Well, my bad. I have not written anything on this blogette for a long time, disappointing my legion(s) of fans. I've been working on my dissertation and teaching. Daegu is starting to get colder. What have I done since June?July: Edmonton, Canada
Here are some rather random pictures of our vacation back home: The Welsh tent at Heritage Days in Edmonton with the longest town name in the world; the hoodoo park at Drumheller (which is much smaller than I'd expected*); and a carnival ride at Klondike Days (oops, Festival Days, or Twenty Dollars for a Cold Corn Dog Days, or Corporate Sponsorship Beige Days, or whatever we're allowed to call it now that it's not Klondike Days anymore). It was nice to be home. The mosquitos were glad to see me. Edmonton is doing well as usual, but it might finally be more expensive than Vancouver. My yardstick for going out for lunch used to be that $10 would usually be enough. Man, that's a salad now. I'm complaining less about high prices in Korea.
*"That's what she said."
August: Korea Tourism Conference, Yesan
This was a weekend conference at Yesan, southwest of Seoul. Yes, I took a cellphone picture of the belly-dancers at suppertime. Do you want to see a picture of people listening to a conference paper?
September: Chusuk at North Chungcheong
Chusuk is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving. It's nice to have a few days off, but sometimes I'd rather hide under a blanket in my bedroom than deal with it. You cannot fly anywhere; every flight everywhere is tripled in price and booked. You cannot go anywhere; every road is jammed. I try to do something fun, but I always feel a little like Satan's devils in Paradise Lost who try to make Hell more liveable by, say, installing some air conditioning and some plush carpeting. It only goes so far. Still, I'll admit that the botanical garden we went to, Herb Nara, was very pretty. It was a few dollars to get in and the food was good. Try this in Los Angeles.
October: Autumn at Keimyung Campus
Gorgeous. I work on a beautiful campus.
You know, I'm having a pretty good autumn and my job is going quite well, and I'm thankful. There are just things that get under my skin from time to time. Maybe not many people care so much about the minitiae of Korea. But it's where I live and where the reader(s) of this blog might take advice from before deciding to come here to work.
Things Korea does well
1. Customer service. With some exceptions—there is very little customizing of orders here, and you'll basically get potatoes on your pizza like everyone else—service is excellent and polite and people work long hours without whining. I am always astounded by how efficient and easy it is in Korea to get things like cable connected (they're there that day; everything works the first time; it's cheap) or food delivered (fifteen dollars for a Chinese food dinner for three, delivered and dirty plates picked up outside your door, not kidding); order something online, it's there the next day. Impossible in North America: We don't have that service. That will be next week sometime. Your call is important to us, please wait for the next available...
There is no tipping, which I like. I hate the rigimarole of tipping. It's not because I'm cheap (well, maybe I'm cheap). But if meals were a little more expensive instead I wouldn't mind it. But when I go back to Canada now I find it very irritating that someone is coming to my table every three minutes to ask if my tea needs stirring and then I have to calculate percentages. Korean restaurants have minimal service and you might need to get your own water. That's fine. It's still speedy and polite. I'd rather the staff be nice because they actually take pride in their service than phony pleasantry.
2. Personal appearance. Everyone is dressed well. There are no dirty sweats, no grubby t-shirts, no stupid goth rings in people's noses. Women look good and care about their makeup and clothes. Men increasingly wear nice clothes and ties and shoes are shined. People have their own style without looking like bums.
3. Transportation. Driving is a nightmare, but public transit here is cheap and effortless. Get on the subway for ninety cents, get to the train station, a bullet train blasts you across the country in two hours. Get to Incheon airport and it's clean, spacious, orderly, and has nice big clear monitors. The flight is on time. Dammit, why can't North America do this right?
4. Respect for Education. I've written about this already, but I like the fact that education is highly valued and teachers are treated with deference in Korea. No one has ever smirked about my English degrees. Reading is not for losers.
5. Panhandlers. In North America and Europe there is a social safety net and there is always someone hassling you for spare change for alcohol. There are no panhandlers in Korea. No one will give them money. Problem solved.
Things Korea does not do so well on
1. Xenophobia. The middle picture above is the seat next to mine on the subway. A foreigner will never need to worry about being crowded on a Korean subway. People will sit next to the bearded circus lady who has not bathed in a year and who is muttering death threats before they will sit next to the foreigner. It's not blatant xenophobia, although it can be. It's the little things that happen 365 days a year that tell me I am tolerated and welcomed but will never be accepted.
I know this was the hermit kingdom and that things need time to change. But even the most outward-looking people in the country I meet just do not get it. The free trade treaties and globalization are seen as a chance for Koreans to sell things to the rest of the world and to promote their food and culture elsewhere. It does not ever occur to anyone that Korea might have something to learn from the other 238 countries in the world.
I went to the tourism conference in Yesan. The Korean academics attended Korean sessions. The way Koreans market tourism to foreigners is astoundingly bad—websites are poorly organized and won't run on Firefox, the English is atrocious, links don't work, and the sites promoted are all things Korean bureaucrats think foreigners should see (temples and mountains) rather than things they want to see. I saw western scholars present detailed studies on how to improve tourism marketing to the west. There were almost no Koreans in any of the English-speaking sessions. No one cared what a foreigner might think about attracting other foreigners as tourists.
Don't get me started on my number one pet peeve, the food nationalism. Korean food is excellent, but it is next to impossible to find anything else in a restaurant or cafeteria. The only western food you will occasionally see in a food court is hamburgers and pizza. Go to the beach in Bali and there are 29 countries represented in the oceanside restaurants. Go to the beach in Korea and there are 29 restaurants serving Korean food and two coffee shops. So very few people will try something else. Aliens might explode from their stomachs.
2. Thin skins. Take a country like France. People make fun of them constantly: they're cheese-eating surrender monkeys. The French do not care. They know they're cool. They know that their women are hot and their cities are beautiful and they have culture and art and music and wine.
Make any kind of criticism about Korea in a public forum and you get torrents of abuse. Read the Korean newspapers, and it's endless hand-wringing if anyone elsewhere in the world slights the country or its people. It's especially hypocritical for a country that acts like a martyr over any perceived insult in the international media but regularly vilifies foreign English teachers in the domestic media.
3. Music. So I sound like an old crank. K-pop music is rubbish. In seven years I have never heard a Korean pop song with one quark of creativity or originality. Every last song is banal fluff sung by manufactured, interchangeable pretty boys in makeup singing overwrought ballads, or groups of the same puerile girls doing the same flirty bubblegum dance moves over and over. I do sometimes hear or see older Korean music from the 70's that's not so bad, but it never seems to have much exposure.
4. Animal abuse. If you love animals, Korea can break your heart. Dogs are tied to short ropes on rock piles. Cats are kicked and run over. Everytime I see this post on expatriate bulletin boards some fundavegan jerk sermonizes everyone* that eating animals is no better. Fine. It's still no excuse to be cruel for no reason.
5. English education. Up until the end of high school, the Korean method of learning English is to be taught English rules of grammar in Korean, and then to be given sentences where students identify the correct verb tense or choose between circumloquatiousand sesquipedalian. There is little or no speaking in English. The purpose of the class, like every high school class in Korea, is to memorize facts in order to pass a test. Surprisingly, this does not help students carry a conversation or understand an Eminem song.
Goodness, this sounds like a lot of snark. Again, it's not all so bad and I meet nice people here all the time. Koreans are really quite kind to tourists and to people they know. I'll walk down a street here at night anytime before I walk through north Las Vegas. But if anyone writes to heap abuse on me for daring to criticize Korea I think you're just proving my points.
*Only I get to sermonize everyone. It's the perk of having my own website.
Daegu (I'm starting to pronounce it dead-gu) is usually a city which would make rocks fidget with boredom, and so my eternal thanks to anyone who tries to add a little life. One thing I like about Keimyung is that there are a lot of music concerts. One of the music professors, Kang Il-Lee, has regular performances of accompanied trumpet, or his big brass jazz band, Volcano (click to see a YouTube clip). A nice guy, and fun music that makes me think of easy jazz from Pink Panther movies.
North & South Korea
I'm often asked now by people at home if there will be war. Everyone in South Korea surely has an opinion about North Korea, although I don't actually hear about it much outside of media coverage. I teach university students, and their minds are far away from such concerns (what they are on, exactly, I'm not sure). Maybe my own thoughts on this are not worth much, but I live here and this is my take on the situation.
I think that I have finally realized something important about the Korean crisis: Everyone, South Korea, North Korea, and China, make it out to be about ideology and passion, but it's actually all very cold-blooded realpolitik. None of these actors really care about ideology.
South Korea wants to unite the south and north as brothers... but maybe next year, when things are more settled. They've looked at the two Germanies and are terrified at the economic and political costs of reunification, and prefer to keep putting up with the abuse. North Korea's gangsterocracy pretends that they're sexy rebels who are about to invade the south and kill everyone in mutual suicide to stay true to their ideals, but in truth they run a very disciplined protection racket and know better than to blow up the factory of the businessman who is paying them off. The biggest player is China. China pretends that North Korea is a communist soulmate, but in truth they can't stand North Korea and only prop them up because China's government is incredibly risk-averse and doesn't want a failed state full of starving refugees and UN soldiers on its borders. In effect, each state pretends to want change but really wants the status quo, which benefits everyone... except the North Korean citizen.
Of course war could happen. Wars explode because of brinkmanship, accidents, and power struggles. Like anyone else here, I'm jaded by the constant bluffing from up North, but still watch the news. But I don't expect war. My hope is that North Korea will ultimately be forced to liberalize to ward off collapse. If so, the Chinese gamble will have paid off, even if China has acted with its usual total self-interest.
The Cheonan Disaster
In late March, a South Korean patrol ship sunk mysteriously off waters that are disputed with North Korea. So, is it safe to be here? Perhaps it's time my discerning readers, both of them, know my opinion. I don't want to make light of the tragedy. At the same time, the public reaction to the event has me shaking my head in bewilderment.
2002: A US Army tank accidentally runs over two Korean schoolgirls. Protests in the street. Americans abused, threatened, and refused service in shops and restaurants by a furious public.
2008: Attempts to open Korea to imports of American beef after "Mad Cow Disease" incidents leads to gigantic protests, violent demonstrations, and candlelight vigils.
2010: What is widely believed to be a North Korean torpedo attack on a South Korean patrol ship leads to 46 deaths. Chirp... chirp... At minimum there is silence, and at worst the usual useful idiots are spreading conspiracy theories that the Americans somehow must have done it.
But at any rate, the guns of war are anything but blazing here, at least for now.
Well, this blogette has been awfully serious lately. How about a few cell-phone pictures from my daily life? (Nobody's paying you to look at them).
|Subway station in Busan. It says a lot that Korean vending machines have books and North American ones have potato chips and cola...||I've been going to a church with translation service. An immense Easter choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus in Korean is an experience.||I went with Ariel's family to a countryside village specializing in local beef. Korean beef is underrated, but not cheap.|
|A late-winter blizzard in March didn't last long, but it froze to the trees. There was no spring this year. Flip the switch, here's summer.||Sigh. "Let's victory!" I see things like this on the subway wall and wonder what I'm doing here.||Though I must say that a Porkwell day is a good one. Does anyone check any of these names?|
The Americans have recently passed universal health care. While I'm pleased to see the US join the 20th century at last, I'm astonished by the violent responses to its passage, not only by the ordinary yahoos, but by elected representatives who stirred up the protestors. See Paul Krugman's essay on this. What would Reagan say about the backlash?
"It's time for the people to stand up and fight this bill and say that if Carter won't fix things, our Smith & Wessons will. Folks are entitled to be outraged about this and not take it. Let's put the Democrats and Carter in our crosshairs. I hope he fails." - Ronald Reagan, 1980
This is an imaginary quote, of course, but whether you like Reagan or not, I can't imagine the man or the GOP of 1980 advocating domestic acts of terrorism. Is this what's now normal in the USA, where elected officials are at personal risk and opposition members tacitly encourage vigilante violence when they don't get their way in the vote count? It is a very poor example to set for other countries where these actions are commonplace.
The Vatican Scandal
Not sure if I should talk about this so publicly. Who knows who will read it someday? I guess if I've already discussed politics, I can touch religion. Lest I seem biased I am Christian but not Catholic. I have mixed feelings about the child sex abuse scandal rocking the Vatican. New revelations are turning up about priests abusing children for decades and church superiors ignoring and threatening victims and acting only to protect their reputation. Every day I see increasing evidence of this chain of suppression coming closer to the pontiff himself.
On one hand, imagine eight senators were exposed as long-term child molesters, and that the senate administration had acted to cover it up. Very few people would say, "well, this proves that the houses of Congress are corrupt institutions and that parliamentary democracy has been discredited." Similarly, when female teachers sleep with young students, it's a big smutty joke about the lad getting some from the hot teacher. No one I know says, "they should close down all the schools! I'd never let my child be around a teacher. This just shows that public education is evil." Yet an awful lot of people say these same things about the Catholic church.
On the other hand, the numbers of people involved, and the extent to which the entire criminal and moral disaster was treated so dismissively and so callously, can't be ignored. I think this reveals a very different mindset between the essentially medieval church structure and the postmodern world. The Catholic hierarchy seems to cling to the idea that being wrong is fundamentally impossible. Much of the world sees a self-important institution believing that it's too big to fail. Do we need the indignity of the pope being unable to travel to certain countries because of warrants for his arrest for him to take this more seriously?
A lot of people's faith has and will be destroyed by this scandal. I don't think it's the end of the Catholic church by any means, but I think they have two broad choices, and neither are pleasant. In many ways giant organizations and even countries are like individuals, in that people will forgive someone who's really sorry and walks the walk, but not someone who apologizes shallowly. Germany is a pretty well-respected country in Europe, and its repudiation of its Nazi past has been genuine and substantive. Japan has never really persuaded anyone of more than that it regrets losing World War II, and as a result the country is loathed throughout Asia. The church could undertake a massive effort to find, expose, and prosecute criminal priests and administrators and beg public forgiveness through clear and genuine acts of contrition and help for its victims. There are fundamentalist atheists for whom nothing would ever be sufficient except for rolling up and dying. But I honestly think the general public would be won over. The alternative, making a pro-forma apology and then refusing to make other amends, will be much worse. A lot of people don't care about sin anymore, but almost everyone doesn't like arrogance and pride.
Should You Be an English Professor?
I like being a professor. I have a fairly good job, the hours are good, and it's enjoyable when someone learns something or grows as a student. I don't regret the career that's been given to me. I think regret is a foolish emotion anyway. When you regret something, you're assuming you fully know the alternatives. If I hadn't been a professor, I might have had some other career I loved, and been hit by a bus the next day. No one has perfect knowledge of what might else have been.
Getting past this logic-chopping, do I recommend young readers of this blog (both of them) that you become a professor? No, I don't. I couldn't with good conscience advise you to enter this career, at least as a professor in the humanities, or specifically in English. Why shouldn't you be an English professor?
Okay, I'll stop. What is the matter with me that I have been so crabby and angry all 2010? Perhaps it's the dark and cold of a Daegu winter. I don't do winter well anymore. I don't think I could live in Newfoundland again. Maybe my blogette posts would be cheerier if I bought a sun lamp.
Globalization has perhaps been the most important civilizational and economic force in my lifetime. And it's odd that I find global economics so interesting when I was so poor at the subject in university. You're not always good at thing you like to do! To quote Tom Friedman once again, globalization is a little like the sunrise; whether I like it or not won't have much effect on whether it happens. I also think that it and post-industrialism are such an enormous change in human civilization that there's no way I can accurately evaluate whether it's good or not, any more than a factory worker could say that the industrial revolution was good or not in the year 1750, or what the breakup of Rome was leading to in 500.
My take so far is that globalization is good for the wealthy, good for the poor, but wrecks the middle class. As such, it has raised standards of living in the developing world (outside of Africa, generally) where there wasn't much middle class to begin with. I suppose there is a sort of global justice here for the developed countries to share the affluence, but I am beginning to see long-term that globalization has been much more detrimental than beneficial to my ability to make a living. In the west, if you are very wealthy, globalization allows you to produce goods and products somewhere else where labor is cheaper and keep the profit. If you are poor, a wealthy upper class brings jobs in the service sector.
The section of society which is no longer very necessary is the middle class, which sends an increasing number of young people to university for jobs which they will never get. So many men that no one needs, except at best to cut hair and to mow grass. The question of whether my generation is richer than my parents' one is interesting. We have so many more labor-saving technologies and entertainments than before, but so much less security. You cannot graduate high school and walk into a reasonably safe expectation of a house and job and retirement if you work hard. That social contract doesn't exist anymore. It leaves many of us as dazed as a Roman citizen must have been around the year 500, realizing that the old empire had disappeared but unable to see the future and understand what was coming to replace it.
Because I lived in Las Vegas for a few years, and usually had a February holiday when I lived in Korea before then, I haven't had to savor an actual winter since about 2003. I don't miss it one iota. We had a short holiday planned for Malaysia this February but could not go. Some bureaucrat told us that my daughter had to show up in person with ID to pick up her school form on the prescribed day or she couldn't attend the school. For that one act we had to cancel our vacation and spend January shivering instead of on a beach. It has been an unusually harsh Korean winter. I have tried not to be in a foul mood all month, but I still am. As I have to keep explaining, because I come from Canada, it doesn't mean I like winter. Other people can fall in love with the far north. I'll live in Bali.
More on schools. I'm often asked about the Korean school system and how it compares to the west. Based on my experience teaching first-year college both in North America and in Korea, I no longer think I would rate one higher than the other. They both have strengths and weaknesses. First I need to discuss showupism.
To me, showupism is the dominant labor principle of the developing world. In a sentence, showupism is the idea that time spent means productivity, end of story. When I lived in Mexico, I learned that Mexicans, despite the stereotypes, work long hours. They just don't do much. If I went to a restaurant, there were 18 people working there and no one to take your order, because everyone was chatting to their boy or girlfriend or doing nothing. At the Pemex Oil site I taught occasional classes at, there were lots of laborers employed, who spent most of the day talking, fooling around, or sneaking off to drink booze or watch exotic dancers.
I'm often told how Koreans work such long hours. But it's a little like someone bragging that they're a better person because they watered the plants for two hours with a spoon rather than for twenty minutes with a pail. I'm sure there are inefficiencies in the west too, and some people probably do have jobs like Dilbert does. But relatively speaking, many people here don't seem to work very efficiently. They spend a great deal of time in meetings and following regulations and sitting at their desks, and little time in innovating or solving problems on their own, as the culture vehemently discourages rocking the boat in any way. The only people who seem to actually work with purpose are the old women who run restaurants and sell things on the street. Korea would grind to a halt without the ajummas.
Schools in North American and Korea
If I were to compare western and Korean schools, I imagine asking a freshman class in Korea about who fought in World War II. I would immediately get correct answers. If I then asked, "How would the war have ended if atomic bombs weren't invented?" I would get confused silence. No one would know how to hypothesize new ideas. In Las Vegas, I would have plenty of theories employing high-level abstract reasoning—and it would all be lacking any factual basis. My students wouldn't know where the countries are, and would mix up history with Hollywood movies, so that the Japanese, led by anime women with gravity-defying boobs, would be defeated by Private Ryan with a proton blaster.
To me, Korean schools have highly motivated students and parents, but the school system is inefficient and counterproductive. The curriculum is based too much on memorization of facts for tests (knowledge retention) and too little on reasoning or questioning (knowledge expansion). Students have ridiculous daily schedules from morning until night, and as a result don't learn very much as they're usually cloudy-headed from sleep deprivation. But the only thing that counts is how much time they spend studying, so that they can take one university entrance exam which determines whether they will be neurologists or street-sweepers.
North American schools are the opposite. Really, despite the problems, the American and Canadian systems I've seen have pretty good materials and teachers who keep up with evolving methodologies, and quality is more important than quantity of hours. But the public schools aren't well-funded and aren't well-supported by parents and children. My daughter would often tell me about friends in her class who simply missed school for days or weeks because they were "sick" or on holidays, and everyone seemed to pass regardless.
In Korea, you were hit by a truck, there's an earthquake, and you're hallucinating from typhoid fever? Tough. Get your rusty behind on that school bus. In America? Well... school is just something to kill time until you take up more important work, such as being a model, athlete, or hip-hop star. While the west has been fighting over what to teach in schools (phonics, whole language, evolution, intelligent design), we have overlooked who shows up for class at all or graduates from it. Who wants to be an egghead or be another Miss Kerbappel or Principal Skinner, anyway?
Perhaps someday a country will combine the best of these two systems. When Koreans go to American schools, they can be amazing. But as Tom Friedman says, in every nation he's been to people worry that their school systems are falling behind.
Happy New Year!
Welcome to the year of the tiger, 2010. Stupid Flanders.
I've just realized lately that most of my videos won't play if users are running IE 8. I don't know if this is because of IE's newer code, or if it's because Adobe feels the need to change their internet drivers every sixteen minutes and ask you to update your browser. At any rate, the page is sporting a new look in some places with some new flash applets for displaying video and audio.
I'm getting close to finishing the semester at Keimyung. I'll still have some work to do but I won't be teaching for a few months. It's time to work on my dissertation.
I read Dave's ESL Cafe a lot. Foreign teachers tend to be a pretty persnickety crew in Korea. Dave's is an internet forum where people yell at each other a lot, and then there's the serious ESL professionals in Korea, and don't you forget it, who don't lower themselves to read an online forum frequented by mere hogwan teachers. And then we have the English-language newspapers in Korea. Some are fair and some seem to have it in for foreign teachers, constantly running sensationalistic pieces demonizing us. One thing I can say about ESL is that you certainly see the best and worst of human behavior.
A recent thread was about repaying students loans, which is the reason the majority of teachers are here. Korea is Fort MacMurray for liberal arts graduates (sorry if you miss my reference). What surprised me is how many people on the thread were bragging about refusing to pay their student loans back in the US or Canada.
I have mixed feelings. In so many ways, Canada can be so full of it. We pride ourselves on being more compassionate than the Americans, but they seem to have better support for university students, and the old saw "but their tuition is so much higher than ours" isn't always true anymore. Many jurisdictions sanely key loan repayments to income, which means that as your income rises, payments rise. In Canada, however, my payments were based on loan size. This meant that six months after I graduated in 2001 I was getting demand letters for $750 a month, which was more than I was making. At the time interest rates on my loan were prime plus five percent. Such conditions quickly drive many students into default and threats and harassment from collectors. It is, in short, a dumb system. People who think university students get a free ride are remembering the 1970s.
Having said that, why am I paying my loans? Some of the posters feel that they're gaming the system, or that they're only cheating greedy banks that make billions off service fees. But student loans in Canada are guaranteed by the government; thus I would be stiffing taxpayers— people like my friends and family. Running away from your loans is not only impossible, as there is no time limit in Canada on student debt, but wrong.
I've been busy, busy. I'm still working on getting my dissertation underway and on getting used to a new workplace. I did find time to go to the 2009 Kotesol (Korean Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) conference in October in Seoul. It was an enjoyable time, although I found it a little user unfriendly in comparison to other conferences I've been to. Look, your online schedule of speakers and events has to match the guidebook you hand out when people arrive or there will be mass confusion.
I have postings and pages about Korean ESL and I think about this issue a lot. It may be totally boring to someone out of the industry, but I'm assuming some of my six or seven readers of this blogette are involved in ESL. The conference was excellent professional development, but at times I had the nagging quibble that the speakers could have talked more about the actual workplace problems of teaching in Korea. All I really heard was a prediction that "the days of backpacker ESL teachers are coming to an end." I'm just not so sure.
To me, the long-term state of Korean universities is fairly positive. Standards and salaries are improving and from what I can tell foreign professors are treated better and tenure is getting easier. I'm somewhat more pessimistic about the public school foreign-teacher programs and the hogwan (after-school school) industry. I don't discourage people from teaching in Korea, but newcomers need to be wary; both private hogwans and government programs have a poor record of mistreating teachers. And while pay and benefits are stagnating here, they are steadily improving in countries such as China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Unless Korea wants to employ more English teachers from non-English developing nations, I do not see merely raising requirements and standards as realistic. There will simply be not enough applicants once the country is competing with Thai beaches.
On to something else...
Okay, fun time. Well, fun for me, at least. Nobody's making you read this, brother! A while back on Dave's ESL Cafe someone proposed a thread where people could spout off their own unpopular opinions. Here's my grouchy list of 50. Some of these topics have their own pages on my site already.
I am now living on the west side of Daegu, South Korea, in a large apartment complex. It's better than it sounds because our apartment is large and it has several balconies. Once we fill the main balcony with plants it will feel more like a garden, albeit one a dozen stories off the ground. Korean apartments have changed. We have a nice view and the complex is actually a color other than Concrete Grey. There's a button to do everything now, and even remote controls for everything just in case you need a button for the button.
I'm now working for Keimyung University as a professor of English, while I finish my dissertation. I teach composition and conversation to international relations / business / IT undergraduates who want an English-only program. It's a nice campus and the people are polite. The students have varying rates of motivation but overall it is a decent place to work so far. And just next to campus one can find a Pizza and Character sandwich. What can be better than that?
The Government ESL Scandal
I don't want anyone to think that my August post was a honeymoon post and now I'm griping about Korea again. Unlike a lot of people's comments I see on internet forums, I like Korea and want to see it succeed. Thus I was really disappointed to see reports that not only do many private schools (hogwans) in Korea mistreat foreign teachers, but the government isn't necessarily any better.
For the last few years Korea has emulated programs such as JET in Japan with government programs which hire teachers from English-speaking countries to work in public schools. Apparently the program does not advance airline tickets but has teachers arrange their own transportation and then reimburses them. Now I hear that, after a mass hiring this summer, a ministry in Seoul decided days before people were to arive that they had hired too many teachers, and canceled offers for a large number. I can only imagine preparing to relocate from Canada or the USA across the world, spending what little money I have on airline tickets for Korea, and being told at the last hour I wasn't wanted. To add insult to injury, the ministry not only refused to reimburse anyone but explained in the press that they had to overhire because of bad teachers in the past who didn't show. Does even a pizza kitchen do things this way with hiring decisions?
I have to concede that I see and read about both honest and ambitious ESL teachers here and lazy losers out to game the system. But I will say again that the industry is going to have to learn, sooner or later, that you get what you pay for. If even the government treats potential foreign teachers like disposable serfs, there should be no surprise in the quality of what they get. I have been lucky in the employers I have had in Korea, who have overall been good to me. But for anyone considering teaching here, it is still a career where you must be a little street-wise in choosing a job.
Flying 8,000 km with two cats is a hassle I won’t try to relive anytime soon, but we have moved from Las Vegas to Korea. Northworst Airlines does not let you check pets into cargo in the heat of summer, but you can bring them on as carry-ons— for $150 each. There are strict size and weight restrictions, and Sushi (on the right) barely made the 15 lbs. limit with crate. That’s over $10 a pound— pretty expensive steak. Why does the airline charge all this when it makes no difference to them whether you bring a live animal or a box of bricks on? Because they can! If you fly with pets, take extra time as they need to be inspected at security to make sure that it’s a real cat and not a clever robotic one with its bum filled with plastic explosives. The cats were actually pretty good and seemed to find the vibration of the engines soothing. Other than this our flight was uneventful, and for a US carrier the food was surprisingly edible.
Ariel and I have found a place to live, but we are still staying at her parents' home while we wait for a ship to cross the Pacific with our things. For two weeks, every time we go somewhere, one of us will remark, "Korea's changing." As I predicted, the culture and/or generation gap is widening in the country. I see university students in Italian restaurants listening to jazz and drinking wine, and I see the same old drunk men on the street spitting everywhere and glaring at me for being with a Korean woman.
There are some obstinate foreigners who come to teach or live in Korea who try to replicate their home country by only eating western food and doing western things. Others are here for something different, to get away from their own culture. Most of us are in the middle, although I suspect we tend to gravitate towards the former! I generally think globalization is a good thing. But last Sunday I was walking through a traditional market in Busan, with its narrow paths crowded with goods and different foods being cooked, and noticed that the markets are sadly dwindling, at least in Nampo-Dong, as people are going to Costco instead. I like being able to eat tacos in Korea now, but I have mixed feelings. There are good differences here too that are worth preserving. Bearing that in mind, here’s some observations.
Things that have Improved
Things that have Not Improved
Having said these things, though, I want to again emphasize that I’m glad to be back in Korea. I have to say that in some ways the USA was more xenophobic than Korea is. I say these things carefully because I really did like UNLV and there were some nice people on campus, but living in America was an enormous hassle, from the limitations on employment that put us below the poverty line, to the endless fees (some quite costly) and constant paperwork to enter and stay in the country. I had to leave; the job market was poor for educators already and no employer wanted to sponsor a non-citizen. Thomas Friedman says that if he were president, every foreigner to get a graduate degree in the USA would get a green card stapled to his diploma. I know America is a little stressed by waves of illegal immigrants. But I just can’t believe that the country is so clueless as to force out an Indian doctoral candidate in Bioengineering because it can’t distinguish him from someone who snuck across Tijuana to pick fruit.
Rules, Rules, Rules
Something else which always heartens me in Korea is how comparatively free people here are in certain ways. North Americans cherish our big freedoms, those of voting, press, assembly, etc., but in the activities of daily life we are so constrained by rules, rules, rules, made for the government and for big business and not for us. I am trying to be philosophical and not to sound like an anti-corporate rabblerouser.
But a few things made me wonder. When we brought our cats to Korea, they were required to have shots more than 30 days earlier. We were at 29. Korea: Good enough! USA & Canada: Rules are rules. Next, please. Today a clerk made me banana juice and I couldn’t drink it because it had milk in it, which makes me sick. Korea: You poor thing, I’ll make you kiwi juice. USA & Canada: Sorry, corporate policy. Next, please. Korea: Crosses in business windows and taxis. Canada: A public display of religion? Perish forbid, someone might be offended! Korea: People smoke and drink beer on the beach. They clean up after themselves. No problem. USA & Canada: Police helicoptors swirling and then waterboarding in Algeria, followed by $500 fine— my God, won’t somebody think of the children?
I don’t generally like Bill Maher with his anti-religious snideries, but I did like a recent column of his where he proposes a "new rule" for America: Not everything has to make a profit. Again, I don’t want to seem like an ugly Canadian. In many ways my country is no better, and I maintain that Americans overall treat their university students better. Nevertheless, in Korea— which is supposed to be the poor country— I have full health coverage and inexpensive medicine, and in the USA— which is supposed to be the world’s richest country— my and my family’s health deteriorated over the last three years because we could not afford medical care. Despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly want national health coverage, it may die again in Washington because of politicians who see a plan as somehow unnatural if it doesn’t allow someone to make piles of money.
This entry is getting rather personal, but I feel expansive today. I often feel betrayed by my country for selling me an education with the promise of a job that never opened, and alternatively I feel I have only myself to blame for pursuing liberal arts degrees. What I do not understand at all is why, when we are statistically supposed to be improving our living standards as a society, north American governments can’t afford adequate medical care, internet coverage, high-speed rail, airports, schools, and universities, and poorer countries can. Once again, I liked UNLV and thought it was a deceptively good university, yet I have to explain to students here that I taught there in classrooms with chalkboards and was urged to put course materials online because our department couldn’t afford photocopies. It’s a strange world, and getting stranger.
Am I Frightened of North Korea?
I’m getting asked this a lot. Not really, no. I of course follow the news, and if something exploded I would be a foreigner— i.e. among the first people killed by North Korean forces. But statistically, I am going to die from heart disease, cancer, traffic accident, suicide, alcohol abuse, or being shot by a jealous husband (thought I’d throw that in). Anything can happen; but to me every party in the mix, North Korea, South Korea, the USA, and China, all want things to stay the same even if they claim something else. South Korea does not want the massive costs of unification like the Germans had. China does not want a failed state full of refugees and UN troops on its border. The USA does not want the hassle of another conflict. North Korea has lasted 60 years by bluffing, not by being genuinely batshiat crazy; they know perfectly well if they attacked the Americans would make their country bounce seven times.
My suspicion is that everyone secretly wishes North Korea would become like Vietnam and gradually modernize and liberalize on their own without a shot fired. Until then, the world has to put up with a psycopathic gangster-ocracy, but I’m cheered that the world community is increasingly rolling their eyes at the regime’s empty bullying.
I didn't hate Michael Jackson or wish him ill, and I'm skeptical that he abused children. But I'm a little relieved to be out of the USA and away from hearing his overrated music everywhere I go in public. North Americans pride themselves on not looking up to royalty, but the public mourning for MJ seems as mandatory as it was for Lady Diana in England in 1997. Even the schmaltzy accolades after Elvis Presley's death in 1977 weren't so ridiculous. Do people really think he's the greatest singer ever or that he deserves a Nobel Prize? Beat It’s a cool song, but... please.
People seem scared to say anything bad about MJ because it might seem racist. If that's the case, whatever he did, James Brown did it three times better. Michael Jackson did some cheesy Hansen-style records as a boy, had two good albums in '79 and '83, and then his publicity people decided he was the King of Pop. What is more pathetic than taking such a title on yourself, and what is more depressing than the hype catching on? Thriller was great, but everything after was just, well, Bad. And I don't want to hear about how people feel sorry for MJ because he never had a childhood and had so many people after his money, etc. There's a beggar selling gum in a Manila slum who never had a childhood and has people after his money, etc. who doesn't have his own mansion complex.
I am teaching summer session again, and am preparing to move. I've been hired by Keimyung University in Daegu, Korea to be an Assistant Professor of English in their International Studies program. Thus we'll be moving back to Korea this summer. This is after some a plethora of job applications to American and Canadian universities and colleges, which resulted in a goose egg. Yet it's a good job and I can't complain, and it's far better than risking my hide every day with Las Vegas drivers, who are very 'in'— inconsiderate, incompetent, inebriated...
One hitch was that I had to fly to Korea on very short notice for a formal interview and to meet the administrators. Korea feels to me like it's become a little more foreigner-friendly in the time I was gone, and the people are generally as well-dressed and polite as ever. All good things. But it was a two-day stay, I had no time to see anyone, and it was very tiring.
Anyone who flies an Asian airline for the first time, even if it isn't Singapore Air, will likely have a pleasant surprise. Because this is my page to rant freely, I'd like to again ask my rhetorical question: why is it that the developing countries have clean, well-organized airports, comfortable airplanes with attractive, friendly stewardesses, seatback monitors, and decent airline food — and the rich countries have Kafkaesque monstrosities of switched and delayed flights, and cattle-car airplanes with crabby staff and a grudging cup of orange juice? I suppose there are clear enough economic reasons, but it never makes sense to me why even Malaysia or the Philippines can do flying so much better than the USA or Canada can. Kuala Lumpur’s airport is an expansive, shining, clean complex with free amenities and well-marked indicators. Trudeau airport in Montreal in 2004 was a maze of duct-taped hallways, cardboard signs, and 1970s televisions with blurry text.
Why can't we do this right anymore? What has changed in thirty years that suddenly makes it so expensive to run an airline that the customer has to be charged ten dollars for a beer? The prize goes to Air Canada. I'm mortified when foreigners have these arrogant jerks as their last impression of my country, and one additional reason I’ve boycotted the airline is from being snapped at by their glorified flying waitresses.
This was a fairly nutso May as I had to finish teaching two new courses and prepare for my doctoral comprehensive exams. Basically this involves three days of four hours each where I wrote exams on the epic form, medieval literature, and rhetoric & composition theory. Then there's a fourth day where I meet with everyone on my committee and they grill me on my answers. The oral defense was actually more jeasygoing than I expected, and perhaps the department has a history of candidates doing a meltdown in the meeting room! After the defense, I suppose I was addressed as "Doctor Eckert" for the first time. For the rest of my life my mother will likely tell people, "My son is a doctor, but not the type that helps people."
After the defense I went on a quick trip back to Edmonton, Canada. People at home were thoroughly sick and tired of the eternal snow and cold of the Alberta winter of 2009, and on the second day of my trip it snowed a little. It's an interesting world when you can fly four hours from Las Vegas, and jumping in the swimming pool to cool down, to snow. Two things that always strike me when I go back to Edmonton — how bad the roads are from the punishing climate, and how every woman in the city seems to wear black horn-rimmed glasses. There's just an "Edmonton" look to people.
This winter I was looking for work and I even applied for a college position in Edmonton. The local economy, terrified that I might come back, promptly deteriorated. Since the 1980s, when I have lived in Edmonton the economy was awful and whenever I lived somewhere else it was roaring. If you pay me enough, Albertans, I'll stay away for good. "Nice job market you have here.. 'twoud be a shame if anything were to happen to it..."
I've been busy. Mainly my work these days is studying for my comprehensive exams. I am teaching two courses on campus this semester, which is a good thing; otherwise I do not go out much and I might begin to grow my fingernails long and to walk around on Kleenex boxes.
I've finally finished my music page, which I've called What's on Ken's Mp3 Player. It is hopefully a good way for others to get turned on to some of my favorite music, and hopefully I won't get into trouble with my song excerpts.
Update: Within the first week my hosting provider was anxious about this page! I had to assure them that I am only posting 30-second clips of the songs. For good measure, I unfortunately also had to downgrade the quality of the samples.
I am complying to obey the terms and to be a good internet citizen. Still, I hope the day comes in my life when people can make a non-profit website about their rock collection or their azaleas without worrying about going to Alcatraz for putting on a piece of music or a photo. I miss the early days of the internet when it wasn’t all about money. At the turn of the last century in the early time of the Model T, Henry Ford was badgered by lawsuits for years by various businessmen who claimed they owned the idea of making car engines. I hope in fifty years we can laugh at groups like the RIAA who were so selfish in grasping for endless profit that they spent their time shutting down YouTube videos of a cat dancing to a Prince song.
To me, one of the fundamental 'problems' with the internet is that it was created by and for institutions who have a non-capitalist mindset: academia, and to a lesser extent, the military. This is not a value judgment; it just means that universities have been around longer than modern capitalism and have different priorities. The internet is all about sharing things, and that design doesn't fit well with corporations who exist by selling things and creating scarcity. I do not know how the two mindsets can co-exist. Anyway, as a practicalist, I think sharing media files on the internet is a little like the sunrise. Our opinion on its legality will do nothing to prevent it from happening.
I call this a blogette because of its size, although it seems to be growing. Here you can read about my vitally important news and opinions on everything. I am a Canadian. I am an English professor at Hanyang University in Korea. I am a Christian. I am a Lessetarian. My band is Kill the Wabbit. My website is here; sometimes it has mistakes.
Things I've Written
|Great Scott! The Future|
|But That Nice Paul Pot is Nothing Like His Dad|
|Burn, Witch, Burn|
|That's What They Want|
|We Can Work It Out|
|Psy's 'Gentleman' Disaster|
|Am I That Useless?|
|North Korea's Kooky Showmen|
|Satire is Alive and Well (Maybe Too Well)|
|Address to the Class of '69|
|Gypsies, Thieves, and Filesharers|
|The End of Countries|
|What is a Gen X'er?|
|No More Friends|