bookmark_borderPost-68: 2010s-Syria, Akin to 1930s-Spain, or 1630s-Germany?

[A follow-up to post-67: Syria’s Complicated Conflict]

I don’t claim to understand Syria or its war, but I trust experts who say it is complicated more than I trust third-rate pundits in the USA who repeat silly claims that it is a “popular rebellion against a dictator that is being repressed”. That kind of analysis is easy and lazy, and ultimately boring.

If Syria is a multifaceted ethnic-religious-political-cultural civil war with significant foreign intervention, what are some analogies to other wars in our history which Western people would know more about? Two strike me:

(1) The Spanish Civil War (1930s). Orwell’s book, Homage to Catalonia, described a frantic and angry civil war within the “Republican” (anti-Franco) side itself. He identified three main paragroupings (and his favored side was crushed by the Stalinists, as he recounts it). This is similar to the wide range of ideologies among Syria’s co-called “Rebels” (and the government). In Spain, there was not necessarily an ethnic-religious angle akin to Syria’s today (though the case can be made, it was once pointed out to me, for a real implicit ethnic-religious angle to the Spanish war).

(2) Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a war for Catholic or Protestant domination of Central Europe. This had a definite ethnic-religious angle, as Syria does, and many interventions. The 30 Years War ended in a kind of draw. The German-speaking population of Europe was reduced by one-third; neither Catholic nor Protestant dominated. However, Protestants won more rights, the empire was weakened, and Germany was splintered into 300 statelets.

PictureKing Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden,
“the Lion of the North”

I’ve often thought about this (boringly-named) “Thirty Years War”. Its Protestant hero, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, seemed to have a street or a platz named after him in every Protestant city I visited in Germany in 2007.

One result I see of this war was the end of a Catholic-dominated Europe. Before 1648, Protestants were always a kind of rebellious minority, in fact or in imagination. The war won them normality, a large majority of German-speakers in Europe, and a major “civilizational morale boost” (or so I imagine). The split with the medieval and feudal past was complete, allowing the Protestants of Europe to seize their own destiny. Up to three centuries of spectacular output followed. The early USA, e.g. is an obvious product of secular-Protestants.

Being of half-Scandinavian background and (nearly) half-German-Lutheran background, I almost can’t help but sympathize with the Protestant side in that war. And, in my biased view, an abject defeat of the Protestant side (e.g., by a total failure of the Swedish campaigns under King Gustavus) would have been a defeat for Europe itself, a partial step back into the medieval order.

The paragraph directly above, if its (i.e., my) prejudices and ‘national’ feeling were transposed onto Arabs, and altered in form to fit their Islamic heritage rather than my own, may explain why there will be no easy end to the Syrian war (with the possible exception of a deux ex machina in the form of thousands of NATO bombs, as in Libya).

bookmark_borderPost-67: Syria’s Complicated Conflict

After reading an essay entitled “Syria’s Sectarian Stalemate” by an American Middle-East expert, Bernard Haykel, I’m reminded again what the the Syrian war really is: Complicated. Most people, or so is my impression, wave-away the war as a “popular rebellion against a autocratic government”. If you read the linked-to essay, it is really not that at all.

There are a lot of sides in Syria, a lot of of “ideologies” involved, several (defacto) ethnicities involved. There are varied religious, cultural, ethnic, and political angles at play. There are volunteers from all over the world coming in to fight for their favored sides. Foreign states sponsor and cheerlead for their favored sides.

I have a foreign coworker who was “studying abroad” in Syria in 2011, before the worst of the fighting began. He is white, but studied (and speaks some) Arabic. I’d think he’d have insights into the conflict, but he is one of those (i.e., the great majority) who waves the Syrian War away as “rebellion against a dictator”, which is a narrative that I don’t find compelling, from all I’ve read.

Maybe it’s hard to understand a locale’s “politics” (broadly) just from within that locale.

bookmark_borderPost-66: “Two Parties’ Place Fighting is Terrible” (Or, Students React to the April 2012 Korean Elections)

Back in April of 2012, there was an election for all seats in the South Korean national legislature (국회).

The results of the past few elections, abbreviated and simplified, are as follows:

Seats in the South Korean National Assembly Won, By Election
……………[Left-Wing] .. [Right-Wing] .. [Socialist] .. [Other]
2000: ……….115…………………..152…………………..0……………….6
2004: ……….161…………………..125………………….10……………….3
2008: ………..84…………………..185…………………..5……………..25
2012: ………..127…………………..157………………….13……………….3

The “right-wing” coalition thus won the following shares of seats:
            2000: 56% of seats
             2004: 42% of seats
             2008: 62% of seats
              2012: 52% of seats

There was a back-and-forth “seesawing” in the 2000s. Then 2012 put the power-balance back where it was in 2000.

The days after the election, I reproduced the above table on the board in my classes at the hagwon in Bucheon at which I worked (including the Korean names of the political parties), without further comment. I asked students to write about these results, or prepare spoken responses about them, depending on what kind of class it was.

One rather high-ability 8th-grade girl (born in January 1999, so age 13 as of April 2012), wrote what I thought was a remarkably mature essay on April 12th. That was less than 24 hours after the result was in: Emotions were still raw.

Her essay, verbatim [Note that “New Frontier” is the current-name of the main “right-wing” party]:

[Essay on Korean Legislature Election Results, by 13-Year-Old Korean Girl]
The Republic of Korea had National Assembly Elections in April 2012. Many parties changed their name this year. That means to start with new promises. Also, the ability of current president became issue. According to these changing, April 2012’s election was very interesting battle.

The result of this election was victory of New Frontier Party but New Frontier lost 28 seats of National Assembly. Democratic Unity Party got 43 seats even though they received less total seats. Election is a citizens’ decision so we have to agree with many people’s thinking.

However, there are disappearing result in 2012’s election. 16 seats of National Assembly for other parties. Many people’s variety suggestions will develop the Republic of Korea. Two parties’ place fighting is terrible to country. These parties people only argue.

The girl was disappointed [“disappearing”] that the two big “party machines”, about which many people are cynical, gobbled-up 95% of the seats that were up for election. Independent candidates ran, but, as in the USA, nearly all lost. The minor “far-left” party-bloc did pretty well, taking 13 seats, but only three elected were “independents”.

Whether the left-wing coalition had “won” (by gaining a net of 43 seats over ’08) or “lost” (by failing to win a majority of seats) was the main object of discussion in most of these 7th-9th graders’ essays. Many discussed how much they disliked the “right-wing” party, and the then-president, Lee Myung-bak. For instance, on the night of the election, before the results were in, a student wrote: “I predict the Democratic Unity Party will win. Because people saw Lee Myung Park’s barbarities.”  That last word will have been thanks to a cell-phone-dictionary.

I think this girl’s essay is more mature than all that. She is not a partisan. Perhaps hers is more mature than what most adults would come up with, in fact. If I can rephrase her last three lines: “More independent political voices is exactly what Korea needs. The two mega-partiesbackstabbing power-politics really do nothing but weaken this society. They bicker with each other and waste time, accomplishing nothing except the demoralization of the public.”

This “spirit” (independent, anti-big-party) lost out big time in the later, Dec. 2012, presidential election, in which one product of a big party machine faced off against another. Park Geun-Hye, a big player in the “right-wing” machine, won. The other guy, who lost, was a product of the “left-wing” machine.

PictureAhn Cheol-Soo

An independent voice was in the race for a while: A popular IT self-made millionaire and professor named Ahn Cheol-Soo (안철수). He polled well but dropped out, sure enough, after intense pressure from the left-wing machine.

The latest news is that Ahn is back. He won a seat to the legislature in a special election in 2013. He may well be elected president in December 2017. If so, then the above girl essayist — whose name I have now forgotten, who will be about to turn 19 years old in Dec. 2017, and who will probably be in college at the time — may be happy. Maybe she will even remember writing that essay way back in April 2012.

bookmark_borderPost-65: Jeong Jeong Jeong

I mentioned “Jeong” (정), a “Korean emotion” in my digression-laden account of what happened on my first night in Korea. (It is a series of posts here which I’ve lamely titled “One Night in April of 2009”; “jeong” was mentioned in Part V. I hope to complete this “One Night” series in June.) I offered a definition of “jeong”, as I’ve come to understand it over my years in Korea. [Note: I prefer to write it in English as “juhng”, which I feel makes it easiest to pronounce as Koreans say it. How is a “layman” supposed to pronounce “j-e-o-n-g”?]

I refer anyone interested in the “What is Jeong” issue, to a continuation of that discussion.

bookmark_borderPost-64: Refusing a Nickel

PictureA nickel (from here)

I give out U.S. coins as prizes every now and then to the Korean students.

It’s mostly pennies, nickels, and dimes. Once or twice, I offered a gold-dollar coin as a big, end-of-semester prize to a winner of one contest or other.

Often, the kids are dazzled by these coins.

PictureFront of a 100-Won coin

I happened to pocket some nickels for that purpose one day this past week. I had the idea to give them out as prizes in the “T1” class which consists of 7th and 8th graders. Earlier that day, though, I’d bought something and gotten change, so I had some 100-Won pieces (equivalent to about 10 U.S. cents) in my pocket, too. I didn’t remember this. They all got mixed together.

A little “social experiment” came together in my mind when I realized I had coins from both countries. I offered well-performing students a choice between a nickel and a 100-won piece.

PictureBack of a 100-Won coin

This can only count as anecdote, because the sample size was tiny, but…. I noticed that the lethargic, unambitious, quieter students — who tended to be lower-ability — opted for the 100-won coin, while the students who seem more optimistic about English, are more talkative in class, and who seem to be of higher-ability, chose the nickel.

I don’t think this should be a surprise. The motivation is the same:
— Type #1’s thinking:“I can buy things with 100-Won coin, but that nickel is of no use to me.”
— Type #2’s thinking: “Although I could use the 100-Won coin, the nickel is something new and fascinating; I’ve never possessed one, or even held one in my hand before. The nickel is much more appealing!” 

It’s clear which kind of student-temperament would tend to do better in language learning.

It’s also tempting to extrapolate this simple coin-choice “experiment” into an entire Weltanschauung, as above. Although that leap may be both reckless and hasty, it really makes sense to me. It also, I think, could point to why Koreans are (collectively) so famously-bad at learning English, despite their huge commitment to it for so long: The Type #1 attitude (above) prevails in this society. Most Koreans, I think, see English as not relevant to their lives beyond some piece-of-paper that says they got such-and-such a score, qualifying them for this-or-that.

This “#1” attitude even dominates most hagwons (language-learning institutes, at which I work), it seems to me. I was just thinking about the fact that my present-place-of-employment has a whole lot of signs hanging on the walls. They are all in Korean only. If this hagwon were committed to English, it would put them in both languages.

bookmark_borderPost-63: Three Weeks of Spring

The temperature in Seoul broke the 30 Celsius threshold (86 F) on May 23rd. Way back in post-34 (“Two Weeks of Spring”) I repeated a joke about Korea: “Spring here is great. Those are really two of the nicest weeks you’ll ever see”.

It was early May when “spring weather” began (by which I mean temperatures reliably in the comfortable “10 to Low-20s” Celsius range [50s-70s Fahrenheit]). Consequently, that “two weeks of spring” joke may not be off by much, after all. The ten-day forecast calls for temperatures in the high-20s [80s F] most every day.

A screenshot of the temperatures in Celsius this month so far:


Screenshot from of Seoul observed temperatures for May 2013.

Incidentally, my father once explained to me an easy way to figure out Celsius:
0 is Cold
10 is Cool
20 is Warm
30 is Hot

bookmark_borderPost-62: North Korea and Israel are Equally Popular

I am fascinated to see that the BBC’s “Country Ratings Poll” 2013 shows that, internationally, Israel and North Korea are viewed as about equally-negative influences on the world.

PictureGraphic from the BBC’s Country Poll 2013. [Click to Expand]

21% said Israel had a “positive influence” on the world
52% said Israel had a “negative influence” on the world
[25-to-10 : Ratio of Negatives-to-Positives]

North Korea
19% said NK had a “positive influence” on the world
54% said NK had a “negative influence” on the world
[28-to-10 : Ratio of Negatives-to-Positives]

The USA was viewed narrowly more positively than negatively. The BBC headlined that Germany was “the most popular country in the world”. In terms of positive-to-negative ratio (as above), though, Canada seems to be the real #1. Germany’s ratio is 39-to-10 positive; Canada’s ratio: 42-to-10 positive. / The USA’s ratio in 2013 is 13-to-10 positive, similar to South Korea’s 12-to-10 positive. Japan’s popularity in 2013 took a hit, probably due to the island disputes, and maybe the more-recent depreciation of their currency. In 2012, it seems that Japan had an impressive 28-to-10 positive ratio, down in 2013 to 19-to-10.

Perhaps the biggest news of the poll, though, is that people are getting annoyed about the EU project:

There has been a sharp drop in positive ratings [of the EU] by Germans, down 14 points to 59%. Canadians and Americans both give significantly lower ratings to the EU. In the UK, positive views of the EU continue to fall steadily and, for the first time this year, more Britons rate it negatively (47%) than positively (42%).

Until 2008 or so, people were singing the praises of the EU, and it seemed things really worked well there. I “lived” there for most of 2007, and I can attest that the mood was optimistic in most ways. I even had to read a book called “The European Dream”, which predicted the EU was headed for a golden age which everyone would have to follow. It’s unclear, now, whether the EU will survive (in present form) even to 2020.

bookmark_borderPost-61: Everyone’s a Manager, Except You

[Venting about my job situation]

At my job (Sept. 2011 to Sept. 2013) [an English-language institute (“hagwon”) in Korea], there are three “first tier” managers, five “second-tier” managers specific to my campus, and several “third-tier” managers. There are only a few Korean teachers who are not managers. My former British coworker, E., pointed out the ridiculousness of there being far more Korean “managers” than regular workers (i.e., teachers). It seems like a situation right out of “Dilbert”.

Today, there are six foreign teachers, none of whom are “managers” in any way, shape, or form.

Formerly, we had M., who was sort of a foreign manager. He was “foreign head teacher”, though he was strictly limited to authority over the other foreign teachers. (It wouldn’t do for any foreigner to have any authority over any Korean, of course…) He left in late June 2012. For reasons I still don’t understand, one or several of the “second-tier” managers (three of whom are distant blood-relatives) saw to it that no foreigner took his place, so there has not been any foreigner with any official authority at all since then, leading to inefficiency, resentment, and a lot of bad feelings over questions of seniority. Now, typical people respect ‘commands’ from superiors, even if we may dislike them (“We’re doing it this way, guys…”, “Ok, boss…”), but if it’s just some equal, some coworker, strutting over and telling you what to do, there’s a feeling of “Who does she think she is?” This leads to fewer decisions being made, fewer collective efforts, less “strategic” thinking, less planning, and inefficiency over delegation of responsibilities. Few are willing to slide into the hated role of “guy who bosses around his equals”, so planning is just avoided.

Say one of us develops an idea for a change of course, an idea on how to tighten things up or freshen things up, or make things more more efficient, etc., etc. Any change of course will be more difficult than sliding along in the lazy status quo, so if authority is not attached to a “change of course” idea, people will likely resent it, and likely ignore the “advice”. A prolonged situation of a group working together in which no one is in authority may lead to rivalries and bitterness. Most likely, I suppose, it will lead to apathy, as mentioned above.

I describe here what has happened in my workplace since last July. I have seen examples of the resentment I allude to above from all the foreigners here. I mean, when an “equal” waltzes in and “tells someone what to do” (with an air of authority, despite officially having none). Another case is when someone is having private meetings with a Korean boss with the rest of us excluded. I, myself, have been on both ends of this. I guess we all have.

In theory, our direct superior since July 1st of 2012 has been a Korean manager, a tall stringbean of a woman with a soft voice and a bit of a squirrely manner whose English is great but who is nevertheless very hard to approach; who is seriously passive-aggressive; who is often absent and cannot be found; who carries grudges about perceived slights against her; who refuses to listen to constructive advice. I could rattle off several more characteristics in that vein. I suspect, based on what she’s told me, that it was this woman who saw to it no one replaced M.

In general, most of our weekly interaction with her is during the Friday “foreign teacher meetings”, which happen about 75% of the time. In those meetings, she drones on and on, and often pretends not to know certain pieces of information to save face, which is frustrating.

The thing that really bugs me most about this set-up is this: The people who end up rising to the top in such “power-vacuums”, it seems to me, tend towards the sociopathic (to lean on the hyperbolic side), frankly. E.g., Stalin. When power within a group is uncertain, those who are most ruthless in playing one against another, those who are best at manipulating others, tend to end up on top. Not  necessarily the most talented, dedicated, or experienced, but the best manipulators. This has also happened at my present workplace (and it is all magnified because the Koreans with real power often can’t pick up on Western personality archetypes that might be considered toxic in the West). I am thinking, with this, of one particularly manipulative female foreign teacher.

I am reminded, for some reason, of the idea that “there’s a sucker at every poker table, and if you don’t know who the sucker is at your table, it’s you”.

bookmark_borderPost-60: “That’s Not Even Mexico!” -Homer Simpson

I’ve been watching “The Simpsons” with Spanish audio a bit, lately. I don’t know why.

PictureHomer during his campaign speech.
(Episode: “Trash of the Titans“)

In one episode I watched in Spanish, Homer gets in a fight with the local garbage-men and then runs for sanitation commissioner. Homer develops the campaign slogan “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” and proposes that garbage-men pick up trash directly from waste baskets in people’s homes.

Now, “The Simpsons” is a smarter show than most people realize, and a lot of the lines are awkward to translate. The Spanish translators (who I presume to be Mexicans) quite often change lines for this reason.

Here is Homer’s campaign speech, in English (found here):

Homer: Fellow citizens! How would you rate the trash service in this town?
Man #1: I would deem it excellent.
Homer: Uh, okay. It’s excellent. But aren’t you tired of waking up early and dragging the garbage to the curb? [Crowd Murmuring]
Man #2: That’s so annoying in the morning.
Homer: Aren’t you tired of having to peel that last snotty Kleenex from the bottom of your wastebasket?
Man #3 [with a huge nose]:  I’ll say.
Homer: Well, then — Can’t someone ELSE do it?
Crowd: Yeah! — Yeah!
Homer: And can’t someone else scoop out that nasty kitty litter?
[Crowd All Shouting In Agreement] Yeah!
Homer: Well, Ray Patterson thinks YOU should do it. Animals are crapping in our houses, and we’re picking it up.
Did we lose a war? That’s not America. That’s not even Mexico!
[Crowd Shouting Excitedly]

The line “That’s not America. That’s not even Mexico!” would be a case calling for a….tactful translation, or perhaps a subtle line change for the Mexican/Latin-American audience. Instead, this is what the translators went for:

Homer: Hemos perdido la guerra?  Asi no es mi pais. Asi es el vecino del sur!

Translation:  “That’s not the way my country is. That’s the way the neighbor to the south is!

This a big change in meaning. The new line is much more (and directly) insulting to Mexico! What a strange choice.

bookmark_borderPost-59: Orwell’s “Actual Doubt”

I respect George Orwell because he was not an angry ideologue.
“To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to
feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation.”
Orwell wrote the above in April(?) 1945, just before the war’s end. He was touring Germany at the time, as best I can tell, as a correspondent. That ominous line was in an essay I came across called Future of a Ruined Germany .

Here was a committed Socialist (as Orwell described himself), a volunteer for a Marxist militia in the Spanish Civil War, remembered as a leading “anti-totalitarian” author, seemingly expressing deep regret at what had just happened to “Nazi Germany”. The war, in that essay, comes off almost like a catastrophe of nature, one that had just reduced city after city of this major world power to heap after heap of smoldering debris.

Elsewhere in the essay, Orwell wrote:

The people of Britain have never felt easy about the bombing of civilians and no doubt they will be ready enough to pity the Germans as soon as they have definitely defeated them; but what they still have not grasped—thanks to their own comparative immunity—is the frightful destructiveness of modern war

I happen to have spent time in Dresden, Germany. A friend has lived there for several years. He will move to Riga shortly. I visited him in December 2010.

In Dresden, the worst firebombing raid of the war in Europe occurred on my birthday (Feb. 13th). The city was overloaded with refugees, and many of them were killed in the firestorm. A young Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden at the time. He used the shock of the experience, twenty years later, to write the classic “Slaughterhouse Five”. (In visiting Dresden in December 2010, I located the spot where the Vonnegut “slaughterhouse” POW-prison must have been, though it is all different now except for the street name. It was snowing the night I walked the street, just as it was when Vonnegut arrived in December 1944, according to his book.)

About the Dresden firebombing, a German poet wrote the following shortly after it occurred:

“Wer das Weinen verlernt hat, der lernt es wieder beim Untergang Dresdens.”
[He who has forgotten how to weep can learn to do so again from the destruction of Dresden]

bookmark_borderPost-58: Contrasting Images of Buddha’s Birthday (Or, When Praying is Really Taunting)

As a follow-up to post-57, there are a couple of other pictures I took on the Buddha’s Birthday holiday that really tell a story when contrasted. First:

At Jo-Gye Temple [조계사], Central Seoul, about midday on Buddha’s Birthday 2013. Koreans are in line
to enter the main temple building which houses a large Buddha. A monk looks on. [Click to enlarge]

The above was at the Jo-Gye Temple compound in north-central Seoul (the old downtown). It is a major site in the Jo-Gye Order of Korean Buddhism. (Incidentally, I see that this denomination officially came together in spring 1962, a year into the Park Chung-Hee era. Did the latter impel the former? General Park declared himself Buddhist. Interestingly, though, according to his recent biography he went to a Protestant church as a boy; later in life gave money to that church.)

I stopped by on Friday, Buddha’s Birthday (석가탄신일). (I was also there in May 2010 with a German man, but that’s a different story…)

Jo-Gye Temple is sort of tucked away. I mean, it’s easy to travel within Seoul for a few days and miss it, if you’re not aware of it. This is not to say it’s small: The compound is quite large; it’s just not overly conspicuous. This befits Buddhism, I suppose. It manages to exude a rather tranquil atmosphere in central Seoul, which is an impressive feat.


Jo-Gye Temple on Buddha’s Birthday 2013.
A wider shot of the crowds waiting to enter the temple. Buddhist prayer-lanterns are above.

Long ago, I didn’t believe the statistics that said South Korea was only “20-25% Buddhist”. Maybe that is the share of active Buddhists. Unfair counting, I thought. I imagined most Koreans were sympathetic to Buddhism as their “ancestral religion” (or something). I imagined most of the population to be nominal Buddhists, as it was“the old Korean religion” (in my mind) and therefore perhaps connected with Korean racialist-nationalism, an ever-present political current in Korea on “left” and “right”. My ideas about Buddhism’s place in Korea were all quite wrong.

In fact, my impression from casual observation is that a 20-25% Buddhist population-share seems too high. It may be an accurate figure, but in most parts of the Seoul Megalopolis I am familiar with, Buddhism is almost invisible. Christianity is very visible, which surprises many.

Korea’s complicated religious history is hard to untangle (as is much of Korean history, generally), but the idea that Buddhism is “the old Korean religion” (to which ‘patriots’ adhere) is dubious. In fact, there is arguably much more “racialist-nationalism” from the Christian side in South Korea today.

Now that I know more, I would say the following is true (and this is all anecdotal from my own observations):
          (1) Most Koreans are indifferent to Buddhism;
          (2) A minority of Koreans are Buddhists or sympathetic to Buddhism;
          (3) A larger minority (a % I wouldn’t even hazard to guess of the Christians) is hostile to Buddhism, at some
               level, on (what appear to be) religious grounds (though I always suspect there is more to that story);

Point (3) leads me to the “contrasting images”. The above two photos depict the (“pro-“)Buddhist side. The contrast is with an antagonistically-anti-Buddhist side.

A certain kind of Christian was out in force in central-Seoul, taunting the Buddhists. It was something (perhaps) like a group of Muslims in New York City assembling outside a church to mock worshipers entering a church for Easter.

I saw them around Jo-Gye Temple. I presume they were also around other temples. Some had loudspeakers blaring (what I presume to be) anti-Buddhist messages. Others were engaged in other forms of anti-Buddhist activism.

These people are a minor nuisance in many public areas on regular Saturdays, but they were really conspicuous in Seoul on Buddha’s Birthday this year. A small team of them I walked past on the way to Jo-Gye Temple was engaged in a loud group-prayer, led by a man in a hat with mic hooked up to a speaker system. The photo is directly below. The prayer-leader was making impassioned pleas for the heathens to turn from the Devil to Jesus (I presume). His voice was full of emotion. These Christians were protected by police to prevent disturbances. Here they are:


On Buddha’s Birthday 2013: Behind the yellow police fence, Christian evangelists engage in group prayer apparently praying that Buddhists will turn from their false religion. The man in the hat is preaching and leading the group-prayer. Police protect them to prevent fighting. Onlookers (including the photo-taker, me) gawked. [Central-Seoul near Jo-Gye Temple, Buddha’s Birthday 2013]

In case there is any doubt as to whether these Christians were “targeting” the Buddhists, their banner clearly mentions to Korean word for Buddhism (불교). I cannot otherwise figure out what the banner is saying.

Another tactic of the anti-Buddhists was that still-regular-feature-of-Korean-public-life, the “guy in a van blaring messages from a loudspeaker”. Here is a shot of one parked at an intersection, blaring messages.


On Buddha’s Birthday 2013 in central-Seoul,
a Christian evangelist van with a loudspeaker
attached blares anti-Buddhist messages

Finally, I saw the below later in the day. It is not specific to Buddhism. Anyone who spends enough time in central-Seoul sees somebody with this sign, sooner or later. I can’t figure out what he’s trying to say, other than the bottom left message of “Jesus will come soon! Repent!”

Caveat: It would be wrong for someone reading this to assume that Buddha’s Birthday in Seoul was marked by ‘sectarian’ antagonism, which it surely was not. Overall, it was just a regular holiday with people out enjoying a Friday off. Again, most Koreans are indifferent to Buddhism (or so is my impression). Most people of any time and place are indifferent to the “political” struggles going on around them, though. It is significant that a Christian-vs.-Buddhist dynamic is noticeable in South Korea, I think, though what the significance is, exactly, I can’t say for sure.

bookmark_borderPost-57: Busy Buddha’s Birthday


Chuhng-gye Stream [청계천] on Buddha’s Birthday 2013

I was in Seoul for much of the day Friday, a holiday, the annual celebration of Buddha’s Birthday.

The above is in the evening, in the 8 PM hour, along central-Seoul’s Cheonggye Stream, near City Hall and Gwanghwamun Plaza. The lights have Buddhist religious significance, I suppose.

The crowds were immense, all along the path. When the picture was snapped, I was exiting the stream area after having finished plodding through the crowds for 30 minutes — entry points to the stream are highly limited.

bookmark_borderPost-56: Contest of Contempt

The essay assignment was to write about “your study plans for high school”.

A 9th-grade boy in E1 class (the same boy, incidentally, as was mentioned in post-21, who volunteered to go scold another class) wrote an essay which included the following:

            I want to go to the good high school. It’s because I want to success my life. So I should go to the
            good high school. If I want to go to the high school. I should get a good grade for every tests. So
            I should study very hard. And I should take part in english contempt contests and math contempt
            contests and other subjects contempt contests. Then I should get many certificate of awards.

I imagine a stage surrounded by a large, hooting audience and a panel of distinguished judges. One contestant at a time goes on stage, and is given a minute or two to display their contempt for English.

Possible judge banter: “Yeah, that one seems quite annoyed; he clearly dislikes English a fair bit — 60 points.” / “Goodness! That girl’s arm-waving and shouting shows the sincerity of her contempt. Don’t you think? — 85 points.” / “Oh my. Burning an effigy of Shakespeare on stage and using the pages of an unabridged Oxford dictionary as kindling, all while shouting damnations upon Geoffrey Chaucer — That kid really…hates English. 95 points!”

[ I cannot guess what the student actually wanted to say. I highly doubt it was “contempt”]

bookmark_borderPost-55: Grading Up Students Who Resemble You Most

The following dialogue intrigued me:

“Every teacher tends to grade up students who resemble him the most. If your writing shows neat penmanship you regard that more important in a student than if it doesn’t. If you use big words you’re going to like students who write with big words.”

“Sure. What’s wrong with that?” DeWeese had said.

“Well, there’s something whacky here,” Phaedrus had said, “because the students I like the most, the ones I really feel a sense of identity with, are all failing!”

This is from chapter 12 of the amazing 1970s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which is nothing like the name suggests). “Phaedrus” is a college professor teaching rhetoric. DeWeese is his friend.
What Phaedrus describes is a subtle/unconscious version of simply playing favorites.

I wondered how much I do it.

Say you are grading essays, or presentations, or debate speeches, etc. Which one is best? And what does the grade of “A” mean? “B”? “C”? If scoring is purely holistic (giving a grade based on what you ‘feel’), then the grades tend toward meaning “I like this student”/”I dislike this student”, to some extent or other. How to mitigate this is Rubrics.

One of my ongoing….disappointments with certain Western coworkers at my present workplace in Korea is that they have a passive hostility to the philosophy behind rubrics (or maybe it’s just plain old laziness). That attitude undermines the whole endeavor, I feel.

For example, a presentation contest. “I like Tina and Emily; they are so polite; they worked so hard on that powerpoint; I think they should win”.  That’s the basic attitude one tends towards without a rubric.

I have been part of two presentation contests here: One in early 2012 and one early 2013. In the weeks before the 2012 contest, I was trying to figure out what made a good presentation. From my research, a rubric slowly came together. It was divided into scores for Body Language, Vocal, Visuals, Content, and Group-Cohesion. A series of Yes/No questions awards most points. For example, under the Body Language score were several subscores including ‘Smiling’. Good presenters ought not look depressed (and many do). The judge watches and asks, “Are the presenters smiling?” If “Always” then 2 points; if “Sometimes” then 1 point; if “Never” then 0. Unless the judge is lying or mistaken, this system eliminates most bias, which would otherwise run the show. I was proud of this rubric.

I was able to use the rubric successfully in many classes. It shows students exactly how to improve. Hand them their rubrics at the end, and it’s right there. It also gives classmates an easy way to review their peers. / Unfortunately,  in the actual contest this year, I was the only one who consistently used it; others generally fell back on “That one seems better”, which falls into the Phaedrian Grading Trap (above).

bookmark_borderPost-54: Koreans’ Feelings Today About May 16th, 1961

In post-53, I discussed the May 16th, 1961 coup d’etat, which resulted in the presidency-for-life of General Park Chung-Hee (박정희). I gave the two positions that I perceive Koreans hold about the coup and its aftereffects:

            Most negatively, the coup can be waved-away as a power grab by ambitious mid-level figures in the military.
            Most positively, [it was] a successful attempt to eliminate corruption/backwardness, resulting in prosperity.

It seems to me that the positive view of this coup predominates (based on my [limited] observations of Korean politics and affairs, on my informal polling of dozens of students I have had over the years, and on my observation of the elections of 2012). There are two caveats: #1: It is viewed less positively by younger Koreans, born after 1980 or so. #2: It is viewed much more negatively in Jeolla Province (but that’s a different, more complicated story). The anonymous but influential Korean-American blogger who runs “Ask a Korean”, calls General Park a “fascist” but even he credits him with the economic boom.


General Park [l.] on the morning of the coup (May 16th, 1961)

Why is there a predominantly positive view today of the May 16th Coup and Park’s military rule?
I can offer a few ideas based on what I have learned, with my own conjectures mixed in.

(a) From Stagnant Poverty to Economic Boom: Poverty hurts. South Korea in the ’50s showed no sign of being able to raise itself up, out of Third-World status. Park’s government aggressively/successfully pursued economic growth. This is the standard reason given for support for Park. I think it may, though, be the most superficial of all.

(b) National Prestige: South Korea is one of the few states that has faced a long-term major threat to its existence, i.e. a competing Korea. Today, it’s easy to wave away North Korea as a backward, despotic, alienated and “weird” place. North Korea was not always backward, though. It was superior to the South for many years. Into the 1970s, say the Korea experts, the North Korean economy was clearly stronger. When comparing the ROK and DPRK militaries, the latter was stronger, one-to-one, well into the 1980s, I’ve read. Thus, when the coup was being plotted in 1960, South Korea seems to have existed solely because of U.S. protection and largesse, understandably a humiliation. By the time Park Chung-Hee was killed in 1979, the idea of South-Korea as a “U.S. satellite” was mostly untrue, I think.

(c) The First Strong Leader of the ROK: The coup of May 16th marked, people tend to believe, the start of the first era of decisive leadership in the ROK’s history. From 1948 to 1960, South-Korea’s leader was an elderly man named Syngman Rhee (리승만, as it was written in Korean at the time, now 이승만). Rhee is considered a pretty bad leader by Koreans. My impression from reading about him is that he was part buffoon and part autocrat, a toxic combination. His mismanagement led to his overthrow and exile in 1960, followed by an era of instability.

(d) PlainOld Nostalgia: All the above is well-and-good, but I think all three may be partially…”pretexts”. Something else may be more fundamental. Consider the exit-polling for last year’s election, in which Park Geun-Hye [박근혜] was elected president. She is the daughter of Park Chung-Hee. The outcome by age-group tells the story:

             The Vote in the 2012 South Korean Presidential Election by Age Group [Park Geun-Hye vs. Moon Jae-In]
            Voters Born Before 1955:  For Park by a 3-to-1 Margin (Three in this age group voted for her, to one against)
            Voters Born Before 1965:  For Park by a 2-to-1 Margin (Two in this age group for her, to one against)
               Voters Born After 1975:  Against Park by 2-to-1 Margin (Two in this age group voted against her, to one for)
               Voters Born After 1985:  Against Park by 2-to-1 Margin (Two in this age group voted against her, to one for)
The division is sharp. It seems hinged on the question: “Do you remember South Korea under Park Chung-Hee?” 
In general, if your answer is “Yes, I remember”, then you voted for Mrs. Park. The more years of your life spent under the Park “dictatorship”, the more likely you were to vote for Mrs. Park in 2012. If your answer is “No, I don’t remember this country under General Park”  (I was either not yet born, or was too young), then you voted against Mrs. Park. / Those who would have remembered the 1950s era itself (as a contrast to the post-coup era) supported Mrs. Park totally-overwhelmingly, more than three-to-one. It is even starker if we discount the voters from the Southwest, who bloc-vote against conservative candidates because of a regional rivalry. My rough calculation is that in Korea outside the three southwest jurisdictions, voters born before 1955 supported Park Geun-Hye by five-to-one.

It was a “nostalgia election”. There happen to be more older than younger voters, and thus was the election decided.

Why would nostalgia be such a powerful force in South Korea? I have some speculations on that, too. I will comment on that another time.

bookmark_borderPost-53: May 16th, 1961, “the Finest Thing to Happen to Korea in a Thousand Years”

Tomorrow is May 16th. On May 16th, 1961, a clique of army officers, led by Generals Chang Do-Young and Park Chung-Hee ‘invaded’ Seoul and declared martial law.

A few weeks later, the coup was hailed as “the finest thing that has happened to Korea in a thousand years” by American General Van Fleet, known as the “Father of the R.O.K. Army”.

This single action largely defined South-Korean politics for the next thirty years or so. Its reverberations are still being felt into the 2010s. The daughter of General Park was elected president in 2012.

I will attempt here to give a brief outline of what I have learned about the coup during my time in Korea.

Posing in Front of Seoul City Hall on May 16th, 1961
General Park (left, with MacArthur-style sunglasses) and other officers

A description of the coup in an issue of Time Magazine from May 1961 began like this [via Gusts of Popular Feeling]:

It was 3:30 a.m. [on May 16th, 1961] when the Jeeps and trucks loaded with soldiers began rolling into Seoul. At the Han River bridge, six confused military police guards made the mistake of resisting and were shot on the spot. Columns of marines and paratroopers raced unopposed to the center of the city, surrounding government buildings, blocking intersections and firing into the air to frighten the populace.

One squad headed straight for the Bando Hotel to arrest Manhattan-educated Premier John M. Chang, whom the army expected to find asleep in his eighth-floor suite. But Chang and his family slipped away a few minutes before, and were already safely hidden at a friend’s house.

When dawn came, the coup was complete. Seoul seemed almost normal but for the heavy guards at every intersection and the orders blaring over the radio from the headquarters of peppery little Lieutenant General Chang Do Young [장도영], 38, Chief of Staff of the 600,000-man ROK Army, who now declared himself “Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee.”

Proclaiming martial law, General Chang ordered the Cabinet arrested, halted all civil air flights, banned political parties, forbade meetings and decreed censorship for newspapers.


General Chang Do-Young [장도영] and General Park Chung-Hee [박정희] (right)
pose in Seoul on May 20th, 1961, four days after their successful military coup

Over the next days, Generals Chang, Park, and the others explained why they had seized control of the government:

PictureJohn M. Chang [장면],
Leader of South Korea from
August 1960 to May 16th, 1961

            (1) To oppose Communism in all its forms          
            (2) To root out corruption
            (3) To solve the misery of the masses
            (4) To transfer power to new, conscientious politicians

The pursuit of (1) led to the arrest of thousands of Koreans suspected of “pro-Communist plotting”. This included many former government officials, including the former leader John Chang, on the pretext that he had given $770 to a left-wing “relief society”.

I suspect that this “opposition to Communism” as front-and-center was to win American support. General Van Fleet’s comment (the title of this post), and the subsequent acceptance of General Park by the Kennedy administration, suggests this was a success.

The larger goal, though, seems to have been the pursuit of point (2) above. This led to the arrest of many more, tens of thousands if not into the hundreds of thousands (40,000 in the first five months). People were arrested for anything deemed degenerate by the junta (e.g., prostitution, smuggling, scamming, gangsterism, running suspicious nightclubs, printing of ‘slanderous’ or leftist newspapers…and so on). Some of the worst offenders were executed.

The junta tried to ban conspicuous-consumption itself. Elaborate weddings and funerals: Outlawed. A waste of resources. Only simple ceremonies from now on. Wooden chopsticks: Banned. A waste of wood. And any government official who showed up five minutes late for work was fired on the spot. Hard austerity, it all was.


Officers that took part in the May 16th Coup pose on May 21st, 1961.
The shorter General Park Chung-Hee is standing, hands behind his back,
next the tall and sunglasses-wearing General Chang Do-Young, in front center

The promised “new, conscientious politicians” turned out to be heavily drawn from…the Army, presumably including many of the men in the group photo above. In certain ways, this was a good thing: They were a talented bunch. General Paik Sun-Yup [백선엽] wrote the following in the epilogue to his war-memoir:

After I let the army, I was posted as Korean ambassador to R.O.C. (Taiwan) for a year, to France for four years, and then to Canada for four more, returning to Korea in 1969. I found that Korea had been surging ahead economically since 1964, guided by an infusion of managerial knowledge provided by people who had served in the ROK Army.

One ROK-Army veteran with a lot of managerial knowledge (Chief of Staff in Spring ’61, in fact) was soon out, though:

PictureChang Do-Young [장도영]

General Chang (born 1923), the head of the junta in the early weeks, ended up arrested himself, in July of 1961, and was not heard from again. Few Koreans remember him today.

Ever since I learned this story a few years ago, I’ve wondered what became of the “peppery” Lieutenant General Chang Do-Young, the defacto ruler of South Korea for a few weeks in 1961. Did he return to the army? That would’ve been awkward. Did he live quietly on a farm for the rest of his days?

In fact, Chang spent time in Seodaemun Prison after his arrest, and released in 1962 or 1963.

After that, he actually went into a kind of exile in the USA. He had studied English in Japan during World War II, so he could speak English. He earned a doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1969, and became a professor at the University of Wisconsin until 1993, when he retired. He died in 2012. [From Korean Wikipedia]

It was General Park who ended up president, a position he retained until his death in 1979.

Things began to relax in 1962 and 1963; many prisoners were pardoned. Soon economic growth picked up.

Most Koreans who actually lived through that period (of military rule) seem to remember it fondly, it would seem. The coup and the subsequent strength of the Park Chung-Hee government brought an end to the instability and stagnation in which South-Korea was mired since its independence, many say. General Park is given credit for the wild economic growth of the 1960s-1970s. He was killed in 1979, but the essence of the regime he set up lasted well into the 1980s. Other generals, drawn from the broad-circle around Park, took his place after his assassination. The final general-turned-president handed over power to the first non-military president in February 1993.

Most negatively, the coup can be waved-away as s a power grab by ambitious mid-level figures in the military.

Most positively, it can be seen as a successful attempt to eliminate corruption/backwardness, resulting in prosperity.

bookmark_borderPost-52: One Night in April of 2009 (Pt. 7): What to Call the Boss

NOTE: These are my memories of the night I arrived in Korea in 2009.
The memories are vivid, even as I sit here in the spring of 2013, four years later.

[Simple synopsis of Part I: In the airport, I find the woman waiting to pick me up]
[Simple synopsis of Part II: Travelling by car from the airport to my new workplace; observations along the way]
[Simple synopsis of Part III: Meeting my new boss; relation of her personal history; departure for the restaurant]
[Simple synopsis of Part IV: Meeting new Korean coworkers at my first “hwe-shik”]
[Simple synopsis of Part V: Discussion of “hwe-shik”; its purpose/importance; subsequent hwe-shik experience]

[Simple synopsis of Part VI: Meeting my predecessor; description of him; amazement at his ability to read Korean]

Part VII:  What to Call the Boss
Sitting around the table, I knew I wouldn’t be able to remember many names. I was interviewed by Mr. C some weeks prior, so I knew who he was. That night, I didn’t actually know who Mrs. Y was, though. No one had told me. Knowing the boss’ name seems like an important thing. I needed to know what to call her, after all.

Not so fast. It turned out that “what to call her” and “what her name is” are entirely different questions in Korea. At the end of this night, which I hope to get to by Part XII, I made the mistake of calling her “Mrs. C”. She got confused at this. She said, “No, I am Mrs. Y; my husband is Mr. C!”

It may be because of this confusion that, on my second or third day, she handed me a piece of paper with two pieces of information on it: Her phone number was one. The other was a word totally unknown to me, written in pen in neat handwriting. The word was Wonjangnim [원장님]. She said, “You should call me that”. And that was that.

Address the Boss by Her Title
Wonjangnim was the title of her position. I came to learn that it means something like “Honored Director [of the Hagwon]” or perhaps “Honored Headmaster”.

This was the term the Korean staff used to address her, in all cases. I halfheartedly appreciated that I wasn’t “being singled out for special treatment” and told to call her something else than what others call her. It took me a long time to realize how unusual it really is for a boss to request that a foreign English teacher use that title to address him/her. In a way, I should have felt honored for being treated like an equal. I was mostly just confused at the time, though.

At the same time, it was very… awkward for me to address this woman, or any person at all, using a title and only a title. I don’t know if I’d ever hitherto in my life addressed anyone by a pure title with no name attached at all. It was “Professor Smith”, not just “Professor”; “Pastor Jones”, not just “Pastor”, and so on. Addressing someone with a pure title would be very out of place in the USA in which I grew up; I even feared sounding patronizing. It was even more awkward, I guess, that the honorific is added in the Korean, though I didn’t know any such thing in April of 2009.

My feelings of awkwardness and discomfort using this title weighed down on me. It took me a while before I actually used this title to directly address her.

Titles in Korean Work Life and Social Life
[Many benefits come from writing these memories four years later. One is that I can say the following, which I could not have done had this been written in May 2009, because I didn’t know much about Korea yet:]

Why was this woman asking me to call her by this strange-sounding title? Was it personal arrogance on her part? A Canadian who’d been in Korea for some time, whom I told after I met him at the foreigners’ office, seemed to think so. He scoffed that I’d actually been told to use the honorific “nim”.

In fact, titles are obligatory among Koreans working together, even when they are on very friendly terms. Addressing another teacher, one says “Kim Teacher” (Kim Sunsengnim), or just plain-old “Teacher” (Sunsengnim), not just “Kim”, or — God forbid — a given name.

More surprisingly, titles are very common even in purely-social situations. A male addressing an older male friend, for example, will call the older one hyung (형), meaning older-brother. This seems so antiquated — like something you’d hear from the Amish, or something. One would think addressing everyone by title, including friends, would a declining practice in the modern world. Not so: Even the youngest of Koreans alive today follow this “addressing by title” custom, religiously. In a classroom in which grades are mixed, a 5th grade girl will call a 6th grade girl un-ni, a word meaning older sister. Friends do it, too. It’s quite remarkable.
This is exactly the kind of thing about which I was in total ignorance on that night in April of 2009. Korean food was another. I’d never even tasted kimchi!  Soon I would. And my tastebuds have not been the same since. . . .

[This is the End of Part VII]

[Next: Part VIII, Part IX, and Part X]
[Previous: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV,
Part VI, and Part VI]

bookmark_borderPost-51: One Night in April of 2009 (Pt. 6): My Affable Predecessor

NOTE: These are my memories of the night I arrived in Korea in 2009.
The memories are vivid, even as I sit here in the spring of 2013, four years later.

[Simple synopsis of Part I: In the airport, I find the woman waiting to pick me up]
[Simple synopsis of Part II: Travelling by car from the airport to my new workplace; observations along the way]
[Simple synopsis of Part III: Meeting my new boss; relation of her personal history; departure for the restaurant]
[Simple synopsis of Part IV: Meeting new Korean coworkers at my first “hwe-shik”]

[Simple synopsis of Part V: Discussion of hwe-shik; its purpose/importance; subsequent hwe-shik experience]

Part VI: Meeting My Affable Predecessor
If you’re reading this, you may or may not have read Parts I to V. Or you may have gotten a bit tangled up in the digressions therein (and Part V was entirely a digression). This is ostensibly a narrative, though, so on with it.

Around the Table Again
Back on April 29th of 2009. A small, not-well-lit, noisy restaurant, after 11 PM. Conviviality is thick in the air, though less so at our table. Ours is a bit tense, you see, because it’s hwe-shik (as described in Part V). I sit at a corner of a wooden, rectangular table around which sit seven others. Six are Koreans. One of them is “B”, an affable American man in his mid-30s. I sit to his right.

B is my predecessor. His contract is up. He is going home. I’m taking his job.

Looking to my left, I see B, but beyond him I can see the regular Korean teachers. There are four of them (Kang, Yoon, Im, Lee). All are half-curious to see the new guy (me). I tried to describe the ambiance of their side of the table back in Part IV. Also (possibly) present, at that far end of the table and furthest away from me, may have been at least one of the so-called “Desk Teachers” (a curious title that was used for the two front-desk staffwomen. A “desk-teacher” was a receptionist/secretary/miscellaneous-job-doer, not a teacher at all). My memory is foggy on whether any desk-teachers were there, but at most hwe-shik the later-shift desk-teacher was generally also present.

Across from B sits Mr. C, the Korean husband of Mrs. Y, my new boss. Mrs. Y herself (whom I described in Part III) sits down directly across from me as I take my place next to B. That rounds out this review of the cast of characters.

Mrs. Y, the boss, is still all smiles, as she was to be all night. She promptly orders more alcohol, as was her wont to do. It was probably beer, although soju materialized soon, too. She didn’t ask if I wanted any. “Alright, this is the way it’s going to be” was more characteristic of her approach. My impression is that this is expected of the boss in Korea.

Some of my talking was with Mrs. Y and Mr. C, the bosses. We talked about lots of things, including the hagwon (language institute). They set me straight that it was an English hagwon, not a general-purpose hagwon which included English (as I’d read some are). That is how ignorant I was — I didn’t even know the nature of the job I was walking into. Mr. C was interested in the decline (and “bailout”) of the U.S. automotive industry, which was big in the news at the time — The nation that had pioneered car manufacture now had a bankrupt auto industry. One of us made the comment that the ones who pioneer things are often not those who do it best.

Naturally, some of my conversation was with B. I learned we had two things in common: He had a Danish surname (as is my own) and he was from Iowa (as is my father). Other than those two facts, he was quite different from me.

Physical Description of My Predecessor
Physically, B was 6’0″ or so, same as me, but a bit on the plump side, perhaps about average for a 21st-century American. I later learned he had gained weight due to a weakness for fried-chicken, a South-Korean obsession.

Later, too, the top student at this hagwon, then a 9th-grader who had scored an amazing 104 points on the TOEFL iBT test, told me various things about B, not all of them good. One of the stranger comments he made was that B “looked like Homer Simpson”. I had not seen it. The student commented that B’s “huge eyes” caused the resemblance, which, again, made no sense to me. Did B have “huge eyes”? I hadn’t noticed. The “big eyes”/”double-eyelid” beauty ideal in East-Asia is accurate, but comparing someone with big eyes to Homer Simpson does not seem complimentary!

The Affable American‘s Amazing Reading Ability
With the conversation flowing, food and drink came and went. New dishes were needed to replace those eaten.

That’s when it happened: The boss asked B what they should order next. He obliged. He went line by line through the simple menu, commenting on what he thought was good, recommending things to the boss. There was not a single English word in sight on that menu. He recommended pa-jeon (파전), which we ate.

I was stunned. There B was navigating through this seemingly-indecipherable alien script. And so seamlessly! How could a White man read an East-Asian alphabet? Put crudely, that’s something like how I felt. Maybe “impressed” is the best word. In time, I  developed the magical ability to read it, too. It’s not as impressive as it seems.

I soon learned that the alien script that B was able to read was called Hangul (officially, hangeul [한글]), and it is a high-point of pride among Koreans, who developed it seventy years before Luther hammered his 95 Theses onto that door.  [Note: “Hangul” definitely refers to the Korean script, or “alphabet”, which in sentence form looks something like this: “피터선생님 멍청이 아니에요”. There seems to be a persistent mistake among those affiliated with the U.S. Military regarding this word. They seem to call the Korean language itself  “Hangul”, which is definitely wrong. When I visited my uncle in 2011 at Camp Casey (he was there for work), more than once I was asked by his associates, “Can you speak Hangul?”, which logically makes no sense. It seems to me that’s like asking, “Can you speak hieroglyphics?” / My cousin’s husband, Air Force, stationed at a base in Korea in 2012, whom I visited in February of 2012, also repeated this erroneous use of the word “Hangul”.]

Good at Playing the Game
That B could read Korean (i.e., Hangul) more-or-less well was a testament, perhaps, to his status as a veteran of ESL in Korea. He had several contracts under his belt by the spring of 2009. Another was ending that very week.

He was smooth, on the charming side but without a hint of smarminess. He knew how to play the game well. He knew how to make himself look good to the Koreans without working too hard. I’ve always felt I am the opposite: I work (“too”) hard but don’t put much effort into making myself look good to superiors. My attitude is that it is immoral to do the latter, whereas it is “moral” (somehow) to produce quality work without overt desire to personally benefit. I am suspicious of (what I perceive to be) “form over substance” types. B was, looking back on it, somewhat of a “form over substance” person, frankly. (Sometimes I think Korea itself runs on a “form over substance” basis.)

B was well-liked by students and the Korean teachers. However, the kids who liked him tended to the lazier ones. In other words, he wouldn’t push them much. The kids who liked me most tended to be of a different stripe altogether.

Much later, I happen to have come across B’s resume at work. I think he completed four contracts through April 2009, with several-month gaps in between each. B was one of those who would do a year or so and return to the USA for a few months, visit friends and family, perhaps travel, and live off his savings, then return to Korea to do another contract. This is mostly my conjecture, but what else would he have been doing in those months?

My Predecessor’s Predecessor
Much later, too, I learned that B had only been at this ‘campus’ of the hagwon for a few months, after transferring from the other ‘campus’. The other campus (in the Hugok neighborhood of northern Ilsan) was bigger, and was managed by Mr. C — which is why Mr. C was here at this dinner. Why had B. been transferred so late in his contract? It turns out the previous foreign-teacher had done some damage. The mothers were upset. B was called-in, in the same way as a steady veteran pitcher is brought in when the bases are loaded in the ninth inning.

The guy he replaced: A younger American, G., lazy and sarcastic. I never met him (as he left in late 2008 or early 2009), but I did learn this much: G. dedicated his preparation time in the teachers’ room exclusively (so I’m told) to giggling at political-comedy videos on the Internet, probably John Stewart. Hardly any planning was done; all of G’s attention was given to John Stewart. His classes were incoherent at times; his tests were lazily made. This guy was there about six months, from when this campus opened. The boss, Mrs. Y, did not like him. She liked B a lot more.

Although G. had not been gone long by the time I arrived, no one ever really referenced him a positive way or said they missed him. Many missed B. It was hard, for me, to step in after a popular teacher (B) left.

A Check In the Mail
In the two days I knew him, B gave very little guidance on actual teaching, but helped me in lots of other ways: He gave me his electronic bus/subway card, onto which I could load money in the machines. He drew a map of places I’d need to find my way around, he showed me how to get the bus to the hagwon. He also left me three boxes full of coins. Their cash value was something like $200. In a year or more, he’d never paid in exact change. He’d always overpay and take change home. He said he ran out of time and asked if I could go to the bank and send him a check to a U.S. address in Illinois. Okay. A few weeks later, I counted the money and sent him the check. It was quietly cashed. I never heard from B again. I heard my boss speculate that he was back in Korea, as of 2010.
This is all getting ahead of myself, though. Back on April 29th, I was drawn to B, because he was the only other native-English speaker in sight. I’m glad they sat me next to him. But, then, where else would they have put me?

I was also intrigued to be sitting across from Mrs. Y. The thing is, I didn’t at that time know what to call her. I didn’t know her name. Knowing her name wouldn’t have solved that problem anyway, as it turns out. . . .

[This is the End of Part VI]

[Next: Part VII, Part VIII, and Part IX]
[Previous: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V]

bookmark_borderPost-50: One Night in April of 2009 (Pt. 5): Hwe-Shik

NOTE: These are my memories of the night I arrived in Korea in 2009.
The memories are vivid, even as I sit here in the spring of 2013, four years later.

[Simple synopsis of Part I: In the airport, I find the woman waiting to pick me up]
[Simple synopsis of Part II: From the airport to my new workplace; observations along the way]
[Simple synopsis of Part III: I meet my new boss (whose personal history I relate); we depart for the restaurant]
[Simple synopsis of Part IV: Meeting new Korean coworkers at the restaurant]

In Part V here, I may do well to pause and discuss Korean hwe-shik generally, my impressions of it, and my later experiences with it. I found myself in one of these a matter of two hours after stepping off the plane. At that moment, of course, I didn’t realize what was happening, nor could I appreciate it. In retrospect, I can. . . .

Hwe-shik (회식), eating and drinking with coworkers as coworkers, outside work, and during which the boss (who pays) is present, is a vital part of the work experience in Korea, it seems to me. In my experience in Ilsan, hwe-shik  events principally involved the consumption of barbecued-at-the-table meat and alcohol.

Some more information, as I understand it:

Who Is Invited
Those not invited to hwe-shik are not considered actual coworkers. Part-time workers or lowly-assistants are often not invited. Those who are invited to hwe-shik and refuse to go are doing something strange, offensive, and faux-pas, perhaps comparable to not saluting a superior in the military at the proper time. (In my current job, we foreign teachers, in theory the equals of the Korean teachers, have not been invited to a single after-work hwe-shik in my 20 months of employment, which really distresses me.)

Hwe-shik are the initiative of the boss. They are led by the charisma of the boss, and endured (with varying levels of actual enjoyment) by those co-workers who are invited. In the case of my job in Ilsan, this usually included the “desk-teachers” and even the assistant (조교), the lowliest job of all. My closest Korean friend, C.B.W., was the sole assistant for a few months in 2009, and we first got to talking at a hwe-shik in August or September of 2009. Without hwe-shik, we never would’ve been friends.

The Purpose of Hwe-Shik
Students were frequently discussed at hwe-shik, it’s true, but “work” was never the purpose. Although the best short English translation possible may be “work-dinner”, that translation is seriously weak. “Work”, as such, was not the point. Usually these hwe-shik  were just held “for the heck of it” without any pretext like a holiday or someone’s last day (though those were also sometimes used to justify them). The purpose was more chit-chat and to enjoy a big meal paid for by the boss. More deeply, there was something else going on, though:

The Effect of Hwe-Shik (Juhng Building)
When push comes to shove, hwe-shik was/is a chance for building the emotion Koreans call Juhng (정), which I learned to be a special kind of bond formed with those with whom one has undergone mutual hardships, like the bond of soldiers who’ve served together. As I understand it, Juhng doesn’t necessarily mean friendship or even necessarily admiration, but a kind of recognition of, and appreciation of, shared-experience itself, “we are [were] all in this together”. It’s especially true for emotionally-important experiences, like (again) combat, or working together at a such-and-such company in difficult conditions. The harder the situation, the stronger the Juhng.

Benefits of Hwe-Shik
There are good things and bad things I can say about my one year in Ilsan. Looking back now, fours years after that first hwe-shik I began describing in Part IV, and three years after I finished my contract and left Ilsan, I can say that these attempts to build rapport, to sow the seeds of Juhng, were terrific for me. I felt included (in a way), and valued, proud. I got a lot of Juhng “points” with those coworkers for always being there, plus I was able to try all manner of new foods, I picked up some Korean language on those nights, I learned more about my coworkers, and observed Koreans functioning purely within their own culture. And, not least, it was a lot of free food!

Anyway, the hwe-shik at my job in Ilsan were all the initiative of the boss, Mrs. Y. I owe her a debt of gratitude, as I imply above. That’s not to say I enjoyed  them: Typically, the others spoke only in Korean, and I was left alone eating what I could find in front of me and trying not to look too uncomfortable. In this context, focusing too much on “enjoyment” is silly, though. The gladness I feel for having had those experiences is not connected with ‘enjoyment’.

A Terrible Attitude
I pity any foreigner who comes here, works with Koreans, and never does hwe-shik. They are missing something. Worse than missing out, though, is willingly missing out. Few things have annoyed me more, within the context of working in Korea, than when some of the other foreigners who are employed in the family of hagwon at which I presently work have said how glad they are that we haven’t had work-dinners. They don’t “want to”. The people I am thinking of have never worked anywhere else in Korea, so have never actually experienced hwe-shik at all. This attitude is terrible. Worse, it is foolish. Why are they in Korea? It’s like going to Hawaii for a year but never making it to the beach, then shrugging it off with a “I’m glad I never went to the beach — Who needs the sunburn?” ….Argh.

Synopsis of My Hwe-Shik in 2009-2010
We had hwe-shik  approximately once a month in my year in Ilsan. Maybe twice Western food was involved (including the Christmas one), but otherwise it was barbecued meat, typically the fatty pork sam-gyup-sal. Alcohol was always involved. There were several instances of the boss buying lunch or a late dinner for all or some of us, which we ate in the language-institute itself — including one instance of some unidentified ultra-spicy Chinese food that affected my tongue and mouth so strongly that it brought tears to my eyes. I spent five minutes in the institute’s bathroom running water over my tongue after finishing.

I’m not sure whether to consider such meals consumed at work true hwe-shik or not. Some (of my arbitrary) criteria are met, but a true hwe-shik, to me, need be outside the premises of work. 

Only once was one organized not by the boss but by another senior teacher, a woman who made up for in force-of-will and loudness-of-voice what she lacked in stature (being not much over 5’0″), and whose name sounded very similar to North Korea’s now-dead second president.

In November of 2009, we also had what could be called a 24-hour-long hwe-shik, in which all the teachers (and the shy desk-teacher I mentioned in Part III) went to a pension on Ganghwa Island after work on one Saturday. Again, paid for in full by the boss. Barbecue pork and beef was had, a lot of talking was done, and then sleep. People left by noon Sunday. As, again, with most hwe-shik, there was no actual reason for going to Ganghwa Island overnight. I recall some flimsy lip-service being given to the idea that it would be a “training”, but lip service is all it was.

Back in the 11 o’clock hour of April 29th, 2009 (Korea time), in that cozy-but-noisy restaurant in Ilsan, the “reason” for the hwe-shik underway was clear, though: a farewell and a welcome. The ‘welcome’ was directed at me, of course. The ‘farewell’ was for B, the American man in his 30s whom I was replacing. I was now sitting next to him, and soon became amazed at one particular ability he had. . . .

[This is the End of Part V]

[Next: Part VI, Part VII, and Part VIII]
[Previous: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV]

bookmark_borderPost-49: One Night in April of 2009 (Pt. 4): Meeting New Coworkers

NOTE: These are my memories of the night I arrived in Korea in 2009.
The memories are vivid, even as I sit here in the spring of 2013, four years later.

[Simple synopsis of Part I: In the airport, I find the woman waiting to pick me up]
[Simple synopsis of Part II: From the airport to my new workplace; observations along the way]
[Simple synopsis of Part III: I meet my new boss (whose personal history I relate); we depart for the restaurant]

Part IV: Meeting the New Coworkers

The restaurant was humming with activity as we walked in. The owner or manager of the restaurant seemed acquainted with my new boss (Mrs. Y). It’s likely she’d been coming here for many years.

“What kind of restaurant would be so alive at 11 PM?”  — I don’t remember if I asked myself that question as I was walking into the restaurant with that night. I may well have. Many establishments, drinking-oriented, have their prime hours around this time, of course, but this one seemed on the food-oriented side.

It was much later that I realized why this food-oriented place was so alive at 11 PM. It’s because we were on Ilsan’s “Hagwon Road”. This was one of the many restaurants on that road that catered to hagwon teachers and staff. In those days, most hagwons had quitting times of 10 PM or 11 PM.

Some Giggling
A table full of people awaited, seated around a rectangular table of Western style (i.e., no sitting on the floor here, though sitting-on-the-floor places were not hard to find, if desired). All eyes were on us, or perhaps on me specifically, as we approached. I was introduced.

I remember a lot of giggling in those first minutes, which I interpreted to be at my expense (and may partly have been), but which I realize now was them trying to be polite, giggling being a common way Korean women are polite.

One of the souces of the giggling was a comment by one of the Korean teachers — maybe Kang, maybe Yoon — that I (supposedly) looked similar to one of the English-speaking cartoon-characters used in the textbooks. Was it supposed to be a compliment? The others found this quite funny. I never got a chance to see this cartoon-character.

Ages of the Other Teachers
Of the eight to ten people eating together that night, I was certainly the youngest. I make a note of this because age matters a lot more in Korea than it does in the West, as I later came to realize. I spent a lot of time in 2009 wishing I were a few years older, to relate better to my coworkers.

The four regular Korean teachers — all women at that point — were born (I believe) between 1979 and 1983, with Kang being the youngest. Yoon, who was born in (I think) 1980, was very concerned that she was soon becoming (according to her) an “adjumma”, a middle-aged woman. She was only turning 29 that year, though. The outgoing “foreign teacher” was born in the mid-1970s, and so was older than the Korean teachers. I was seated next to him.

The bosses, Mr. C (born in the ’60s) and his wife Mrs. Y (born 1970), were — naturally — the oldest. (Though husband and wife, they did not share a family name, which confused me. I didn’t know, that night, that women in East-Asia retain what we call the “maiden name” their entire lives. Much later that night, I called my boss by the wrong name, assuming she bore her husband’s name. It was not my first display of cultural ignorance, and not my last.)

Fulfilling a Social Responsibility by Acting Excited
I already noted the giggling, but I strain my mind to remember anything more specific about the mood. Four years on, it feels like a faded dream a few minutes after waking up. In retrospect, I think the Korean teachers’ mood was one of nervous-excitement. I don’t think I’m projecting onto them my own feeling, though that was, also, my feeling.

Anyway, it’s fair to say that, insofar as the Korean teachers were trying to fulfill their roles as good subordinates (which is to say, good Koreans), they were at least trying to play the part of “nervous-excitement”. I mean, it is a Korean social responsibility to seem enthusiastic in the milieu of the “work-dinner”, or hwe-shik (회식) as it’s called. Only later did I learn the word hwe-shik, and only later still did I realize its importance. But there I was, maybe two hours off the plane, in the midst of one, my first one. . . .

[This is the End of Part IV]

[Next: Part V, Part VI, and Part VII]
[Previous: Part I, Part II, and Part III