Monday, March 31, 2014

Hungry Socks

배고픈 양말 하고 학교 슬리퍼
In a hurry from the gym to the cafeteria for dinner this evening, I hastily pulled on my socks and put on my ever-so-stylish slippers -- a common footwear choice at Korean schools, among students and teachers alike.

Over dinner, I discussed possible April Fool's Day / 만우절 pranks with my students. My well-received suggestion was for them to try to speak only in English during their Korean class. (My prank of choice is to begin classes in French.)

I didn't notice anything odd about my socks until after dinner, as I was leaving the cafeteria.

A fellow teacher came up behind me and said, in his best English, "Andrew, stop. Your sock is... eating your pants."

Laughing, I rescued my pantleg from my hungry socks and continued chatting with my students. The first-year I was talking do was eager to tell me how proud he was that he bought a purple-and-yellow plaid shirt against his mother's objections, and I said that it was a fine purchase.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Jindo Miracle Sea Festival

The question is: was it worth going to the Jindo Miracle Sea Festival?
Actually, the question is: What is this festival, anyway? And what are they wearing? And what time is it???
Was it worth traveling from Changwon to Gwangju (3 hours) and then Gwangju to Jindo (2 hours) on a rainy day without time for a proper meal?

Was it worth actually missing the scheduled bus to Jindo and having to wait an hour for the next one, moving our arrival time to even later on a cold, drizzly evening?

Was it worth joining a pension (a rented house) with over thirty other people crammed so full that there was nowhere to sleep but the ground?

Was it worth staying up all night and not sleeping at all because we had to leave for the sea-parting ceremony at three in the morning? Or missing the first caravan and consequently actually leaving at four?

Was it worth arriving at the beach, having just missed the fireworks, to find hundreds of people carrying torches, already returning from the sea-crossing since the tide didn't go down low enough to make it to the other side?

Was it worth standing around in the dark, damp morning, waiting for the sun to rise, but not even seeing it due to the fog?

Was it worth waiting in the cold for a taxi to take me back to Jindo, then a bus to take me back to Gwangju, then another bus to take me back to Changwon, during which rides all I slept more soundly than I have for about a week?

Hm... 모르는것 같아...?

No, just kidding. The answer is: YES. It was totally worth it.

It was worth traveling for five hours in poor weather because I've sorely needed to get out of my city for a while. It was worth missing the first bus to Jindo, because I ran into other Fulbrighters at the terminal -- we missed the bus together -- and got to know them much better. It was worth being packed into the pension because it was full of new friends and old, and we ate, joked, played music, caught up on old times, and simply had a great party all night. It was worth not sleeping because instead, I played some fun games and took a walk outside and felt just a little bit like I was in college again, forgoing sleep for the sake of making memories. Even missing the first caravan was no big deal since it gave us more time to sleep and/or eat breakfast.

It was worth getting to the beach after everyone had ventured out into the water because the sight of the crossing from afar, with torches flickering and people wading around in knee-high water was breathtaing. It was worth waiting around for the sunrise, because we found a beach and seashells! It was worth all the travel and trouble because in the end, I just spent a weird and wonderful weekend with people that I like and love. I got to know a bunch of the first-year Fulbright teachers a lot better, and I also technically crossed something off of my Korea bucket list. The sea-parting may have disappointed, but literally everything else about this past weekend was great and totally worthwhile.

So here are some photos: 
Monica and me, who barely made it into the water before the "Miracle Sea Road" closed again. Taken by Neal.
Fulbrighters as excited as humanly possible at 5:30am on a cold and rainy beach!
So I like fire. Taken by Neal.
I also found Moses! Just before he got into a car and ran away. 
Emerging from the sea...
Later, we went to a sand beach and went in as far as our waders would let us. It was fun! Modo, our would-be destination earlier that morning, is behind us.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Nothing to Envy

I recently finished the book Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick. The book is a compilation of stories from North Korean defectors, taken from six years of interviews of a hundred defectors. I was completely engrossed by the narrative that followed six defectors' lives from the death of Kim Il Sung, through the catastrophic famine of the mid-90s and the rise of the "underground railroad", up until the currency reform of 2009.

I've come away from the book reeling slightly, because it's hard to process the naked truth -- to be presented with real human evidence -- of North Korea's misery. A woman who watched her husband and son die of starvation. Her rebellious daughter who became mired in the underground business of trafficking defectors out of the country. An orphaned boy who skipped school to forage for food and learned nothing but how to survive.

The North Korea that they described matched the North Korea that I saw when I visited uncannily well. Even though I was mostly shown the relatively glitzy capital city, there was no denying that the country is in shambles. In the five years since Nothing to Envy was published, the DPRK went ahead with its Kim Il Sung centennial celebrations, financed extravagant renovations in the capital, and saw a power change from the Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un. Yet the brutality of the isolated and self-serving regime and the consequent humanitarian crisis continue. I was saddened when I realized that I was reading recent history during the chapters about the Arduous March: When I was growing up healthy and happy, children in North Korea were dying by the thousands. And then I was horrified when the atrocities kept on being recounted all the way into the past decade: When I was in college enjoying my freedom, adults in North Korea were risking their lives to get out of the deadly prison their country had become.

Now that I'm living in South Korea, our neighbors from the north are both easier and more difficult to ignore. While the bizarre DPRK government is portrayed in popular media as the forsworn enemy and its antics are noted in newspapers daily (and with increasing indifference), the spotlight is rarely shown on its people, especially those who leave and wind up here.

There are North Korean defectors living in my city, quite unnoticed. Nobody expects them. Nobody expects people to be different as long as they appear to fit in on the surface. In order to find their place in a hyper-competitive, trend-following, 빨리빨리 culture, they must change their clothes, hair, and speech. In order to land a stable job or become upwardly mobile, they must learn English. In order to discover self-worth and heal from past trauma...

The current defector resettlement program is a huge social experiment to see if a stable, equitable society is possible in the case of reunification under Southern democracy. To that end, South Korea wants its defector citizens to assimilate, to shed their northern identities, to forget the land they've come from.

But knowing what I know now, I simply don't think that it's possible to forget.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

News on North Korea

Just some links tonight. Some of these stories I've wanted to share for quite some time, so I might as well just lump them all into one post. Happy reading!

What It's Like to Meet a Brother You Haven't Seen in Six Decades (TIME) -- a moving piece about two brothers who participated in last month's North-South family reunions (남북 이산가족 상봉). A former Fulbrighter contributed to the article!

North Korean elections provide clues to reclusive Stalinist state (CNN) -- an analysis of the DPRK's rather pointless elections. Kim Jong Un, unsurprisingly, won 100% of the vote. More interestingly, the election is used by the ruling party as a kind of census: if someone fails to show up to the polls and they're not accounted for in a prison camp or something, it's a sure sign they've defected.

The Land Where the Lord Has No Work! (DailyNK) -- following the release of an Australian missionary who was detained in Pyongyang while I was there, a North Korean website ran some propaganda claiming that the nation's brand of socialism is so successful that Jesus himself "would have nothing to do even if he came." Bold statement.

Understanding Christian witnessing in N. Korea (NK News) -- also touching on Christianity, specifically the motivation protestant Christians have for evangelizing in the DPRK, even though it is strictly prohibited, and the pros and cons of their methods of engagement. There's a lot of good analysis in this article, as well as some quotes from one of the organizers of the Pyongyang Project, my DPRK tour group. Fun fact: one hundred years ago, Pyongyang was a center of religious revival in Asia; it was called the "Jerusalem of the East". Today, Christians are ruthlessly persecuted unless they belong to one of a few state-run churches in the capital.

Mixing with the Cleanest Race: My upbringing in North Korea (NK News) -- part of a highly unique series written by Monique Macias, a Guinean who was raised in Pyongyang under the care of Kim Il Sung. Her experience is truly like none other.

Pyongyang's Hunger Games (New York Times) -- an explanation of some appalling statistics on food aid, government/military spending, and the lavishness of the Kim regime, from the recent COI (Comission of Inquiry) released by the UN. In short: people are starving, and the government has the ability the help them but not the willingness.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

To Remove a Fatal Complex

All I remember is that I had an unnaturally vivid dream whose contents now escape me and that I woke up from this dream thinking that, as my alarm hadn't yet sounded, I probably had a good ten more minutes to sleep. So I went back to sleep.

And then my phone rang. It was my co-teacher. It was 8:43. I had a first period class at 8:50. I swore.

Not really understanding how I had managed to sleep through both of my alarms, I jumped out of bed, threw on the first clothes I found in the closet, considered asking my co-teacher to cover for me, then just bit the bullet and ran out the door. Fortunately, I live about a five minutes' walk away from school. When I'm running, make that two minutes. I got to my office at 8:49am this morning and went straight to class, disheveled and slightly out of breath. My hope is that my students were too sleepy to notice...

That's the second time something like this has happened, and I really hope it's the last.

- - -

Anyway, I wanted to talk about how wonderful my students are. Chatting with them during mealtimes always makes my day. I make it a point to eat dinner with my students at least twice a week, and some of them have taken note of this apparently odd behavior. Typical foreign English teachers don't eat with the students, I've been told. But I believe that bonding over meals is one of the best way to build up a relationship, so I don't mind the stares or awkward silences.

I usually try to time it so that I arrive at the cafeteria at the same time as the third-year students, since I've known them the longest and enjoy talking with them. But sometimes I'll just pick a table at random and walk up with a cheerful, "Hi! May I sit with you?" I don't really wait for an answer, though. The poor students have no choice but to stop gossiping in Korean and start answering my questions in English. "How was your weekend?" "Can you explain what's happening on the cafeteria TV right now?" "What exactly are we eating, anyway?" Although I make it sound like they're the victims of my heinous schemes, actually, I believe it's a positive influence. First-year students in particular are always impressed, first with me for being so bold as to sit with them, and then with themselves when they realize that, yes, they are capable of holding a conversation with a native English speaker and it's not as painful as they'd imagined!

And I love it when students ask me questions, too: simple ones such as what my favorite Korean food is or if I enjoy K-pop, or more complex questions like why I have a Korean name on Facebook (which led to a great conversation about the meanings of names). Today, a student was eagerly telling me about a great movie he'd watched called Final Fantasy, about a group of teenagers on a plane who learn that they are going to crash... I finally realized that he was talking about Final Destination, and we had a good laugh.

I was taken aback and actually touched one evening, when two of my second-years actually left their table to join me and some shy underclassmen girls. They were simply eager to talk to me about my class: JH wanted to study more Greek and Latin roots, and WJ thanked me for giving them the opportunity to write in class journals, but wanted more time to do it. I was absolutely thrilled. The underclassmen were absolutely bewildered.

Later, the conversation turned to a favorite topic of high school girls: beauty. It started when WJ remarked that I looked better without glasses. (I was wearing contact lenses that day.) I told her I'd considered getting corrective eye surgery in Korea, and from there we began discussing cosmetic surgery. WJ said that she didn't want to get plastic surgery, but the societal pressure was really intense. Any girl who doesn't want double eyelids is mercilessly asked just why she doesn't want to undergo a harmless, painless, beautifying procedure. JH, on the other hand, was 100% sure that she wanted to get plastic surgery, perhaps as soon as she graduated from high school.

"I look in the mirror every day, and... I can't look at myself," she said jokingly, covering her face in her hands. JY, who had just joined us, jumped right in to what she perceived was a typical roundtable roasting session. "Yes, yes, you're ugly!" she said ro JH, completely deadpan.

I tried to tell JH that she looked just fine the way she was, that all of them were naturally beautiful and didn't need plastic surgery, but JH's mind wasn't going to be changed in an instant. So, I told them a story about how one of my favorite students from my first semester as a teacher (way back in the fall of 2012) wrote a stellar essay on beauty standards. WJ was bright and daring, and she had chosen the prompt: "Should movie stars and people who appear on TV have to get plastic surgery?"

In her essay, WJ wrote that when she was younger, she'd lamented her physical appearance. However, when she realized that her role models were people like Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey who became successful without any help from their looks, she changed her mind about the importance of beauty in her life. But here's the clincher: she also wrote, "If somebody does want plastic surgery, then they should get it in order to remove their fatal complex." BOOM. A young feminist Beyonce in the making, I swear.

Well, and then WJ went and got her eyelids doubled, just like most of the other girls in her year when they graduated and went off to college. I didn't leave out that part of the story, and JH and WJ had a laugh at the slight irony. Nevertheless, I don't want this to be the end of us discussing standards of beauty. I'm trying to find room in my curriculum this semester for a lesson on this topic for my second-years. I mean, my students have nicknames like Monkey, Egg, and Rice Grain, because these somehow capture the essence of their achievements and personalities in a friendly, pithy moniker. No, I'm totally kidding; they call her Egg because her face is shaped like one, and she doesn't even mind. I really want to get my students talking about this.

Beauty is not the easiest topic to bring up in a South Korean classroom, especially if you're a foreigner with a wildly different perspective. My friend Julia was interviewed in a piece by This American Life last year, where she shared a lesson she did with her high school girls and compared beauty standards in Korea and the US. For the sake of her students' understanding, she boiled it down to: physical appearance seems surprisingly important in Korea, but you know what? It's not like that everywhere. Also, you are all beautiful.

I enjoyed hearing about her experience and listening to the clips from her class. There was some criticism about her decision to present American beauty standards in similarly black-and-white terms, but I admire Julia's intent to approach the topic objectively and with enthusiasm. I'm going to take a look at the lesson I did last year and see what I should alter or update for this year.

Oh hey, looks like I drifted way out into tangential waters again, didn't I? The product of a wandering mind on a late night. Time for bed. And I'll have to make sure I don't sleep through my alarm again!

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Work Published in the Fulbright Korea Infusion

The Fulbright Korea Infusion is Fulbright Korea's literary magazine. Its winter issue was recently published and can be found online here.

I am one of the magazine's co-editors for photography this year. Neal and I worked our butts off and spent hours in video conferences to get everything together; the bulk of the editing process happened while both of us were traveling in Southeast Asia. That said, I'm proud of our work and of the excellent work done by the designers, managing editors, and EIC.

In particular, I'd like to draw your attention to three pieces:

First, "Where Do I Begin", by Helen Li, a first-year ETA. Helen keeps a great blog, and I admire her writing and poetry. Her piece captures very well the happiness students bring into their teachers' lives. I paired it with one of my favorite photos of my students, taken last year on Sports Day.

Second, "Sea & Clouds", a poem I wrote but never published on this blog. The poem was inspired by my recollections of going to Haeundae Beach in Busan (haeundae/해운대/海雲臺 means "sea and cloud pavilion").

Third, "08.18.13", which longtime readers of my blog may recognize as a slightly-edited version of a letter I wrote to a student last August and published without a title. It was featured in Infusion vol. 7 issue 1 alongside a photo taken by Thomas Owens.

I hope you enjoy reading Infusion!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Korean Food List Challenge

List Challenge: How many of these Korean foods have you tried?

My score was 93 (out of 100). Not bad, I suppose, for having lived in Korea for 2⅔ years. I still have not tried 산낙지 (sannakji/live octopus) or 보신탕 (boshintang). The latter of these is the infamous Korean dog soup (개장국), but 보신 is just a euphemism which means "to preserve health". Another name you usually see in South Korea is 영양탕, or healthy soup, while in North Korea you can often find 단고기집 (dangogi jib/sweet meat restaurant).

I don't know if I'll get around to trying these two foods in particular before I leave Korea. On the other hand, I will eat 칼국수 (kalguksu/chopped noodle soup) or 김치전 (kimchijeon/kimchi pancake) any day. And I could go for patbingsu, or shaved ice, right about now...

Also, happy spring! The 추분, or vernal equinox, was yesterday. I did some spring cleaning this afternoon while listening to music. Here's one of my spring favorites: Roy Kim's 봄봄봄 (Bom bom bom/Spring, Spring, Spring)!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Reflect, don't expect

Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.
- Macklemore, Vipassana

When it comes to completely new experiences, my general rule of thumb is to go in with no expectations. That way, I can never be disappointed or surprised. However, when something is expected of me, I can't assume the same for the opposite party, and I'm sure not going to allow myself to disappoint or surprise anyone.

In this case, the expectation was that I would begin a semester of volunteering with the Changwon Hana Center by teaching a weekly after-school English class to a small group of North Korean defector children. I was given very little additional information: there would be six students of low English ability, and I would be given a classroom of my own.

That's what I had to work with when coming up with a first-day lesson plan. I took a quick look at ways to teach phonics and basic reading. I assumed that the students would be some of the adorable children I'd met at the opening ceremony a few weeks ago, and to be honest, I was excited at the prospect of seeing them again.

Well, there you go: that was an expectation, and it was quickly shattered. First, the students' carpool was nearly forty-five minutes late in getting to the center. Even though I arrived just past five, I still had a long time to get my bearings in the classroom, obtain some supplies, and think things through, because of another twist: the students were to be mostly middle schoolers, the Hana Center employee told me, and they already knew their alphabet. I went through my brain, trying to remember the faces of the middle school-aged children I'd met, but none came up. And when the students finally arrived, I realized that none of them had been at the opening ceremony, so they were all new to me.

I wasn't expecting that.

As it turns out, I had five students come today, and they are in five different grade levels, from third-year in middle school to first grade in elementary school. The youngest two could not read, and the eldest was a model student. The middle two had rudimentary reading skills but definitely did not evince any enthusiasm for being there. It was nearly 6pm when we began, and for an hour they kept telling me in Korean that they were hungry. So, the Hana Center employee brought a tray of convenience store cookies and soda along with the pens and markers I requested.

I wasn't expecting that.

Obviously, I knew (or expected) that the class would be different from my usual high-achieving angels at CSHS, but the realization that I would have to deal with 1) tweens 2) on a sugar rush 3) taking photos of me with their smartphones 4) or staring blankly at the board because they couldn't read anything I'd written 5) and actually teach them all something useful was...

Well, I was determined not to disappoint.

We went over self-introductions and I did some flashcard activities to gauge their reading and speaking levels. Though there was mild chaos in the beginning, eventually my students realized that there was value in what they were doing and focused for a good ten minutes. We ended with a free-for-all game of Pictionary, during which they were clearly more engaged. (Note to self: gamification)

And when class was over, the students had gone home, and I did a teaching reflection, I realized that these North Korean teenagers seemed no different whatsoever from your typical South Korean teenagers. Phones, fried chicken, fighting, fretting about boyfriends (the older students were all girls). I was only reminded of the reality twice: the eldest girl would burst out in Mandarin from time to time, but then quickly correct herself and repeat what she had wanted to say in Korean. (Speaking of which, none of them had any difficulties with speaking Korean.)

The second was when a student asked me, "Teacher, how [long] you come here?" I quickly taught the class how to ask, "How long have you been in Korea?" and told them that I'd been here for two years. The students crowed and one-upped me: "I have been in Korea for four years!" said the seventeen-year old. "Two and a half years," said her friend. "Five," whispered the quiet fourteen-year old in the back.

I had been advised against asking too many personal questions to my North Korean defector students, which is why I had left out "Where are you from?" from my list of introductory questions. But the eldest student had no qualms about sharing where she had lived before coming to South Korea four years ago. "I'm from China!" she said proudly.

I wasn't expecting that.

In conclusion, it's a good thing I only planned one lesson (and ended up deviating far from it anyway), because it would have been a colossal waste of time to work out an entire curriculum that would be useless for half the class. I had one hour to familiarize myself with my students and now have one week to tailor lesson two to their varying levels. Although I was flying by the seat of my pants today, next week should be smoother and much more fun, and I'm looking forward to it.

(Or is that another expectation?)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

택견시합 - Taekgyeon Test

The original plan was for me to take my taekgyeon blackbelt (known as 한동, or handong) test in March in Ulsan. However, because missed so much training over winter break due to travel, my taekgyeon master decided that I wasn't quite ready this month. And since the blackbelt tests are only held every three months, I will now have to wait until June.

This isn't a big deal for me. Had I taken the test in March, I'd have had less than a year of training. I know I'm not ready; I still can't get the hang of the roundhouse kick. A part of me really wanted to impress 관장님 by passing the test despite my relative inexperience, but honestly, I'm okay with having one less thing to stress out over right now.

Instead of the blackbelt test, tonight at training we had what I think is called a 시합 (sihap), which translates to "match", like a boxing match. I've been training with another guy who's in his late forties, so we were conveniently paired up for the match. I figured it was some sort of diagnostic test, because 관장님 set up a table and took notes on our performance in order to critique us at the end.

We did the taekgyeon forms (본때배기) and then sparred a little bit. During wrestling (대거리), I wound up flat on my back twice, which was embarrassing, but 관장님 said that even though I technically lost, my form and technique were still good. They weren't so good for the forms, though. I've done the same routine almost every weekday for ten months, but I still don't have it down perfectly yet. Sigh. I also need to work on flexibility: they want me to be able to do a passable side split by June. Yup, like that's totally going to happen. "Every day, 매일매일," said 관장님.

The 시합 was a short affair. We ended the session about twenty minutes early and then celebrated by going to a bar for chicken and beer. I enjoy spending time with the taekgyeon guys, even though I usually don't follow the conversation well. I could figure out the topic, but they spoke too fast for me to understand everything they said, let alone butt in and add my own thoughts. But every once in a while, 관장님 would turn to me and ask me what would seem like a non sequitur: "Andrew, do you know air-con gas?" (Freon.) "Andrew, do you know trot (트로트, a Korean music genre kind of like retro pop)?" "Andrew, are you a Christian?"

To that last question I answered in the affirmative, to the surprise of my fellow taekgyeon trainee. He assumed that Christians weren't allowed to drink alcohol. I told them that in the Bible, Jesus once turned water into wine for a party, and also that Paul once advised Timothy to drink a little wine for his health. I even showed them the relevant Bible verses on my phone.

On a related note, I also took a 체성분 분석결과 ("Body Composition Analysis") at the dojang few weeks ago. I stood on a machine that calculated my height, weight, heart rate, and other unknown statistics, and then it spit out a page of numbers that declared my body age to be 22 and my body type to be standard, slightly muscular. Somehow, it also calculated my body fat percentage, basal metabolic rate, daily caloric requirement, and how much of my body is made up of water (38.1kg, to be exact).

I'm not quite sure how one machine that didn't even require me to strip down or get my heart rate up figured all of that out, but the important part is that 관장님 was pleased with the results. I'll take it as a sign of progress since I began taekgyeon training one year ago.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Happy in Seoul

Pharrell's super-catchy funk hit, "Happy" is stuck in my head. If you haven't heard it, watch the video below. People all over the world have been recreating the simple music video -- footage of people dancing happily in public all day and all night -- turning this into something viral. Here is a version from Korean residents of Seoul. It starts off somewhat awkward, but quickly becomes really charming. You can notice some diversity in the people involved, and they actually filmed all over the city. Also, Hong Seok-cheon dances in his kitchen!

Who knew the creepy Garfield man could pop?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

See the Nebula

My name is KDH. I like many things, especialy food. I really like eating, but my weight is not increase. Reading books is fun, too. Also I like to see the star. Exactely, not star because see the nebula is more fun.
- Excerpt from a student journal
It was 9pm and everything was dark. A single candle lit the room, revealing more shadows than light. It was only 9pm, but the darkness and warmth covered me like a blanket, and my body told me it was time to sleep.

"Wait, first I want to show you something," he said. "Let's go outside."

I wedged my feet into my shoes and shuffled out the door. It was even darker with the trees of the jungle surrounding us in every direction save one: when I looked up I gasped. Stars. Innumerable stars, twinkling against the deepest night sky. A silver shimmer of the Milky Way. I found Orion and saw his scabbard glow, but I could not find the Pleiades, seven bright sisters lost amongst a crowd of billions.

"I bet you've never seen anything like this in Korea," he said.

Monday, March 17, 2014

성 패트릭의 날 - Saint Patrick's Day

The following short biography of St. Patrick is from the Book of Common Prayer.

Patrick of Ireland (389 – 461)

At the age of sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped from his home by Irish marauders and taken to Ireland, where he was sold as a slave to a chieftain and forced to herd livestock. After six years of slavery, Patrick escaped to his native Britain. Because he believed that his captivity and deliverance were ordained by God, Patrick devoted his life to ministry. While studying for the priesthood, he experienced recurring dreams in which he heard voices say, “O holy youth, come back to Erin and walk once more amongst us.” He convinced his superiors to let him return to Ireland in 432, not to seek revenge for injustice but to seek reconciliation and to spread his faith. Over the next thirty years, Patrick established churches and monastic communities across Ireland. When he was not engaged in the work of spreading the Christian faith, Patrick spent his time praying in his favorite places of solitude and retreat.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! Unsurprisingly, absolutely no one in my school knew about the holiday. The extent of my students' knowledge of Ireland (아일랜드) ends at its location on the world map at the back of my classroom: "next to United Kingdom." I came to school with my green shirt, green cardigan, green bow tie, and green corduroys and began each period with a "top of the marnin' to ya, class!" in my barely-passable Irish accent. My students said, "Teacher, what language is that?"

No green to be seen! It's not a common color for my students to wear. My co-teacher happened to be wearing a lovely green ensemble, but it turns out she had picked the color because it was a nice spring day (China's yellow dust notwithstanding). Our cafeteria did not serve any green food (and it wasn't even the absence of food coloring; I realized that our school lunches don't do green vegetables very well. They're always either canned, pickled, or drenched in some mayo-based sauce...)

Having expected this lack of spirit, I'd taken on the task of introducing a bit of Irish(-American) culture to my school by hastily repurposing the tail end of my lesson on pipe dreams to talk about Saint Patrick's Day. Fun activities included hiding little paper clovers all around the classroom to have students search high and low for the single four-leafed one (네잎 클로버) and watching some Irish step dance! My students now know that people drink 13 million pints of Guinness (기네스) on Saint Patrick's Day and that the Chicago River is turned an impossible shade of green.

The funny thing is that I've rarely celebrated Saint Patrick's Day myself. The Irish-American community in the States is very large (nearly 12% of the population), but in northern California, I was surrounded by Asians. Saint Patrick's Day for me was just a fun day to wear green to school, drink green milk, and pinch my friends; it never meant anything more. Yet here in Korea I feel a sort of duty to share what little I know with my school community, since I -- who have had nothing whatsoever to do with Irish culture -- represent America to them. Odd, isn't it? Hopefully today's mini cultural lesson will pique a student's interest and they'll want to find out more about the rich history and heritage of Ireland.

Have a safe and happy holiday!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Changwon Bike Party - Ireland Ride

Changwon Bike Party! HUGE turnout this month! Photo by Coby
Another awesome Changwon Bike Party today! The theme for March was St. Patrick's Day, so there was lots of green to be found. I'm lucky I brought my Threadless bike shirt to Korea! That plus green pants, green socks, and a super green, eco-friendly public transportation initiative by the Environmental Capital, Changwon!!! ... makes for a fun day. Haha. Huzzah, Nubija!

This bike party had a massive, record-breaking turnout of over fifty people, and we totally clogged the bike lanes and infuriated our city's bus drivers. After about seventeen kilometers, we all ended up at Changwon's one-and-only Irish pub, O'Brien's. There, we listened to Irish music (folk music and U2 included), drank green beer, and made new friends, all in celebration of... something, not sure what.
Our fearless Bike Party leader, Coby.
So that was tons of fun. Today was nothing but fine weather, delicious food, and great company. I can't wait for next month's Bike Party! Find us on Facebook if you're in the area!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tortion Yogurt

Happy Pi Day! 3.14. Of course, my students could recite it to the twelfth digit and more. Though they're all quite nerdy, they weren't as excited about Pi Day as they were about White Day, the Korean accompaniment to Valentine's Day. On February 14th, girls give chocolates to boyfriends; then, on March 14th, boys reciprocate and give candy (1). Friends also give candy to friends, and in general everyone in the country is just encouraged to buy unnecessary stuff for the commercial holiday.

Meh... I just really wanted to eat some pie.

Unrelated: a hilarious conversation in mixed Korean and English over dinner today with some teachers at my school.

짜요짜요 and 떡
Biology Teacher holds up a tube of yogurt, similar to Go-Gurt.
Biology Teacher: See this? The brand is called 짜요짜요 (2).
Me: Oh, really? That's Chinese.
Physics Teacher: Chinese? What does it mean in Chinese?
Me: 加油 (3). Um... 가유? 자유? (4)
Biology Teacher: It means 화이팅 (5)!
Me: Yeah, Chinese for 화이팅.
Physics Teacher: Oh! Well in Korean, it means... 짜요. 짜다... Like this: 짜요짜요짜요!
Physics Teacher picks up his tube of yogurt and squeezes it quickly and repeatedly in an unintentionally yet extremely suggestive way. I almost lose it.
Biology Teacher: 짜다. Squeeze.
Biology Teacher squeezes his tube of yogurt, and then wrings it with both hands like you would a wet towl.
Biology Teacher: This is squeeze. So... what is this?
Me: Oh, that's also squeeze.
Physics Teacher: No, that's tortion!

Conclusion: I eat at least one meal a day with the teachers at my school, but I have got to get them to talk more. Laughter will make you live longer.


(1) And then on April 14th, Black Day, anyone who got nothing for the previous two holidays eats 짜장면, or black bean sauce noodles, alone. Forever alone.
(2) jjayo-jjayo
(3) jia1you3
(4) I meant to say "주유/add gasoline"
(5) "Fighting", Konglish for "You can do it!"

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Twinsters, the reunion of Korean sisters separated at birth

Following up on yesterday's post about SNL Korea's offensive adoptee skit, I'd like to share this "Facebook story" that I really like: "Twinsters".
via facebookstories
About a year ago, I was linked by a friend to a Kickstarter page for a documentary that a Korean adoptee wanted to make... about her newly-discovered twin sister. Thanks to YouTube, Facebook, and the crazy power of social media, she found out that she was one of a pair of girls given up for adoption from Busan in 1987. Her sister was raised in France, while she became American. They reunited, visited each other's adoptive families, toured South Korea, and inspired thousands of people along the way as the story of their reunion unfolded together.

Again: they visited South Korea together (for a Korean adoptee conference). They returned to the land of their birth. As far as I'm aware, they did not reunite with their birth mother or family. Goodness knows if they had, it would not have happened remotely similarly to the crude parody that SNL Korea embarrassed itself with last week.

On that note, SNL Korea has apologized for their skit on Twitter, according to "We bow our heads and sincerely apologize to the Korean adoptees overseas and their families who've been hurt by the skit... Due to the carelessness of the production team, which failed to handle a sensitive matter with the utmost care, we apologize and will get rid of the relevant corner (코너, Konglish for 'feature')." They admitted that they tried satire and failed miserably. Their sad attempt at in-group humor only alienated an already stigmatized and misunderstood section of Korean society. Hence, the apology. Fair enough. I just hope they don't do it again, but honestly, chances are they'll just make the same mistake with a different marginalized group...

Here is a link to the tweet and the full apology in Korean.

Adoption is no joke. I mean, I'm all for finding humor in various family situations, but we must realize that a line has to be drawn somewhere. And really, isn't it ultimately more rewarding to follow a 'feature' like "Twinsters" that explores adoption not through probing, farcical humor but through mystery, surprise, and genuine storytelling?

Anyway, Facebook did some great work with the infinitely more interesting story, and I encourage you to follow the visually-stunning timeline of their intertwined lives. I'm looking forward to watching the documentary when it is released next year.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

SNL Korea fail in their attempt to satirize Korean adoptees

This news story has been making the rounds on Facebook, and I thought I'd share if you weren't aware.

Saturday Night Live Korea has a history of performing skits that poke fun at various members of Korean society in a way that outrages Western audiences. In the past, they (along with many other TV shows) have used blackface to satirize Africans and African-Americans, and this drew ire from the international community. Perhaps you could point to cultural ignorance in defense of their choice of comedy, but what they've done now is pretty much inexcusable.

A recent sketch parodies the reunion of a Korean adoptee arriving in Korea for the first time to meet his birth mother. What starts off as an emotional meeting quickly descends into idiocy as the adoptee butchers his Korean, uses improper honorifics, and asks his mother extremely rude questions. The humor is supposed to come from the adoptee's complete unfamiliarity with the Korean language and culture, but the international Korean adoptee community is not laughing at all.

One of my best friends in Korea is an adoptee, and she has never met her birth mother. I can't imagine what it must have felt like to watch this video and think about how this video reflects what Korean society thinks of her. Was the audience laughing because it's funny that a person separated from their family and raised on the other side of the world has difficulty communicating their thoughts and feelings? Do they find it funny that what could be the most emotional moment of their life is reduced to an overwrought demonstration of kicking and flailing that is meant to be taekwondo? Are they aware the adoption is in many ways an industry in South Korea that began with the orphans from the Korean War and continues today with babies of underage or unwed mothers being exported all around the world?

SNL Korea's skit is insensitive at best and utterly heartless at worst. In choosing to satirize this very painful reminder that the Korean diaspora is irreversably split and scattered, they show disrespect not just to adoptees, their birth families, and their adoptive families, but to all of Korea, all around the world.

Some links:
KoreAm Magazine coverage, a summary of the issue as well as a link to the original video.
Open letter from Jane Jeong Trenka, a very heartfelt and beautifully-written plea for #AdopteeDignity.
Reddit discussion of the skit.

But the most convicting thing I've read by far was the dozens of comments left by the international adoptee community on SNL Korea's Facebook page, blasting them for their poor taste and cruel sense of humor and relating some very personal stories about their experiences as adoptees. These comments are real. I hope the folks over at SNL Korea get them translated and actually read them. We'll see what happens...

Monday, March 10, 2014

North Korea Photo Journal on the DailyNK

The Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Taken from the North side.
For those of you interested in my experience traveling in North Korea last month, I have written a four-part series documenting what my tour group did and saw that the DailyNK is currently featuring on its website. You can view part one, "Celebrating the Day of the Shining Star", by clicking on this link.

I recommend subscribing to the DailyNK for a near-constant stream of news from North Korea that includes information from anonymous contacts within the country and NK News for serious, balanced analysis of North Korean media and all-around solid coverage.

Here is part two: "A View from the Other Side", which includes my visit to the DMZ.
Here is part three: "Encountering North Korea-Style Education", which describes a visit to a school in Pyongsong.
Here is part four: "Touring the Showcase Capital", which focuses on the Kimjongilia exhibition hall and the Korean War Museum.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

벚꽃 & 비음산

Early cherry blossoms in Tongyeong
Winter is almost over, thank goodness. These past few days have been practically warm. Good weather for hiking -- I climbed Bieumsan with a friend this past weekend. The peak is still barren, but at the trailhead, I spotted purple flowers on the ground and white blooms emerging on the trees. Signs of spring. 드디어!
비음산, 510 meters above sea level. Well, that makes 3 down, 18 to go!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

WWOOF CSA and Potato-Crust Mini Quiches!

I've been trying new things lately. One of them is buying local and organic groceries, which I know intellectually is a healthier and more sustainable way to be a consumer but am too lazy usually to do. The second is baking savory goods rather than the usual butter and sugar bonanzas that erupt from my kitchen.

Enter WWOOF Korea! WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. I was first introduced to it through friends who spent vacations on farms in Belgium, France, Thailand, and Australia. They picked grapes, weeded gardens, babysat, built sheds, and otherwise worked with their hands while helping a planet-friendly, local business do its thing. It didn't surprise me to hear that there are WWOOF farms in South Korea.

What did surprise me, however, was that WWOOF CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) exists: it is a program that seeks to connect the farmers with the consumers buy delivering a seasonal box of produce from the farms in Korea directly to members of the community each week. There are so many cool things about this:
  1. WWOOF Korea is catering to English-speaking foreigners in Korea with this initiative, as you can tell by the website, Facebook page, and newsletter.
  2. The produce that you receive each week is kind of a surprise, but you know it's always what is in season, and there are highlighted specialties from different regions in Korea.
  3. Your groceries are delivered to you! Now, E-Mart and other Korean conglomerate-owned big box stores do this, too, because this is Korea and delivery is just the modus operandi, but still.
  4. Fresh, local, and organic! At a not-exorbitant price!
Obviously, I was quickly convinced to sign up. However, I only signed up for a one-week trial ("taster basket"), since winter break is over and I will cook much less often now. The longer the period you sign up for (one month, six months, etc.), the better your price. I signed up on February 24th, but unfortunately the boxes are mailed out each Monday, which meant that I had to wait over a week to get mine! But I received it on March 4th and was eager to see what was inside.
Eggs, strawberries, potato walnut bread, citron cakes, apple jam, garlic, potatoes, onions, a carrot, bay salt (a specialty from Jeollanam-do), bok choy, spinach!!!, and winter cabbage.
As soon as I opened up my box, I smiled really wide. Smart packaging placed a carton of bright red strawberries, a loaf of bread, and golden cake-like things at the very top. Beneath, I discovered vegetables and a mysterious, pretty package that turned out to be salt. There was also some information about WWOOF CSA and their March newsletter, which I read and really enjoyed. It may sound odd, but it makes me so happy to see how this model of a local, community-based food system is actually working and thriving in Korea.

So, it didn't take me long to finish the strawberries and the cakes, which I think might have been vegan. But what was I going to do with all of those vegetables? I looked at the spinach, and then I looked at the eggs, and then I looked at the muffin tin drying in my kitchen sink, and I thought, "Quiches."

With some help from my friend Sara, I found a tips online for how to make quiches in cupcake tins and also how to use potatoes for the crust (since good dough is a pain to make without a food processor -- also a plus because it's flourless and gluten-free).

I didn't follow any recipe exactly, so I'll just describe roughly what I did and leave you with photos!
Mini-quiches just before being popped into the oven.
WWOOF CSA organic ingredients: potatoes, spinach, eggs, garlic, and salt. Other ingredients: milk, pepper, dried basil, and just a bit of flour. And imaginary cheese. I didn't have cheese, so I just pretended my quiches had some melted Gruyère on top...

For the crust, I peeled the potatoes into thin strips, added pepper, and arranged them on the bottom and sides of the cupcake tins like little crusts. I forgot to grease the tin, so later the quiches had a bit of difficulty coming out, but otherwise the potato crusts held together just fine. (According to the recipe I found, you should bake the crusts alone for a bit first before adding the quiche filling. I totally didn't read that part. It didn't really matter though!)

I then added finely chopped spinach and diced garlic to the potato bowls. The last step was the egg filling; for 3 servings (6 mini quiches): 2 eggs, 1 cup of milk, salt & pepper, and 1 tablespoon of flour to thicken it -- and for me because I'm weird, dried basil -- whisked into frothy goodness and poured over into the crusts, filling them to the top. Baked at 180°C/350°F for 25 minutes in a convection oven, and they came out like this:
Voila. Des quiches petites. Fait avec amour, de Corée!
Beautiful! And they were delicious (although my standards are low). The only problem I had was getting them out of the muffin tins, since I'd neglected to grease them. But this just meant that I got to spoon out the extra eggy filling stuck to the tins and eat it directly. No great loss there.

So, that was my first experience baking a savory treat! It was fun, and I learned some things that I'll keep in mind for next time. Thanks, WWOOF, for giving me great, fresh ingredients to work with, and I hope to find an excuse to get another box from you in the near future!
Noms. I need to make about a dozen more of these.
Oh, one more story: organic stuff is never treated with pesticides. This is good for humans. It's also good for pests! It means that they can survive in the natural environment in which the produce is grown. But if you don't like finding pests in your food... Ha. Keep your mind open to that possibility.

So, I was about halfway through the aforementioned carton of delicious strawberries when I saw a brownish blob stuck to the side of the carton. I took a closer look and realized that it was a slug! A tiny, cute little slug in my strawberries. Ick? Well, it wasn't exactly a welcome sight, but I also saw that the slug was still alive. So, some definitive proof that my fruit was free of fatal chemicals. Deciding that I wasn't actually grossed out by my discovery, I dropped the little guy off outside and rewashed the strawberries, quickly polishing them off.
Sorry, buddy, they're mine.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ready, Set, Spring!

Spring break at my alma mater begins today, but for me, this TGIF marked the end of my first week of the spring semester. True to form for a Korean school, the class schedules have not yet been finalized, and I've spent a good chunk of time attending opening ceremonies and sitting in on faculty meetings where I understand nothing. One thing that did surprise me, though, was that I ended up spending fewer hours this week actually teaching classes than I did proofreading posters and scripts for my second-years' upcoming presentations at various science competitions.

The semester has just begun, but already the second-years are in high gear as they prepare everything they can for their university applications this fall. A prize from a national or international science fair would be a huge boon. So, eight students are currently working on five different research projects in physics, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, and environmental science, and all of them approached me in the middle of the week with just one request: "Teacher, please check my draft?"

At times I'd simply get an email from a student with an enormous file attached, subject: "Here is our poster" and nothing in the email body. I've really got to teach them how to properly ask favors of people. This will not fly in college.

Smoothing out the grammar and adjusting the layouts of five scripts and five posters takes a heck of a long time, I soon found out, but on the other hand, I really enjoyed doing it. Like I always say, my students are geniuses, and the advanced work they produce never fails to impress me, even if at times I can't make sense of their English. (I always wonder if my failure to understand is a result of my poor grasp of science, their poor grasp of English, or actually an error in the data, or perhaps even all of the above. In fact, I caught a calculation error in a student's report today, and she was slightly embarrassed, as all of my students are aware that I suck at math.)

Today, the other English teachers, the students' advisers, and I attended their mock presentations and coached them on pronunciation and presentation technique. Some of them will go to Seoul this weekend to compete; I wish them the best of luck!

As for the new first-year students... Yay, freshmen! They are so adorable, there's no denying that. They still bow very low to all the teachers, they usually look lost and confused when they walk into my classroom, and they're also quite friendly so far.

My traditional first class always includes a short Q&A session with my new students, and when I tell them they can ask me any question they like, the first one is almost always, "Do you have a girlfriend?" Sigh... Having been in Korea for so long now, the question doesn't faze me anymore, but -- Americans! If you were asked that by your students, wouldn't you think it rather unexpected, or even rude? It's so hard for me to take that question as a natural part of the getting-to-know-you-process; to be honest, I tend to attribute it to an apparent Korean obsession with relationships that I'll never understand.

Here are some other gems from the grill sessions!
  • A girl stood up and stuttered for a minute, embarrassed, before choking out, "Do you think that you are handsome?" I told her I thought I was maybe average.
  • Her friend later asked, "Do you think that you look like 휘성?" (Google "Wheesung".) I looked him up in class and said, "Um... no. Next!"
  • "Where did you get your hairstyle?" When I told him I went to Hongdae, the whole class went, "우~~~! (Oooh!)"
  • One shy student asked, "When will you go back to your country?" The entire class shushed him, but I quickly said that it was fine! Any question is okay. I told him (honestly) that I'm not 100% sure yet. But I feel bad; I don't think he asked because he wants to know how soon I'll be gone, but rather because he knows that foreign English teachers rarely stay for long.
  • On that note, one of my second-years, who knows that I plan to go to graduate school, asked me this evening when I was planning to return to the United States. I gave him a more complete answer: I've been accepted to a graduate school, but I have not committed yet. And to be frank, I don't want to leave Korea! I don't even want to be talking about it yet, least of all with my students...
  • Another second-year student, whom I called MJ last year: "Teacher, can you call me (by my nickname,) YM? All of my friends call me that." I replied with a smile, "Ooh, does that mean I'm your friend?" Her response: "Um..."
  • Lastly, I've discovered a teacher's pet! Ha. Or rather, he discovered me: on Wednesday, a first-year student I hadn't taught yet came by in the afternoon, as nervous and awkward as any new student has ever been. He greeted me in well-rehearsed English, informing me that his name was Dave and that he had come by just to introduce himself. I shook his hand; he bowed when he took it. As soon as he left the classroom, he turned to his friends and let out a loud sigh that clearly meant, "Ughhh I finally did it! That was nerve-wracking as hell." Made me smile. The next day, after class, he asked me if I liked Dr. Who and Supernatural, which are his two favorite TV shows. Unfortunately, I don't. But I invited him to tell me all about the shows so that I could find out!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Scenes from a Boat

The slow boats of the Mekong in Laos.
Day 7 (Jan. 30): I'm on a boat (!) in Laos.
Here's a short and sweet account of the day I spent riding a boat down the Mekong for six hours. I arrived at the pier in Huay Xai not too long before the boat left (the lack of scheduled departure time notwithstanding, everyone "knows" you should get there before 11am), so I just took the first seat I saw available. Fortunately for me, it wasn't one of the minivan carseats crammed into rows along the length of the boat, but part of a pair of minivan carseats set facing one another. This meant more legroom for me and the three others with me, although anyone who walked down the aisle of the long and narrow boat had to step over our legs. Anyway, what made it fortunate was that I got to spend the entirety of my trip getting to know three very fun and interesting folks: Greg, Corine, and Ian.
Probably not the most flattering photo of them, but +1 for capturing personality and +1 for mangosteens!
The latter two were friends traveling together; both are from England, but Ian teaches English in Malaysia while Corine teaches English in Japan. They were extremely pleasant to talk to and joke around with. Corine in particular was one of the funniest people I've ever met. She had a tendency to say pretty much anything that came to mind, without filtering it or even subconciously judging the conversational environment for relevance. This led to quite a few hilarious non sequiturs, which I remember for their hilarity rather than their actual content. Corine and Ian had a good rapport: she would talk, and he would explain, and they played off each other quite well.

Even better, though, was the discovery that both of them loved to play word games! I was reading a book at some point in the mid-afternoon when I saw them get out paper and pens and begin playing Boggle. "Genius!" I thought. You don't need the letter cubes to play; you can simply think of random letters and write them down, et voila. Noticing my obvious interest, they invited me to play the next few rounds, and the epic Mekong Boggle Tournament was born. Well, it wasn't that epic. But it was loads of fun. I had my books and my camera, but playing word games with new friends was the absolute best way to pass the time.
A monk on a riverbank.
As for Greg, he lands squarely in the top 10 list of Most Interesting People I've Met. He's a 교포, half-Korean and half-White American, and -- surprise -- he teaches English in Korea! That was a good jumping off point, but Greg is the kind of person who probably doesn't need to have anything in common with you to engage you in some serious talk about anything. With tons of travel experience, he had a lot of great advice for the rest of us on getting around Laos. In fact, he could speak Lao and bits of Thai, because he'd been going back to the country regularly for the past ten years or so.

The more I talked to Greg, the more impressive his story got. He held very strong opinions against America, capitalism, and technology, explaining that he'd found the quiet and laid-back modus vivendi in parts of South America (Guatemala) and Southeast Asia (Thailand and Laos) to be a much more human way to live. He even told us about the family he'd sort of "adopted" since his first visit. There's a single mother with five children who lives in a tiny village perched on the banks of the Mekong; after meeting her and her family for the first time about a decade ago, he has returned a dozen times with gifts, living necessities, photographs, and a genuine offer of friendship. In turn, he has become a part of the family. I'll write more about this later, but suffice it to say that as I got to know Greg on the boat, I realized I was talking to someone quite unlike anyone I'd ever known.

So that's how I spent the boat ride: making new friends, taking photos of the pretty (if repetitive) scenery, reading, napping, and avoiding the overpriced snacks. Here are some of those photos:
It wasn't just a boat for tourists; we stopped periodically to take on more passengers and cargo.
Lovely natural scenery along the Mekong. It's dotted with villages, and more roads are being built, but for the most part, it's just brown water, green trees, and blue sky.
And this is what everyone on the boat tends to look like after six hours... ("Ugh get me off")
Me in Pakbeng in the late afternoon! Fog is already starting to roll in.
Our boat arrived in Pakbeng shortly before 5pm. I found Jesse again, who had teamed up with Chris, a guy I vaguely remembered from the hostel in Chiang Mai, and the three of us found a guesthouse in the Podunk of Laos. I have no travel recommendations for Pakbeng: every guesthouse is basically the same -- cheap and spare, but comfortable -- and the restaurant food is all overpriced, but what can you do? There's nowhere else to go. The locals here are smart. I enjoyed dinner, anyway, and we spent our evening quietly; I taught Jesse and Chris how to play Big 2, tried my first Beerlao (which is just as good as it's hyped up to be), and fought a losing battle with the "free WiFi" that is advertised in every building. As if!
I bought a sausage from this smiling lady whose grill was billowing smoke so thick it stung my eyes.
Spiderboy playing with fire, quite literally.
The next stop was supposed to be Luang Prabang, the most beautiful city in the country. Instead, my next would turn out to be a tiny village perched on the banks of the Mekong...

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

America, the Superpower of the Present Age

I sound like a Tea Partier, don't I? Ha.

My co-teacher spent seven weeks in Austin, Texas this past winter break. She participated in a Fulbright-sponsored teacher training program that brought Korean English teachers -- most, but not all, associated with Fulbright schools -- to the US for cultural immersion and educational exchange. She stayed with a Texan homestay, visited cultural landmarks in Austin, and taught classes on Korean culture to students at a low-performing high school.

I've been very eager to talk to her about her experiences in the United States, as this was her first time there, and it was for such a long time, too! Seven weeks is longer than my orientation training for Fulbright.

So, I asked her over lunch what her most enduring impression of America was. Surprisingly, she said that although seven weeks was not enough time to draw any strong conclusions, she saw enough during her time there to understand why America is the strongest nation in the world. I raised an eyebrow. She explained, "the sheer number of garbage cans on the streets was so impressive. You know, having garbage cans everywhere means that the government can afford them. Even though it's a seemingly small thing, it kind of represents how much abundance there is in America."

I commented offhand about how I would have interpreted the profusion of garbage cans as a sign that Americans produce far too much garbage. "Well," she replied, "maybe it's both."

She also spoke in slight awe of the enormous bathrooms ("Necessary for all of those fat Americans?" I asked.), the impressive museums and art galleries ("Well, compared to D.C...."), and the fact that they would turn on the air conditioning when it was 75°F outside. The wastefulness of this behavior notwithstanding, all of it pointed to abundance, and my co-teacher went on and on. Austin is only the 11th-largest city in America, but it has airports, museums, and beautiful buildings to rival Seoul and Incheon. It's as if the United States has at least eleven Seouls -- the magnitude was overwhelming.

Obviously, Seoul is inimitable and there's no comparing it with Austin or any other American city for that matter, but the point is that she came away from her experience in the US thinking that Japan, France, and even England now seemed like superpowers of the past, while America is the superpower of today.

So that was interesting.

On a different note, my co-teacher also talked about the thing that surprised her most about American schools: she and all of the other Korean participants in the program agreed that the American students they encountered in every classroom situation were on the whole far better behaved than their own country's students. They were extremely polite and extremely PC: one class hushed an ESL student when he asked my co-teacher how long she'd been studying English, but she smiled and simply asked him to guess. The Korean teachers came away with glowing reviews of American high schoolers. I had a hard time believing this, but I guess there's something in the lunches in Texas...

Also, she was extremely shocked to find the extent to which America's "melting pot" was actually more like a 3.79 million square-mile pizza with 314 million toppings on it, all squished together but never mixing. Case in point: Spanish-speaking students who had been living in the States for two years who could still only manage, "Me no speak English." She described it as students learning EFL (English as a Foreign Language) instead of ESL (English as a Second Language), since they were living in a completely Hispanic community and weren't even encountering English in their daily lives, not even at school.

We chatted about immigration and how it forms a dynamic society, the deal with the over-achieving Asian immigrant stereotype, and some of her other experiences with places she visited and the Americans she met. I've been thoroughly enjoying all of these conversations, as my casual cynicism is being given a run for its money by my co-teacher's rave review. And the best part is that I find I'm learning a lot about my country.

My country? Every time my co-teacher shared her stories about the United States with me, she would call it "your country". To be honest, that sounded strange to my ears. It's because she went to Texas and experienced Southern/Southwestern culture. I'm from California, and I've never been to Texas. Although I introduce myself as American or Taiwanese-American, I consider myself culturally Californian, not simply American (Since "American culture" can mean so many things, it tends not to mean anything at all.), and I certainly can't identify with any part of Texan culture. All I know about it are stereotypes. So the foreign experiences my co-teacher had had sounded somewhat foreign to me, too. This has gotten me thinking about how the United States of America really are united states, discrete and different but all trying their darnedest to get along.

Ah, USA... you are a bottomless well of culture and cultural issues that make every conversation about you utterly fascinating. Keep it up, home country. Keep on being the beautiful mess that currently controls the rest of the planet. I'll be back soon.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

North Korean Literature from Words Without Borders

Juche Tower in Pyongyang
Something pushed me to set aside my work for a minute and Google "Arduous March" this afternoon. I wanted to find out if "March" referred to the month or the movement. The first search result was Wikipedia's article on the North Korean famine of 1994-1998. As it turns out, that march lasted much longer than a month.

The second result was an excerpt from an autobiography written by one Ji Hyun-ah that described her family's experiences with "the shadow of hardship" and the lengths to which they had to go to feed themselves as hundreds of thousands of North Koreans starved to death.

The excerpt was from a literary magazine called Words Without Borders, and I had a look around its website. Before I knew it, my entire afternoon had been sucked into reading piece after piece of literature in translation from around the world. I couldn't believe that I hadn't known about Words Without Borders before now.

In particular, I wanted to read more works by North Korean defectors (keep in mind that the only literature to come out of North Korea is propaganda). To my surprise, an entire issue last year was devoted to this very group. In May 2013, seven defectors' prose and poetry were published, and I quickly read them all. Here are some standouts:

A Blackened Land by Kim Yeon-seul tells a story of anger heartbreak with hard drug use as its culprit and the despotic Kim regime as its architect. It is accusatory and starkly bitter, almost enough to taste. Last fall I criticized the media for its sensationalist coverage of North Korea's rampant drug use; reading this firsthand account has surely altered the lens through which I look at the issue. Also of note: Kim Yeon-seul is from Chongjin, the hometown of the six defectors profiled in Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, which I am reading currently.

The Poet Who Asked for Forgiveness analyzes the poetry of Kim Chul, following its evolution as the government punished his failure to conform his art to party ideology with separation from his family and forced labor. The strict regulations over the substance of art reminds me of how Shostakovich composed magnificent symphonies during World War II but was creatively controlled by Stalin the whole time. But the communist prohibition of artistic freedom isn't just a smudge in the history of culture; it's still happening in North Korea, where every song on the radio and every movie in theaters grinds the gears of the juggernaut propaganda machine.

Another poem, "Pillow" by Jang Jin-sun, narrates a harrowing and heartbreaking scene in a Pyongyang marketplace. It reads very quickly, but it's easy to see the difference in theme in style -- even in translation -- between the work of a North Korean state poet and that of a North Korean state poet who has defected to South Korea, whose memories of life there are already ten years in the past.

I Want to Call Her Mother Again is tragic. It also offers a peek inside the hanawon where defectors go to adjust to life in South Korea. If you read only one thing to try to understand the experiences of North Korean refugees, this should be it.

Although North Korea was spotlit last year, literature from elsewhere on the peninsula has popped up more recently. The most recent "graphic lit" issue of Words Without Borders includes I Am a Communist, a translated excerpt from a graphic novel detailing a man's difficult life choices in the tumultuous years before the border between the Communist North and the not-so-Democratic South was sealed.

A few years earlier, there was a feature on a translated North Korean comic book (meaning that it was geared toward kids) titled "The Secret of Frequency A". In it, doe-eyed North Korean child geniuses help unravel a conspiracy theory that involves evil American and Japanese scientists killing all the animals in Africa with fatal acoustic signals.

And the final two pieces that I read which stayed with me powerfully were The Chef's Nail, a work of short fiction about a woman from Seoul who rode line 2 of the subway in circles all day -- powerful and mindbending -- and a short comic about mother tongues in Taiwan called Tongue-tied which resonated with me personally.

I'm thrilled to have stumbled upon something new, interesting, and of such high quality, but I'm vacillating over whether or not to subscribe to the magazine, because my Reader is already swamped with hundreds of articles, blog posts, and random junk that I'll never get around to... Nevertheless, I exhort you to check out Words Without Borders, especially if you're into literature in translation or literature of marginalized peoples, and especially especially check out the North Korea issue if you want a large and immediate dose of... tsuris? Litost? Pathos? Conviction.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

개학 - School's beginning!

Winter break is finally over. It's been a long two months, and I'm restless to get back to teaching! I wouldn't say I'm ready for 개학 (gaehak, the start of classes), though, since I've left a lot of my curriculum planning undone. Yeah, I really tried to make the most of my vacation this year, and that meant that I traveled and hung out with friends a ton but left all my work for the last minute. But as a last hurrah before I buckle down and hit the road running tomorrow morning, let us recap!

December 2013: I stayed at school during the week of Christmas, even though I'm contractually allowed to take off earlier, because I wanted to watch my students perform at their school festival. I baked a ton and then went to Seoul to visit friends, which always means eating a ton of food. Year-end festivities were put on hold so that I could finish my grad school apps.

January 2014: I reconnected with my homestay family, began a linguistics research project that took me to Jeju Island, then passed through Busan on my way to Japan for a five-day trip around Kyushu with my friend Erik! I took the hydrofoil ferry from Busan to Fukuoka, visited the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, saw a volcano, dipped in a natural hot spring, and ate a lot of amazing food. After ten days at home, I was off again to backpack through Thailand and Laos for two weeks.

February 2014: After visiting the protest sites in Bangkok and riding elephants in Chiang Mai, I crossed the northern border of Thailand into Laos and cruised down the Mekong while enjoying the amazing views of a virtually untouched landscape. I spent one night in a rural Lao village, then traipsed around Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, exploring waterfalls and caves. In two weeks, I made a dozen new friends and decided that backpacking is the best way to travel when you're young. Lastly, I came back full circle to Bangkok via Vientiane and flew back to Korea, just in time for my school's second graduation ceremony. One week of writing for Changwonderful, biking with Changwon Bike Party, and blogging as much as I could passed by too quickly, and then I found myself on a plane bound for Pyongyang. North Korea was weird and unforgettable, and you'll hear all about it soon.

I've been back in South Korea for a little over a week. I got a new haircut, went to a pizza party with friends in Seoul, baked banana bread and Nutella muffins, tried out a ton of cafes and restaurants in Changwon, visited Tongyeong on a whim, volunteered with North Korean defectors, and went to my first ever K-pop concert: K.Will in Busan!

Okay, it's too late. I can't write anymore. Here are photos of my winter break!
Graduation day; new haircut; Tongyeong mural village; Cafe Olympic in Nagasaki; brunch in Changwon; hanging out in Seoul; hanging out in Bangkok; Changwon Bike Party; hanging out in Pyongyang; elephant ride in Chiang Mai; canoe ride in Laos; K.Will concert; chilling in Vang Vieng; chilling in Luang Prabang; and 친구들~
Some of the things I've made and/or eaten: Nutella banana walnut muffins, honey toast at Ogada, Japanese hambagu steak in Changwon, homemade pancakes, citron tea at Cafe Hau, orange French toast at Flying Pan Blue, Sulbing, more Sulbing, raw horsemeat (basashi) in Nagasaki, and peanut butter jalapeno burger at Sharky's in Busan!
Happy March! I saw cherry blossoms in bloom today in Tongyeong. Spring is coming! And goodnight.