Monday, September 28, 2009

Homosocialism and the Korean Way

While this may be a subject with plenty of potential awkwardness and possibilities for offending it's one that's loomed prominently in my awareness and so like any responsible blogger, I must share it with the world. That topic?

How Gay is Korea?

Now, before I get into my personal experiences here I should mention one pertinent fact which is that there are no gay people in Korea. A popular sampling of Korean opinions by my peers has determined that generally speaking gay is bad, and that Koreans will have nothing to do with it.

Now, this may say more about social pressure, ignorance, and the great river of De Nile that passes through the center of Korea (silly you, thinking it was in Egypt) but that's an essay for another time. For now let's just roll with it and agree: there are no gay people in Korea. Their statistical 10% was shuffled off on some other country, probably Japan. Koreans hate Japan.

Now while the people of Korea are emphatically ungay is the technical sense I will argue that as a country Korea is super gay. I will present my evidence in three arguments:

I. Korean Homosocialiam

a. Koreans tend to socialize with those of their own sex. While this is not totally unexpected in a grade-school it seems to extend even to their adult lives. Office functions I've attended have obviously been of mixed gender but any other social occasions I've been invited to have been all-female. Even among the staff groups tend to split between male and female with the women having their coffee circle before morning classes and men (presumably) doing the same elsewhere. Close mixed gender friendships between unmarried men and women seem uncommon. In fact, single younger men are so incredibly shy in my presence that I'm amazed that the people in this country have managed to procreate at all. It might just be my aura of foreignness though.

b. Koreans are super, super affectionate towards same-sex friends. Both women and men will hold hands with their friends and hang off each other and (according to one teacher friend at an all-girls middle school) kiss each other on the mouth. I have also heard tales of boys sitting on other boys laps and other behavior that would be questionable in the states. Obviously this can be more uncomfortable for western males to experience then western females, and I've heard some pretty hilarious stories about one male teacher's vice-principal nearly making it to third base with some vigorous drunken thigh-rubbing.

II. Everything is Cute

a. From cities to roadsigns everything is Korean is covered in cute cartoons. Even banks have adorable round-limbed mascots speaking to you in pink bubbly word balloons. Even the firehouse, that final bastidion of traditional masculinity, has a cute widdle animal on its sign. God forbid I have to ever visit the ER because if I have to be operated on by a surgeon in a mickey-mouse facemask I might just lose my faith in modern medicine.

b. There is no Korean equivalent to Marlon Brando. Men here tend to be attractive on the scale of boy-bands and metrosexual movie stars. All varieties of pink feature prominently in menswear, including fuchsia, and every single man in my school over 25 dies his hair.

III. K-Pop

a. Case in point:

The "Haengbok/Happiness" Music Video from the band Super Junior (SRSLY).



I think one of the things that makes Korea such a gay country is its nominal lack of gay people. In America people can be so paranoid about appearing gay ("not that there's anything wrong with that") that they'll refrain from showing any sort of physical affection with members of the same sex and try to display their straightness by racing to the extremes of masculine and feminine behavior. It's unfortunate that in Korea such a loose and all-encompassing definition of masculinity can only seem to come at the price of severe homophobia.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Onwards to victory, and other successes!

In retail-related news, the Best Buy company is opening a new store on Union Square in the big city. They've seen fit to hire me to work in that store, which will be a great supplement for my income! I might even be allowed onto the prestigious Geek Squad, a responsibility I've trained for all these long years. So I'm in a pretty great mood, thanks to this unexpected turn of events. The long string of rejections, unreturned calls, and icy interviews was getting me down to say the least. These are hard times to be looking for work, but at least I'm receiving a first class lesson in dealing with disapointment.

I've ranted at some length as to how awesome this apartment is. My expectations have been exceeded yet again, however, as I've learned that my neighbor is a director in a New York theater company! I was out back watering the plants when this gentleman literally physically grabbed me and dragged me into his apartment to meet his cast, who were in the middle of a highly spirited party. Long story short, there was intense carousing, beer pong, flip-cup, adorable puppies, and I got free tickets to the show. It seems like the NYC culture I've been neglecting to this point is practically falling into my lap. And would you believe it, one of the actresses went to my high school! Considering Gill St. Bernards (as hoity-toity as it sounds) had a graduating class of about 40 people, this was rather unlikely- but it's a small world, and I keep running in to people I knew back in the day. It seems Hoboken/Union City is really the upcoming place. If I had a half million dollars, I'd buy property here. This neighborhood is going to gentrify so fast it'll make your head spin. I'll bet the first Starbucks will open within a year. This place is due for a visit from the leprechaun of gentrification.

So, in short- I got a job, I got free tickets, and I made some friends. Good news!

Also, plans are in the works for a visit to Korea, bankrolled at least in part through birthday cash. OMG.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

This one goes out to you.

I would like to dedicate this youtube video to my love. I miss you Terry.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tee-Eye-Arr-Eee-Dee, Tired

After the wild events of last week, this weekend I indulged in sleep, American television and drawing. Unfortunately it doesn't give me much to write about here, but I think it will help me endure the upcoming week.

While I feel on top of the class preparation, lesson planning and (mostly) teaching my body hasn't quite caught up with my mind. I'm always exhausted by the end of the day, whether it went smoothly or no. Today fortunately was a smooth day in the classroom but a hectic one without. My co-teacher and I spent a good hour and a half trying to turn a 6th grader's Korean essay into English for an English speech contest. Honestly, I'm not sure what purpose the contest serves since apparently all the speeches are re-drafted and altered by the teachers and the students only serve as little robots who regurgitate memorized phrases they couldn't possibly understand. It's a little sad microcosm of the larger problems in an education system which emphasizes rote learning over teaching independent analytical thought. Unfortunately for these children the entire system of lower education terminates in an SAT-like test which determines whether the student can go to college and if so, where. This has created an educational system built on the Kaplan plan: teach the test, not the subject.

Anyway, my apologies for that little aside. Besides sleeping and watching television I did make time this weekend to attend two dinners. Saturday was a welcoming dinner for our newest EPIK teacher and Sunday another EPIK cohort hosted a little get-together in her apartment with some home-cooked western-style delectables. It was all deeply appreciated by myself. I also consumed the first palatable wine I've had in Korea, which in this case had come to Korea via Australia. I don't think you'll be seeing Korean sections opening up in your local wine shops back home anytime soon.

Next time I'll try to provide you with more hilarious anecdotes but for now just enjoy the catchy tones of Lee Seung Hwan's "Superhero", my current favorite K-Pop Hit:

At the very least skip to the end for a fun 80's Exercise Video inspired dance routine. I think this video could also make for an excellent drinking game. The only rule: Take a shot every time a major copyright is violated. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"My Personal Hiroshima"

This morning I had the unexpected pleasure of being informed that my fifth grade class this had been cancelled due to physical testing. This I think will be a welcome respite after yesterday, which was somewhat trying.

A couple weeks ago the school offered to re-wallpaper my apartment and since the place was a little, well, dreary, I gratefully accepted. At 2pm I got an early ride home to check the job and make sure nothing had gone horribly awry. Instead of walking into my freshly finished apartment, however, I walked into a storm of shredded paper, muddy tracks all over the floor I had spent hours scrubbing last weekend, and a haze of cigarette smoke. Only two rooms were finished but through hand-gestures I was able to establish that they would call me when they were done and that there was to be NO MORE SMOKING in my apartment. Apparently this is something that needs to be stated in Korea.

I took my camera and walked into town to visit the bank and exchange the last of my american money. Happily, Kat and I discovered last week that one of the local cheap eatery employees speaks very good English so I was able to stop in there to ask for directions. Coming out of the bank flush and happy I wandered into a store selling (almost exclusively) cell phone accessories and bought a little kitty-cat to hang from my cell. It was only 1,000 won and honestly I felt like I deserved it. After that I just wandered for a bit and ran into some children who dogged me for several blocks until I stopped and talked to them. In many ways I prefer the way children react to foreigners then adults. Their blatant curiosity is much friendlier then adults' sidelong glances. On the other hand when I visited the traditional market yesterday with one of my school's teachers and her friends I had a less then warm and fuzzy feeling when one of the old men stroked my hair. Maybe pretended indifference really is preferable.

When I got back the apartment was finished but dirty dirty dirty. The floors were still coated and my coffee table had globs of some sort of congealed food sauce on it. They'd also used half of my instant coffee packets and mugs. One of the lights in the kitchen no longer works and I had to look all over the place for the bulbs to another which they had neglected to replace. I didn't cry but I might have let out a few screams of frustration, especially when I had to move the couch from the living room back into the office by myself since they'd neglected to do so. I think it could have been a real "I hate this country" moment but I tried to keep perspective. These were people I did not work with and would never see again and for a couple hours of intensive cleaning I had a much nicer -looking apartment at no extra cost to myself.

The most bizarre detail of the day was that when the workers moved the fridge to paper the kitchen I got to see this:

Another present from the previous tenant along with the previous layers of dust and a full pot of spagetti on my stove (did I neglect to mention that?). I'm glad I discovered it, though. As rotten as it was to have to scrub the entire apartment down again, at least I wasn't experiencing personal pain on the level of a nuclear detonation.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What it lacks in charm it makes up for in dirt.

I've posted pictures of my apartment. For those of you interested, please head over to flicker for the full set.

I've delayed posting pictures up until now because of the deplorable condition of the apartment when I arrived. I finally feel, after some very intense cleaning, that it is now suitable for viewing. Parents, please try not to be too appalled, fellow Native Teachers, do try to control your raging jealousy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"Teacher! Is transsexual a job?"

It's Friday afternoon and since I find my mind and body will sustain not another second of teaching-related work, I have the happy pleasure of writing here.

Week numbero dos finds me less stressed but no less tired. Around Wednesday I was able to surmount the near-constant cloud of panic I had been operating under and get far enough ahead of myself in planning my classes that I could breath properly. For the first time since I arrived in Korea I felt adequate to my job.

I also had my first class with the third graders, which was truly fun. After a scintellating introduction and explanation of my many fascinating attributes ("I am 24. I am from America. My favorite color is purple.") we played a version of musical chairs where 16 students sat in a circle of 15 chairs. When I would say an attribute like, "Students who are wearing... blue!" all the students who fit the profile would have to change chairs. The student left standing performed a penalty.

For the longest time I was unable to figure out what the penalty was; the students seemed to be wiggling a lot. Eventually it dawned on me that the students were actually spelling out letters of the alphabet in the air... with their butts.

Now, I don't know how this would fly in the USA (probably not) but in Korea it makes for some real amusement on the part of both the adults and children present. After awhile the 3rd grade teacher and I played with the kids too and performed penalties, which the kids really enjoyed, to put it mildly. The class ended with me getting hugs from every one of the kids. I was really great and I can safely assure you that absolutely no English was learned during during the course of that lesson.

After work Wednesday I met with some other EPIK teachers at Certo Cafe where we drank caffeinated drinks with whipped cream, played crazy 8s, and talked teaching. Stories were exchanged, including the title of this post, which was asked to a middle school teacher by a student. The teacher, cool under fire, replied, "No, it's a lifestyle."

Tonight I've been invited to dinner and tomorrow I'm hiking Taebaek-san, which my guidebook says is one of the 6 holiest mountains in Korea... whatever that means.

I'll leave you with some interesting "Cultural Notes" from the English teaching guide to my 6th grade textbook. I assume they're directed torwards the Korean English teachers, since the language is too complex for students and I would like to think I do not need to be instructed on my own culture.

Anyway... all typos and mispellings below are from the original:

Individualism of the Americans

The Americans value individualism. Equality, justice and democracy are another value system in American society.
Fundamentally, every human being has the same right and they believe that they have a freedom, human rights by nature.
They want to protect themselves by not being bothered by any other people.
Thus they have been trained in a way to decide what they want and what they have to do to get it by themselves in their young period. Accordingly, they use I, me, my, and mine, but we don't hear "We Americans", or "We British" in their language.

The American School System
American students have milk, grapes, oranges, fruit sherbet, cerealm etc as their breakfast in the school. They bring their lunch or school provides various lunch menus such as sausages, hot dogs, spaghetti, tacos, fruit ice cream, sandwiches, steak, pizza, etc.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In which apartments are habitated and puppies are visited.

Moving is a royal pain. While hardly a daring statement, it's undeniably true and today was no exception. Everything which went wrong could- for instance, I ran my cell phone through the laundry. My mother, lovely lady that she is, bought me some Ikea furniture- and when we arrived, I learned that the neighbors had put out a massive pile of the SAME Ikea furniture for free on the corner. However, despite these petty annoyances, it all worked out. Two hours of rebus- based Swedish furniture manufacture later, my room was complete in what is... The Best Apartment in Union City! (it says this on a plaque above the door, signed by the last 3 mayors and President Gerald Ford.) My rent is hyper-reasonable, the neighborhood is that sort of cute, family-oriented multiethnic kind of place which has cheap rooms and safe streets. I'm a block away from the seething pleasure-pits of Hoboken, half an hour from Manhattan, and am literally enmeshed in a web of convenient bus and train routes. The local pizza is exquisite.

On top of that, I have a completely unblocked view of the Manhattan skyline from my bedroom window- and from the balcony off the kitchen. In fact, every room in the house has such a view! There is even a fat, adorable muskrat who I can see rooting around in the backyard looking pleased with himself, whom I can bear no ill will. Additionally, today I briefly played with a puppy! It's like karmic backlash for this morning's stress.

One of the bonuses I advertised to my roomates as a good reason to take me on was my technical proficiency, such as it is. Today, I got a chance to prove my bona fides, when I figured out why their wireless router doesn't work. The reason? It's not, in fact, a wireless router. That's why their signal was so bad.

Finally, I got to go for a run through Hoboken, which was an absolute pleasure. I will continue to champion "The Paris of New Jersey" as a title for that city, until such time as it enters the public consciousness.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Second week, here goes.


I've been in Taebaek over a week now and I still haven't caught my breath. This past Saturday Jaye (another EPIK teacher) and I went food shopping (still a taxing and treacherous experience) and then a couple hours later Dave and Lindsay came by to peruse the books left in my apartment by the previous tenant. D&L have been here in Taebaek for over a year and are a great resource for all sorts of advice as well as numerous anecdotes.

After choosing some volumes we walked over to the restaurant and met up with nearly every other foreigner in Taebaek. As it turns out the majority of non-Koreans here (I think the grand total is about 18) are EPIK teachers with two outlying private-school teachers. Due to the sheer volume of the party I wasn't able to make everyone's acquaintance but I did get to eat yet another lavish meal of bulgogi. Afterwards half the party went to the Nori-Bang and some others (including myself) went to Certo Cafe (pronounces cher-toh, as the Italians do) for some REAL coffee and cheesecake. It was expensive and deeply appreciated. Eventually it was just four ladies hanging out and we chatted and played Crazy 8's which was really enjoyable (re: I won a lot). Honestly, there's only so much drinking one can really stand in any given 3-week period and some cake and card games went over well with me.

The next morning I got up nice and early (woo) to meet Dave and Lindsay at the bus station for a hike in the Mureung Valley, outside of Donhae city. Unfortunately Lindsay fell ill during the long and unbearably windy bus-trip (she had been in the drinking/Nori-bang group the night before) and had to skip out on the hiking but I went with Dave and his friend Pat and we saw some amazing nature. If you wish to view pictures and such I will refer you to my Flickr page here.

A few comments about Korean hikers: They do not dress like anyone would sensibly be expected to dress for a hike. Either they're wearing full-on month-long backpacking ensembles (floppy-brimmed fisherman hats, sweat-wicking high-tech outdoor clothing, immense highly engineered backpacks bristly with caribeeners, telescoping titanium walking-sticks and imposingly sized cameras) or they're wearing mini-skirts with high-heels (for the ladies) or dress slacks with crisp, freshly ironed polo shirts (for the fellas).

Americans wear clothes. Koreans, I've discovered, wear outfits.

In any case I think we were at least as much of an attraction for the Korean hikers as the waterfalls. Dave clued me in the words Koreans will most often use to refer to foreigners: "way-gook", which means "foreigner" and "mee-gook", which means "American." Once you start listening it's pretty easy to hear how often they're talking about you, which is all the time.

After the hike, which involved a viciously long, irregular and rickety set of iron steps (apparently also a common attribute on Korean hiking trails) we met Lindsay and some more of Dave's friends in a restaurant and the trail head. For our party of seven we gave the proprietress 100,000 won (something less then $100) and the instructions to bring us the best of whatever that might buy. The result was about half the forest served hot and steaming on our table covered in a thick film of spicy pepper sauce. Quite literally the vegetable side dishes were leaves, roots, and less identifiable items gathered from the forest floor and spiced to within an inch of their photosynthesizing lives. Some of it was pretty delicious and there was at least one vegetable so disgusting I had to spit it out into a napkin.

The whole meal was served, of course, with the local beverage which in this case was a milky kind of fermented rice wine. It wasn't really to my taste but since it was all I had to cut down the slow fire in my mouth (remember readers: pepper sauce) I ended up drinking enough of it to get incredibly sleepy. The trip back was slow and winding but I managed to be in bed by midnight like the responsible role model that I am attempting to portray.

Hopefully more to follow as the week progresses, but now it's tea and book time.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

There will be an adjustment period.

It's finally Friday and I have just taught my last class for the week. On top of the normal emotional turmoil that accompanies uprooting yourself from family, boyfriend and friends and moving across the globe I've found teaching to be incredibly stressful and I've felt woefully inadequate and underprepared. The difficulties of communicating to a staff that speaks very little english and children that don't speak it at all seem to accumulate as the days go on and I finish every day exhausted after all the effort I have expended trying to be understood.

Yesterday was probably my worst day so far. I had spent hours preparing for my first lesson plan taught out of the textbook (which I will be using for grades 3-6 all year) and it was abysmal. The students were confused and bored and I was nervous and rushed the lesson. The game I had spent an hour laminating cards for was a complete waste of time and I think both myself and the students left the classroom a little deader inside. After that my school computer broke down and I was unable to prep for my next lesson and spent far, far too much time trying to troubleshoot a computer whose native language was set to Korean.

At about 4:55pm I was invited to another staff dinner because the school nurse was quitting. I just wanted to go home but in the interests of future good relations I accepted. It was a very large group and there was almost no english spoken to me until later when some of the teachers had loosened up a little (the ability to speak english and drunkeness appear to be correlated). At one point there were some speeches and my handler Yani started crying. Sympathizing with her sadness that her friend was leaving and thinking about all the people I had left behind almost got me going too. When I finally got home and I had missed a call from my mom due to a time-difference confusion it was just too much.

Today, however, seems to have been a success. Having finally acquired wrapping paper I was able to give Yani and my principal the gifts I brought (they seemed surprised but gratified) and my 6th grade lesson which I had only spent maybe 15 minutes prepping due to computer problems was a total success. I started off the lesson with a review of the last chapter they'd studied (as the textbook guide recommended). The subject was jobs so I made a powerpoint slideshow of pictures of jobs, only instead of people they were all pictures of dressed up cats and dogs (the internet provides). Then I did a powerpoint slide of some of the topics we were going to be talking about for the current chapter (summer vacation activities). For things like biking and baseball I found funny/extreme photos which got them laughing. The rest of the lesson was exactly by the book but they were pretty involved. I had to make one boy who kept shouting go stand in the corner but that was it. Even the 6th grade teacher seemed surprised.

The cherry on my sundae was being informed by my co-teacher that the mixed 5th/6th grade after-school class would only be meeting twice a week instead of four times.

My joy knows no limits.

Today I will prepare for next week and tonight I look forward to a long quiet evening and maybe a walk by the river. I'll be sure to bring my camera.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Coming home from work today I was accosted by a bunch of very precocious little girls who ran across half an apartment complex to come talk to me. The biggest one couldn't have been older then nine and the littlest was probably five. The nine-year-old seemed to know only the phrases "my name is" and "oh my god" so our conversation stalled out pretty early on. Meanwhile the littlest one kept running behind me and jumping up to touch my braid. We continued our conversation ("My name is! My name is! Oh my god!") up the road to my apartment building and up three flights of stairs before her mom finally called her to come back outside. A couple minutes later I heard her and her two companions marching up and down the stairs shouting "Hi! My name is!" I would have gone back out and continued making friends but after dealing with children and communication barriers all day I felt like a rest. Korean children are pretty cute though and surprisingly bold.