Thursday, September 26, 2013

Korea, the Courteous Country

While reading a report written by one of my students, I came across a phrase she hadn't translated into English. The sentence went something like, "In history, Korea has been known as 동방예의지국, but these days, it is not living up to the name."

I was curious about the phrase, and, obviously, the report was supposed to be written entirely in English, so I asked my student to explain what it meant. Unfortunately, she was at a loss as to how to properly translate it. So, I turned to my co-teacher.

Taken as a whole, 동방예의지국 translates to "the courteous country in the East". Breaking it down, we have 동방 (dongbang), which refers to the East, 예의 (ye-i), which means 'etiquette', 지 (ji), a possessive particle, and 국 (guk), which means 'country'. All of these words are traditional Sino-Korean words (especially that possessive particle) that can be written with hanja, or Chinese characters, like so: 東方禮儀之國.

My co-teacher explained all this, but she also wasn't sure where the phrase itself came from. After a bit of research, she found out that the name was one that China gave to Korea thousands of years ago. In the 산해경 (Sanhaegyeong/山海經), an ancient almanac compiled between 200BC and AD200, a pre-Three Kingdoms Korea was described as "courteous" by the Chinese geographers and proto-anthropologists.

While my student was using this tidbit of ancient sociology to bolster her argument that the increasing moral decrepitude and general lack of politesse among today's Korean youth is dishonorable and unacceptable, my co-teacher offered a different perspective: the Chinese likely didn't know or even care about common Korean societal mores way back then, and the only reason the people of this neighboring country were deemed "polite" was that they never invaded China. Perhaps, in a sense, respecting one's fellow nations instead of flexing one's war-mongering, imperialism-driven muscles in the ancient world could be interpreted as a kind of etiquette.

In my experience, the notion that Koreans are extremely courteous is nevertheless quite pervasive in this country. Foreigners are always educated in the proper ways to offer gifts, greet one's seniors, save face, and jump through many other metaphorical hoops in order to adapt to this culture. I like that it can be caricatured, though: a quick image search for the phrase "동방예의지국" turns up several photos of Koreans doing 인사 (insa, a bowing greeting) to trucks and other inanimate objects. I want this to go viral, but hadoukening seems to have won out for now.
"무개화차님, 안녕하십니까?" From 서울신분 "Boom".

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Kid They Call 게이

One of my first-year students is named JS. He's quiet and polite, and he's one of the stars in his class when it comes to English, since he lived in the U.S. when he was little (in Georgia for about three years, or maybe during third grade; I can't recall) and speaks English quite well. His general attitude during class is just what you'd expect from a smart kid who understands everything that's going on but doesn't always care. But I like him; though he's not a shining star of enthusiasm, he works diligently when it's time to work, and he also helps his peers out when they're struggling.

The other students call him "Gay".

The first time I heard that, I ignored it. The second time I heard it, I thought that maybe I'd heard it incorrectly. The other students used it as a term of address, like it was his nickname. As it turns out, that's exactly what it is.

The third time I heard it, I directly addressed the student who had said it.

"What did you say, HS?"
"Oh, sorry Teacher, nothing."
"No, what did you call him?"
"It's his... 뭐지? Nickname! It's a nickname."
"Why do you call him that?"
"It's a joke!"
"Don't call him that." I walked away.

I was really troubled. My students are typical teenagers. They call each other names. They hurt each other intentionally and unintentionally with their words. But my students are also Korean teenagers, so add to their adolescent flippancy a worrisome lack of understanding about LGBTQ issues and the baggage carried by the word "gay" in American culture -- the culture I am supposed to represent and teach. My students very likely have no idea that they could be bullying JS with the nickname they have designated for him.

The fourth time I heard it was this evening just as I was leaving for home.

"Hey, JS, how was your Chuseok?"
"Oh, good. But I had to study." WJ approached. She's a sweet girl, also has impeccable English.
"Hi, Teacher," she said. Turned to JS as she walked away: "Gay."
"What did you say?"
"Oh, it's his nickname," she said, still walking.
"No, come back here. What's his nickname?"
"Um... it's..." To JS: "Can I tell him?"
"Look, I know what you said. Why did you call him that?"
"It's just a joke."
"It's my nickname," he said. "My friends just... like the way it sounds. It sounds nice."
"Are you okay with it?"
"Well, as long as you're okay with it..."

I left. WJ and JS walked into the study room, the former tittering as if she'd just escaped some dire punishment. I rehearsed a lecture in my head on my way home. I came up with a dozen better things I could have said.

But you know what? This story doesn't have an ending yet. I'm honestly at a loss here. What's a teacher to do when he 1) doesn't want to get in the way of his students' apparently innocuous camaraderie 2) won't stand for any verbal bullying among them 3) feels a need to explain why using the word "gay" as a casual nickname isn't okay without 4) imposing the value system of a historically hegemonic culture on theirs?

Suggestions welcome! Leave a comment.

Part 2 can be found here.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hospitality, or: My Taekgyeon Teacher is a Real Nice Guy

I think my taekgyeon teacher (or 관장님, which is like "master" or "director") has become my new homestay dad, in a way. Well, at the very least, he's been a very kind and generous person in my life, and I'm deeply grateful to him and his wife.

Before I left for home last week, when he found out why I was visiting home, he personally went and got a gift set of his favorite brand of 막걸리 (makkeolli) for me to give to my parents. My first thought was, "Boy, that is going to take up all of the room in my suitcase." But then, I realized how kind a gesture it was. My parents thought so, too, even though they hardly drink at all.

He's also become my gymnastics trainer. I merely casually mentioned after class one night that I wanted to learn how to do a back handspring, and before I knew it, he was telling me to do a bridge and spotting me for a back walkover. I regularly treat his dojang like my personal tricking gym, but instead of being annoyed at this, he's always been encouraging and wants to help me reach my goals, however trivial.

Then, yesterday, he invited me and some of the other members of the dojang over to his new apartment for a small apartment-warming party. We brought some gifts (it's customary to bring household goods like toilet paper or tissues to a 집들이; I also brought donuts!) and ate and chatted with him and his wife and cooed at his chubby seven-month-old son. Over fifty percent of the time, I tuned out what everyone was talking about in rapid Gyeongnam dialect Korean, but when I did listen and comprehend, the conversation strayed from the odd sports tchoukball and "padminton" to the UFO crash in Roswell to a debate over whether the greenhouse effect was a political scam or a real phenomenon. Eventually, though, I just couldn't keep my eyes open -- an unwieldy combination of jetlag, dry eyes, sitting on the floor for hours, and taxing mental strain to follow along -- and I fell asleep on the sofa.

When I woke up, it was almost 2am, my ride had left, and 관장님 was like, "Dude, you can just sleep here overnight, if you want. You should." So I did. And this morning, he, his wife, and I ate breakfast like a family, and then they sent me off with some fruits and an invitation to come back again whenever I wanted to. How can I pay back that kind of hospitality?

All in all, I'm just very thankful that my teacher treats me not like some random waygookin (foreigner) but like his friend. I'm entertaining this wild idea that in twenty years, his son will want to study English in the States, and so I'll be like, "Dude, he can just stay at my place, if he wants. He should."

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Celebrity Gay Wedding in South Korea

Here's some big news: last week, film director Kim-Jho Gwang-soo (김조광수) married his boyfriend of nine years in a public wedding ceremony meant to galvanize social awareness of LGBTQ rights in Korea. About one thousand people were in attendance at the ceremony held by the Cheonggye Stream in Seoul.

From The Hankyoreh
The LGBTQ community in Korea is not in a very enviable position. Centuries of traditional ethics imposed and strengthened by Korea's Confucian and Christian roots push sexual minorities way into the margins of society. In a society where even discussing normative sexual issues is taboo, many have adopted the struthious approach and simply declared that homosexuality is a "Western world's problem" that has nothing to do with Korea. But the controversy can't be waved away for much longer. While same-sex marriage has not been actually outlawed, it is not yet legally recognized. Thus, this high-profile wedding ceremony of two fairly well-known figures in the entertainment industry is something that will test the country's attitude toward the issue.

Unsurprisingly, there were some detractors, including two self-identified Christian wedding crashers who disrupted the ceremony on separate occasions. One of them jumped onto the stage and scattered garbage and food waste on it. Very Christ-like, I'm sure.

On a more positive (and perhaps surprising) note, the couple's marriage registration form was accepted by the district office, saying that the law stipulates nothing against gay couples who submit an application, but the legal process of family registration will be left to the court's interpretation. So, there's still a ways to go, but things seem to be looking up.

Here is one more article that does a good job laying out the history and current political situation regarding same-sex marriage in Korea.

I'm very curious about what my students might think of this. As soon as my college prep classes begin in a few weeks, I'll have them debate hot button issues such as this one.

P.S. And just for kicks, here's a link to a piece my friend and fellow Fulbrighter Jake wrote for Fulbright's literary magazine, Infusion, about the slowly changing attitude toward gays and lesbians in Korean society, propelled in large part thanks to exposure through media and entertainment.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Happy Chuseok! Chuseok (추석) is one of Korea's most important national holidays. On this day, almost everything is closed, people go back to their hometowns for family reunions and eat lots of food, and feelings of goodwill abound. Chuseok has been called "Korean Thanksgiving" in reference to the traditional American holiday, but to be honest, the similarities between the two do not run very deep.

That said, I did want to take a moment to be thankful for, well, my life. When I was home last weekend, I got a moment to catch up with a good friend from high school whom I hadn't seen in quite some time. We went to Yogurtland (where else?) and chatted. Bringing each other up to date on the past few years and laying out our thoughts for the coming ones was eye-opening for me in a small but significant way.

I realized that I have so many blessings for which to be thankful: up until now, I have had the fortunes of good health and a good education; right now, I have a job that I love and that brings a steady income; for the future, I'm making plans for graduate school that are slowly but surely taking shape. You know, not everyone can say that they are truly satisfied with their present situation and excited about the future. But I can! And it's humbling, because I know I didn't do anything to deserve any of this. God was just like, "Hey, let's make this kid's life relatively easy, maybe he'll turn out all right." And he did, I think.

So, this Chuseok, I am thankful for the opportunities granted me by Fulbright, for the love and support of my family, for all my friends, who continue to make me into a better person, and for God, who blesses his children all the time for no apparent reason other than fatherly love.

I'm even thankful for jetlag, because it's dragging me to sleep right now -- way before my usual bedtime -- in an apparent effort to get me to sleep at an unusual (for me) albeit appropriate hour. 굿나이트!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

An Unexpected Homecoming

I'm home. I'm in California, and I'm sitting on my bed next to my stuffed animals and an emptied suitcase, and it feels very odd.

Only one month into my second year teaching, I couldn't have predicted this little break coming so soon. One sunny Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I was just beginning plans for winter holiday travel when my brother called and broke the news to me: A-kong, my grandfather, had passed away.

It was expected for me to attend the funeral. All nine of my grandfather's grandchildren had to come back from the far corners of the country (and the world, in my case). So, I asked for some time off from my school, booked the cheapest ticket I could find, and rearranged my plans to make room for an emergency trip home.

One thing I'm really thankful for and impressed by is the outpouring of sympathy from the Koreans in my circles. I wasn't planning on telling too many people what my plans were for the weekend, but obviously, I had to inform my co-teachers, since they have to cover seven classes for me. I also told my taekgyeon master and fellow trainees, and the night before I left, I paid a visit to my host parents from last year and broke the news to them, as well. The response was touching. My host parents asked me again and again if I was okay and if my family was holding together. My taekgyeon master gave me a gift of rice wine to take home to my parents. My co-teachers even collected some money for my family. It's a tradition to collect some funds for a 유족 (grieving family) to help cover funeral costs; there's even a special envelope you can buy for this very purpose. Although I don't think my family really needs the money they gave, it was such a strong manifestation of their kindness -- the same selflessness and helpfulness they have shown to me all year, which I have learned is called 정, that I was momentarily speechless when they gave it to me. I don't think I could bow low enough to show my gratitude!

Now that I'm actually home, though, everything feels kind of strange. I could attribute the feeling to 시차 (jetlag), but really, a part of me keeps telling me, "You're not supposed to be here right now. You should be teaching! You're supposed to be in Korea; why are you in California?" Obviously, this voice is delusional. What's most important right now is my family and the support I can give them for these five short days. I'm especially worried about my A-ma, whom I visited as soon as I got home. As far back as I can remember, I have never seen her cry, so I was shocked to see that she was sobbing when she opened the door to greet me this morning. It was partly joy to see me (despite having come from the farthest away, I was one of the first of the nine back for the weekend) and partly her utter sorrow that A-kong couldn't also be there to say hi to his youngest grandchild.

My last words to my grandfather, spoken before I left for Korea one month ago, were that I would see him again at Christmastime. I guess I got the timing wrong.

When most of the family gathered tonight for dinner and rehearsal for some of the songs we will sing at tomorrow's memorial service, I knew then that I was indeed in the right place. And at the right time. I will probably feel odd all weekend -- after all, death, though as common to the human experience as life, is never an easy thing to face for the first time -- but I know that everything will be okay. My family and I trust in God, who leads us into tough times and then back out of them, stronger or wiser or closer than ever before.
阿公, 我想你! 在主耶穌的懷裡安息.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Color Me Rad

Left to right: Kaley, Tracey, Katelyn, Connor, Rachel, (another) Andrew, and me. Photo courtesy Katelyn
Why, hello there. You might be wondering about the photo above -- what happened? Did my friends and I fall into a garbage truck? Have we been painting murals? Did we somehow grow mold on our t-shirts while out for a run? Nah, none of those are nearly exciting enough.

Last weekend, I went to Incheon, a city way up north, next to Seoul, for an event known as a "color run". It's ostensibly a race. When I told my Korean friends I was doing a 달리기, they invariably replied, "Oh, a 마라톤/marathon?" Well, no, not quite that much. This one was just 5k. So, what made it special?

Answer: the "color" part*. During the race, participants are covered with colored powder -- literally as they are running -- various times, until they finish the race with their clothes, limbs, and faces tinted green, blue, pink, purple, and yellow! You start off with a clean white tee and finish looking like, well, like I do in these photos.

The Incheon race was organized by Color Me Rad, which has taken the event all around the U.S. and Canada, arriving in Asia just this past year. The $35 registration fee got me a t-shirt, a pair of sunglasses (to look cool and to protect my eyes at the same time!), and a chance to have a wild, crazy time with my friends.
Fellow Fulbrighters and me (yellow sunglasses) before we began! Look at how clean our skin and shirts are. Photo courtesy Katelyn
The race was really casual, actually. I mean, I've never done any kind of race before; this was my first 5k, so I wanted to make it count and, you know, actually run. Well, the hundreds of other participants -- most of them Korean -- didn't really feel the same way. So many people were just casually walking along the race route, only picking up their pace to a jog before they entered a "coloring" stop and pranced around while they got covered in more colored powder.

Oh, just rolling around in yellow powder, no big deal.
My friends and I were determined to get some exercise out of this and jogged almost the entire thing, stopping only for water at first. Then, we realized that our pace was actually preventing us from getting as colorful as we wanted to be! While sweating helped the color stick (as did generally being wet: I was intensely purplified when some dudes brought water guns, poured purple powder into the tanks, and went for it), running too quickly through the coloring stops did not. So we hung back and joined the crowds of people haphazardly flinging colored powder into everyone else's faces.

By the time we got to the yellow station, we were just looking for ways to get as messy as possible, not gonna lie. We rolled around on the ground to pick up more yellow. I did a colored powder angel. And at the last station, which was green, was chaos. You could just grab a handful of powder and smear it into somebody else's hair. All of us ended up quite green by the time we reached the finish line. And once there, hey! Free Vitamin Water and 물티슈. Thanks, corporate sponsors!
Fulbrighters at the finish line! Note the prevalence of green. Photo courtesy Katelyn
But that wasn't the end. Nope, the "run", stops and all, took no more than forty-five minutes. What did we do for the rest of the time? Take pictures and party! Up near the starting line, they had set up a stage and were blasting dance music, so of course everyone flocked to it.

The dance party! I had my phone in a plastic bag to protect it from the powder.
Some ladies up on stage led the crowd in awkwardly suggestive dances that they billed as "Sexy Zumba". After that, there was a performance by a member of the K-Pop old guard known as Brian Joo. Everything about him screamed, "Korean-American," but I enjoyed it.

Every so often, the MCs would toss packets of color powder into the crowd and do a "Color Countdown": on zero, everyone attack each other with colored powder! The end of the race definitely didn't mean the end of the messiness.

Also, someone had managed to get ahold of a fire extinguisher and had filled it with orange powder. When it was fired at the audience, people went crazy. We danced, jumped, screamed, fought for the freebies being thrown from the stage, and got progressively more and more caked with color. It was really overwhelming. I've never done anything quite like this color party, and I'm really, really happy that I did.

Andrew is caked in colored powder, and he is very happy.
After everything was over, it was time to clean up. I only tried to get the worst of it off my face before heading onto the subway with hundreds of other rainbow-colored racers. I figured a long, long shower afterward would suffice later. Well, my friends and I got a lot of stares on the subway, especially by the time we reached the center of Seoul and we were the only Shrek-look-alikes left. Walking around Hongdae in our colored state was also amusing. Inevitably, our feet led us to Fell+Cole, our favorite ice cream shop, and when we walked in the door, the owner (who is familiar with us by now) took one look and said, "Ohhh, I'm so jealous; they did the Color Me Rad!" (He had done it in San Francisco previously.)

The rest of the weekend was just as great: seeing Fulbrighters for the first time since the start of this semester (as well as catching up with a high school friend on her vacation!), drawing Pokemon together, devouring the banana bread pudding I baked, finding new great places for Hungry in Hongdae (Around the Corner for organic honey ice cream and Burger B for mouthwatering burgers), and introducing friends to AcousticHolic! It was everything I could ask for in a weekend in Seoul. Good times.
Above is a video I took with my cell phone of one of the "Color Countdowns". My phone was inside of a plastic bag coated in colored powder, so the quality is especially bad, but you can still tell how fun and crazy it all was!

- - -

*I need to note here that the very recent rise in popularity of these color runs has touched off a not insignificant number of people of the Hindu tradition who are unhappy with the apparent "whitewashing" of their famous spring festival, Holi. While proponents of colors runs would argue that getting messy while running a race is innocent fun, the idea of colored powder as a sort of gimmick for a completely secular event -- without putting in a single word about its origin -- might very well be cultural appropriation. And it would be precisely the sort of appropriation that Koreans would have difficulty understanding, there not being the same history of White cultural hegemony in this country as we have in the U.S. Just food for thought.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Korean Rock-Paper-Scissors

Simon from the Omniglot Blog recently wrote a post about the game of Rock-paper-scissors and asked his readers about variations of the game or its name in other cultures. I thought immediately of two things: "Yang Yang Pess" and "가위바위보".

When I was young and I played RPS with my brothers and cousins, we would always chant, "Yang, yang, pess!" instead of, "Rock, paper, scissors!" To this day, I haven't the faintest idea why we said this or what it means. It's one of those odd, cute memories that will probably never amount to anything.

On the other hand, you have the way RPS is played among Korean schoolboys. Not only is it impressive and fun to watch, it has also influenced the way I play RPS and/or make decisions amongst friends.

"가위바위보" is pronounced ka-wi, ba-wi, bo. Said quickly, as it always is, it's more like, kai-bai-bo, which to my ears sounded like Chinese. The order of the tools is similar to the Chinese version, anyhow: scissors, then rock, and paper last.

Students in Korea use 가위바위보 to settle almost any dispute. But the captivating thing about the way they play is the speed. For some reason or other, throwing the same sign (e.g. both players throw rock) happens with unusually high frequency, resulting in games with three or four rematches in quick succession. In this case, players don't bother to say, "Kai-bai-bo" every time, but just call out, "Bo! Bo! Bo!" while throwing their signs.

Another interesting twist I've seen at school and the dojang is with many people all playing at the same time. Groups of boys as large as a dozen all throw their signs and then go for it, elimination-style. The thing is, with that many players, the odds that only two signs will be thrown are very slim. With twelve players, for example, you can have four players throwing each of the signs again and again. All I hear in the hallways is loud, primal chanting: "Bo! Bo! Bo! Bo! Bo! Bo! Bo!" Finally, they'll get something like seven rocks and five scissors, the winners go free, and the losers continue playing until there is only one left. This poor boy then has to do whatever dare they had all previous decided upon.

Ah, adolescence.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Baking Party

Some friends came over tonight because I enticed them with cookies! It was supposed to be a 집들이 (housewarming party), but in reality I just wanted to test-drive my new convection oven. The instruction manual was in Korean, so I needed some help... My friend 은진 graciously took me shopping for baking supplies this afternoon, and then we set to work making banana bread! Preparing the batter was easy and quite fun -- 은진, like most Koreans, doesn't bake often at all, so it was a novel experience. When it came to using the oven... well, we ended up just pressing a lot of buttons. (I learned that convection ovens don't need to preheat. At least, mine doesn't. Is this normal?)
바나나 브레드, which is not technically bread but who cares?
We then ate our delicious banana bread and watched a movie, and when Aaron came over, we started on chocolate chip and M&M cookies. These were less successful. I think we were all comparing them subconsciously to the warm, gooey cookies that Maggie Gyllenhaal's character makes in Stranger Than Fiction (the movie we watched). Ours were warm and a bit crispy. Too little flour? Too much butter? I'll figure this out. I have a whole year to get good at this.
엠엔엠 쿠키, which was a wonderful culinary invention!
Also, like Maggie Gyllenhaal's character in Stranger Than Fiction, I'm going to have to give away a lot of what I make, because I'm trying to eat healthfully this year, and cookies don't factor into that anywhere. You know what that means, readers who live in Korea: come visit me, and I will feed you delicious baked goods! In the meantime, I think I'll give the rest of the banana bread to my old homestay family. I bet they've never even heard of banana bread...