Asia so fascinating is the fact that it is impossible to fathom where certain ideas come from. Now, pitchers with lights at the bottom are neat. Dry ice in water is entertaining. Beer in pitchers is good. A pseudo-German atmosphere is appreciated. But what confluence of thoughts and events results in a place that makes German-style sausage and offers imported German beer in Seoul to decide to put beer in a pitcher with a special reservoir for water and dry ice cannot be imagined by me.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Mid-Week Hodge Podge

Today I find myself starting to wonder if I'll be forgotten in my absence. I know it's probably absurd but somehow I find it hard to believe that, outside of my family, my absence is felt at all. I don't know why, it is a lasting sense of being forgettable that has followed me many places. Maybe this is why people build things...
Who was I? I was the guy who put this damned giant obelisk/park/statue/horrible work of abstract public art in the middle of this traffic circle! You will acknowledge me with every awkward vehicular interaction you have within my domain! Late for work? It was I!
We live on in the lives of those we touch...or utterly inconvenience.

In other news: I bet you'd like to know how much fruit $5 (5,000 won) can buy you in my neighborhood! Behold!

These little citrus fruits are a staple of daily life here, at least in my neighborhood, and it's wonderful. I tried a persimmon for the first time today and I am sad to report that, for a fruit with such an alluring and beautiful name, they are not particularly tasty. Perhaps if I were to pluck one from the tree myself at the height of whatever persimmon season is it would be delicious.

Lastly, I sent an email to NPR nominating myself to be on Wait...Wait...Don't Tell Me! before leaving for work this morning.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

I Feed On the Cries of Babes

It was another day of tests! I have discovered what some have perhaps suspected all along: teachers love giving tests. Well, I do. When you are sick it's very hard to keep up the energy required for teaching six to seven classes, as I do every day. Tests are things you can wind up and release.

That's not wholly true. In fact, a lot of work goes into testing on one or both ends. We don't make up these tests but we grade the writing and I spend a lot of time wrangling and going over things with the kids to try to get them to do their best. Today I got downright ornery with a kid who already speaks out of turn and off topic during class a lot. He was 10 minutes late, missed the review for the test and I had already begun timing them so left him to his lot. He utterly failed to answer the question. I am uncertain if being here for the prep would have helped but, either way, it was clear he was not paying attention (the question was on naming someone who helps in your community, his response was about some sort of league of street fighters he likes to watch and is almost identical to what he already wrote in his reading notebook for another assignment) and I assigned him an essay on writing three good reasons one should 1) listen to the teacher and 2) read the questions carefully on the exam!

I had to teach my most remedial class today. I spent the entire time working on writing sentences with them. I find it very difficult to tell whether the poor output of various students is laziness or stupidity and am now confronted with the question of whether discipline can in any way counter ignorance. This is not meant to imply that these kids are genuinely dumb, this is regards only to their English capabilities. In truth, I quite enjoyed it. I wish the lesson plans they laid out for us gave me more time to focus on weaknesses. Supposedly these kids also have a grammar and writing class taught by another instructor but their sentence writing is so weak I sincerely wonder what they are doing in that class. When they write sentences it often seems like a buckshot approach where, eventually, one of the sentences will make sense by sheer happenstance.

Ten points to the team who sends me a fainting couch! I've got the consumption something bad. Well, I'm not coughing up blood or anything, I just feel maddeningly snuffly. And cold. You know you're ill when standing over the tea kettle on an open gas flame and thinking "I'd better be careful not to catch my sleeves on fire" and then slowly move from caution to pondering the relative benefits to self immolation. Also, tea! Damned if I can get some reasonable (British or Indian) tea here for a reasonable amount and in separate tea bags.

The day wasn't all cruelty. To keep them coming back you have to randomly distribute pain and pleasure, right? I also handed out candy at the end of tests and, in particular, pleasantly surprised the hell out of some girl, who was stuck at school until nine working on a test, by dropping chocolates in her hands as she packed up to leave. I really like seeing people* enjoy life or pleasantly surprised (a do unto others sort of thing) and thusly one nice thing about my current job is that there are a lot of opportunities for that.

*By which I mean people of whom I approve. I have not gone wholly soft.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Sestina d'Inverno

There's a poem about Rochester, New York, written by some long forgotten English professor who was at the University of Rochester, called Sestina d'Inverno. I shall never forget the first few lines:

Here in this bleak city of Rochester,
Where there are 27 names for "snow",
Not all of them polite...

Well, here in this sprawling city of Seoul, where I have not yet learned one name for "snow", we have it! It is most pleasing and I now share with you visual evidence of the winter wonderland around my humble abode.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Monday Approved!

I would have posted sooner but my internet connection was uselessly slow for almost the entire weeekend. Also, I caught the consumption from a co-worker and spent the majority of the weekend in bed. Fortunately, I feel much better just in time for work! It's another day of giving tests! Among things to put in the good news category:
I got a bunch of groceries, including restorative instant soup (although I sure wish I could have some good old fashioned tomato soup in a can)
I got a mass call from the War Mice (bittersweet, pics below)
They are finally hauling the furniture out of my "bedroom" today
I got the awesomest thing at the local equivalent of Wal-Mart/Target...

The phone call with the War Mice was a ton of fun. I'll admit some jealousy and sadness that I'm missing so much fun but such is life. I'll have to go do something tremendous on my vacation. Speaking of which, I'm going to have a week off around New Year's and gotta figure out what I'm doing. I think I may just make a list of nearby Asian countries (probably not Japan or China) that I'm interested in seeing and pick whichever is cheapest.

This is my friend Dennis who apparently volunteered to be the camera man in a new and more literal way. It was great. I tried to help him out a bit with the ladies...

We were having some technical difficulties with the mic so to fill the time I began expressing Wuthering Heights in semaphore.

I also made a sign, in the style of smiley that Eve created, to indicate when the mic cut to white noise.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Big Giant Rant About Work

I've been trying to avoid being negative on here or writing anything very specific about work but I have got to get this out of my system. However, before that, it's Friday! Yay! That means two days of unstructured free time! I don't know what I'll be doing but I will attempt to find joyous discoveries to share with you! I promise to be more cheery and fun in upcoming posts.

Yesterday at work the subject of a particular child who I do not teach came up yet again. Almost daily two of the teachers complain about her behavior and abilities in class. It turns out that they have seen clear evidence that she is abused at home. One teacher has seen the scars and was prompted to review the student's work during a test because when she brought it up the student had gotten blood on the test.

Apparently it is still culturally acceptable to hit your children in Korea. I have not heard this from any native Korean source, only the other teachers, one of whom is a Korean who was raised in the U.S.. The teachers seem to feel that because it is not their country or culture they have no recourse regarding evidence of child abuse and that it absolves them of any responsibility. I do my best to accept that cultural differences are not a bad thing and am, frankly, working far harder to understand and accommodate Korea than any of the other instructors as far as I can tell but I draw the line at child abuse.

I will grant that if abuse is still legal and culturally accepted there is little the teachers could do but I proposed to the teacher, who was most vocal in complaints about this student, that he should consider what would happen if a student died as a result of the abuse. His answer was that he would not feel responsible at all. I said that he should, minimally, actually inform the directors of the school (which noone has done) so that it is recorded somewhere. Should the decision that nothing can be done be left in the hands of a 22 year old from Nowhere, Middle America or someone who actually understands the culture and has had more than a few fleeting years of adult experience?

It frustrates me to no end that the teachers complain about this girl's behavior without ever considering (or, at least, verbally acknowledging) that it might be the abuse that is causing her to act out and not that she gets hit at home as a result of that kind of behavior. Let us not even dignify the implied idea that a child can actually deserve to be hit. I know it is hard to avoid attributional bias, especially when a child is really poorly behaved, but I am utterly amazed that they have not expressed any sympathy for this girl.

I am often torn about expressing my opinions because they are strong and I know they are not always correct but even in going over the conversation in my mind I don't see a flaw in my position, which is merely that if the teachers see evidence of abuse they should inform one of the administrators because the administrators are more familiar with the culture and, should something more grievous occur, there would some record of it. This seems blatantly obvious to me. Am I incorrect? Is it "obvious" to me because I have a more thoughtful and empathic personality? Is it "obvious" because I'm older? These are not rhetorical, I invite input on this.

I am not really making friends at work. I'm not making enemies but it is clear that I won't spend a lot of my private time socializing with coworkers because, although they have many positive attributes, we don't share much other than the language and displacement. There are three new teachers coming within the next few weeks and they are all male and, according to one source, all have Korean girlfriends. I find the Korean girlfriend thing a bit trite at this point.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007


The week is just shy of half over! I am not on my game. I keep having to interrupt my classes to take my kids to the computer lab for stupid reading tests. You may recall that they just took monthly tests at the end of October. Next week they are taking "level" tests. Then it'll be time for another monthly test. Sounds dreamy, right? Getting small children to listen in a foreign language is tiring and stressful, especially with the lab is, shall we say, not a shining paragon of modern efficiency.

Apparently next week is Thanksgiving! I don't know that I would have even thought about it if it weren't mentioned. One of the teachers has brought up doing something (even if it's something as minor as going to the Outback Steakhouse next door) after work. I'm not sure how I feel about all this but happy ain't it. At any rate, the Sock Goblin or whatever has been at it again...

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

O! Canada

I should add that the metamorphosis is nearly complete. Last Friday I used "eh?" sincerely at work. It was like a lucid dream where I knew what was happening, I was almost conscious enough to stop it and then it just spilled out. The worst's starting to take control:

More About the Competition

So, can you believe my coworkers aren't amused by my competition? Well, I don't think they really get it. Or, perhaps, they don't realize that I'm mostly kidding and am actually fully incapable of affection and merely toying with you all (muahahahhahaha!). Anyways, I use sign language of sorts in this one and speak of she who will be known as The Bug Lady. I look forward to hearing from Bug Lady in the future as I suspect she is a part of the social and managerial fabric of my apartment building.

While I am at it let me enumerate some awesome Korean superstitions:

1) If you write someone's name in red ink they will die. I have to be very careful when marking students papers because, of course, there is always the temptation to write "Great job, Steve!" or whatever. I've already had to go over two names in black ink.
2) Korean magpies are a sign of good luck. Good! There are a lot around and they are pretty, I've been trying to get a good photo of one and failing.
3) The number four is bad luck. One student claims her apartment complex has no building "104" as a result.
4) If you wash your hair on a test day you will wash out all the knowledge.

Without further ado: the competition, the bug lady, and a package.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Zounds! A Competition!

I did not leave my apartment at all today. I literally spent almost the entire day working on this video. I know that you are now torn between deciding that it's great that I'm really dedicated or sad that I'm so wicked retahded at iMovie. I also did some laundry and other chores but, really, most of my day was spent creating and modifying images in GIMP and trying to dredge up some reasonable footage to explain the competition. I am 100% sincere in its application so start fightin' for my lovin'!

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Can You Find the "Love Hotel" in This Post?

As you probably already know, the first night I stayed in a capsule hotel. This is a picture of one of the rooms I passed through to get to mine. I don't think there are people in there, I think those rooms were being used as incubators or cleaned or something...It's a little bit creepy.

On that Sunday I went to see Osaka Castle, which is in the middle of a lot of beautiful park-like land that is in the midst of the city. The castle is now a museum with information about its history and that of Osaka and the broader culture on every floor. Sadly, there are no rooms being shown as they once were. I had really been hoping the interior would have been maintained in the style of its original occupiers.

While at the castle there were a series of performances. I believe they were celebrating the auspiciousness of the date. Traditionally, in Japan and probably other Asian nations, various numbers and dates have differing degrees of auspiciousness. So the number four is bad in Japanese because its alternate pronunciation, "shi", also means death. Thusly, the number is bad luck. Five, however, is very lucky. Only the five and fifty yen coins have holes in the middle - you can put them on strings and wear them! I don't know if that is traditional but I have had a five yen coin on a chain for luck for seven years now. Calendar dates also have fortune-related features and I saw signs for the numbers three, five and seven posted for the celebration.

The performances were many and varied. Some appeared to be traditional group dances while some were modern. In particular a number of teenage Japanese did a rap-esque hip-hop dance that started with all of them wearing hoods over their heads and processing like monks onto the stage. When the hoods were removed you saw that the girls all had corn rows.

Tennoji is a temple in Osaka that apparently has some strong connection to turtles ("Tennoji" doesn't mean turtle). The pond in the middle act as home to a large number of basking turtles and in one of the buildings there was a fountain where the water poured out of an enormous stone turtle's mouth. I watched a monk (or member of the temple staff?) use a long stick to prod a number of prayer sheets a woman had bought into the water. I don't know why. If I had to guess I would say that she bought the prayers for some particular event or person or as a general devotion and that the way in which the prayers are sent into the next world is by their destruction.

Thursday, 8 November 2007


My posts are slowing, I notice. I have been pursuing some other activities and become a little self-conscious about quality and value. I shall, when I have time over the weekend, provide some of the fun pictures I took in Japan.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Back 'Home'

I have returned! I had to split my reportage from the capsule into two different files. I came home only to be rudely reminded that my toilet is broken, dishes need to be done, and that I left things a bit of a mess. I have made a short-term fix for the commode as it is a simple, yet annoying, failure of the flushing chain. So with this many messes to deal with after being gone only four days I dread to think what will have festered, piled up, or broken in a year. ;)

The capsule hotel was divided into a men's and women's section and while the women had a tv and a reading lounge the men got pachinko and video games. Bastards. Not that I want to play pachinko but, really, that's just so sexist! I bet there were beer vending machines in there, too. All we got was coffee, juice, and Pocari Sweat.

Without further ado:


Sunday, 4 November 2007

Is It a Guy Thing?

Quick note:
While waiting for the elevator I noticed a little vending box for "TV cards". I've been watching tv much of the evening and was suddenly seized with the fear that I was being charged or would be charged just for watching normal television. I stopped at the front desk and had the following conversation (in Japanese):
"What are the 'TV cards' for? Special programming?...Movies?"
"Uhhhhh...[awkward looking around]"
"Oh, is this a man thing?"
"OK, sorry."

I Will Raze Your Village, Drink the Tears of Your Seals

I should add that I wasn't drinking anything like "seal tears" before I made the video, either.

No Love (That's a Good Thing)

I'm riding on someone else's network from the hotel work selected (and is paying for). The connection is not very good so I'm not going to upload the video report from the capsule hotel I stayed in last night. I will, however, relay the trauma of seeking housing on what turned out to be a holiday weekend in Osaka.

I got into Osaka in the early afternoon and mooched around Namba and then in Shinsaibashi (where the Korean consulate and a lot of shopping in Osaka is located). I figured that in my wanderings I would find some place to stay. The two hotels I inquired at were full. An employee at the first hotel directed me on how to find another hotel but, because my Japanese isn't very good, I did not hear the part where he said that it is invisible to the human eye.

Like Korea, places are crammed on top of each other and in every nook and cranny imaginable meaning that the thousands of stores, bars, restaurants, ramen-yas, and hotels all crowd your field of vision. It is really difficult to find something you are specifically seeking because approximately three businesses will be squeezed into a space where in America only one might exist. I had a wonderful time looking around the area but with the burden of a hefty backpack and only five hours of sleep I faded in the early evening and found the troubles of finding someplace to sleep overwhelming.

I had a map, given to me by one of the hotels that had no rooms, with various hotels in the area marked on it. Sadly, this was of minimal help and at one point I looked down a street that was not marked on the map and found a half dozen places with "hotel" in their name. Now, I know Japan and I know about "love hotels" but my utter exhaustion left following my heart rather than my head and I walked down the street thinking, "well, dammit, this isn't on the map! There are a ton of hotels here!" Hotels with names like Blanc de Blanc and Love the Dolls that list two rates: One for a "rest" and another, for the more ambitious, for overnight. I might have tried my luck if they hadn't listed the prices based on a membership.

Finally, I asked a police officer for help and we discussed the options and he told me about a hotel in the area and I said I had no luck and showed him the map. I also said, "not a love hotel" during the conversation. He eventually flagged me a cab and discussed my predicament with the cabbie. He said, among other things,"A female foreigner here alone...A business hotel, not a love hotel...A normal hotel."

Thursday, 1 November 2007

craigslist love you long time

You may or may not be aware of my obsession with craigslist "missed connections" in a previous life. I find it a fascinating place, along with cl generally, to explore the weird behaviors that anonymity cultivates. Missed Connections was particularly interesting in that it allowed people to throw out "feelers" about interactions or vent their feelings anonymously while still permitting some microscopic possibility of genuine communication.

Craigslist Seoul is remarkably dull compared to that of Washington, DC. In fact, overall, the board gets far less use than it does in America. This makes sense and while it is disappointing that I don't get to wade through all the strangeness of a busy list (such as finding the MC about a failed indecent exposure) it allows me to marvel at the elements that do choose to use the medium. MC is lacking in posts so I have extended my trolling to the M4W and other forums.

Before marveling at the particulars let me share this fact: every single weagook male that I have met either arrived in Korea married or is now married to/in a serious relationship with a Korean woman. Every. One. The women are mostly single. I could make some rather cynical estimations on why that is but that is not my place. It certainly seems that perhaps there is a preference for picking up a local wife, which is fine except that I can't help but think about reasons I have heard that Asian women are preferred by Western men. At any rate, despite the total bloody absence of a question mark, this guy would like to know if you are ready for marriage.

Hmmm...he seems to be a weagook. Oh and he likes stuff that is good! I like good stuff, too! OMG, it's like we're soul mates. Look at how he nonchalantly leans against his sports car! He must take life in stride. I bet he's really spiritual, he likes "simple things."

Good lord, I hope this guy isn't here teaching English. This man, meanwhile, is keeping the most retarded of MC habitual inquiries alive on the other side of the earth. Where all my bitches at? The internet truly is the intersection that hosts most human car wrecks.

Nihon e Ikimusu!

Something I have discovered after grading writing exams for three classes is that I no longer find Engrish amusing. Now, all I do at work is deal with mangled English. It's my job. The odd thing is that you can see exactly how it develops, there is something about the approach to the language that invites particular mis-usage. I no longer laugh, for the most part, unless I find a great sentence that is more priceless for its content than grammatical failings. I'll try to retain some good examples to share.

In other, more exciting news: