Monday, April 15, 2013

The Researchers (+ an announcement!)

The Spring Conference was not only a chance for Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) to get together and share what new and exciting things they were doing, but it was also a major gathering for the Fulbright researchers, affectionately known by us ETAs as "our other half". These two dozen-or-so independent academics, some fresh out of college and others working on their Masters or Doctoral degrees, have been in the country since last fall. Their research spans a wide variety of topics all related to South Korean history, culture, economics, health, or politics, and it was all quite well done.

During the last day and a half of our weekend in Jeju, the Fulbright researchers presented their research -- mostly background and updates, since they have not been here for too long yet -- to the entire Fulbright community. I actually expected it to be tough to sit through tons of these presentations at a time, since I knew that I'd be tired from the island tour and also probably not very interested in their subject matter. Boy, was I wrong. I was completely engrossed by more than half of the presentations, and I didn't doze off once. I think the doodle-notes helped a bit; during the presentations that didn't engage me as much, I took to "enhancing" the notes I'd taken on other segments and ended up with a pretty page of tons of information about South Korea. Here are some notes! Browse at your leisure and leave a comment or question!

Joanne Cho is researching suicide in the country whose suicide rate is the greatest among all OECD countries. Suicide (자살) is the leadingcause of death for Koreans aged 10-40 (age 10?!), although a higher proportion of older men and women commit suicide, which makes this a social issue on all fronts, for all people. The reason behind this is often cited as stress, social pressure, and inadequate mental health care, but Ms. Cho thinks it's not so simple. She is investigating not only the mental health care system and its purported deficiencies, but also the stigma and the paradoxical influence of high-profile suicides on public perceptions of how to deal with shame.

Emerson Song is researching the effects of 한식 (hanshik, or Korean cuisine) on obesity. Koreans have a significantly lower average BMI than residents of all Western countries, but the number of overweight and obese adults is rising. Also, did you know that Asians and Caucasians gain weight in different ways/places in the body? Due to this, it might be necessary to reevaluate the way Western medicine defines "obese". The more you know!

Korean-American Return Migration
Stephen Suh has been interviewing Koreans who have lived abroad (read: in the US) for extended periods of time but have since returned to Korea and are living stably and comfortably here. Why would Korean-Americans want to come back to Korea? For one, the economics prospects in the US still suck, and native-like fluency in English can get you a long way in any job in Korea, not just as an English teacher. But the typical locations of Korean return migrants are indeed English education and international businesses, as well as in the US military, which might indicate a propensity toward vocations that accentuate a return migrant's American identity. Does the US exert a strong cultural influence on Korea without using military force? Yes. (Mr. Suh calls this neo-imperialism.) Do 재미교포 who come to Korea have a role to play in all of this? Perhaps.

Chaebol Urbanism
The 재벌 (chaebol) is a unique type of business conglomerate that has flourished in South Korea and, arguably, been at the root of its meteoric economic rise in the past fifty years. Justin Stern did a unique economic and architectural study of the effect of these conglomerates on the visual landscape of Seoul. There was a lot of fascinating history included in this presentation: did you know that in the 1960's, the South Korean government extended huge benefits to Lotte, then a small confectionery company, so that they could finance the building of a grand hotel, and then an amusement park, and then an apartment complex? These business depended on the government for their big breaks, but once the construction began, it took off and hasn't stopped since.

These days, the mark of the conglomerates is huge. Names like Samsung, Kia, Hyundai, GS, and LG are everywhere: on gas stations, cafes, department stores, office buildings, theaters, phones, and even life insurance. They have spread their influence so far that even the government now wouldn't dare funnel any money into any project without first getting the okay from a chaebol. Anyway, how has this affected the urbanization of Seoul? Well, aside from having everything that makes a city a city owned by one conglomerate or another, each chaebol's headquarters appears to have staked out a geographic portion of the city to call its own, which, when you consider how every chaebol wants its own skyscraper and beautiful, futuristic office complex in its own neighborhood, will give us a strange, scattered skyline in twenty years or so.

Cosmetic Surgery
Kayleigh Nauman is heading up an interesting project investigating attitudes of foreigners in Korea toward cosmetic (plastic) surgery (성형수술). This is informed by the fact that there are between 400-600 cosmetic surgery businesses in the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul alone -- and yes, they are regulated as businesses, not as medical practice. Loads of foreigners travel to Korea for "medical tourism" (150,000 in 2012), but why do they choose Korea?

Ms. Nauman wanted to dispel the stereotypes that cosmetic surgery in Korea was the cheapest in this region of the world (because it isn't), or that Asians wanted to look like K-pop stars, or, heaven forbid, that Asians want to look more "Western". (I mean, I've realized by now that suggesting that the Korean or Asian beauty ideal is just Hollywood glamour transplanted onto the other side of the Pacific is, in fact, a misguided opinion at best and a white- or American-centric microagression at worst. And it still wouldn't really answer why Korea is such a hot spot for people who want to cut up and realign their legs and boobs and faces. (By the way, I acknowledge that I did write about this very idea a month or so ago. And +1 for embedded parenthetical statements.)) Anyway, this was interesting research that was definitely on my mind as I planned a lesson on beauty standards for my second-years for this week.
Doodle-notes! (Clicking on the photo will make it bigger, but it will not fix my handwriting.)
There was a quintet of Fulbright researchers whose topics involved North Korea and North Korean refugees. They were so informative and intriguing that I took copious notes, and I will write them all up as a separate post later.

Overall, I felt really fortunate to be able to hear the presentations given by the researchers. It was academically fulfilling to tackle these issues and get some dialogue going with my fellow Fulbrighters. It was also very refreshing to see Korea through the lenses of people who have not been dealing with students and principals and lesson plans and classroom management for six months. I'll say, teaching can really swallow you whole; after a while you begin to forget that anything else exists outside of your various classrooms.

In addition to the Fulbright researchers, some other parts of conference were given to Fulbright ETAs who were doing their own side projects, independent research or community events, things like that. As I heard from my colleagues who are compiling cookbooks, editing our annual literary magazine, or developing education-based NGOs, I obviously felt like I've been absolutely unproductive with my time here. I'm so lazy and not driven compared to everyone else! But hearing about everyone's projects was great nevertheless.

This is all such a far cry from Fall Conference in Gyeongju last October. Our last conference was themed around solving the myriad problems that had cropped up in the first-year ETAs' experiences thus far in the grant year. We're all a long way from that now: small group discussions were no longer "how to address school issue X and homestay issue Y" but more for living in Korea (dating advice, dealing with sexual harassment, exploiting every feature of your smartphone) or preparing for life after Fulbright (resume building, pursuing teacher certification). And, as I've noted, all of the large group talks were presentations on amazing projects we've accomplished since last August.

Most importantly, while I was anxious about my future around the time of Fall Conference, I can proudly and excitedly declare that during Spring Conference, I decided to renew my grant. This means that I will stay in Korea for one more year! I get a month-long break in July/August, and then it's straight back to teaching. I'll get to watch my second- and third-years graduate again, and I'll gain so much more experience in teaching and living in Korea.

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