Saturday, May 23, 2015

Oyreland leads the way, laddies

It's heartening to see that Ireland may well become the first country in the world to legitimize gay marriage via popular vote. Americans could learn from this.

Irish voters turned out in droves to cast ballots in a gay marriage referendum Friday, with the high turnout likely to favor the “yes” side seeking equality just two decades after the country decriminalized homosexuality.

With the once mighty Catholic Church’s influence ravaged by child abuse scandals, opinion polls indicated the proposal would pass by as much as 2-to-1, making Ireland the first country to adopt same-sex marriage via a popular vote.


Gay marriage is backed by all political parties, championed by big employers and endorsed by celebrities, all hoping it will mark a transformation in a country that was long regarded as one of the most socially conservative in Western Europe.

Good for you, Ireland.

There's so much resistance to the idea of gays and lesbians marrying, and it's bizarre that this is so: per an old stat from Andrew Sullivan, homosexuals account for perhaps 3 to 5 percent of any given population, i.e., at most one out of twenty. What huge, disruptive, disastrous social change is going to occur if one person out of twenty is finally allowed to do what the other nineteen can already do?*

I realize, of course, that this is a messy issue. There's a religious dimension that overlaps only partially with the political and moral dimensions. Many contend that government should be out of the marriage business completely, which is a nice thought, but when there are practical issues like inheritance and hospital-visitation rights to consider, the law is inevitably going to have something to say. One could try to limit the term "marriage" to apply only to that ceremony which is performed in a religious context, but people who have gotten married outside the religious context (at a courthouse, say, in a civil ceremony) might have dissenting opinions about that. The lesson I take from Ireland, though, is that, little by little, gay marriage is gaining acceptance, whether you view it as a legal matter, a moral matter, or a religious matter. As Reverend Donald Sensing noted long ago, the battle against gay marriage has, essentially, already been lost: there's little left but for the tidal momentum to carry gay marriage forward to full fruition. And I think we'll all discover that, once fruition is achieved, not much about our culture and society will have changed.

*I know social conservatives who argue that gays have a disproportionate influence on the culture because they're overrepresented in the media. I'd agree that gays are indeed overrepresented, but I don't think that's at all relevant to the deeper question of how legitimizing gay marriage will deeply affect the culture. The private fear of many such conservatives is an irrational one: that people can somehow be persuaded to "go gay," as if homosexuality were simultaneously a choice and a communicable disease. We've been over that particular argument too many times for me to rehash it here.


Friday, May 22, 2015

a new culinary low

The grossest thing I've seen in months lurks at the local convenience store. Behold the horror that is chocolate-covered shrimp crunches:

This is a Three Mile Island disaster of a snack. I saw it in the campus CU convenience store; several of my students noticed my facial expression and laughed. "I have to take a picture of this," I declared to more laughter.

Yet I admit I'm curious as to how it tastes. The artificial shrimp flavor and the artificial chocolate flavor might just work together in a way that real shrimp dipped in real chocolate would never work.


the simple things

The local grocery was having a sale on strawberries: W5,000 for a large plastic package. So I grabbed a package, then also grabbed a bunch of bananas, a package of frozen blueberries, and several large cups of "Bio" brand plain yogurt. The yogurt is a bit too liquidy for my taste, but once you dump in your fruit, the consistency isn't a problem:

Ah, the simple things. Alas, eating simply and healthily in Korea isn't always cheap, especially when it comes to fruit. Vegetables are a different matter: I think prices for veggies in most Korean stores are more than fair. But fruit remains a problem. Those strawberries would normally sell for twice the discounted price that I paid; the package of blueberries set me back W10,000 (fresh blueberries would have been even more expensive), and the bananas were selling for about W5,500 per small bunch. As in America, eating healthily can be expensive.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

pecha-kucha: the final day

Somehow, I managed to sit through thirty-seven pecha-kuchas today. It would have been thirty-eight, but one student was absent because he had to go for a government-scheduled checkup in preparation for his required military service.

As with yesterday's class, there really were no stand-out presentations, which was a bit depressing. I marked down a lot of students for reading straight from their notes, facing away from the audience, speaking softly, not presenting with any energy, etc. Today's two classes also had students who didn't know how to do the auto-advance function for their PowerPoint slides, thus leaving it up to the savvier students to help them. Time was wasted. Somehow, miraculously, I managed to finish the classes without running too far overtime.

My other problem today was that the kids* needed to be told repeatedly to stop whispering, passing notes, sleeping, and/or trying clumsily to use their cell phones without my knowing. It really doesn't take much mental candlepower to figure out who's surreptitiously using a cell phone, but the students often seem to think they can pull that stunt off. I'm not sure whether to chalk that up to adolescent stupidity or to a simple lack of respect for the teacher's mental faculties. And about that "lack of respect" thing—these are Korean students, who ostensibly respect their teachers (ha!—and if you believe that, I have a live velociraptor to sell you), or so the propaganda goes, but they have little trouble passive-aggressively dissing the foreign profs. If you confront them about their disrespect, they get all wide-eyed and claim they never intended any harm. It's all bullshit, of course; Korean students operate on a double standard when it comes to what they think they can get away with: native-Korean professors get far more outward respect, while we fuzzy little furriners are slightly less than human. This fact never gets mentioned aloud in class, but it's definitely an underlying dynamic.

Three students in my 3PM class stood out for not-so-good reasons today. The first student was clueless: at the beginning of class, before the presentations began, I had told everyone to use the smaller podium (there's a large podium with a computer, monitor, keyboard, and sound-management system inside it, and there's a smaller, bare-bones, non-teched-up podium next to it at the front of the class), but one girl tried to hide herself behind the large podium. I told her to move over to the smaller one, even saying that I had mentioned this before class started; she looked at me, moved tentatively over to the small podium, then snapped right back to the large podium. When I asked her afterward why she had ignored my directive, she claimed that she hadn't understood what I'd said. I told her that, next time, she should ask me to repeat myself or to make myself clearer if she didn't understand me. (Another example of social immaturity: she tried to get by while pretending to have understood me. Instead, she ended up looking rude, even though rudeness wasn't her goal.)

The second student did a presentation on healthy eating, punctuating his spiel by looking at me and saying, "So, Kevin, please don't eat too much!" or "So, Kevin, this is why you should eat healthy food!" Those were degrading, Tyrion Lannister-style** moments, and I had no choice but to smile a tight-lipped smile and laugh along with the rest of the class. I had to wonder whether the student would have dared say such a thing if I had been a fully Korean teacher. I doubt it.

The third student was, in a sense, even more insulting. He wasn't directly insulting to me, but it was obvious he had prepared almost not at all for his pecha-kucha: he had no respect for the assignment. As I've mentioned before, pecha-kuchas involve using PowerPoint slides set to auto-advance: twenty slides in twenty seconds. In a well-done pecha-kucha, the presenter ought to have almost exactly twenty seconds' worth of verbiage to say per slide, segueing neatly from slide to slide with smooth verbal transitions and—this is crucial—no pauses. This student, by contrast, said about five or ten seconds' worth of content per slide, trapping us inside twenty painful pauses lasting ten to fifteen seconds each. It was brutal, and yes, it was insulting: the student obviously hadn't cared enough to spend his allotted two months prepping a decent presentation. There's no way in hell he's getting a passing grade for that stinking pile of shit that he tried to shovel my way.

But thank Cthulhu it's all over. I have to tally up the scores, dock some participation points from the more obnoxious students, and enter the numbers in my spreadsheet.

*And they are indeed kids—I use this word literally, not as a cutesy diminutive, because Korean college freshmen are at about the same social and sexual maturity level as American high-school sophomores. They're way too gawky and awkward, and they know so little about how to interact properly with others, especially with foreigners.

**For those who don't get the reference because they live in caves and have avoided George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire epic-fantasy saga even longer than I have: Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf, one of the principal characters in the series, a scion of the powerful House Lannister. Because of his short stature and malformed physique, Tyrion ends up being the butt of many a joke at his expense. He's learned to develop a thick skin, but every once in a while a remark will prove too cutting for him.


Procrustes and the grading curve

Do you know the story of Procrustes? He's an ugly figure from Greek mythology, famous (or infamous) for "the bed of Procrustes," an iron bedframe on which victims were placed and "fitted." If the victims were too tall for the bed, their legs would be amputated to the proper length; if they were too short, they would be cruelly stretched to conformity.*

By now, you can see why the adjective "Procrustean" might come to mind whenever I think of our university's grading curve. Every class must conform to the curve: there can't be too many "A"s; there can't be too few "C"s, "D"s, and "F"s. That curve is the bed of Procrustes.

In the myth, it's the hero Theseus who comes along, outfights or outwits Procrustes, and fits the villain to his own bed, thereby killing him. Would that some real-life Theseus should come along and curve all these college administrators to death—peg their salaries to a bell-curve distribution of their performance ratings. You might be the president of the university, but if your ratings are low, you get peanuts. Oh, and let the students be the ones to rate the university staffers, just as they rate us faculty.

*Wikipedia notes that Procrustes secretly had two beds, just to make sure that no one was ever a perfect fit.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

pecha-kucha: day 2

My nineteen Wednesday students did their pecha-kuchas today. Many got penalized for manually advancing their slides: one of the fundamental aspects of a pecha-kucha is that you have to set your slides to auto-advance, then time the content of your presentation to match the content of the slides. Manually advancing the slides allows you to slack off on the discipline needed for a well-timed spiel—not to mention the fact that you'll likely go too long or too short, instead of the prescribed 400 seconds (a standard pecha-kucha uses 20 PowerPoint slides, auto-advancing at 20 seconds per slide).

Today's students were fairly lackluster compared to yesterday's group. Yesterday's class had its boring presenters as well, but there were also some really good presentations, including the incredible one I'd mentioned in a previous post. Today, almost nobody stood out, except for one guy who really doesn't belong in a Level 1 class: he talked blazingly fast (his classmates missed two-thirds of his witticisms), and his presentation was energetic, but he also had a strong accent that occasionally made him difficult even for me to understand. One or two other students did a surprisingly good job, but they were still fairly subdued.

We also had some tech glitches, today, that caused the entire class to run about eight minutes overtime. One student, for some reason, chose to do her presentation as some sort of PowerPoint-compatible file. When she tried to open it on the classroom's podium computer, she found herself unable to: that class computer didn't have the app she had used. Time was wasted as she and several other students desperately tried to figure out how to convert or export her file such that PowerPoint could open it. I shook my head; some kids obviously haven't learned that they need to work out all technical glitches well in advance of giving a presentation. Another student lost her head during her presentation: her spiel began to diverge from her slides as her timing got worse and worse, to the point where she had to stop, go back a few frames, and start over instead of ad-libbing her way out of the situation.

Monday wasn't so bad: sitting through fifteen presentations was all right, especially since I gave a ten-minute break about halfway through. Today, with nineteen students, the day began to feel like a slog. Tomorrow, I've got two classes of nineteen kids each, so this is going to be especially painful. Thirty-eight pecha-fuckin'-kuchas... God help me.

The one bright side to today's class was that the pecha-kucha grades did erode the ridiculous number of "A"s—that, and I finally docked participation points from some of my chronic whisperers and sneaky cell-phone users. I think the Wednesday class might actually finish the semester inside the curve, which would be nice, at least inasmuch as fitting inside the curve is less of an administrative pain in the ass for me.


the most wonderful time of the year

Spring in Korea is great when it comes to gas and electric bills. I do use my A/C now, but only sparingly because temperatures just aren't that high at the moment. I stopped using the ondol (traditional Korean floor-heating system) back in the winter, when I broke out my space heater, so my gas bill plummeted. I haven't used the space heater in over a month (it's been boxed up for several weeks), which means I'm not guzzling electricity, either. So today, the electric bill came, and it's only W15,000. I expect my gas bill this month to remain low, too—around W25,000.

Things will be different come summer, of course: the A/C will be blasting all day long, so I expect my electric bill to reflect this. Then again, I've noticed that the building I'm in now is much better constructed than the flimsy cardboard dwelling I'd been stuck in in Hayang, so there's a chance that this building's superior insulation properties might save me a bit of money during the hottest months. (And, hey—I'll be moving out of here at the end of July, so I'll face Korea's hottest month, August, in my new residence near Daecheong Station.)


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

this calls for harsher measures

My Monday students did their much-dreaded pecha-kucha presentations, some of which were quite impressive, and some of which sucked, as is only natural. There were a few "A"s, many "B"s, many "C"s, and even a few "D"s, but... the students' overall grades remained unsinkable. I still have way too many "A"s in that class. (That said, kudos to the one girl who did an amazing presentation: she got a well-deserved 15 out of 15 points. She spoke naturally, didn't rely on notes, used humor, timed her talk perfectly to match the auto-advance rhythm of the PowerPoint slides, had excellent projection and comprehensible grammar and diction... you really couldn't have asked for better.)

Because I have the kids' grades on a Google Drive spreadsheet, I can run the hypotheticals, and I have. If, on the final exam, everyone gets a 15 out of 20 (roughly a midrange "C" at 75%), the class will end up with 5 "A"s, which is one too many. If everyone were to score a 10 out of 20 (an obvious "F"), there would be no "A"s, but there would still be 13 "B"s, which also breaks the curve, as no more than 70% of the class may receive "A"s and/or "B"s, and my Monday class has 15 students. Ideally, I need to craft a final exam that will allow a tiny number of students to scrape by with "A"s while the rest of the class fails spectacularly. (If everyone were to get a 5 out of 20, I'd at long last have 10 "C"s and no "A"s, which would definitely fit the curve while simultaneously pissing everyone off.)

I've already warned the kids that the upcoming final exam will be harder than the midterm was, even though it'll be in exactly the same format. I'm also going to quietly not mention the fact that they have one more required consultation with me. We'll see who forgets to do the consult, and when he forgets, he'll be docked three points from the final grade (this is all written on the syllabus I'd handed out during Week 1). It's dirty pool, but what I don't want to be left with is a class full of high grades, which will force me to push some "A"s down to "B"s and maybe even "C"s.

I know what I should have done this semester: I should have required the teams to turn in comprehensive lesson plans each week for their round robins. Inevitably, somebody would have forgotten to turn a plan in, and that person would have been docked homework points for his negligence.

For my Monday class, though, what I'm very likely going to do is this: I'll tally up the grades at the end of the semester. If I have more than 4 "A"s, fine. If my "A+B" number is over 10, that's fine, too. I'm just going to tally the grades up, give "A"s to the top 4 kids (if only 3 students have "A"s, then I won't give more than 3 "A"s), give out 6 "B"s, then make the rest "C+"es if the kids actually deserve a "C+" or higher. And that's about the best I can do, and that's likely what I'm going to do for my Wednesday and Thursday classes as well.

Man, I hate the curve. It makes grades completely worthless.


Monday, May 18, 2015

the reason for the season

On our solar calendar, May 25 (next Monday) is a national holiday this year: it's the Buddha's Birthday, known in Korean as bucheonim oshin-nal or in Sino-Korean as seokga-tanshin-il. (The seokga comes from the Indian Shakya, which is the tribe that Gautama hailed from: Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni.) The Great Teacher's birthday, which is always on April 8 of the lunar calendar, of course means lotus lanterns—or the cheap commercial equivalent, at least. Dongguk is an explicitly Buddhist university, so it's only natural that the campus might become especially festive around this time of year.

This first picture is of a building across from where I teach. I know it mainly as the building that has both a Shinhan Bank ATM (where I pay my gas and electric bills... yes, bill-paying can be done via ATM) and a Holly's Coffee, a Starbucks clone that I never visit, just as I never visit Starbucks if I can help it.

Click on the photo below to enlarge:

The above photo is of the jonghap gangeui-dong (something of an all-purpose lecture facility; the term jonghap means "integrated," i.e., everything you need is gathered all together there), which is the building in which I teach. It's mostly offices and classrooms. All four of my classes are in Room 209, the room in which your worst fears are realized.

Below is a pic of the Bio Building, slightly uphill from the Holly's Coffee building and across from the rear entrance of my building. This building houses my department's Ilsan-branch office, and it also has the lone, overworked photocopier with which I may make free photocopies. There's a copy center in the building where I teach, but I have to pay 50 won (about 5 cents) per page for copies.

So Siddhartha is the reason for the season. I'm off next Monday, which means I have a four-day weekend coming up. My buddy JW and his wife want me to come visit them; JW's wife, who is normally somewhat shy and quiet and prone to speaking in Korean, was a bit drunk this past weekend, and she wouldn't stop telling me—in English—how much she wanted me to come over, play with her kids, and teach her how to cook Western-style chicken the way I did back in late March. So I now know JW's wife is hilarious when drunk. One of the five Buddhist precepts is to abstain from taking intoxicants of any sort, so I'll be curious to see how she is this weekend. At a guess, she won't give a damn about the precepts: she's Catholic, and what's a Catholic if not an avid drinker?


Sunday, May 17, 2015

L.A. galbi festival

I should have gone to Costco to get my galbi for cheaper (if for nothing else, Costco is a great place to buy meat and cheese in bulk), but I was impatient, and I'd just received my salary from Dongguk, so I grabbed a large and expensive package of L.A. galbi (thick-cut Korean short ribs) from the local store and brought it home, along with a mess of pre-made banchan (side dishes). I tossed the meat into a marinade (described in a previous post) and left it in the fridge to soak up all the goodness overnight and well into the following day. Around 6PM today, I took the meat out, heated the oven up, cooked a batch of glutinous rice (chap-ssal), laid out my banchan, and broiled my galbi to desired doneness. My one great worry was that I'd lose track of time and let the meat burn to a crisp, but that didn't happen.* Things got a bit steamy, but that was all.

What follows are some pics of the prep and the final meal. I apologize if the pics are smaller than usual; the lighting was poor and my phone's camera had trouble focusing. Suffice it to say that I gorged myself on meat, and have plenty left over for a couple more meals.

Click on the pic below to enlarge it:

I had bought the galbi to celebrate my—our—success at obtaining a crucial document in my quest to acquire an F-4 visa. Normally, I wouldn't spend so much on myself, but this weekend, with a recent triumph and with the Dongguk semester so close to an end, I thought, Why the hell not? Now it's back to the grind.

My only complaint about the end result is that the galbi was a trifle salty, probably because I had let the meat sit for so long in a marinade made powerful by the use of Coca Cola, a potion that is strong in the dark side of the Force, and infamous for its penetrative, muscle-fiber-destroying potency. Soy sauce is naturally salty, so with the Coke's help, it got deep into the meat. To counteract the saltiness, I made a sweet glaze from the drippings of several batches of broiled meat; that improved things greatly. Next time around, I plan to use a lot less soy sauce—or I'll marinate the meat for a much shorter amount of time.

*My studio has no fire alarm (this is, after all safety-conscious Korea, where we overload ferries and let innocent schoolchildren suffer the consequences), so it was up to me to make sure nothing got out of hand. Nothing did, which is good: I'm pretty sure that there are fire alarms in my building's hallways. And if one alarm sounds, I'm betting they all sound.


imminent arrival

Bathing in a luscious marinade of soy sauce, Coca Cola (the ajumma's weapon of choice—an effective tenderizer), sesame oil, chili flakes, ginger powder, brown sugar, fresh-ground garlic, and green onion, my LA-style galbi (Korean short ribs) has been meditating quietly inside two large plastic containers in my fridge since midnight. In a few more hours, I'll pull the meat out, turn on my lovely oven's broiler, and broil up a meal fit for royalty.

Expect photos later this evening.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

a very good Friday

I spent a good chunk of my Friday out with my #3 Ajeossi and Ajumma, who represent the seriously Christian branch of my Korean relatives (my #4 Ajeossi and his family are Buddhist; my #1 Ajeossi has no particular church, temple, or tradition; my #2 Ajeossi is a Christian convert, but his conversion was mainly for reasons of business networking; I don't think he's that serious or committed). Several weeks ago, we agreed to meet on the 15th. Since Friday is normally Ajumma's day to set up the floral decorations at her church (a devoted church member, she does this weekly), we agreed to meet at Geumho Presbyterian Church—a church, and a neighborhood, that I hadn't visited in nearly twenty years.

The walking route to the church from Geumho Station was a bit fuzzy in my head. I knew I needed to go out of Exit 1, from the station, then walk downhill, eventually jogging left into an alley. The church, though fairly large, was one of those tucked-away houses of worship that was hard to see from the main street. At one point, I stopped and asked some old grandmothers for directions; they pointed me onward, telling me to cross the street at the large T intersection and jog over to the alley. I trudged on, eventually finding the church right where I had left it nearly two decades previous.

My first order of business was to take a dump, so I ducked into the church's restroom—much improved since the '90s—and texted Ajumma while I was sitting on the throne and muttering "Thank you, Jesus" in reference to the shiny, clean, up-to-date plumbing. (I had feared a single squat toilet, which is all the church had back in the Clinton era.)

Ajumma texted back that I should meet her in the church's upper sanctuary (it's a split-level church, which allows for simultaneous worship services). Ajeossi saw me before I entered the main church; he was holding a pair of pruning shears and trimming some flowers. After paying my respects, I went inside the upper sanctuary and waved to Ajumma, who responded with a cheerful greeting in English. She doesn't speak much English, but she sometimes feels the urge to speak the foreigner's tongue whenever her outlander relative makes an appearance. Ajumma was obviously still busy with her flower-arranging, so I let her and her companion, an unfamiliar lady who kept staring at me, continue working.

It had been years since I'd actually been inside a church. (Back when I was in Hayang, I meditated once or twice at the local Buddhist temple, but in terms of ambiance, a temple isn't a church.) I'd almost forgotten what the atmosphere could be like. I sat in a pew and stared around me, aiming for a bit of serenity. Unfortunately, a loud shop vacuum was blasting away in the back of the sanctuary, so silence wasn't an option. Eventually, Ajumma delegated the rest of the flower-arranging to her companion and said "Let's go!" to me. We walked out, met Ajeossi, walked down to the street, and found the family car. Ajumma tsked at the poor parking job that Ajeossi had done. He pulled the car out onto the street, away from the wall it had been next to, so we could pile in.

And then we were off.

We drove all the way down to Yongin to visit the local district office.* Our purpose: to see whether it would be possible to obtain a document called, informally, a hojeok (i.e., a family register), and known more formally as a jaejeok-deungbon.** We had to stop at one point to ask for directions—this despite the fact that Ajeossi has a very nice dashboard GPS that he obviously doesn't know how to use. I used my own cell-phone GPS to confirm the directions that Ajumma got from a stranger in a store's parking lot, and we found the district office of Mohyeon-myeon, my maternal grandfather's birthplace, with no problem.

As we were walking toward the administrative building's entrance, Ajumma said she'd prayed to God that we'd be able to obtain the hojeok here, on the first try, without having to be sent to another office. I nodded; I didn't pray, but my own fingers were crossed. Ajeossi parked the car while Ajumma and I made our way inside.

The staffer we met was probably the blandest, most nondescript-looking Korean woman I've ever seen. She had "BUREAUCRAT" written all over her, and I suspected from the start that she'd be trouble. Sure enough, our exchange stopped almost immediately when the lady told us we'd need to fill out a form to request the hojeok. We filled out as much as we could, putting both my mother's name and my maternal grandfather's name on the form. We had very, very little to go on, however, and this proved to be a problem for our functionary, who spent nearly an hour telling us, in various ways, that what we wanted wasn't obtainable, and/or that we'd need to consult with a different office and come back.

The battle of wills went on and on, but in the end, Ajumma and Ajeossi wore the woman down. She called an outside source and had several back-and-forths with all three of us (once she realized I spoke Korean, she looped me into the conversation as well). Per my Golden Goose boss's advice, I wrote my mother's birthdate in serial-number form to show the bureaucrat that I had half of Mom's jumin-deungnok-beonho, i.e., her citizen's registration number, a rough analogue to an American Social Security number. I gave the lady my birth certificate, which showed Mom's name in English (as "Suk Ja Kim," with race/color listed as "Oriental"), as a way of proving that, yes, I was related to the woman in question. At several points, Ajumma repeated that my mother had passed away, and that "we're the only ones he [Kevin] has," as a gentle way of pressuring the woman into doing her duty. At another point, the woman said she needed some sort of proof that Mom had been born on the date we claimed she'd been born on; I rifled through my smart phone's email archives and dug up a PNG file of Mom's Sookmyung University ID card, on which was written, mirabile dictu, her birth date.

The woman finally relented after we had given her enough information to go on, and she printed out the much-coveted jaejeok-deungbon. Before giving it to us, however, she quizzed us as to my mother's relatives' names. I again dug into my cell-phone archives and supplied the name of my maternal grandmother: Lee Soon-nam. My Uncle John in Texas—Mom's little brother—had supplied my grandparents' names earlier.

When I look back on Friday's efforts, I see that, a bit like how it is with The Avengers, it took the efforts of all three of us to pierce the nearly unyielding wall of bureaucracy. I admit that, about twenty minutes into this frustrating process, I was ready to throw in the towel and walk away. The staffer wasn't nasty, but she also didn't seem inclined to help—at least not initially. Luckily, Ajumma in particular was dogged in her pursuit of our mission objective (Ajeossi is more soft-spoken, but he kept after the woman, too, in his own way), and I can say with assurance that, had I tried to obtain the hojeok on my own, I would have failed miserably. I also congratulate myself for piping up at crucial moments—providing Mom's birth date, calling up her old college ID, and confirming her mother's name.

The document, when printed out, ran several pages and cost us, in the end, only W1,000—not even a dollar. Ajumma, who had shown persistence without resorting to any of the stereotypical ajumma-style tactics (shouting, bullying, grandstanding, etc.), made a special effort to thank the lady. She hung around the office to have a different set of documents printed out for her own purposes; she later told me and Ajeossi that her documents had cost W2,000, but she gave the lady a W5,000 bill and told her to keep the change.

We drove back into Seoul. Right before Ajeossi dropped me off at a Line 3 station, I thanked both him and Ajumma profusely, telling them how stressed I'd been about obtaining this document, and how relieved I was that we had, in the end, gotten it on the first try. I made sure to say that none of this would have been possible without their help; Ajumma said, "Of course—we're family," and that was that. Both Ajumma and I got out of the car: I had to walk down into the bowels of the subway station, but Ajumma said she wanted to go get some exercise at the park across the street. As Fridays go, this rates as one of the best Fridays I've had so far this year.

At the same time, however, I'll note with some annoyance that it really shouldn't take so much concentrated effort to obtain a damn document. Although we left that district office feeling a sense of victory, it's fair to ask why we should have to feel any accomplishment at all about what should, in the end, be a very simple, straightforward task. How many "Kim Suk-ja"s were born on May 4, 1943? At a guess, only one. Mom's file should have been easy to find—assuming the database was structured logically.

Doubtless there are reasons why the lady at the counter initially balked at helping us. Human psychology is such that we tend to become territorial, the kings and queens of our own little dunghills (witness my own snippy behavior toward uppity commenters on my blog). But people who work in bureaucracies need to be trained to remember—as my Golden Goose boss says—they they're there to serve, not to dictate. I've had similar problems with some of the office assistants at the universities I've worked at: they forget who's higher on the totem pole and act as if they hold authority that they don't actually possess.

But I'm not worried about the intricacies of human psychology right now. I'm just happy to have completed the second of three crucial steps that need to be taken to obtain my F-4 visa. I already have my birth certificate; I now have my hojeok; lastly, I need Mom's naturalization papers, and to obtain those, I need to speak with Uncle Sam, the Great and Powerful.

*My friend Young Chun told me this wasn't necessary: the relevant document could have been picked up anywhere. Still, the trip was worthwhile.

**Again, Young was the one who told me the proper Korean name for the document.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Ave, John!

John McCrarey writes an excellent post that makes the case for people who just want to sit down and have a reasonable discussion instead of being called racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted/oppressive. The post's punchline:

The point is when people actually talk to each other as opposed to at each other, it often turns out that we are not as far apart as it may otherwise seem.

I used to have a strong interest in the dynamics of dialogue, especially interreligious dialogue. Whatever happened to that version of me?


Thursday, May 14, 2015

a day with the rellies

I'm out with relatives tomorrow. We're going on a quest to obtain—I hope—a document informally known as a hojeok,* i.e., a family register. Slowly, painfully, I'm piecing together the paperwork I need in order to switch from my current E-1 "professor" visa to an F-4 "dongpo" visa, i.e., a visa for people with Korean heritage. An F-4 would free me up in many ways: I wouldn't have to be paranoid about working multiple jobs, for one thing, and I'd never have to be tied down to a sponsor/employer again. F-4s also require renewal only once every two years, which would halve the amount of bureaucratic agony I normally go through. Employment prospects would also open wide.

Assuming we're successful in our quest for the legendary hojeok, the next step for me will be to track down my mother's naturalization papers—proof that she became an American citizen. While it's possible that my father knows where those papers are, he and I aren't on speaking terms, which pretty much closes off that avenue. I'm planning to contact the US government directly. The old Immigration and Naturalization Bureau has now become the USCIS: US Citizenship and Immigration Services. I'm sure it's the same clunky, labyrinthine bureaucracy, though, and there's a good chance that obtaining the desired documents will mean coming to the office in person—something I can't do until I can afford a plane ticket. I sense that I'm going to have to ask my brothers to help out with this part of the process.

If all goes according to plan, I ought to have all the documents I need before July, and I ought to have transitioned to the Golden Goose, full-time, by the beginning of August. But it all begins with tomorrow's day trip to a district office to obtain the hojeok. Fingers crossed.

*The "eo" in hojeok should be pronounced somewhere between an "aw" and an "uh" sound: somewhere between "ho-juck" and "ho-jawk."


the tension mounts

I gave my students a brief demo of a truncated pecha-kucha presentation, showing them tricks for how to keep time when their PowerPoint slides are set to auto-advance every twenty seconds (have a sense of your slides' content and for how much you can say in twenty seconds; use the second hand on the wall clock to keep time; make it easier on yourself by starting your spiel the moment the second hand is pointing straight up at the 12). I also showed them how they could "cheat" by sticking a little "next" sign in the bottom-right corner of each slide as a reminder of what the next slide's content would be (e.g., "Next: European Food").

My 3PM students "ooh"ed and "aah"ed appropriately as they watched me transition smoothly from slide to slide without a hitch, but they nodded thoughtfully after I explained the tricks I'd been using. I also showed them, once again, Canadian Shawn Kanungo's excellent pecha-kucha (see it here on YouTube), which is a great resource for learning about things like timing, humor, and how to compose a proper PowerPoint slide (i.e., not only a few words per image).

I also explained the brutal scoring system in detail: 10 points to be awarded by the teacher, 5 points to be awarded by the students. The kids took it all in stride. I can only hope they've prepped well (I know that many, if not most, of them have waited until the last moment to prep their presentations... the young never learn from the mistakes of the old).

We'll see what happens, I suppose. Next week is going to wreak havoc on most of my students' averages—not because I want this to happen, but because the students' grades must fit a school-sanctioned curve. The students are fully aware of this, of course, so naturally they're uneasy. I'm thinking to myself, though, that it might be better to pull everyone too low: it's easier to raise grades, at the end, than to cut grades down.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Jeff Sessions on the Korean FTA: raw deal

Thanks to a post from Malcolm, I was led to Republican senator Jeff Sessions's website, on which he is displaying a letter (an open letter now, I suppose) to President Obama that asks for more transparency. Malcolm was making a particular point in linking to Sessions's website, but I couldn't fail to notice some Korea-relevant text inside Session's letter to Obama. To wit:

The U.S. ran a record $51.4 billion trade deficit in March, the [highest level] recorded in six years. This is especially concerning since assurances were made from the Administration that the recent South Korea free trade deal would “increase exports of American goods by $10 billion to $11 billion.” But, in fact, American domestic exports to Korea increased by only $0.8 billion, an increase of 1.8 percent, while imports from Korea increased $12.6 billion, an increase of 22.5 percent. Our trade deficit with Korea increased $11.8 billion between 2011 and 2014, an increase of 80.4 percent, nearly doubling in the three years since the deal was ratified.

Not good, although the disparity between Korea's FTA gains and America's is also due, in large part, to how Koreans do business—worthy of a post in itself.


The Wind That Wins

"Just blow it out your ass," she said
And so I did: right on her head
I grunted, pushed with all my heart
And gave birth to a massive fart
That fried my lover's fulsome hair
Her self-respect blew everywhere
But that was not the end of it—
My ass moved on to greater shit:
It belched tornadoes and typhoons
It broadcast gerbils and baboons
A cornucopia sublime
An unrelenting storm of slime
It vomited a cable car
It hiccuped out a neutron star
It cannoned out a galaxy
It sired seven deities
And finally, my ass did pause
From violating Nature's laws
When all was calm and all was right
I looked into the starry night
I saw the cosmos I had made
And just for once, was not afraid
But then, like terror from within
A distant rumble, then a din
My heart did beat with mounting dread
I felt a pounding in my head
For know this: after every fart
There comes a Worm, whose frightful art
Is overwhelming man and beast
And spreading shite from west to east
It thundered now, began to boom
The shart that meant the planet's doom
I'd birthed a cosmos from my ass
But now I knew: this, too, shall pass
So this is where I say goodbye
The Worm, the dreaded Worm, is nigh!


Yeats said it best


Monday, May 11, 2015

sorting out an apparent contradiction

John McCrarey seems to take particular delight, whenever we meet, in pointing out some inconsistency of mine. During our meet-up with author Young-jin Chun, he asked me how I was liking the life in Goyang. I said it was fine: the neighborhood was quiet and had a bit of a small-town-y ambiance to it. John seized on that observation to ask me how I could like Goyang so much given my dissatisfaction with living in Hayang, a similarly small town.

It's a legitimate question, although I'm not sure there's any real contradiction, and I realize John was just busting my balls and not seriously cross-examining me on the stand. Still, I've come back to that question, in my mind, over the past several weeks, and I'd like to take this time to think out loud a bit.

First, an apology. If I've given people the impression that I actively disliked living in Hayang, I'm sorry. There was a lot I disliked about being down in that part of the country, i.e., the Daegu area—the accent, the somewhat country-fried mindset, etc. There were also things I didn't like about living in my school-provided studio: the walls were too damn thin, for one thing, and during warm weather there were way too many fruit flies. The thinness of my studio's walls was a problem both for noise conduction (cell-phone vibrations, pooping, pissing, and the thump-thump sound of someone jumping rope or otherwise working out) and for insulation: in the winter, my studio quickly got cold, thus necessitating the near-constant use of the ondol (traditional Korean floor-heating system). That said, I didn't actively hate living in Hayang. True, it was a town with little to do, but there were nooks and crannies to explore, both on campus and off, and I spent a good bit of time exploring them. The town had no cinema, but the nearest Lotte theater was a mere bus ride away, in nearby Gyeongsan City. Life wasn't hell by any means, so again, if I gave you the impression that it was (I really need to go back and read my Hayang-related entries), I apologize.

Second: that said, there's a real contrast between living in the Daegu region—with its bumpkin ambiance, impenetrable accents, and oppressive climate—and living in Goyang City where I am now. Goyang is a satellite of Seoul; Line 3 of the Seoul Metro is my lifeline: it takes me straight into town, passing right through the city like a gastrointestinal tract. Basically, despite the quieter traffic patterns and uncrowded sidewalks, I still feel like a Seoulite when I'm in Goyang. I don't feel hors du coup, as the French might say: out of touch, out of the game. While I don't consider myself a fan of big cities, spending nearly a decade in Seoul has made me a fan of this big city.

Third: even though my current studio is slightly smaller than the one I had in Hayang (my Hayang studio had a laughably misnamed "veranda" in which I could hang laundry), I like it better. It's quieter, for one thing: my next-door neighbor and the neighbor above me are as quiet as proverbial church mice. The only time I ever hear any noise is when one neighbor or the other is doing laundry, and even that sound doesn't come through all that loudly. My new studio is also cleaner: the floor is tiled with a flat surface; you may recall that the floor of my Hayang studio had a simulated wood-grain pattern that trapped all sorts of grit and hair in it. My new apartment's overall construction is also of better quality: except for the bathroom sink's drainpipe problem, everything in the bathroom and the kitchenette is solidly built: the sinks aren't loose; the cabinets aren't uneven; the walls are thick, and the window seals trap both heat and coolness: when it's warm outside, there's a substantial temperature differential between the outdoors and the much-cooler indoors.

Fourth: my current neighborhood gets surreally quiet at night, which was never true in Hayang. In Hayang, there was always noise coming from somewhere. Here in Shiksa-dong (again, to my Jewish readers—it's not that kind of shiksa), after 9PM, the streets empty out and the place becomes something approaching a ghost town. Goyang is in Seoul's periphery, and Shiksa-dong, my district, is in Goyang's periphery. (Madu Station, E-Mart, and Costco are all in Goyang's downtown area, along with all the other banks and businesses.) It's cool to be this close to Seoul, yet to live in a neighborhood that's this quiet. I've been here only since late February, but I can already tell that I'm going to miss this place.

So to sum up, Hayang and Goyang are two very different animals. They may both be small towns, but their respective ambiances are radically different, and as it turns out, Goyang seems to be more my style than Hayang ever was.


gearing up

Time moves ever forward, and this semester has been rolling along quickly. We're already at Week 11 on the calendar, and my students will be doing their Week 12 pecha-kucha presentations in just a few short days. Except for today's class, who will re-watch a video, I've promised to demonstrate a pecha-kucha to my students to show them what I'm expecting. I'm going to do a spiel on how and why to make budae-jjigae, which is one of my favorite dishes to make: it's fun, it's easy, and it tastes amazing—especially the way I do it, which is to be very generous with the meat (see here, for example.)

Unfortunately, I've had to "pull a Joker," so to speak, regarding the grading of the upcoming pecha-kucha. I've given all my students an apologetic spiel about the need to design hard tests instead of fair tests because everyone needs to fit inside the mandated grading curve (which I recently complained about here). I've been very up-front with the kids about my opinion regarding the justice—or rather, the injustice—of fitting people into a curve, and how that obligation contributes to the deterioration of the student/teacher relationship. (Some fellow profs would doubtless advise me never to be so confessional, but what can I say? I'm a confessional kind of guy.) By "pulling a Joker," I mean designing a scoring system in which the students will have to hurt each other. Let me explain.

The pecha-kucha presentation is worth 15% of any given student's total grade. I've set up the scoring this way: out of 15 possible points, 10 points will come from the teacher's (somewhat harsh) assessment; the remaining 5 points will come from the students themselves. The students will evaluate each other's performance as teams, not as individuals, but the team rating will translate into an individual rating that will become the remaining 5 points of any given student's score. Each student will rate each team's overall performance as honestly as possible; I'll tally the points and figure out how each team ranks (i.e., which team got the most points?). Once the ranking has been figured out (and ties are possible), ranking points will be assigned: 5 points to the top-ranked team, 4 points to the second-ranked team, etc., down to a minimum of 2 points. The team's ranking points will be distributed to each individual team member. (Laid out this way, the system sounds more complicated than it really is.)

This creates exactly the sort of toxic psychology I didn't want to adulterate my classes with, but I can't see another way around this. Based on the scoring system I've devised, every team will be motivated to rate itself highest (and if all teams do this, the effect cancels out) while rating all the other teams as low as possible. My injunction to "rate honestly" will be adhered to with varying degrees of faithfulness; some of the more fair-minded students will rate equitably while other, more competitive students will rate as if they have an axe to grind. The statistical "static" created by all these crisscrossing motivations ought to produce something like a more or less fair individual rating.

0-10 points = teacher's individual eval
2-5 points = team's ranking points, as determined by the students

15 points possible.

Despite what I said about "more or less fair," above, this is a shitty, shitty thing to make the students do, but because grades right now are still so inflated, even after the midterm exam, steps must be taken to turn some of those low "A"s into high "C"s (no musical pun intended). I have to use ranking points instead of raw averages because there's a chance that the students will rate themselves and each other very highly, and I can't accept that sort of inflation. So the ranking points are themselves a microcosm of the college's grading curve, and yeah, I feel like a hypocrite for railing against the campus's curve while constructing my own.

Post-midterm, most of my students in all my classes still have "A"s, so there's no bell curve yet. I'll be morbidly curious to see whether a curve actually begins to form next week. In theory, it ought to be there, and when final-exam time comes around, the curve should be more pronounced, and I ought to have enough "C"s to satisfy the requirements for the back end of the curve—without too many "A"s clogging up the front end.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

bonne fête des mères

Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there and in our hearts.


ddeokbokgi revisited

What I had the other night:

Sometimes, I'm just in a bunshik mood, you know? Bunshik is a catchall term for Korean street food, which includes ddeokbokgi—finger-shaped rice cakes and odaeng (also called eomuk), i.e., processed fish-paste sheets in a peppery chili sauce made more subtle by the addition of a touch of sugar and garlic.

I was loath to buy green onions; the local grocer sells enormous bunches, and I'd have used only a tiny fraction of the purchase, leaving the rest to rot in the fridge. So instead of onions, I went with a smaller package of a grass-like vegetable whose name in Korean I don't know. (I failed to look at the label before I threw the wrapping away.) I also added shredded cabbage to give the ddeokbokgi a more robust texture.

It looks as though I'm entering my "Korean" cooking phase, now; I've cooked enough Western food to satisfy that particular jones, so now it's time to return to the other half of my culinary roots. Expect budae-jjigae and other lovely dishes soon.


"Red Tails": review

Everything good about the movie "Red Tails," produced by George Lucas, appears in the preview trailer, so just watch the trailer and imagine how awesome this movie could have been. The story follows some of the adventures of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black group of military pilots who flew missions during World War II, often using old hand-me-down planes. It begins in medias res, so we never see the origins of the Tuskegee Airmen—we just see some of their exploits, as well as the historical moment when they finally receive spanking-new planes for an important mission and paint those tails red. There's also a "John Henry"-style, old-versus-new scene toward the end of the movie, when one of the Red Tails takes on a new German jet and comes out on top.

"Red Tails" contains plenty of major themes: the psychological cost of war, the constant specter of racism, interracial love, intercultural misunderstandings, and what it means to be part of a band of brothers. But, frustratingly, the movie flubs just about all of these issues thanks to painfully poor screenwriting. John Ridley and Aaron McGruder are credited with penning the screenplay; they ought to be ashamed. The real-life Red Tails were an amazing group of men, and this story was miles away from even remotely doing them justice. I'd say a remake, by much more capable hands, is in order.

For the moment, the entire film is available, with surprisingly high-quality video, on YouTube. I don't recommend it except for the nicely rendered dogfight scenes, and if you plan to watch it on YouTube, do so quickly before it gets taken down for copyright reasons.


Saturday, May 09, 2015

back to walking

I walked 21K steps yesterday, and I plan on walking another 21K steps today. It's about time I got off my ass and got back on the road, hills or no hills. After two or three months in a row of under-10K step averages, I need to shake off the self-pity and just walk.

UPDATE: 21.2K steps walked, baby.


the three faces of Sarah Palin

They say each half of our face represents a masculine and a feminine side. Now, through the miracle of Photoshop, we test that theory—not on Captain Solo, but on Sarah Palin.


the 93% man

My KMA boss told me my latest evaluation scores: an average 4.8 out of 5 for "technique/knowledge" and a 4.5 out of 5 for the nebulous category of "attitude" (by which is meant something like "enthusiasm/passion"). That's a 9.3 out of 10, or a 93%, which is significantly lower than the solid 100% I had scored the previous two times around. I had seven students on April 25; only five replied to the online survey about the course. I wonder how the score would have changed had the remaining two students replied.

A KMA eval form is a page-length questionnaire; only the first two questions are specifically focused on the teacher. The other questions all relate to things like course content, KMA's facilities, and so on. Students are given plenty of room to write in their own suggestions. I have no idea whether these suggestions ever get implemented. In all probability, the questions are there to allow the students to blow off steam and to alert the bosses to anything that might be seriously amiss. "My teacher palpated my breasts for ten full minutes during the lunch break" might be a good example of something to look out for.

I want to start an eval contest with my buddy Tom. We never teach at KMA at the same time, but we both teach there often enough to compare eval scores. It might be cool if we started a competition: whoever has lower evals, next time around, must buy the other guy dinner. Tom's an engaging teacher; I've watched him work a crowd on several occasions, and he's a natural. I'm sure his evals are as high as, if not higher than, my own. I think we'd end up buying each other dinner quite often. (Which would make Tom's wife jealous.)

Anyway, my KMA evals are at about the same level as my old Sookmyung evals used to be. As I've said before: at least someone appreciates me and my work.