Okay, everybody's seen it, or you can join the one billion people (or one million people good at hitting F5) who have watched Psy's Gangnam Style pop video on YouTube. And everyone with a Korean blog has written about "how I'm sick of that stupid song," or "how hawt the girls are," or have written serious discussions of it as a Korean cultural phenomenon. I'm reluctant to analyze the song because it makes me sound pedantic—It's just a song; shut up and dance! But I can't help it; the song says so much about the society it comes from. For an interesting international relations take on the song go to Prof. Robert Kelly's site.
What do Koreans think of this song?
I'm asked this a lot. It's actually a satirical song, a gentle Horatian joke poking fun at the crass nouveau riche consumer materialism of the Gangnam district in Seoul, the Manhattan of Korea. Psy pretends to be a big shot success while dancing on a cheesy tourist bus, hanging out in a children's playground, and meeting his dream girl on a subway. Psy wants a girl who can handle her coffee!—but this is what social climbers do here, they sip lattes in trendy cafés. Satire always takes a risk in that people don't always know that it's satire; Mellencamp's Little Pink Houses and Springsteen's Born in the USA are actually highly critical songs. In talking to my students about the song, some feel it's a song criticizing only those uppity Gangnamites and not Koreans generally, and many feel it's just a slapstick comedy song about Psy looking silly.
I'm puzzled/amused by the fact that the Korean media have completely missed the joke. Instantly seduced by how many hits the video has had, the media are simply using it to beat the drum once more about how awesome Korea is and how now even foreigners are aware of how wonderful we are (now that Kim Yuna's figure-skating has worn out its usefulness). Over Thanksgiving I saw it in a dance contest at a hotel, heard it at a rest stop, and watched it used to sell smartphones on TV commercials. A song criticizing the obsession with shallow bling is used to sell bling.
On the other hand, the song or Psy can't be blamed if the country's journalists ignore its sarcasm in the stampede to use it for jingoism. Korean pop music is so thoroughly, totally, absolutely awful in its manufactured, cookie-cutter vacuousness that it's encouraging to see a song with some originality and subtle humor in it. I've heard years of the same infantile, teasing boy or girl bands with names like NterChangeAbL and lyrics like "1! 2! I wanna dance with.... you!" Really, this is a comparatively imaginative song and I don't mind it. The eye-candy backup dancers don't hurt.
There's an interesting article at the Financial Times about Gangnam Style and tourism. Korean tourist promotions, normally government-promoted, are as safe and soulless as the K-Pop. The country is so thin-skinned about any criticism or negativity that advertisements for Korea are filled with tepid eat-your-peas things that obedient tourists should experience (temples, museums, cooking, Hanbok, how bleeding great Hangeul writing is, um, temples...), rather than anything tourists might want to see (shopping, scenery, beaches, markets). The Korea shown in Psy's video is quirky and earthy, just what makes travel fun. I'm not expecting the tourism minions to learn from the video, but it's actually a pretty good sales pitch for people to come here.
If I haven't written much lately it is because I've been tired. I was gone for the month of August on a family vacation to northern Europe (Paris, Bruges, Amsterdam) and home to Canada. I'll write more on Europe as time passes—I'm in the process of revamping my entire photo section; for now I'll just give a few impressions of my trip.
I was pleasantly surprised by Paris and how much I liked it. Much of what I expected about France turned out to be wrong in a good way. I wasn't pickpocketed, it was clean (except for the grungy subway), and if you're polite and at least try to speak French people will treat you all right. Man, the first day when I had a meal without mayonnaise and red-pepper sauce sloshed on everything I nearly wept.
a. Architecture. Paris is gorgeous. Maybe it's after living so long in Korea. Korean markets can be fun, there's scenic temples, and the neon at night is cool, but basically Korea is where architecture goes to die unless your favorite color is unpainted concrete. After a while, I wondered why I was bothering to turn my camera on and off; we stayed in St. Germaine in a rented apartment for a week, and you could probably walk around all day in central Paris with your shutter held down and every picture would be interesting and scenic. There is so much attention paid to making every street beautiful.
b. Coffee. Coffee in Paris to me symbolized everything good about Europe. In the USA, two dollars buys a paper keg of mediocre coffee; in Paris, two dollars buys a small cup of fantastic coffee. Everybody gave me horror stories about how pricey Parisian coffee would be unless I sat at the bar, but with the euro weak it was no more than expresso in a Korean coffee shop. Plus you can sit at the bar and watch TV or read a paper with the locals and no one bothers you. Wonderful.
c. Restaurant service. Well, it's just my experience, and for others mileage may vary; but I found Parisian waiters polite and workmanlike. Like efficient civil servants, they ask you what you would like and then bring it and leave you in peace. I actually prefer this to the overbearing obseqiousness in the American-style restaurant I went to in Calgary: "Hi, my name is Effervescence and I'll be your server tonight! I'm a second year drama major! Is this a special occasion or just a night out! Would you like me to tell you the specials and my personal recommendations! I'll be back every three minutes to ask if you're still working on your meal and if you need anything!"
Bruges is the cutest town in the world, a medieval fantasy. More or less a museum of a village fixed in its 15th-century trading heyday, it's filled with lego-type roofs, medieval brick and worked metal, rock-tiled roads, and canals with swans. You can walk or bicycle everywhere and see museums, nunneries, breweries, and chocolate and waffle shops. You will get fat if you stay too long.
Amsterdam rocked. I always thought of the Dutch as thrifty and stoic, and imagined that the electricity would go off at six and everyone would go to bed. Most people have the opposite cliché, that Amsterdam is Sodom and Gomorrah. Neither stereotype is true. The people are friendly, totally bilingual, and extraordinarily polite (when I've applied for professorships in US universities, I typically receive a form e-mail; Canadian ones ignore you; Dutch universities send a personalized thank-you). Prices (except for lodging, which is ouch) are reasonable, the food is good, and it's easy to get around.
When I tell people I went to Amsterdam, the first association I hear is their tolerance of certain substances (root beer, that's it!) and of the world's oldest profession (farmers, right?). I learned that a permissive culture isn't necessarily decadent; the Dutch I know are fine with others doing these recreations but would never think of setting foot in such establishments. Second, if you don't approve of farmers or root beer, you can avoid such places and will never see them. No one will make you walk that district with the bored-looking, um, farmers sitting in the windows, and there is so much else in Amsterdam to experience.
Ken's Guide to Safe-for-Work Coffee Shops in Amsterdam
|This coffee shop, with traditional script and an outdoor patio, probably does not sell 'root beer.'||"Cheech & Chong's" coffee shop, with a windowless upstairs and a Jamaican flag, probably does.|
Ken's Rant: Anti-Vaccination
While it was, um, enjoyable research to find internet pictures of Jenny McCarthy, the woman becomes more irritating to me by the month. I sometimes use her as an example in my writing classes of how, when researching a topic, you should be suspicious of the opinions of anyone with expertise in something unrelated— Warren Buffett's ideas on the death penalty should not have any special value, and I don't care what Bill Gates thinks about medical marijuana.
A perfect example is supermodel Jenny McCarthy, famous as an advocate for the anti-vaccination movement in the USA, which holds that children should not be vaccinated while questions persist about its purported links to autism. McCarthy's qualifications to speak on medical practice are that she has an autistic son and that she posed for Playboy several times. Does anyone see a problem with this? Lindsey Beyerstein on XX Factor notes:
Vaccine-preventable diseases are on the rise, thanks to the startling success of the McCarthy-fuelled movement. Nearly 90 percent of kids in the United States still get their 14 recommended shots during their first few years of life. But communities where the anti-vaxxers have taken hold, like Ashland, Ore. and Vashon Island in Washington, have seen outbreaks of preventable diseases that were banished decades ago. Washington, a hotbed of vaccine skepticism, has reported over 2,000 cases of whooping cough this year. [source]
If I wanted to be nasty, I might comment that perhaps this isn't such a bad thing in Darwinian terms; if there really are parents so foolish and perverse that they would believe a tearful playmate over pretty much every licensed or qualified medical practitioner in the country, perhaps it's better that their children are thinned out by nature. But it would be better to shiver over this cultural contempt for expertise. Large numbers of parents have decided they know better than those big-shot physicians and have left children open to an exponentially greater danger in the form of diseases thought to be nearly extinct. As an example, measles:
Confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales rose from 56 in 1998 to 1348 in 2008; two children died. In one small hospital in Ireland, 100 children were admitted for pneumonia and brain swelling caused by measles and three of them died. So, 14 years after measles had been declared under control in the U.K. it was declared endemic again in 2008. [source]
I'm teaching a three-week summer course and then I'll be on vacation for a little while. On the topic of health, let's hope I don't get dengue fever again. Speaking of Darwin, another hot-button topic while I'm writing:
Numerous western media outlets such as Time recently reported that education ministry officials in Korea have removed references to evolutionary theory in public school textbooks because of pressure from Korean Christian fundamentalist groups. The group succeeded in having two diagrams on horse and bird evolution and accompanying text dropped from a science text on the pretext that the diagrams had been proven to be inaccurate. Western media pounced on the story as evidence that Korean schools had decided to abolish evolution from science classes, and we can all imagine the usual restrained and polite comments on their message boards regarding Christians.
However, Ask a Korean reports that no further materials were removed, as government guidelines require that evolution be covered in science textbooks. Interestingly, the two diagrams were in fact based on outdated information, and in reaffirming their position the Ministry of Education replaced the diagrams with up-to-date corrected ones. This is what happens when western newspapers and sites uncritically accept news stories by Korean "journalists," the same idiots who write racist exposés about the horrors of foreigners dating Korean women or who reprint stories from The Onion on Korean news sites because they still haven't figured out that the Onion is satire.
One of my campus friends here is a German philosophy professor. He always calls the issue of seven-day creationism "an American question," no offense intended. Most European Christians (and, despite what you might think about the big, bad, evil medieval church, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin as well) believe that the Genesis creation account is 'true' in a non-literal sense, and have no problem with evolution or its teaching. I wrote about this issue last year regarding the teaching of Intelligent Design in North America, and I still feel the same way: creationism deserves to be taught in high school, in social studies class. I mean no disrespect by saying that theological discussions belong in the humanities and not the sciences.
Busan International Auto Show
Okay, I am flesh and blood and I like to see the racing girls, but I may have been the only person there who actually wanted to see the cars. There were a few exotic or concept cars, a few racing cars, and some expensive Cadillacs and Audis, along with a lot of strange choices—why would people want to see this year's Kia minivan when they can go see one on any street? Otherwise it was enjoyable, and I never need many reasons to visit Busan, still my favorite city in Korea.
From a sociological perspective, it's interesting to see Korea's online gossip culture. In some ways the country is the world's biggest small town, and when it's a celebrity tidbit, or just someone on the subway doing something shameful or foolish, the news races across Korean websites at incredible speed. The netizen culture can be extremely harsh; a few years ago, a girl on a Seoul subway who refused to clean up after her dog was identified from the cellphone video and hounded out of university. For an English-translation blog of Korean gossip, go here.
One of my students wrote a paper on Korean hip-hop performer Tablo, who was lauded as graduating from Stanford with both a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature in 3½ years. I found the claim highly irksome, both because it reflects racist standards endemic in Korean "journalism"—we Koreans are so smart that we can finish degrees faster than you lazy Americans—and to me it really cheapens the work I did to earn those same English degrees.
Nevertheless, Tablo (Daniel Lee) was subjected to a year-long witch hunt by Korean netizens who accused him of lying about his education and inventing his degrees. Both he, his friends and family, and even an unrelated Daniel Lee were beseiged by e-mail and telephone insults and death threats. Apparently it's half true: Tablo attended Stanford from 1996 to 2002 and earned both a B.A. and a terminal (non-thesis) M.A. It's a rather sad story that the man had to endure such abuse, and how many hip-hop entertainers do you know with university degrees? [Update, July: Apparently Korea takes malicious libel seriously; two men have been sentenced to 10-month terms for running Tablo defamation websites.]
North Korean Missiles
Forgive me some schadenfreude after the North Koreans, to very public embarassment on the world stage, had their newest toy crash into the ocean one minute after launch. The regime is now apparently preparing another nuclear test to save face after their not-in-any-way-whatever-phallic inability to, uh, keep up the missile. This is one rather personal consequence of tying a nation's reputation to one young man's potency.
I'm also rather pleased, after the usual hyperbole from the North Korean regime that we're-going-to-turn-South-Korea-into-ashes-any-minute-now, that critics are now refusing to take the threats and posturing seriously and are beginning to ask whether ignoring the North entirely or calling their bluff and confronting them is a better course. Have a look at Prof. Robert Kelly's Asian Security Blog for some insight into this. Kelly basically argues that the South Korean preference is to deny the North attention and hope they'll go away because 1) Seoul is really close to the border and really vulnerable, and 2) as the decades wear on, South Koreans care increasingly less about the basket case up north and don't want to pay for worse-than-Germany-level reunification.
I've written a few times on the matter, and I am not an International Relations specialist but I live here. My take on the issue is that South Korea should certainly fight back symmetrically if provoked, but on the whole North Korea is a humanitarian catastrophe internally but is less dangerous externally than imagined to be. I'm generally told when I go back to Canada "But the North is crazy!" The North Korean regime is not a group of madmen; they just play one on TV. If anything, the North Korean regime is much more a "militarized crime family," as Hitchens said, than a government possessed by a specific death-cult ideology. Imagine Italy falling into the hands of the mafia after World War II, which then imagined a bogus mythology of Italian racial purity to justify its rule, and it's not dissimilar.
North Korea has not lasted sixty years by being insane; they have lasted through the carefully crafted appearance of unpredictable lunacy which keeps other states afraid and paying attention (or just paying, as in South Korea's attitude until its recent conservative government). In effect, North Korea runs the world's largest protection racket: "You have a nice country here; it would be a shame if one of our rockets (which were built for purely peaceful purposes, of course) were to land on it." I certainly watch the news, but I have my doubts that the North would overplay its hand with a serious attempt at violence. Crime syndicates know that if you ruin your victim he can't pay protection anymore. In all the threats and tests we also forget that the missiles and weapons of the Americans do fly straight and are already plentiful. I expect the North Korea regime to continue to choose survival as a pariah rather than suicide. What a wonderful world.
Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix
Some 60s songs are really rather stupid when you think about their lyrics. Check out my take on The Monkees here. Really, I think Jimi Hendrix's song would have been much better with some more attention to writing, as per the following suggestion:
Hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun of your hand?
Hey Joe, I said where you goin' with that gun in your hand?
I'm goin' down to shoot my old lady
You know I caught her messin' 'round with another man
I'm goin' down to shoot my old lady
You know I caught her messin' 'round with another man
Hey Joe, have you ever considered marital counseling? You really seem to have some anger issues.
Hey Joe, is there a reason why we have to keep repeating every statement twice?
It's just a thought, mind you. It just bothers me a tad that the speaker in the song has someone walk past him with an open firearm intent on homicide, and does nothing about it besides taunting the murderer the next day, "where you gonna run to now?" Aren't both of them fine young men to bring home to mother.
Canadian Dialect, Eh?
As my army of regular readers knows, I hate nationalism. There's nothing wrong with love of country, and I admire any soldier who defends his or her homeland. What I mean is the sort of small-minded jingoism which reduces everything to my country versus yours. I'm irritated by Koreans who travel to Italy and bring their own food; I'm disturbed by American or Chinese we-can-do-no-wrong exceptionalism. I'm equally contemptuous of Canadians here who won't associate with anyone else and look down on the American expatriates. I have never worn a maple-leaf henna tattoo on my face in my life and would rather be dead.
I'm sometimes asked about Canadian English. Canadians have some local vocabulary, but only a fluent speaker would be able to differentiate the language from American English. Insofar as dialect, there isn't one Canadian dialect any more than there is one American dialect. Our dialect lines are more north-south than east-west, so that British Columbia has some of the slangy, bouncy sound of Californian English, the prairies have the slow, flat midwest sound, Ontario has some of the raised vowels of the northeast seaboard, and Newfoundland has a strong Irish and island dialect. Try this for size, admittedly a contrived example:
|Sure'n, I likes a good scoff 'n' scuff when me 'n' da b'ys are out on a tear, but dat place was some fausty. We were after gettin' on da beer, but Jesus, Mary and Joseph! When I saw all o' ye, me missus was stood by me dere and she couldn' take it no longer.||Yeah, I like a good meal and dance when the boys and I are out on the town, but that hall sure was moldy and stale. We were getting started on our drinking, but good grief! At the moment I saw all of you, my wife was standing there beside me and she couldn't endure it any longer.|
I don't know why I loathe the interjection "eh," but I do. I think there are a few reasons. One is that it's not commonly used outside Ontario; it's not standard Canadian English but rather central Canadian English, and when I'm in Edmonton and hear it it's a sure shibbeloth (well, look it up) that the speaker comes from central Canada. I never said it growing up, my friends didn't, and I still don't. I suspect the other reason I dislike it is that it reflects the lingering attitude that Ontario is Canada and we're only the colonies, and thus central Canadian English is Canadian English. This all sounds a little humorless, and I still do like Bob & Doug, but I neither say eh nor aboot myself.
The War on Learning
How do parody websites such as the Onion stay in business when a real, live, actual presidential candidate like Rick Santorum calls President Obama a snob for encouraging people to go to university, and accuses campuses of being "introctrination mills" that have a destructive influence on people's faith and morals? This is really happening, that education is now a target in political discourse? What's next, street lights and public water treatment? I can only hope my theory is right that intelligent Republicans are sitting out this election and letting these nutballs have their fifteen minutes. Apparently there's an underground video the GOP is attempting to suppress of Mitt Romney speaking French, which would obviously mean he's an egghead commie. Sophistication—the ultimate crime.
I have mixed feelings. There is admittedly some trash taught in universities, and arrogant Ivy-league or liberal-arts graduates who alienate the public with their agendas. When I was in Newfoundland there was an annual tuition protest where students would march and block traffic around the provincial assembly. Frustrating taxpayers who drive home from jobs which subsidize your education is not an effective way of winning their sympathy.
There are great inventors and entrepreneurs who did not go to college, but much of our modern standard of living derives from innovations occurring inside or via university campuses. Granted, I have a personal bias in this, but educated citizens are on the whole more productive and responsible people, and Santorum's idiocies perpetuate the stereotype that Christians dislike reason. Is the man aware that, despite the tiresome clichés about the big, bad medieval church, European universities began as extensions of cathedral schools?
Rick-Rolled, Big Time
I have to make my argument nuanced because it seems odd that as a Christian I'm disturbed by Santorum's fundamentalist agenda. But while the American founding fathers weren't as devout as they're made out to be, they did realize that separation of church and state protects the best of each from the worst of the other. Again, contrary to the arts degree credo that the medieval church could do no right, the gravitation of state authority toward the church was initially accompanied by at least some benign intentions—Roland Bainton writes that Gregory I (540-604) "would vastly have preferred to have been a monk." Yet the temptations of power were as real then as now and led to corruptions and abuses.
Thus it doesn't sound so bad to a churchgoer if a fundamentalist Christian is American president, until we consider the precedent being set. If President Santorum says, "I don't care about the constitution, my religion says," what leg do we stand on if someday there really is a Muslim president who imposes Sharia, stating "My religion says," or a hostile atheist president with an anti-church program who states "My non-religion says"? The tiger you ride can also eat you.
Here's my new grad photo, in all my dashingness.
Ken on TV
This January the university had winter camps, which are premised on the idea that if students work 16 hours a day in the cold with poor food they learn better. While teaching a writing class a television crew came in to cover the festivities, which were featured on the TV news that night. It's all in Korean, but here it is.
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One facet of Korean culture I find baffling is its politics. The foreign teachers I meet in Korea generally are young and college-educated and have centrist or liberal politics. It's thus surprising that here up often seems down— the conservative (GNP) party wants closer ties to America and strongly supported the FTA, both things which benefit the jobs and lives of foreign teachers, whereas the left-wing parties fought bitterly to sabotage it, releasing tear-gas canisters in parliament to try to stop its passage. Korean leftists are more like extreme rightists, beating the drum of Korean nationalism and blaming every problem on the foreigners. Bizarrely, many college students here support such parties, marching in candlelit protests against the US and then heading for the coffee shops to drink lattes and listen to Lady Gaga. It's a mad, mad world.
Seoul recently elected a left-leaning mayor, and predictably, there's already blathering about how the US forces should leave, the FTA sells out our nation, and the North Koreans are our brothers who just need to be loved more. I'm thus unsurprised to hear that the board of education is booting out the native English teachers from the public school English programs in Seoul, beginning in 2012. There's the usual not-so-thinly disguised hostility that foreigners
date our women are unqualified, aren't effective as teachers compared to Korean teachers of English, and cost too much.
As I've said in other places on my website, ESL is a slightly sleazy industry. There are lousy teachers here only interested in fast money and women. A bachelors degree in Sociology does not make you a qualified educator. But the placement programs in Korea were shakily run from the start, hobbled by bureaucracy and hostility or confusion from Korean co-teachers and local administrators. I expect many of these released teachers to find work in private academies (hagwons), but the day is coming when China will slurp away the pool of native-speaking teachers just as Korea previously did to Japan.
The Cleanest Race - B.R. Myers (2010)
For anyone looking for a good read which will explain North Korea, this is it— or at least read the interview. (Please do not think that December 2011 is a Korea-slam. Do you really want me to write drivel about how wonderful kimchi is?) Myers is one of the few academics who looks beyond the hyperbolic rants in the North Korean international releases, revealing that the threats in English to turn everything into a sea of fire are largely unconnected to what citizens inside the country read or see on TV. Some of Myers' conclusions contradict the usual western news and diplomatic assumptions about the reclusive state:
1) It's not a communist state. Myers claims that there is little that's actually communist about North Korea despite the "worker's paradise" rhetoric. It has centralized planning, but so did Nazi Germany's and imperial Japan's economies, to an extent. The North Koreans have virtually no interest in exporting their ideology as classic Soviet-bloc states did; they don't want to free the international workers from their chains. They want to unite the pure Korean race and then shut out the debased, quasi-human rest of the world, forever. Its only binary is race, not class struggle; you're Korean (good) or not (evil), and the distinction is permanent.
2) The Juche idea is a smokescreen. Myers believes that the Juche ideology of extreme self-sufficience is simply a ruse to keep critics and outsiders off-balance. North Korea has no trouble accepting aid, simply labeling it as grateful tribute from cowed foreign inferiors, whether Chinese or western. Whereas communist nations were more than happy to educate new recruits, North Korean ideology is extremely non-intellectual, portraying its people as simple, childlike souls guided by spontaneous passions— all requiring the friendly guidance and protection of a dear leader, of course.
3) It's not a Confucian state. North Korea is not a Confucian holdover substituting reverence for the dear leader for the king. Its propaganda uses consistently feminine imagery, portraying its leaders in maternal, sheltering terms. Again, the regime's valorization of purity and innocence hardly jives with Confucianism's respect for education and philosophical inquiry.
The result is what one commenter called a country with one giant Stockholm syndrome— starving citizens who nevertheless believe that their race (and thus leaders) can do no wrong. Thus Myers doesn't see much possiblity of internal revolt, but rather the biggest danger to the regime is the creeping realization that the South isn't being oppressed by the Americans and doesn't exactly yearn for liberation. This makes the recent tolerance of cellphones in the North puzzling.
Enough already. I've stayed off the internet for the last few days because I'm sick of the fulsome, nauseating plaudits. How great the man was, how visionary he was, how he changed everyone's lives. I'm going to bury Caesar: I admit Jobs' innovations were among the most important of the 20th century. This does not make him a beautiful human being. He cheated his partner Steve Wozniak, abandoned a daughter, screamed at his employees, and cut off all charitable giving at Apple. A new biography states he "parked in handicapped spots, was rude to every waiter he ever encountered, and believed he didn't have to bathe." He did not invent the graphical user interface. Xerox did, and both he and Bill Gates viewed the failed Xerox GUI computer at a demonstration, modeling their respective operating systems on it. I've never understood why Bill Gates, who has arranged to give away his entire fortune, is the bad guy. In interviews Jobs slung insults and snark at Gates, and Gates always responded to his remarks with class and generosity.
Let me reveal a dark, shameful secret that no liberal arts graduate is supposed to have: I've never really liked Apple products. I've always found their software frustrating to use and counter-intuitive. To me their products are gimmicky and overpriced, and almost as annoying as their hipper-than-thou fans. The man deserves respectful commemoration, but he was no saint. He ran a business. He sold things for profit, and people paid for them.
Craig Ferguson & The Tiger-Mom
Maybe my choice of comparison will seem very strange. I recently bought a Kindle and the first books I've read, I guess because they're at A and B, is Craig Ferguson's American on Purpose and Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Being in Korea, I'm actually not that familiar with the late-night show, but I enjoy memoirs and Ferguson is very likeable. He talks about his childhood in Glasgow and there are the expected thugs and bullying teachers as Ferguson joins rock bands, abuses drugs, and cheats on girlfriends and wives until he gradually matures, stops drinking, and becomes a comedy entertainer. Ferguson tells us his past sins without exoticizing or bragging about them, but neither is there the revival-tent Oprah-esque melodrama of how he had "the courage to be healed." Instead, Ferguson is funny and self-deprecating. He blames himself for his excesses while admitting he had a good time, and ends the book grateful to be a citizen of a country which gives him opportunities.
There's been a few times in my life where a book was so bad or made me so angry that I refused to continue or threw it against the wall at its end: Moby Dick. Middlemarch. Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, with its whiny, martyr-complex narrator. Anything by Joel Osteen, who preaches that the reason you're not rich is because you don't have enough faith, although being the son of a wealthy and famous televangelist might help. I would have thrown Battle Hymn at my wall, except it would have broken my Kindle. I don't know why I have such strong feelings over this text, and I'm a little late to the party in talking about it. But I hate this book. Were it by some obscure crank it could simply be discounted. But some people are taking this drivel seriously.
I hate this book because of Chua's binary view of the world. You are Chinese or Western. There are no gradations or alternatives. If you are a Chinese mother, you scold, humiliate, and beat your preschool daughters. You force them to play violin or piano and deny them sleep, food, or bathroom breaks. You reject birthday cards they draw for you because they are not perfect. As a result, all 1.2 billion Chinese are successful and love their parents. The alternative is to be a Western parent, where you are vaguely aware that you have children and occasionally check in on them in their 20's when they are in your basement playing Grand Theft Auto in their pajamas and shooting heroin, pausing to praise them for developing their self-esteem and inner specialness.
I hate this book because of its racism. Whenever Chua uses the word western there is a contemptuous sneer about it as though she were saying syphilitic. Whereas Chinese parents love their children, who never disobey their parents and get As in all subjects, Western parents are "perfectly content to let their children turn out badly." Western academics are called "Dr." in sarcastic quotation marks. Americans are lazy, weak slackers who are fat from eating "Kentucky Fried Chicken" and full of "psychological disorders" that "don't exist in Asia." Disney movies appeal because they offer consolation to "people who never win any prizes" and probably work as "janitors." At the same time, Chua never accounts for the fact that while her automaton offspring are virtuoso performers due to their Chineseness, all the music they perform was written by creative European composers who did not spend their childhoods in prison-camp conditions. (Chua's response to charges of racism is the "I was only joking" dodge, further heaping condescension on critics who aren't smart enough to understand her "humor.")
I hate this book because at the end I'm not sure what the point is. After all the self-congratulation about how hard Chua's childhood was, how she attended Yale and Harvard and became full tenured professor at sixteen, how she lectures or vacations in (insert list of important places you haven't been to) while not piloting the space shuttle, how important and sophisticated her friends are, how successful her children are, and how she does all this and forces her daughters to practice sixteen hours a day because she is more driven-than-thou... what? It isn't a compelling narrative, as she hasn't learned anything from her narcissism, despite her humblebrag about how her daughter 'schooled' her with a trivial act of defiance. Her techniques won't work for those parents who don't happen to have her position, connections, or time and money to fly their children between world-class teachers. Last, why try to enlighten Americans anyway if they're too slovenly to act on it? (the same people who fund the university you work at enabling you to spit on their values). Ferguson gives me the impression that he writes to share. Chua seems to write to make you feel small.
Bad Korean Meals
The food in Korea is good, when it's good. When it's bad, it's downright diabolical.
Daegu Jazz Festival
There's lots I squawk about regarding "Deadgu," but there was a fun little jazz festival with a free outdoor stage for three days this August. The Korean version of jazz is heavy on the Starlight-Lounge piano cheese and light on anything that might reflect jazz's African-American origins, but I will admit that the Latin band, the Amigos, really did get down and dance. It's not often you hear Asian bands singing in Korean, English, French, and Spanish.
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1960s Pop Songs
"Take the last train to Clarksville, and I'll meet you at the station. You can be here at four-thirty, 'cause I've made your reservation."
Never understood this Monkees song. Why the last train to Clarksville, and not the next one? You have something more important to do that you want your girlfriend to take the last possible train? What a romantic devil. "I would like to see you tonight, but I'd like to wash my hair and feed the cat and finish the novel I've been reading. Why don't you take the very last train so that you'll arrive by the time I'm ready and my other girlfriend has gone home?"
"Take the last train to Clarksville, now I must hang up the phone. I can't hear you in this noisy railroad station all alone."
So not only is the speaker asking this girl to arrive as late as possible for his convenience, but he's cheap. Why do you need to hang up the phone? What does the noise level have to do with needing to end the call? It's because you want her to pay for a train ticket but don't want to spring for another dime for the payphone, you lying cheapskate!
I still like President Obama and think he has accomplished some good things. The USA, dragged kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, now has some measure of universal health care, and recently new fuel standards were passed to lessen dependence on foreign oil. I'm not jumping off the bandwagon, but I'll voice my frustration that lately when I see Obama I think of what Theodore Roosevelt said about Oliver Wendell Holmes: "I could carve out of a banana a judge with more backbone than that."
The Americans nearly plunged world markets into chaos by being a hyperpower unable to pay its own bills, all because a fanatical group of useful idiots in congress refused to raise taxes on the super-rich, who presently pay less than their secretaries. Faced with this standoff, Obama did what he almost always does, which is propose a moderate position to look like a statesman, offer to compromise with the tea-party Republicans at the beginning of talks, and then cave and accept a deal almost entirely on their terms. That's quite the negotiating skills there, Lou. I wonder what this president would have done at other times in history?
|The Roman Empire Declines, 400||The Germans Invade Poland, 1939||Sentient Robots Revolt, 2136|
|"Understand that I oppose the destruction of Rome and these ravaging barbarians. But I believe we can come together and compromise. We can't all have what we want. Now, I'm being more than generous in asking them to not burn and sack the city on Tuesdays, but I'm open to all options."||"Our shared traditions as Americans are built on being generous and willing to meet halfways. Now, I've been more than reasonable in giving Mr. Hitler 80% of Europe and only asking that he not take over Malta and Portugal with his Panzers, but there has to be some give and take."||"Now, I'm sure not everyone is pleased that humanity is being taken to another planet to work in salt mines as slave labor, but being flexible and open to consensus is what Americans expect. Not everyone got everything in this deal, but we've disagreed without being disagreeable."|
Okay, I've had my fun.
Rain Floods in Korea
Korea has been whammed with some serious rain this summer, leading to flooding and deaths in Seoul. I was in Busan this weekend and there's damaged and impassable roads everywhere with sunken concrete. Daegu was apparently too boring for even the rain to bother with it. Although it's been a wet July, there's been no problems here yet.
Riots in Vancouver
One of my friends commented on Facebook that we shouldn't be surprised at the riot that just happened in Vancouver following the Canucks' loss in the Stanley Cup finals; after all, we expect the players to beat each other violently during the game. To me there's a difference in that game violence is controlled, voluntary, and doesn't affect private property... a little like 'fight club,' admittedly. But as much as I grew up with hockey and it's in my blood, I think a growing backlash is going to be justified as citizens ask why we subsidize this sport with tax monies only to have to clean up and pay for damage to our cities after fans terrorize the streets.
When my Oilers won the Stanley Cup in Edmonton in 1984, there was a small riot downtown. This week, after the playoff loss, there was a giant riot in downtown Vancouver which resulted in stabbings, injuries, burned cars, and looted businesses. The police were shocked, shocked! that there was a riot... so very much like the after-game riots in Montreal in 2010 and in 2008. Why, it's almost as if there's a pattern to this.
Every time there has been a hockey riot the press and authorities have said "this was the work of troublemakers and not true fans." Oh, well. Why didn't you say so? Carry on then. Where I live in northeast Asia, there are lots of public demonstrations, but if there is any potential for violence or vandalism the police are out in full number and heavy gear. Offenders are quickly arrested and fined or caned. And by the darndest coincidence, there aren't many sports riots. In many ways I'm politically liberal, but with public order I pray to the dark gods: either confront criminal rioters with force or cancel the damn playoffs.
I have friends and co-workers who are atheists. They're nice people and we respect each other. I don't agree with Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, but they're gifted intellectuals in other fields. Hitchens can be funny and he knows the value of a good cup of tea [edit: this was written before his recent passing]. Can't we all just get along? Recently Bill Maher wrote an essay entitled "New Rule: Not Everything in America Has to Make a Profit." If I have a new rule, I suppose it is: Not Everything Has to Be a Fight. I'm not indulging in the sort of snide America-bashing Canadians sometimes do. I'm pointing out that religion in America is becoming increasingly polarized, aided and abetted by the internet, and to me the potential consequences are serious.
If atheists can be good people, the corollary is that they can be incredibly nasty too. Recently Dave's ESL Cafe, a discussion board I frequent, gave up and banned all religious discussions because the comments had become so abusive. Atheist groups have the right to put jeering messages on buses and billboards. This doesn't mean the practice isn't spiteful or hurtful, or that anything goes. I see posts on discussion boards or blogs which would be declared hate speech and taken down if we substituted "Christians" with "Jews" or "blacks." Criticizing my faith is one thing, and advocating that I should be harassed, prohibited from certain jobs, or arrested for taking my child to church is another. This isn't free-thinking; it's fundamentalism applied to an opposite worldview.
But Liberal Christians and everyone in the middle need to be aware and involved because we are attacked on both sides. If I moved to the USA, I'm not sure who would fire me first from a professorship—P.Z. Myers for being a Christian, or Michelle Bachmann for not being Christian enough. Extreme political movements seldom end well for believers. French, Russian, and Chinese revolutionaries all attacked the church. Hitler (sorry to "Godwin the thread") corrupted church leaders where he could, and where he couldn't, well—there were 3,500 priests in Dachau alone.
The problem with the Intelligent Design and Evolution controversy is that there are honest and dishonest actors on both sides. On the ID side there are scientists with legitimate concerns about evolution (good) and six-day fundamentalists trying to sabotage science education (bad). On the other are scientists who sincerely want to pursue their studies agnostically (good) and those who believe religion has no place in science, unless one is disproving religion, in which case it's fine (Hawking).
In my online course on university life at Keimyung, I discuss problem resolution through win-win scenarios. To me the impasse over teaching ID in high school science class is simply solved: Intelligent Design should be taught in Social Studies class. As a chiefly theological branch of inquiry, it belongs with the social sciences and humanities.
Objection 1: "Aren't we admitting that ID isn't true if we state it isn't a science?" Well, no—History and English Literature aren't scientific, but they deal with realities we would say are true. Mathematics isn't scientific in a strict sense, as numbers are artificial constructs, but it's 'true.' These subjects all rely on an epistomological sense of truth which isn't inferior to the narrow type of truth which comes from scientific observation—it's just different.
Objection 2: "Won't it confuse students to hear conflicting explanations of human origins?" High school and University ought to involve dealing with differing or conflicting information or viewpoints. If students can't handle that, man, the school systems have bigger fish to fry than science class.
|"Graduation is when the world beckons to you... but not necessarily with the right finger."|
I've finished my doctorate and have completed all the paperwork, and I'm just waiting for the official diploma to arrive. It's nice to be done. As soon as I did my defense in April, I promptly got sick with a cold. Others tell me that this is quite normal, that your body will have a little breakdown for a while, and that many people will be depressed similar to women after childbirth. Well, it hasn't been that bad. But after being so busy this semester I have felt out of sorts for a week or two, as though I always have the feeling I should be doing something.
"What do you do with a doctorate degree in medieval English Literature? Why are dissertation topics always so ridiculously obscure?"
It's true that the topics can be very specific or odd. I once had a professor at Concordia whose friend did her dissertation on the three conjunctions "and, or, and but." Thesis topics tend to be extremely specific for the simple reason that if you discuss a broad or familiar subject—"Is Hamlet crazy"—you will need to read everything already written on that argument, which might take you the rest of your life! For this reason, a topic which breaks new ground is easier and more respectable.
My dissertation was on the relationship between Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas and medieval romances. Some people find this interesting, most do not, and some get a little hostile in questioning the topic's usefulness. For most English professors at least, these specializations are a little like the ones physicians have. A medical doctor might do research on East Icelandic Accordion Disease and then spend most of his time treating sore throats, on call if someone with that ailment does show up. Similarly, in the future I might teach one or two Chaucer courses and be the go-to guy for a student writing an honors thesis about Chaucer, but I will spend most of my time teaching writing and literature survey courses, which is fine and something I like as well. That's assuming, of course, you get a job at all, unfortunately a more appropriate question for anyone doing graduate work in English literature...
The Keimyung Adams Web Site
One project I've been working on over the semester is the new website for Keimyung Adams College. It's looking good, and it's a work in progress.
There's a kind of Russian-roulette aspect to vacations, I think. Every once in a while you get burned. This February I went back on a family vacation to Singapore and Bali. In my last trips there I found Singapore irritating and Bali heavenly, but my experiences this time were more mixed.
Now that I'm getting used to Singapore, I'm liking it more. The country-state is a little like Apple. It's expensive and you will do things their way, but everything works. Although it's still always impossible to find a taxi, I'm beginning to like Singapore's cleanliness and efficiency, and I admit the architecture and the zoo are very nice.
I'm sad to say that Bali is not as much fun as it used to be, at least for me. Part of it is that I'm admittedly getting older, and the noisy nightclub and motorcycle din of Kuta which used to be exciting for me is now aggravating and fatiguing. But I do believe that Kuta has deteriorated. It was a week and some of inflated prices, cheating taxi drivers, dirty rooms, truck-driver swearing Australian tourists, and jammed sidewalks with homicidal motorcyclists. The only way I would go back to Bali is to go to the highlands, which are quieter and friendlier. It broke my heart to see some of my favorite beaches on earth covered with litter.
It didn't help that I and my mother-in-law got Dengue Fever, a sort of malaria-lite disease which has really ruined my health for some four months since. Interdum habere feriae et interdum feriae vos habit: Sometimes you have the vacation and sometimes the vacation has you.
|* Free access to this website for a year to anyone who can tell me what this is. *|
As a special note, I have never had worse "food" or service as I did on China Eastern Airlines this February. Inedible dinners. Every flight hours late. A transfer both ways at Shanghai Airport, a facility setting new and exciting heights in arbitrary bureacracy, rude staff, nonexistent signage, and ripoff prices. Lest anyone think I'm just a grouch, let me say that Incheon, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok have excellent airports for efficiency and service.
Beer (Slight Rant)
I admit to a somewhat working-class mindset. As I've written about on my beer website, one of my pet peeves is wine snobs. To me wine is an enjoyable drink almost ruined by the social expectations that you have to choose the right one, and so I am adamant that beer not be ruined in the same way; it's the people's drink. Alas, Salon has a new article about "How to enjoy your beer" with the usual pretentious twaddle about the necessity for the cultured connoisseur to sniff refinedly for notes of "caramel-toasted malt, black jellybean or green apple" in one's beer. Drink responsibly, but don't be afraid to to drink what you want as you want. Dante has a special plane of Hell for these pompous killjoys, just above the more-Irish-than-thou people who are always righteously prescribing the proper way to pour a Guinness.
Ken's (Full) Rant
In late February, a foreign private institute teacher in Busan took his own life by jumping from an apartment building. The press reported the incident while expressing condolences over the young man's death and advocating that the country offer improved counseling services for foreigners with personal problems.
Ha! Ha! Just kidding. The local newspapers reacted with horror that an obviously insane foreigner who was probably addicted to drugs and alcohol was in the country teaching vulnerable Korean children, and called on the government to strengthen immigation regulations and screening for foreign teachers. The Busan Ilbo thundered that "a severe alcoholic who caused a disturbance in a public facility and jumped to his death worked as a teacher and openly taught students in Korea" (Link to the blog Gusts of Popular Feeling, which provided the translation).
And so in addition to repeated and humiliating drug tests and police checks for sexual or violent crimes, now psychological profiles are being suggested as a requirement for visas in case we might selfishly litter the public commons with our bodies. How nice to know we're loved.
Downtown Daegu at Night
The standard procedure for Korean tourist organizations is to ignore anything a foreign tourist might say and to generate advertising slogans such as "Visit Korea Year 2009-2012." Well done. Here's my free contribution: there's lots of natural beauty here but one of the best (only?) good things about the cities is night time. Here's downtown Daegu (Banwoldang) at night, lit up with Christmas neon and busy with shoppers. It's a fun place to be.
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It's a Wonderful Life and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
One of the things I worry about living in Korea and away from western culture is that sometimes my grip on what's normal or current seems to slip. I watch clips of Letterman and there's actors I've never heard of saying catchphrases to the audience that I don't understand and aren't funny. But one of my biggest shocks came this Christmas season when I saw two movies that left me rather unsettled.
I must be one of the ten people on the continent that had never seen It's a Wonderful Life (1946) before. A Christmas classic about faith and redemption. One of those movies in the video rental store with "For the whole family" stamped on it. What I wasn't expecting was one of the most depressing films I've ever seen. As Salon notes, if you missed the last fifteen minutes of the film it would watch like a Beckett nihilist drama.
What's wonderful about this poor man's miserable life? He watches his dad humiliated by a greedy capitalist and just when he's about to get lucky for the first time his father dies and out of guilt he throws away a European adventure, a university education, and all of his life's ambitions to stay in a stiflingly boring, one-horse town while his friends and relatives leave and achieve fame and success. He doesn't even get to have a honeymoon when there's a run on the bank and he has to go back to a run-down, abandoned house he's moved into. When his bank is again tottering on ruin because of theft and his alcoholic uncle he ponders suicide as he stands alone in the dark and cold questioning his existence. Who wouldn't want to jump under these conditions?
Then, in a turn of events that's supposed to cheer him up, an angel appears to show him that if he were not born, things would be even worse. If he were unborn, his relatives would be dead, townspeople insane or ruined, and his wife a lonely, broken spinster. Isn't that nice? I know that when I'm in a low mood, I would feel a lot better if an angel demonstrated that without me being born all of my friends and family would have met grisly deaths and fiery rain would have fallen down as the earth writhed in starvation, war, and torment. There's nothing like guilt to cure existential angst. I'm beginning to agree with Slate's Gary Kamiya, who says that Harry Bailey should have stayed in Pottersville. The movie tries to depict it as an alternative Sodom and Gomorrah, but it's a slammin' place. I know I would have walked away from my rotten life to have a few drinks and find some showgirls if I had that little to lose.
But in comparison to the new Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I (2010) the Frank Capra movie is a walk through sunshine with Barney. At the beginning of the movie a Hogwart's employee is shown bound and tortured above Voldemort and associates before being executed. Throughout the movie witches and wizards are killed, Harry and friends spend their time dipped in blood or arguing, Hogwart's turns into a Nazi boot camp of repression, purges, and show trials, and the land of the "muggles," ordinary humans, becomes a post-apocalyptic warzone of abandoned, scorched, frozen winter. This is based on a children's novel? Who wrote the screenplay, Nine Inch Nails?
I know that the producers were consciously aiming at an edgier, darker scenario to show that the Harry Potter series is growing up along with its fans. But to me the charm of the early novels and movies is their fun and wonder, set in a magical world of adventure. While I suppose that Harry's world has to necessarily become more adult and less puerile as he matures, man, this is a cold, grim movie. Terminator 3 has a cheerier setting. Can I not have a little bit of happiness and warmth in a film? Do I really have to choose between this and Love, Actually?
An extra kick in the arse to the Daegu theater I saw the film in. One second before the film ends a staffer opens a brightly-lit exit door at the front of the theater, and one second after the end he shouts out that it's time to leave. Charming. One day there's going to be a class-action suit against theaters begrudging patrons the titles to the movie they overpaid for, and I'll lead it. No better are the people who fly past me to rush out two seconds after the film ends because the Dalai Lama might have text-messaged them during the movie. I always wonder what these people are like in bed.
Happy New Year!
This is an unusually frigid Korean winter and things have been dull even by Daegu standards, which is pretty bloody dull. I've now finished the first draft of my dissertation, and I'm waiting for my committee to send back changes. Hopefully it's changes along the lines of "take out a comma" and not "rewrite eight chapters." All the same it's nice to get this far.
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|