My two good deeds for the day, shamelessly trumpeted here:
1. I fed a starving cat. The poor thing was meowing and meowing at passersby, but also retreating whenever someone—like yours truly—would try to approach it. It obviously wanted something, so I stopped inside the nearby convenience store, bought a can of tuna, cracked it open, and put it on the street for the cat to eat. Hunger overcame fear, and the cat came out from its hiding place to start lapping at the tuna water. I went on my way; when I came back, the cat was happily chomping on the tuna itself. Half the can was empty, and the cat had figured out how to drag the can back with it into its hiding place.
2. On my way to see today's movie, I gave up my bus seat to an elderly man—an act that used to be de rigueur in Korean society (the young always yield to the old), but which seems to be fading fast. During that ride, I saw several younger people—younger than me—sitting in yellow-backed bus seats specially designated for the old, infirm, handicapped, and pregnant. They didn't bother to get up for the old man. I felt a pang that might have been a mixture of embarrassment at the younger folks' rudeness and anger at their lack of solicitude.
In return for my good deeds, the cosmos sent me an angel—or maybe it was a bodhisattva—in the form of a cleaning ajumma who barked at me to "Step back!" from the edge of the subway platform while I waited for a Line 1 train to arrive. I was in no danger; in fact, I was leaning against a safety railing, and would have moved back, anyway, once the train was about to arrive. I chalk this up to pettiness: the lady felt she had to order someone around.
Thursday, July 31, 2014
My two good deeds for the day, shamelessly trumpeted here:
I once took—and dropped out of—a screenwriting course offered by my alma mater's Continuing Education department. The teacher sucked, and unfortunately, his name was Kevin, too. The man was a doofus, making us buy a textbook that we then proceeded to ignore. His analysis of movie plots often didn't make sense. But I'll grant him two things: first, the man was a fantastic script editor. He flayed my draft script to bloody ribbons, and while I hated him for it at the time, I ended up thinking that all of his edits were legitimate. Second, he said one thing about movies that has stuck with me because it makes intuitive sense: movies are fundamentally an emotional experience. Sure, sure: there are films that make you think, but even those films, when they make you think, are doing so to make you feel something—an Aha! of enlightenment, perhaps.
This occurred to me while I was barely a few minutes into "Guardians of the Galaxy," a Marvel-universe action-comedy-adventure film directed by the aptly named James Gunn and starring Chris Pratt (the voice of Emmett from "The Lego Movie") as lovable rogue Peter Quill, a.k.a. the self-styled "Star Lord." "Galaxy" begins on Earth in 1988, and that first scene was hard to watch: a preteen Peter Quill is in the hospital with his dying mother. So I was sucker-punched at the outset by a scene that took me back to early 2010, to my own dying mother, surrounded by loved ones as she expired. I doubt the filmmakers were aiming for major pathos in that scene, but that's how it affected me—and that, folks, is what emotional experiences are all about. So right away, I felt a certain kinship with Peter Quill, who lost his mother, and who childishly refused to take her trembling hand when she asked him to. (This has repercussions later on.)
Flash-forward to twenty years later, and a thirty-something Peter Quill, abducted by a spacecraft right after his mother's death, is now an interstellar adventurer, a mercenary recoverer of artifacts in the tradition of Indiana Jones (implicit Harrison Ford references abound in this film, as do explicit references to Kevin Bacon—yet another Kevin). He's after something known simply as "the orb," and he finds it early on. It's not until much later that we discover the orb's significance. For the moment, though, it's enough to know that the orb is wanted by many people, including one powerfully evil individual with world-destroying intentions: Ronan (Lee Pace, who played the Elven King Thranduil in the most recent "Hobbit" movie), a Kree with genocidal intentions against the planet Xandar. Quill falls in with a few other rogues: angry mutant raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and his tree-pal Groot (voice and mo-cap action by Vin Diesel), the beautiful and green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Every member of this motley crew wants to capture or kill the other members at first, but as the movie progresses and one of its major themes emerges, rivals and enemies eventually become friends—even family. The object of the game then becomes to play keep-away with the orb, wresting it from the clutches of Ronan.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" is perhaps a little overstuffed with action—some of it balletically "Matrix"-style, some of it chaotically "Star Wars"-style—but it carries its dramatic load lightly, buoyed by an impish, and occasionally vulgar, sense of humor that keeps the ambiance from becoming too grave. Like the aforementioned "Matrix" and "Star Wars," "Guardians of the Galaxy" provides rollicking adventure without all the pretentiousness: in no way does the story take itself seriously. Alien races in this movie are little different from the types encountered in a typical episode of "Star Trek": just imagine a huge cosplay convention. The movie also features a gorgeous palette in terms of scenery: there's a prison reminiscent of Erewhon from "Face/Off," a city-sized mining colony established inside the long-dead cranium of a gigantic alien being, and battle scenes that take place everywhere from flak-filled skies to gloomy corridors. Through it all, tying the whole thing together, is the rock music of the 1970s, Peter Quill's one fetish. (He keeps a cassette player with him at all times. It's his version of Indiana Jones's hat.)
If "Galaxy" lacks anything from the "Star Wars" template, it's the sense of mysticism that comes from a concept like the Force. Still, the orb turns out to be a primordial source of cosmic energy (I'll let you discover the particulars for yourself) that can be wielded only by the truly powerful; it's not the Force, but it acts a bit like The Force Unleashed. There are also no benevolent wisdom figures, no Ben Kenobis or Yodas, to serve as mentors for Peter Quill. And that's actually refreshing: in both "Star Wars" and "The Matrix," we see the story unfolding from the point of view of innocence: Luke Skywalker doesn't know who he is, and Neo (as his name implies) is just a newbie, yet to discover his heroic potential. "Galaxy," by contrast, features nothing but the jaded, the worldly, and the cynical: to some degree or other, everyone is Han Solo. And that works out just fine.
"Galaxy" does cleave to the "Star Wars" pattern in other ways, though: Rocket and Groot are more violent versions of Artoo and Threepio, with the stoic-yet-surprising Groot in the Artoo role, displaying some new function or ability as the need arises. Other parallels with "Star Wars" include the titanic space and high-atmosphere battles, the existence of a planet-destroying weapon, and Peter Quill's John Masefield-scale love affair with his precious starship (this film's answer to the Millennium Falcon).
The script is smart enough to let the characters play off each other. Half the fun of the movie is the adventure the characters are on, but the other half is the arc of the interaction among the characters themselves. Watching them go from enemies to friends to something like a family is delightful, and perhaps even a little touching. The actors themselves all seem to be having fun in their roles. Chris Pratt plays Star Lord with such a balance of faux-innocence, virile charm, and hidden nobility that you might just believe he's the lord of something or other. Bradley Cooper does yeoman's work voicing the universe's angriest raccoon. Vin Diesel essentially pulls an Andy Serkis, mo-capping and voicing Groot in a convincingly bulky, arboreal way. Zoe Saldana sparkles as a deadly assassin whose heart of ice proves capable of melting. Dave Bautista, as the hulking Drax, is a revelation for his deadpan comedic delivery. Bautista was apparently best known as an MMA combatant, but after watching him utter some truly over-the-top lines in hilariously stilted English, I'm convinced the man should try his hand at Shakespeare. Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro have interesting cameos—and before I forget, hats off to Michael Rooker for his uncharacteristically hilarious work as Yondu, the alien bandit who originally snatched Peter Quill from off Terra.
Ultimately, I thought "Guardians of the Galaxy" was just good fun. It delivered in about the manner that I had thought it would. There's action, there's a dash of romance, there's a truckload of adventure, and plenty of comedy, too. It's also got a message, I think—something about the power of friendship and love, emanating from as simple a gesture as holding someone's hand, or just being there for someone. Like its artistic forebears, "Star Wars" and "The Matrix," "Guardians" doesn't take itself seriously. What it does do is take you for an emotional roller-coaster ride. It's not anyone's idea of a particularly deep movie, but it'll make you feel. And you might just end up hooked on that feeling.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
I have a couple more movies on my to-see list. First is "Guardians of the Galaxy," which arrives in Korea tomorrow, July 31st. It's gotten generally positive reviews on Metacritic, substantiating my initial impression of the film as a fun, wild, inventive, witty ride that evokes "Star Wars" and "The Matrix" without taking itself seriously.
Second is a Korean historical drama called "Myeongnyang," which chronicles the exploits of one of the greatest naval commanders in human history, Admiral Yi Sun-shin. This movie stars rough-looking battleaxe Choi Min-shik in a role he was born to play. I have high expectations for this film, and I want to see it despite the fact that I won't understand most of the dialogue. It'll be enough just to bask in the action.
I'm an admirer of Admiral Yi's; I've read a brief biography of the man, and I esteem him alongside other naval greats like Admiral Nelson (revered for his costly Trafalgar victory). The Battle of Myeongnyang is famous because Admiral Yi had only thirteen ships at his command, and he defeated over three hundred Japanese naval vessels in the nautical equivalent of the Battle of Thermopylae. That's an impressive ass-kicking, and by all rights it ought to make for an impressive movie. I'm looking forward to seeing "Myeongnyang," which is already out.
"How to Train Your Dragon 2" is a film directed by Dean DeBlois and starring the voice talents of super-nasal Jay Baruchel as the Viking-nerd protagonist Hiccup, America Ferrera as Hiccup's tough main lady Astrid, Gerard Butler as Hiccup's father (and village chieftain) Stoick the Vast, and Craig Ferguson as Stoick's wisecracking friend—and Hiccup's mentor—Gobber the Belch. Also along for the ride in this sequel to the 2010 hit are Cate Blanchett as—I suppose it's not a spoiler if the preview trailer gives this away—Hiccup's long-lost mother, Valka; and Djimon Hounsou as the main villain, Drago Bludvist.
The sequel's story picks up five years after the events of the first movie: the village of Berk now lives in harmony with dragons, and dragon-riding has proved indispensable, especially for Hiccup, as a method for rapidly exploring and mapping out the surrounding world. As more land is charted, more dragon species are catalogued. Hiccup has been tapped by his father, Stoick, to become the next chieftain of Berk, a role that Hiccup is reluctant to assume, mainly because, as he confesses to Astrid, he doesn't yet know who he is. Hiccup and Astrid discover a group of people, dragon wranglers, who capture the beasts and bring them back to the mysterious and ominous Drago Bludvist, a man intent on raising a dragon army that will help him take over the world.
This sets up the basic conflict of worldviews in the film: Drago, who was mauled by a dragon years earlier, and who lost his family to the reptiles, browbeats his captured fire-breathers into submission and presses them into service whereas Hiccup befriends dragons and inspires their loyalty. It's the difference between demanding respect and commanding it. Hiccup also discovers that his mother has spent the last twenty years rescuing injured dragons and bringing them back to a special sanctuary created by a gargantuan, ice-breathing Alpha dragon, far vaster than the tribute-demanding beast that served as the "boss" monster in the first film. Forgiving Valka for having abandoned him when he was a baby, Hiccup begins to learn everything his mother can teach him about the secrets of dragons. Meanwhile, Drago Bludvist goes on the march, intent on destroying Berk and taking its dragons for himself.
As sequels go, "Dragon 2" succumbs at least partly to the temptation to rehash the first movie, but to do everything bigger and better. This is forgivable, however, because the plot of the second movie is substantially different and the new characters are interesting enough to overcome any repetitiveness. Hiccup and Astrid's romance isn't explored as deeply as I would have liked, but it's obvious they love each other, and that there's potential for this love to blossom and deepen in the third installment, which will be arriving soon enough. Comedy involving some of the minor characters provided some laugh-out-loud moments, especially when Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) gets the hots for super-muscular Eret (Kit Harington of "Game of Thrones" fame). The Korean audience I sat with laughed appreciatively at Ruffnut's amorous antics and at the goofy rivalry among Ruffnut's other suitors.
It's hard to see where the third movie can go in terms of spectacle. "Dragon 2" provides a larger-scale version of dragon-swarms than those seen in the first movie, and the enormous battle scenes, which rival Peter Jackson's steroid-freakish war choreography, will be hard to top next time around. The equally enormous Alpha dragons will be nearly impossible to surpass as well: a creature larger than an Alpha would exert its own gravitational pull.
If there's one thing for which I would reproach "Dragon 2," it would be for the introduction of a weapon that shamelessly evokes a lightsaber. The weapon doesn't actually get much use in the story, but every time it appears on screen, it commands the viewer's attention. I, for one, expected some flashes of lightsaber-ish derring-do, but was disappointed when no such stunts were forthcoming.
Still and all, "Dragon 2" was entertaining for its marvelous flight scenes, for the heartfelt way in which it treated the interaction among the reunited family members, for the originality of its plot, for the clarity and harmony of its themes, and for the movie's courage in sacrificing a main character or two in the service of the story. I'm not quite ready to say the sequel was better than the original, but at the very least it was a worthy successor. The movie also made plain that Gerard Butler and Djimon Hounsou have almost indistinguishable voices. The only way I could tell them apart was by Butler's Scottish accent.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
I walked 14,300 steps today—some of it done while shopping, some of it done while lumbering around my soon-to-be-former campus. Just weighed myself, too: 124.5 kilograms (274.52 lbs.), my lowest weight yet since my peak of about 302 pounds (136.96 kg). It doubtless helped that I hadn't eaten anything all day except for two or three heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter. No matter: there'll be time to eat tomorrow. The occasional starve is a good thing, at least according to the Paleo lunkheads.
Dr. John Pepple is a self-proclaimed "self-critical leftist." On his blog, I Want a New Left, Pepple frequently complains that self-criticality is missing on the Left, which seems to want to have its cake and eat it, too, and to apply a double standard to the people it opposes, letting itself off the hook for the very sins that it accuses the right of committing. Pepple's latest post discusses irredentism and revanchism. I had heard the first term but had forgotten what it meant, and I know the second term only because I know French: revanche is French for revenge (although it has other meanings as well).* In a post titled "Revanchism and the Postmodern Liberal Mind," Pepple calls certain leftists to the carpet for their loud silence when it comes to criticizing the obvious revanchism that is evident in Islamism:
Anyway, my main reason for mentioning this essay [by Carlin Roman, Chronicle of Higher Education] is how strange it is that it appears now rather than after 9/11. While Romano talks about how most scholars shy away from the topic of revanchism, those of us in the Resistance (see here) are well aware of it, because we have often heard it from the Islamists. For example, a few months after 9/11, Osama bin Laden gave a lengthy statement in which he claimed (among other things) that al-Andalus (i.e., Spain) really belonged to the Muslim world and not the West. Yet, this elicited no comments from anyone in academia, particularly the Collaborationist wing (again, here). So, Romano’s theme could be applied to himself: he himself shied away from discussing this example at the time, and he is now shying away from it in his current essay (which contains no mention specifically of Muslims, though it did mention a problem between Spain and Morocco without going into any details).
Hey, guys, why did it take you so long to get to this topic? Apparently, it’s ok to bring it up with respect to Putin, but it wasn’t with respect to Osama bin Laden and the Muslims. But why? It’s apparently because when it comes to Muslims, the left’s normal faculties suddenly get frozen down. Things they should have been talking about were instead talked about by people on the right, so that is where many of us who were disturbed by what was happening gravitated. Why bother with the left? They had nothing worthwhile to say.
Read the rest on your own.
*Irredentism is the hegemonic attitude taken by a corporate entity, like a country, that wishes to claim other parties or lands as its own because those parties or lands have, it is argued, always belonged to it culturally, historically, ethnically, etc. (See definition here.) Example: China's claim, after taking over Tibet, that Tibet has always been Chinese—a fine example of real imperialism. Revanchism is an attitude, also often hegemonic, founded upon revenge: we will take over your land to undo a past injustice—usually a military conquest (see here). A North American example of revanchism might be the belief, among many Mexicans, that there will be an eventual Reconquista (reconquering, reconquest) of United States territory as revenge for the taking of territory from Mexico.
Monday, July 28, 2014
I've got a few days to kill as I wait for my payment from the KMA gig. For my Korean bank account, I'm down to mon dernier sou, so I'm just eating whatever food I have at home, not going out to eat or shopping for yet more food. KMA is normally super-prompt about paying, so I'm not worried about whether my $490 will be on the way shortly.
Still, there are things I need to shop for, so I did that today. Primarily, what I need are cardboard shipping boxes for the taekbae service (referred to previously), packing tape, and a tape gun. I got the boxes and the tape, but forgot to get the tape gun while I was at E-Mart earlier today, so I'll be grabbing that this evening from a local store.
Now, it's just a matter of boxing things up. There's really no reason to delay sending this stuff off once I get paid; I ought to be sending my boxes north by about August 1st. Tonight, I'll start the boxing; there are plenty of things I can pack up right now.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Checked out of my yeogwan late—close to 1PM. I was dragging my feet, reluctant to leave Seoul, despite the financial drain of staying in this city without a proper place to call home or a steady income stream (you can live cheaply in Seoul, but it's harder to rein in the spending when you're a visitor, and my next payday isn't until August 15).
Finished some leftover work for KMA while waiting at a coffee shop for the proper time to leave: I had a 4:20 train out of town, which meant a few hours to kill. When I cabbed over to Seoul Station, I debated whether to grab lunch at the station's Burger King. An internal assessment of both my intestines and my finances warned me that that would be a bad idea, so I stayed away, having beaten the Burger King temptation for a second time; the first temptation had been the night before.
Speaking of the night before: while sitting in a noisy Tom and Tom's Cafe in Jongno (lots of bad US and Korean indie music on the speakers) Saturday night, I had a rare Skype conversation with my little brother Sean, who will be coming to Korea on August 11 as part of an Asia-hopping tour that will include Korea, China, and parts of Southeast Asia. He'll be coming to Korea with his friend Jeff, and they'll be staying at the Imperial Palace Hotel in Itaewon. Getting Sean to respond to emails and Kakao messages is like pulling teeth, so I enjoyed this opportunity to talk with him and Jeff (and their mutual lady friend Morgan, who gracefully popped into view for a Skype cameo). They both sound excited about coming to Korea, and I look forward to meeting them at Incheon International Airport. I get the impression that they want to do as much as possible during the few days that they'll be in Korea. I wish they could stay longer, but they leave for the next leg of their Asia tour on the 16th—probably to China, but I understand they'll be hitting Vietnam and Cambodia as well.
When I stumbled into my studio, I discovered my colleague's plant, for which I had made the clever drip-irrigation system, on the floor of the bathroom in a drunken stupor, looking as if it were reenacting a scene from "Trainspotting." I imagine it had tumbled off the windowsill because of a gust of wind. I righted the plant, replacing it in the window, and gave it some much-needed water. Perhaps it'll be less wilted by tomorrow evening.
Tonight, the plan is to go out and finish up my 10,000 (or more) steps, then to begin the several-day process of organizing my possessions for the Great Move North. As I mentioned before, I'll be moving into an empty apartment in my Third Ajumma's building in Karak-dong, southeast Seoul, and will be paying no rent for the place, although I hope to offer to pay for utilities and Internet service, the latter of which I absolutely can't do without. Wi-Fi-enabled cafes are nice, but it gets expensive when you have to order W3,000 hot chocolates every single time you want to access the Net.
As for the practical considerations involved in the move back north, I really don't have much with me in Korea in terms of mortal possessions: in that sense, I had planned ahead from the beginning, for I always knew my stay in Daegu would only be temporary; Daegu was only ever a stepping stone for my eventual return to Seoul.* Remember how I wrote that life should be about progress, about ratcheting upward? Well, things seem to be moving in that direction. My new job pays better and carries a bit more prestige, even though it offers no housing. Ultimately, I'll find extra work, build up a cash reserve, move out of Ajumma's place, and get a place of my own. But that's later. Right now, it's one step at a time.
For my move, my buddy Tom had suggested that I use a taekbae service to ferry my possessions up to Seoul. This is a moving/delivery system that's somewhere between an intra-city courier and a parcel-delivery company like DHL or FedEx or UPS. You see small taekbae trucks everywhere in South Korea. Tom says the service is cheap, and he's right: I just visited a taekbae site and did a fee calculation for delivering seven huge boxes up to Seoul, from my postal code to my Ajumma's. The price: only W70,000, which is ridiculously cheap for such a long-distance delivery. If I add the cost of a train ticket to move yours truly up to Seoul (with, say, a single piece of luggage in tow), that's another W40,000 if I take the KTX (or even cheaper if I take a bus north). The entire move could, in theory, cost me around W100,000, which would be less than the cost of two train trips. Two train trips would cost me W80,000 for the first round trip, plus about W40,000 for the second one-way trip out of Hayang and into Seoul. The difference between taekbae and two train trips comes out to about W10,000 or W20,000, which isn't much, but it's a huge difference in terms of the amount of physical effort I'd need to exert. I can call ahead for the taekbae service to deliver my boxes well in advance of my actual arrival in Seoul, and my boxes will be there, in my fifth-floor apartment, without my having to lug them up the stairs.
There's little left for me to do in Hayang/Daegu except to say a few goodbyes, pack up, and get the fuck outta Dodge. I'm ready for the next step in the journey.
*No, Joe Walther, I haven't forgotten that a pile of my stuff is still in storage with you.
Saturday, July 26, 2014
My phone is currently blocking me from seeing my own blog. This happens every few months, and it's a pain in the ass. Every few months, just randomly, my phone's browser's security system kicks in and prevents me from accessing my blog, replacing the blog with a screen that says the blog is being blocked for illegal material, as a measure to protect the mental well-being of children. As if I were hosting porn or something.
I'm at KMA right now, finishing up a lunch break. It's a class day today, and I was scheduled to teach from 10AM to 6PM. Yesterday, I had wanted to celebrate my hiring at Dongguk University by splurging on a couple boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, but last night, I figured I was too tired, physically and emotionally, to grab the doughnuts and make the long walk back to my yeogwan. So I simply trudged back to my room, turned on the blessed fan and air conditioner, peeled off my sweaty, sticky clothes, and collapsed on the bed.
Today, the high of yesterday's victory has faded somewhat, and I've got two students in class. They're good folks—a man and a woman, both coworkers who are also sales managers for a Korea-based international furniture company. They're also sharp: we're tearing through the course material (which I had designed) at a rapid rate. I hope we don't finish too early.
Anyway, lunch is over. Back to our muttons.
Friday, July 25, 2014
I got a call this morning from my contact at Dongguk—the pretty lady I'd referred to before.
Long story short: I'm in. Yes!
Alas, I'm not proud of how I got in: the lady told me, somewhat unnecessarily, the whole story of the behind-the-scenes politics that led to my hiring. She started off by saying that her office had already called the top three candidates from the interviews to accept them onto Dongguk's faculty. I wasn't one of them. As it turned out, though, one of those people in the top three declined Dongguk's invitation, so the hiring team defaulted to Person Number Four: yours truly. See why I'm not proud? I only barely made it in. I didn't actually make the final cut, but I got in thanks to a sort of technicality.
Pragmatists will of course say that I should simply be happy I got in, and that it doesn't matter how I got in. True enough. And I'll do my best to do the university proud.
So now I need to worry about the move back to Seoul. Third Ajumma has agreed to put me up for a month or two, free of charge, in my old fifth-floor apartment in the building that she co-owns with her husband, my mother's cousin. Since I've got a new job, I don't have to worry about cash-flow issues, which is also nice. My brother Sean is coming to Korea on August 11, so I'd like to be moved into Ajumma's building before then. That way, I'll be free to show Sean around the town, even if I won't have the means to take him all over the country.
Wow. So I made it. By the skin of my teeth. Yesterday, I felt as if I'd been stood up by my date. Today, I feel as if I've dodged a bullet.
So after moaning and groaning about not receiving any notification from Dongguk University regarding my interview, I discovered only just now, at 3-fucking-AM, that the uni had indeed sent me a reply not one hour after I had sent my email.
Here it is:
Thank you for coming for the interview yesterday. It was pleased to meet you.
The interview result has not been finalized yet. We will inform you the result tomorrow afternoon.
So there's still a wee chance. It's frustrating to find this out so late; my phone never flagged the email when it arrived: I discovered it only while randomly trolling the email archives just now. Christ.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
I visited my relatives in Karak-dong earlier today. It was a long haul; Karak-dong is in the southeastern part of Seoul, not too far from Jamshil (site of most of the 1988 Olympic events), the Olympic Park, Lotte World amusement park, and the Lotte Hotel and department store. My mother has four cousins, probably all in their 60s and 70s now, who are all married and have kids. So I have a ton of cousins, most of whom live in Korea, but at least one of whom lives in Germany—working for Porsche, as it turns out, and doing very well for himself. Privately, and never to her face, I refer to the ajumma I saw today as Third Ajumma (saejjae-ajumma), because she's the wife of the third-eldest sibling among Mom's four male cousins. I've always gotten along with her best, and she was happy to see me, even giving me an American-style hug when I walked up, sweaty as always, to her apartment. Third Ajumma and her husband are the landlords of their own apartment building, although Third Ajeossi leaves to work at an office away from the apartment now and again. What he does, exactly, has been a mystery to me over all these years, and I've never quite had the nerve to ask him what's up.
Third Ajumma and I talked about Mom; there had been no proper, lengthy conversation about Mom, the problem with Dad, or anything cancer-related since Mom's death in 2009, so a lot of time was spent over lunch just catching up. I talked bitterly about Dad's behavior on the first day that Mom was symptomatic—how he had initially refused to take her to the ER, and how that completely changed my attitude toward him over the course of Mom's consuming illness. I hit on some of the themes that had slipped out in my other blog's narrative—themes like how we show our true colors in a crisis. Third Ajumma cried at times, but this didn't stop her from serving me a hearty lunch of dakdori-tang and banchan. She told me about some conversations she'd had with my Korean aunt in Texas: Mom's big sister, my "imo." That, I must say, was revelatory in terms of the twisted nature of family politics. Apologies if I don't go into what I learned.
I also spoke with my cousin GY, whose brother JY is living in Germany and working for Porsche. GY is a professional singer; as a musician, he has much in common, lifestyle-wise, with my brother Sean. I give GY credit for not being modest as a private teacher: he charges $100-$150 an hour for singing lessons, and has at least ten hours of work per week, i.e., he's earning at least $1000 per week. He told me about a time when he earned over $10,000 in a two-month period; I confessed to him that it was my dream to earn that much.* He also has a small studio of his own, which he manages and pays minimal rent for; he invited me to come use it anytime, free of charge. I'm not sure why he still lives with his parents; he's got the means to live independently. Then again, in Korea, there's nothing like the stigma we have in America regarding being in your 30s and living with your folks. GY's still not married, so from the Korean parental perspective, he's still a kid in need of care and shelter. You don't truly become an adult man until you're married.
GY's studio offer was a nice gesture, although it's doubtful I'll ever find a reason to use that workspace. Third Ajumma also made generous offers of her own: her fifth-floor rooftop apartment (the oksang-cheung), where I stayed for several months in the 1990s, is empty once again, so I've been given leave to stay there for as long as it takes for my situation to stabilize. At least I have somewhere in Seoul to go, then, job or no job. If the latter, I'll at least be free to pile on the private work. That's something, even if it does feel as if I'm reliving my late 20s and early 30s.** But it's a hurtful thought: what have I done with my life? Life should be about ratcheting upward, about progressing, not about stagnation and retrogression.
All too soon, the visit was over. Third Ajumma had a physical-therapy appointment and GY had to go to his studio to meet a friend and do some teaching. GY drove me into downtown, letting me off at Apkujeong Station so I could take Line 3 the rest of the way back to my yeogwan's neighborhood. I was left with much to think about—how my cousins had grown up to become respectable, hardworking people (GY, like his brother, used to live and work in Germany); about how life sometimes moves in frustrating circles instead of moving forward in a linear manner; about the familial bonds of love and support that are, thankfully, in place for those times when we fall; about the sometimes-comical uncertainty of the future. The Hindus call it lila—the divine playfulness of the cosmos, which so rarely bows to our expectations.
*Not because I'm so base as to think that becoming rich is the summum bonum of existence, but because I'm faced with a tsunami of debt. I really have no interest in owning tons of material things or in wielding great power and influence; I simply want to live comfortably, without the Sword of Damocles constantly dangling over my head.
**My buddy Tom had suggested a similar strategy: hang in Korea, fill up on private work until the November/December hiring season, then try the universities again. Winter is the big time to hire because the Korean school year starts in March. I've normally started work in September, which means I've started mid-year, from the Korean academic perspective. In the US, by contrast, September is normally the beginning of the school year.
I've heard nothing at all from Dongguk University, which I take to mean failure. We had been told that we would hear something by today. It was vague as to whether this meant we would hear something only if we had succeeded, or if we had succeeded or not. I have little reason to assume that the university would be so neglectful as to fail to inform us if we had succeeded, so I can only assume that I'm not one of the lucky two to get a position. Silence is my answer.
And so we soldier on.
ADDENDUM: The feeling I have is similar to that of being stood up on a date. I went to visit some relatives and spent the day waiting for that phone call... and waiting... and waiting. Nothing. Not a peep. 5 o'clock came and went—close of business—and still no word. Maybe they're having an intense debate about whom to hire, I speculated hopefully, but my inner realist called bullshit on that. They would have had their debate yesterday, after having interviewed all eight of us. No: more likely, this was a typical, Korean-style, let-him-down-easy maneuver. In cases where a person is likely to be upset or disappointed, Koreans who know each other only formally will prefer to avoid conflict altogether. (Koreans are fine with conflict when it's with someone they know well and are comfortable with.)
The only reason I have to hold out any hope is this: the job ad specifically says, in broken English: "We will inform you whether or not you have being [sic] successful on July 24th, 2014." (Emphasis added.) So in principle, I should have gotten a call, one way or the other. In any case, I tried to shake things up by sending an email to my Dongguk contact, the nice lady I'd referred to in an earlier post. I sent the email at 5:08PM, so it was slightly after hours; she might not see it until tomorrow. Tomorrow, while I'm working at KMA, I expect to receive either a call or an email saying definitively that I haven't been hired. That's my feeling now. My ajumma, whom I'd visited earlier today, messaged me to say that I should wait a bit longer before drawing conclusions; a colleague just said the same via email. It could be that, if I didn't receive a call, neither did anyone else. My inner realist thinks that's a long shot, but philosophically speaking, it's not beyond the realm of possibility. So again, we'll see.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
In a word: brief.
The interview was brief. It took place at Dongguk University's Main Building, on the fifth floor. As per usual, there was no elevator up to that floor, so I was a sweaty mess from walking up. Luckily, I had arrived two hours early (took a taxi from the train station), so there was plenty of time for me to cool down and change out of my sweatpants and into my slacks, long-sleeve shirt, and tie.
The concierge on the ground floor was the one who took me up to the fifth floor. He used his key to put me in a very plush-looking waiting room, and he was kind enough to turn on the air conditioning for me. For a solid hour, I was alone on the fifth floor, just reading my material and waiting.
Two female assistants and a male assistant finally showed up and began to set up both the interview room and the gigantic conference room where we foreign teachers were actually supposed to wait (the concierge had put me in the wrong waiting room, it turned out). I moved over to the conference room, which was lavishly furnished: there was art on the walls; an enormous conference table in the shape of a rectangular "C" dominated the room; the chairs at the table were huge and surprisingly heavy. I sat and waited, and close to 2:30PM, other candidates started to trickle in.
I met several interesting people while we waited to be called in turn: the young, buttoned-down New Zealander from Dunedin; the friendly Komerican lady from Chicago; her cheerful, ponytailed coworker from Toronto; the quiet lady from Florida; and the distinguished older gentleman from California. They all struck me as good, smart, competent people; I'd guess we all have a roughly equal chance of getting a job. There were eight candidates in all, and Dongguk was advertising for two positions, so I'd say there's a 25% chance that I might be working at Dongguk come September. Not great odds, but not terrible, either.
The gent from Toronto went first. His interview took a full fifteen minutes. He came out and told us that the interview committee was nice and not the type to grill you. We had been asked, as part of the initial application, to write up a one-page lesson plan for academic writing; Mr. Toronto said he was never asked about his lesson plan. The lady from Chicago went next and also took about fifteen minutes; she and Mr. Toronto knew each other from a previous job, so when she came back out, she and Mr. Toronto exchanged phone numbers while I got called in for my interview.
As I said: brief. I don't think I was in there for even ten minutes. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? I'm not sure. There were several moments of raucous laughter, which I took as a good sign, even though the interviewers seemed to be laughing at their own jokes. The group was entirely men—perhaps three expats and four Koreans. The whole thing is something of a blur, but what follows is what I remember of the group's questions and my answers.
I was asked to confirm that I had been teaching at DCU; I said yes. I was asked about what kinds of courses I had been teaching; I talked about speaking, conversation, and pronunciation—the latter course having been designed by me. I was asked whether I had much experience teaching writing, so I talked about the work I had done two jobs ago, at YB, where I had taught so much writing.
Unlike Mr. Toronto, I was asked about my lesson plan—specifically, what I would teach after having taught brainstorming and outlining. I was asked what my students would say about me; I said they would say I'm strict but passionate and also humorous. I was asked about effective teaching strategies, so I talked about my round-robin method with my intermediates. This led to a question about what flaws I perceived in that method, so I spent some time going over a flaw or two. I was asked about effective ways to motivate students; I talked about the importance of humor, of being organized, and of teaching energetically, even as I acknowledged that not all my students were inspired to the same degree. I was asked whether I'd had any classroom-management issues; I replied that no discipline problem in Korea has ever compared to my two years' experience as a high-school teacher in America.
Finally, one Korean gentleman asked me whether I'd be willing to be videoed for video lectures that get marketed to the online community. I said yes without any hesitation; I'm theatrical by nature, so acting foolish in front of a camera is not a problem for me. After that, I was allowed to ask whatever questions I had, so I made some practical queries about work hours, vacation, and the possibility of teaching extra courses.
Within ten minutes, we were done. I was shocked at how quickly the time went by, and the fact that my interview ended so quickly makes me very paranoid about my chances. Well... There's nothing I can do at this point. I've auditioned, and I'll know tomorrow whether I've got the gig. Here's hoping I get a thumbs-up.
On my way out, one of the assistants, slim and cute, thanked me for coming. In Korean, I confessed to her my fears that a short interview didn't bode well. By way of reassurance, she countered that that wasn't necessarily true, and she added that she hoped to see me again soon. "Me, too," I replied. At least one woman at Dongguk University is rooting for me.
So. We'll see. If I don't get a call or email tomorrow, I can safely assume I didn't make the cut. If I were a betting man, I'd bet against me at this point. But hope springs eternal. Tomorrow, all will be revealed, Buddha willing.
On the train.
Off to Seoul.
Should be fun.
The interview at Dongguk University is at 2:30PM today. I arrive in Seoul at noon. Will cab over to Dongguk with plenty of time to cool down, change clothes, and do final mental/spiritual prep for the interview. At a guess, there'll be several candidates today, so I don't expect the process to take longer than thirty minutes.
Tomorrow I'll know my fate.
All the same, whether or not I get accepted at Dongguk, I'll be in Seoul until Sunday afternoon. Tonight I'll Skype with my brother Sean; tomorrow I'll visit relatives in Karak-dong; Friday I'll visit KMA to prep for Saturday's all-day class; Saturday I'll teach. A fairly full schedule.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
A colleague who lives in my building told me he'd be off with his fiancée for a while. He asked me to take care of his plant while he was away (I think he's gone until August 13). Since I myself have been traveling to Seoul (I was there last week and am going again, for a few days, as of tomorrow), this made it necessary for me to think of a way to keep the plant alive in my absence. The soil in which the plant sits is very loosely packed; water runs right out of it, which is nice insofar as the plant's roots will never drown in too much water, but which is inconvenient since the loose soil dries all too quickly. My colleague said the plant could afford to "starve" for a day or so; it's wilted before, according to him, and has bounced right back upon re-watering.
Last week, when I went to Seoul, I simply over-watered the plant and left the rest to God. That seemed to work fine, since I was in Seoul for only a few days. This time, however, I'll be in Seoul for the better part of a week, interviewing and teaching, and I doubt the plant can survive too long of a dry spell. So the practical question was and is: how can I make a watering system that will work in my absence? Such a system would have to drip the water very slowly into the plant's pot so as not to flood it. I went online and looked up "dripper for plants," which led to the correct term for such a device: a DYI drip-irrigation system. There are plenty of photos and videos for how to make a DYI-DIS; human cleverness is on full display. After some trial and error, I chose the design that seemed most sensible to me—not to mention simple in an Occam's Razor sort of way.
Behold (hover cursor over image for explanation):
The rate at which the water leaves the soda bottle is determined by how tightly you screw on the cap. Screw it on too tight, and no water will leave at all. Too loose, and you flood your plant. Finding just the right degree of tightness took some effort, but I finally found it, and the system seems to be working well. As long as the plant's soil remains moist while I'm gone, I think the plant will be in no danger of drying and dying.
The Internet is, I must say, an amazing resource for getting things done. It's like one gigantic how-to manual, and has certainly become, over the past couple decades, humanity's brain trust. I needed a DIY drip-irrigation system for my colleague's nine-pound weakling of a plant, and poof—there were the instructions on how to build one.
So it seems Dongguk University is going to be flexible about the documents issue. I managed to obtain the paperwork that DU wants, and will be bringing it to the interview tomorrow. It's not exactly what the uni asked for, but it'll work at least provisionally until the actual paperwork arrives and resolves everything. So I don't have to go into tomorrow's interview nervous that my papers aren't in order. This is in large part thanks to the friendly nature of the Dongguk-based lady I've been working with. She seems very accommodating.
On the Golden Goose front: I just got word that the company finally wants to see my résumé. My contact at GG tells me that there may be a way to push and get me into the company, despite Certain Uncontrollable Circumstances that aren't exactly militating in my favor. So in effect, I've still heard nothing absolutely definite, but this news is another step in the right direction. As much as I'd like to work at Dongguk, if I get an offer from GG first, I'm grabbing it: it's my lifeline to a much, much better financial future. If I were to jump to a salary of W5 million a month, things would instantly start to improve, financially speaking.
If you read French, you might be interested in this article from the online La Nouvelle République about my friend Dominique Docoulombier and his new bed-and-breakfast, La Demeure du Marais, which I referred to earlier. I've been friends with Dominique since we met as high schoolers in 1986—my first-ever trip to Europe. I stayed a month in France on the Nacel "exchange" program (Nacel actually does non-simultaneous exchanges: one kid gets hosted by a family one year, then the other kid is hosted by the first kid's family the following year) and became fast friends with Dom and his family. More than friends, really: I think of the Ducoulombiers as actual family.
Lowest weight ever: 125.2 kilograms (approx. 276.1 pounds).
Tonight's walk: 14,672 steps.
All right, that's not my lowest weight ever. When I was born, I was eight pounds exactly, and I doubt I'll ever get back down to that weight. After I came back from a year of living, studying, and hiking in Switzerland, I was in great fighting shape at 90 kg, almost unrecognizable to my mother, but I slowly regained weight during my senior year back in DC. No more trails to hike, no more awesome mountain vistas that inspired my legs to push me farther and farther. Nothing to impel me to make the effort to get out and about. I sat around our senior-year apartment playing Nintendo and watching videos.
Anyway, at my most bovine, I was slightly over 300 pounds, or 136.1 kg. I'm 11 kg down from that precipice, and still backing away from the edge. It's quite likely, at this point, that I have both hypertension and diabetes, so what I'm doing now is rather important. If or when I move back to Seoul, I want to get even more serious about exercise, and might even hit up my friend Sperwer for some strength-training tips. I have no designs on becoming a bodybuilder like Sperwer, but getting generally thinner, stronger, faster, and more flexible would be nice. This will mean a radical lifestyle change, which I'm not looking forward to, but I have to believe it'll be worth it. Otherwise what's the point, right?
Monday, July 21, 2014
Dongguk University called me back and invited me to interview, so I've made it that far along in the process. The interview is scheduled for this coming Wednesday, so I'll be heaving my ass back to Seoul on that day, arriving around noon and interviewing on campus at 2:30PM. Since I have to teach in Yeouido on Saturday, I've decided simply to stay in Seoul for the week, starting on Wednesday and coming back to Hayang on Sunday.
Unfortunately, Dongguk sprang a bombshell on me: there's more paperwork that I need to bring, physically, to the interview with me. I have some of it, but I don't have all of it. This is a potential problem, as the email I received today said, "No paperwork? Disqualified." So I'm in communication with Dongguk staff via email, trying to determine how flexible Dongguk can be on this point. I don't want to go all the way to Seoul just to end up disqualified because of a mere clerical issue. Here's hoping the university is flexible.
Tonight, I met two different travel companions. One was a new species of giant beetle—not quite a stag beetle and not quite a rhinoceros beetle. The horn on this thing is intriguing; if you know what type of beetle this is, write in and tell me. My other companion was, as mentioned previously, a huge earthworm. It was about a foot long—you'll see the foot/worm comparison below. I ended up throwing the worm into the soil to save it an arduous trip across the asphalt. The little bastard struggled in my hand while I was trying to carry it, flopping out several times because I was holding it loosely, not wanting to crush it in an overly strong grip. At one point, I was tempted to tie the thrashing worm into a square knot, but I decided not to. Some creatures are just too ignorant to know what's good for them.
The worm and my foot (size 11):
I've long wanted to take the following picture, which says so much about Korean culture:
The above is an ad—stenciled onto a wall like graffiti—for a fried-chicken place called Gyochon Chicken. It's not a bad joint, as chicken restos go, but leaving an ad this way—by stenciling it onto a wall like fucking graffiti—is so hilariously out of bounds that I had to get this shot. I can't imagine such marketing in America; if the stenciler ever got caught, his ass might very well be arrested or shot. In Korea, though, you don't need to care about other people's property, so stencil away! You also don't need to care that much about law enforcement, because... well, what law enforcement, right? It's a free country! In some ways, anyway.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
In America, when we measure anything rectangular—like, say, a bed—and wish to transmit the dimensions of that rectangular thing to someone else, we normally give two dimensions: a king-size bed that's 76 inches wide by 80 inches long (or, 76" x 80"), for example. In France, as it happens, that's not always the case, and I didn't know this until just yesterday, when I was working on translating some French website text to English for an old French buddy of mine. In France, when you talk about bed sizes, you give only one dimension: the width. Why? Because most adult human beings are roughly the same height, so why even talk about the length of the bed? It'll always be around two meters.
This buddy, Dominique (whom I've blogged about many times before—see here, for example, but his kids have grown up since then), has made a radical life-change, going from prole in a German company to co-owner, with his wife, of a bed-and-breakfast near the west coast of France, in a region near Nantes called le marais poitevin, which translates roughly to the Pictavian [or Poitevin] Marsh, i.e., a marsh located in the Poitou area (Poitiers is the capital city of Poitou, an old French province). The words marsh and swamp don't sound anywhere near as pleasant or appealing as le marais does (fen, more of a UK-English word than an American one, sounds admittedly classier), so I told Dom that I'd leave that untranslated to add some francophone cachet to the English-language section of his B&B website.
Here's a look at the website for Dom's bed-and-breakfast. It's still under construction—the website, that is, not the B&B—and it'll be a while before the English version of it makes an appearance, but some of us are working behind the scenes to make it all happen. Dom's parents, who are retired and who have sold their old house in Carquefou (itself something of a castle, and a place I've known well since I was a teen), have been helping him and his wife Véronique prepare the property, called La Demeure du Marais,* for visitors; in fact, they've already had several customers thanks to other forms of online advertising (see here).
There hasn't been much translation work for me to do, but discovering cultural differences like the one-dimension-versus-two-dimensions issue has been fun. I wish my buddy good luck with this entrepreneurial effort—undertaken in the midst of all the craziness that comes with having four growing kids, ranging in age from elementary school to college. It's a beautiful region and a gorgeous piece of property. I hope to visit one day.
*Literally, "the dwelling on the marsh" or "the swamp dwelling." The word demeure means dwelling or abode. By extension, it can also mean castle, i.e., a fortified dwelling. I suggested to Dominique that, if he wanted to render his place's name in English, he could go British and call it something like "Fendwelling" or "Fencastle," although that might be too fanciful and/or archaic and/or pretentious—not to mention the problem of a "fen dwelling" being associated with the abode of the monster Grendel in the epic Beowulf, and the problem that the word castle might evoke a literal castle in the minds of low-IQ tourists.
My barber, Ms. Eom (pronounce it somewhere between "Awm" and "Um"):
I went for my final session with the cheapest barber in town yesterday. She's quick; she does the same haircut for all the guys; she complains about the customers who can't speak Korean; she's got a raging southern accent that rakes across my ears and makes her extremely hard to understand. I'm proud if I catch even a third of what she's saying to me.
Most of the salons and barbershops in town charge around W10,000 for a standard cut; Ms. Eom charges W8,000. She had been recommended to me by a colleague who goes to her routinely, and I quickly became a believer. Despite her pushy-ajumma exterior, Ms. Eom is a nice lady; the past few sessions, she's complimented me on my perceived weight loss, which is awfully nice of her (it would be too much to expect Koreans not to call attention to my weight at all, so focused are they on externals). And she really is quick: I doubt I've ever spent more than ten minutes, tops, at her place. That's how all barbers should be.
I wanted to take her picture before leaving, just something to remember her by, but she refused. Instead, she said we could connect via KakaoTalk, and her Kakao profile would contain pictures. That's where the above image comes from.
So—goodbye, Barber-ella! It's been real. Not sure I'll ever come back to Hayang, but we'll always have KakaoTalk.
My brother David is married but has no kids. I think he's waging some sort of campaign to prevent me from becoming an uncle. As a result, he doesn't bore me with an endless avalanche of kid photos; all he's got is his faithful dog Penny, whom I blogged about before. Here's a particularly cute shot:
Penny is a mix of Border Collie and boxer. Apparently, she's gotten a bit aggressive as she's matured, so David advises his guests not to look her in the eyes for the first fifteen minutes of their visit, otherwise she might challenge the guest and possibly bite him or her. I wonder whether Penny remembers me and my smell; I haven't seen her since she was much smaller. I wonder if, failing to remember my smell, she might sense the fraternal connection between me and David. It didn't work for my brother Sean, who almost got bitten at one point. That's all been smoothed out now, according to David; Sean and Penny have had no more problems, not since adopting the "no eye-contact" strategy.
Penny is undeniably cute, and I personally never saw her act aggressively—except once, and at that moment, she was obviously being playful. Penny plays rough, according to David. Sean has brought his tiny chihuahua, Maqz, over a couple times, and I suspect Maqz is a bit afraid of Penny. Despite being much younger, Penny is about three times Maqz's size.
She strikes me as a "people" dog. I can imagine Penny howling along with the partiers during David's frequent barbecues. There was a BBQ during the World Cup; I heard that Penny behaved herself just fine. It's actually hard to imagine her being anything but nice and gentle and playful; I never really saw her acting otherwise.
I kinda' miss her.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
On my nightly campus walks, I often run across some interesting fellow travelers. Here's one:
I couldn't even begin to tell you what kind of beetle this is, but it's huge. It reminds me of the gas-farting, fire-breathing super-scarabs from "Starship Troopers." When I tapped on its shell a couple of times, it reared up in a very recognizable Wanna fight? posture. I left it alone. Here are some more shots of it—a front view, then my hand for scale (hover your cursor over the images to see the captions):
I've written about my travel companions before. If I get a chance to take a pic of the tailless cat, I will. I've also run across a few gargantuan earthworms, each almost a foot in length. I might not see those worms tonight: they normally hit the asphalt immediately after a rain, when the soil is too waterlogged for them to breathe. Then again, one or two adventurous annelids might be out there, squirming their way to parts unknown. We'll see.
ADDENDUM: Well, I decided not to take a walk tonight. I had already racked up nearly 5,000 steps earlier in the day (had to go get a haircut), so skipping out tonight won't hurt my overall average much. No cat or worm sightings to report, as a result.
I've watched the final episode of "24: Live Another Day," which finishes, like the finale of Season 5, on an open-ended note, with Jack being carted away by an enemy. There were some satisfying moments of violence and vengeance, some ridiculously implausible moments (involving bladed weapons), and some moments of genuine pathos and tragedy. William Devane, as an Alzheimer's-stricken President Heller, deserves special mention for his heartfelt performance; at times, he evoked the smarts, dignity, and integrity of President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), and through Devane's portrayal, the presidency became great again.
Jack finally lets himself be captured by the Russians at the end of the show, and the last scene gives us Jack in a helicopter, on his way from England to Moscow for what is sure to be a long, long session of torture. Will the Russians break Jack as the Chinese could not? The door is open for a tenth season of "24"; a lot can happen.
Thankfully, this truncated season featured not a peep from perennial annoyance Kim Bauer, Jack's daughter as played by the ever-luscious Elisha Cuthbert. Cuthbert is undeniably hot, and she can act, so the "annoyance" issue isn't really her fault: it's just the way her character was so often unnecessarily shoehorned into the plot (e.g., the much-mocked "mountain lion" scene). Kim's absence was welcome, and there's also this: her character is now a mother, which is an unpleasant reminder that Jack Bauer is a granddad.
The Brits come off looking terrible this season: incapable, untrustworthy, and always too late to do the right thing—not to mention conspicuously absent while the American CIA runs rampant throughout their sovereign land. I felt bad for Stephen Fry, a fantastic actor who played the mostly hapless and feckless Prime Minister Alastair Davies, a man always offering to help when no help can be given. "Our country owes you a great debt," says Davies to an American at several points throughout the series. I can only imagine actual Brits watching Season 9 and throwing food at their TVs. England, this season, was little more than America's fifty-first state—a mere backdrop for the business-as-usual action. Not that that action was uninteresting, mind you: it wasn't. But I came away feeling that Old Blighty had been underused, not to mention betrayed by the series's filmmakers.
Still, "24" was watchable as always, the de rigueur implausibilities and silliness notwithstanding. I'm sad to see it go, yet again, and can only hope the writers have enough brain-juice left to produce a decent tenth season.
Friday, July 18, 2014
As a teacher at Sookmyung Women's University, I used to brag on this blog about my high evaluations at the end of every semester. It was a bit rocky that very first semester in 2005, but I still managed a 90 average. It was rocky again in late 2006 or so, when our center director decided to go crazy with her twisted notion of content-based instruction; the students absolutely hated the courses we taught that semester, and they vented their frustration by giving us all fairly low (85-ish) ratings. But for the most part, my evals ranged from 95% to 99%—near-total satisfaction with my teaching. I loved my kids; my kids loved me, and I was the highest-rated foreign teacher in our department.*
Not so here at DCU. The teaching of required courses to largely unmotivated students has been a year-long uphill battle, and while I'm in no mood to divulge my actual eval scores, I can say with confidence that, in my time at DCU, my scores have been significantly lower than those from my storied past. I'm not the legend here that I was there.
What's interesting, though, is that the database in which my evals are recorded also has an extensive sampling of student comments, and except for the one class I hated (my Thursday 3PM class full of lazy kids; the feeling was mutual), almost all the comments I received were either praise or high praise. So at some point, I'm going to put those comments up on the blog, both good and bad, with my responses interpolated among them. Stand by for that.**
*There was a teacher who had consistently higher ratings: a plump, happy Korean woman who taught Chinese. But she taught Chinese by speaking mostly in Korean, which I think is why her students connected so well with her. Had she pushed her students to think and speak in Chinese, I doubt the warm-fuzzies would have been at quite that level.
**I got back to Hayang around 7:15PM this evening, and after resting at home for a bit, I headed over to the faculty office to check on my evals, which hadn't been available on Monday or on Tuesday—the days I had been told the evals would be available.
Sadly, I'll be leaving Seoul in two hours. I had a good time while I was here; this trip just fuels the desire to move back to the city I consider my second home. Happily, I'll be back here next weekend to teach an all-day class for KMA; that's extra income I can use.
I think I accomplished most of my agenda while here. I did my major errands on the first day I arrived, visiting Sookmyung Women's University, obtaining an employment-history voucher, and zipping over to Dongguk University to drop the voucher off and complete my application. That same evening, I sat down for dinner and a meaningful talk with another potential employer. Got positive vibes, but nothing definite. Here's hoping that Dongguk calls me back for an interview, and here's hoping I have the money to get back to Seoul a third time so I can knock 'em dead. I also got most of my KMA-related to-do list done; there's only one list item left, and I'll finish that over the next few days.
Life was entertaining, too, during my stay. I made the discovery of Gwangjang Market, which is quite a little palace of wonders, a midget version of the much larger, more freewheeling Namdaemun Market just up the street a ways. Got myself some much-needed deodorant as well as a large bag that will be useful when the time comes for me to move back up north. Saw my old buddy Tom, ate dinner with him twice, and laughed along with him as we watched a big, bearded white guy get accosted by police in Jongno for singing Bruno Mars covers while playing guitar. The busker, busted.
Enjoyed my yeogwan, too, with much thanks to a DCU colleague of mine who had recommended it. Sorry for the lack of pictures; you'll just have to imagine the place, which was light years better than the pube-riddled dive I'd been staying in previously. The new yeogwan was W5000/night more expensive, but the expense was worth it: the digs were cleaner, roomier, and better furnished. Every night's sleep was a good night's sleep. I couldn't have asked for more (except maybe for decent Wi-Fi).
And the people of Seoul! Friendlier. More open. My Korean was complimented by several taxi drivers, and some of the market ajummas greeted me with sunny smiles and said, "Come back again!" Seoul really felt like home. It's been good to be back, and it's sad to have to leave.
On my next visit, I might drop by and see my relatives, whom I haven't seen in years—not since before Mom's death. Such a visit might be a bit awkward, but it needs to be done, and it's about time I did it. They live in Karak-dong, in the southeast part of Seoul, not far from all the Olympic facilities in Jamshil and the huge Olympic Park. Much to do, much to see, much to relearn. As always, the future beckons.
For now, though... it's back to humble Hayang.
Thursday saw me going to KMA a second time to complete my list of tasks. By 3PM, I had done everything except for one list item, which I'll complete once I'm back in Hayang.
My dinner date had canceled on me, which was no big loss, so I hit Dos Tacos with my friend Tom and we gorged on a decent Tex-Mex dinner-- Tom with his shrimp burrito and yours truly with a Chipotle-style carne asada burrito bowl. I had wanted to visit Krispy Kreme to grab a pile of doughnuts to take back south with me, but Tom insisted on ice cream, so we visited the ball-shrinkingly pink interior of the local Baskin Robbins. I got a pint of chocolate mousse; Tom, white boy that he is, got a cherry/vanilla combo.
Before dinner, I explored Gwangjang Market, with which I had little familiarity despite having lived and worked for a year in the Jongno area back in the 1994-95 school year. It felt like a scaled-down, more orderly version of the gleeful capitalistic chaos that is Namdaemun Market, just a short taxi ride away. Still, Gwangjang Market has its charm, and enough nooks and crannies to keep the curious entertained for several hours. There's a little bit of everything there: clothes, food, flatware, and all manner of assorted knickknacks.
I bought one of my guilty pleasures while I was at the market: chocolate-covered sunflower seeds. I also found a lady who sold armpit deodorant, which is a true bitch to find in South Korea. Finally, I bought myself a large, cheap bag to act as a duffel when I do finally move back to Seoul.
I ended up being under 10,000 steps on Thursday, but I was pretty close to my goal at about 9,200 steps. As I mentioned before, you do a lot of walking in Seoul; it's an inevitable fact of existence here.
Friday afternoon, I go back "home," a term I use advisedly. Hayang and Daegu have never really felt like home the way Seoul had and still does. The moment I hit Seoul, I felt bien dans ma peau, as the French would say: comfortable in my skin. Talking and laughing with taxi drivers was easy again; there was no more struggling to understand that goddamn southern accent and its perpetually annoying, Japanese-style intonation. Navigating Seoul was easy, too, as I know the city well, despite the changes that have occurred in my absence. This is home. It's where I want to be.
With no Tom to sidetrack me on Friday afternoon, I might just swoop by Krispy Kreme and grab those coveted dog nuts.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
I thought I would be well under my pedometer's 10,000-step goal while in Seoul, but I'd forgotten how much walking a person has to do just to go from place to place, even with the aid of public transportation or cabs. Simply transferring from one subway to another involves at least a kilometer or two of walking, especially if you're transferring at a huge subway station like Jongno 3-ga.
So in spite of myself, I'm getting plenty of exercise merely by being in Seoul-- enough to keep my daily average over 10,000 steps. Crazy.
A very quick post to say I've been at KMA, in trendy Yeouido, since this morning. I've been given an entire auditorium in which to work quietly on some KMA-related tasks. I'll be leaving around 5PM and meeting my buddy Tom for dinner. Alas, the mystery-shopper thing fell through, so Tom and I will be going Dutch—probably at a chicken place near my yeogwan.
Yesterday was appropriately hectic, given my two major errands and my dinner appointment. I successfully retrieved the employment voucher from Sookmyung Women's University, then quickly cabbed over to Dongguk University's huge—and extremely hilly—campus and turned the document in, one day before applications would be due. In the evening, I met the director of R&D for the Golden Goose. He's keen to bring me aboard, and he's argued to his boss on my behalf, but for reasons of internal office politics that I hesitate to get into, my entry into his company is not a sure thing. We ate dinner in Itaewon, at a sports bar; he got a Reuben and I ordered a chicken schnitzel—my first-ever such dish. It was quite good. My dinner companion's Reuben looked meaty but a bit strange, as it had obviously been run through a panini press. Afterward, we went out for drinks; I'm a teetotaler, but my interlocutor is a San Miguel man. I sat fairly silently at the quiet bar we were in, listening to my companion hold forth in perfect Korean as he talked to both our friendly bartender and a gentleman who, it turned out, had defected years ago from North Korea. Interesting evening.
Then it was back to my nice, clean, roomy yeogwan for a decent night's sleep, followed by my trip to KMA today. Looking forward to this evening's dinner.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Armed with a kind suggestion from a colleague for a new, pubeless-yet-cheap yeogwan (inn), I'm off to Seoul in a couple hours. Gotta prep, go to the campus bank to wire cash to my US account, check my student evals of my courses (cringe), withdraw the cash I need for this trip (lots will be spent on taxi fare, I'm sure), and then lumber over to the train station for my 10:30AM ride to East Daegu Station, whereupon I'll take the KTX up to this peninsula's version of Trantor.
Once I'm in Seoul, I need to hit Sookmyung Women's University right away, grab a certificate of employment, physically ferry it over to Dongguk University to complete my application package, then hit Itaewon for dinner with the head of R&D at the Golden Goose. Sometime in the middle of all that hubbub, I have to install myself in the aforementioned yeogwan.
Second day in Seoul: work at KMA, eat a lovely dinner with my buddy Tom on the company tab, and arrange dinner with a lady friend the following night.
Third day in Seoul: I'd like to say that I'm going to be meeting up with a CEO that I had encountered on LinkedIn, but the chump isn't responding to my LinkedIn emails, so I don't think that's happening. I know he's active on LinkedIn because the number of his "connections" keeps rising, so he's probably just ignoring my emails. Bastard. This may end up being something of a free day, except for dinner with my lady friend. Maybe I'll hike up Namsan—something I haven't done in years.
Fourth day in Seoul: who knows? Nothing in particular has been scheduled, but I'll be leaving Seoul around 4PM on Friday. Back in humble Hayang by dinnertime.
The lowest weight I've been in years: 125 kilograms (275.6 pounds). Yes, I'm still enormous, but trust me: this is good news. My daily walk average is now over 10,000 steps; I expect that to drop while I'm in Seoul, but there's nothing for it.
I'm actually really looking forward to being in Seoul tomorrow. I've got two free dinners coming my way, plus a third dinner with a lady friend of mine. Ought to be fun.
Monday, July 14, 2014
I had meant to include this thought in my recent review of the two latest "Planet of the Apes" movies, but I decided, instead, to note it here: in the theater where I watched "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," there was Korean subtitling for the English dialogue, and subtitling for the apes' sign language as well... but no English subtitles for the signage. That was inconvenient, although—if I'm to be positive—it forced me to rely on my shaky Korean-reading ability to follow what the apes were saying silently to each other. I think I caught most of that dialogue, especially when the apes "spoke" in short sentences, but occasionally they would sign in long, drawn-out utterances that translated to two or three lines of subtitling. These subtitles would flash on and off the screen very quickly, and since I'm not at a whole-language state in my Korean-reading ability, I had to cheat to figure out the meaning. In Korean, this often means scanning the end of the sentence first, because that's often where the most important semantic elements of the sentence are. So all in all, I got the gist of the apes' communication.
If you're an expat reading this, you might not have this problem; different versions of the movie are doubtless out there on the peninsula—some dubbed in Korean, some with Korean and English subtitling, some with Korean-only subtitling. Good luck.
It's also interesting to note that the Korean title for "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" makes absolutely no mention of apes.* The Korean title is "혹성탈출: 반격의 서막"—Hokseong Talchul: Ban-gyeogae Seomak—literally, "Escape from the Planet: Prelude to [the] Counterattack," which makes no damn sense, since unlike the 2001 Tim Burton reboot of the "Apes" franchise, there's no planet-escaping space travel in these two movies at all.
*In Korean, the word for "monkey" is weonsungi (원숭이); the word for "ape" is yu-in weon (유인원), the in (人) character indicating the apes' closer proximity to humans, as 人 means "person." Generally speaking, apes, unlike monkeys, have no tails.
Last night, I met a cat and a stag beetle during my campus walk. The cat—which, like many feral cats in Korea, was tailless—seemed unafraid of yours truly; I met it while it was chasing another cat away from its territory. The two cats had come racing toward me out of the night; I hissed and made a threatening foot-stomping gesture toward the lead cat, who dodged out of my way and kept running into the woods.
The second cat, "my" cat, stopped at the sound of my threat but didn't exactly run away. Instead, it walked away from me, and when I threatened it further with more noise, it merely maintained its distance in front of me, just out of reach. It occurred to me that this might be a "people" cat, and sure enough, when I slowed my pace, the cat slowed its pace, too, and eventually flopped down on a handicap-access ramp to begin grooming itself.
I approached the cat at that point; it paused to look at me, but didn't run away as I talked to it in a mixture of English and Korean. I stood on the other side of the guardrail for the ramp and put my hand through the rail's vertical supports to scratch the cat between the ears. The cat seemed almost to be inviting me to scratch it; it kept on grooming itself without a single sign of skittishness. Eventually, I got my fingertips to brush the cat's tiny skull, then I scratched it in earnest. Once the cat felt the rhythm of my scratching, it stopped grooming itself, stretched out its neck, and openly offered me its head to scratch, much like a typical house cat.
I scratched and talked for a few seconds but, worried that I was losing precious time (I try to get my steps in before midnight, because at midnight my pedometer resets to zero), I broke off and began to walk away. Instead of resuming its self-grooming, the cat watched me leave. About twenty yards from the cat, I turned around and paused to stare at it in salute; it stared back. I turned away again and left. If I see that cat again tonight, we'll have already established the tentative beginnings of a friendship.
Barely fifty yards later, I paused in my tracks again as a large shadow on the asphalt resolved itself into the shape of a mighty stag beetle, perhaps three inches long, heaving its way from nowhere to somewhere. The stag's jaws were huge and threatening; I was tempted to crush the beetle underfoot, the way I do with cockroaches and the occasional cicada, but something held me back, and I simply watched the beetle's progress for a while.
After meeting my two travel companions, it was time to get back to walking. I had started early, and had done a good bit of walking earlier in the day, so by the time I finished, I had 13,400 steps under my belt for that 24-hour period. My monthly average is very close to 10,000 daily steps now. Since I'm going to Seoul for the next few days, it's unlikely I'll be able to maintain that average, which is one reason why I'm overdoing it now. I'd like to be close to 10,000 by the end of July. That would be a huge improvement over June.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
I'm pretty sure that both of these movies, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," are message films. They're didactic: they teach us something. What that something is is not immediately clear to me; more likely, it's not one moral lesson so much as several. Both films are a critique of human nature; even the apes in the second movie come to the realization that they're not so different from their human rivals. But more on moral lessons later. Let's talk genre.
It's devilishly hard to figure out what genre these films belong to. Primarily, the "Apes" movies are science fiction. But then there's the matter of sub-genre. Mutagens leading to enhanced abilities? That's "X-Men" territory. A human-ravaging virus that also creates a ravening horde? That's zombie-apocalypse territory. Scientific arrogance leading to uncontrollable consequences? That's "Jurassic Park"—or, no: that's everything territory.
A few aspects of the films to admire: the special effects for the apes, while not perfect (you're easily aware when an ape isn't acting like an ape in a zoo), are nevertheless fantastic, right down to every simian's facial wrinkle and fur (or with apes, is it body hair?). The transformation of the Earth into a post-apocalyptic wasteland is well done, especially in the second film. The acting by all the principals, both human and mo-cap ape, is spot-on, with special praise going to Andy Serkis as the alpha ape Caesar, whose view of humans is tinged with compassion and understanding because he was raised by a kind pair of people. The cinematography and sound editing, together, are also gorgeous: they quite convincingly evoke the redwood forest that becomes the apes' home.
One thing to deplore: the filmmakers pulled their punches in their depiction of simian brutality. I suppose a truer portrayal of how violent, say, a chimpanzee can be would have undermined the story the creators were trying to tell, but in both movies, ape fighting seems to consist mostly of kicks and roundhouse punches—primitive taekwondo with Captain Kirk's two-fisted "hammer" move thrown in. In truth, a simple, unassuming chimpanzee can be horrifyingly violent: chimps are extremely fast, frighteningly strong, and when provoked, mercilessly vicious. Read the story of Travis the chimpanzee, who attacked a female visitor in 2009, chewing off her hands and her face, detaching her jaw, and damaging her brain. Emergency workers saw what Travis had done, and some of them had to undergo counseling, so nightmarish were the wounds he'd inflicted. (Travis was gunned down by police, much like Bright Eyes in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes.")
Nothing close to that sort of violence appears in either of the "Apes" films; I suspect a vérité approach would have contradicted the noble-savage mythology that the movies are attempting to promote. In that sense, both films share something of James Cameron's "humans are evil" sensibility as seen in films like "Aliens" and "Avatar." Although, by the end of the second movie, Caesar acknowledges that apes were the first to attack humans, the filmmakers make clear that humans, by inadvertently gifting the apes with sentience and speech through their mutagen, then by mistreating the newly enhanced primates, put the apes in that terrible position. This is karma writ large.
So we return to the question of what the moral or morals of these films are. The first film focuses on the attempt to create an anti-Alzheimer's drug that will allow the brain to repair itself. The chemical is first delivered through an engineered virus, but human antibodies resist the beneficial effects, as Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) discovers when he secretly tests the drug on his Alzheimer's-stricken father (John Lithgow, who knows his way around big hominids after "Harry and the Hendersons"). Rodman reengineers the virus, making it more aggressive so as to penetrate the human immune system, but he doesn't foresee the cost: the virus is not harmful when tested on apes, but it kills its human hosts. By the end of the first film, an animated sequence shows us how the virus, now a pandemic, spreads inexorably along airline routes, infecting almost the entire world.
The whole first film screams hubris; that message, at least, isn't subtle or unclear. The second film, which picks up the story at that same animated sequence, deals more with moral issues that arise from sociology: apes and humans have segregated themselves into tribes, and almost equal time is spent watching the apes and the humans interacting amongst themselves. We see the politics, the pettiness, the vanity; we see schisms brought about by differing visions of the Other. In fact, a postmodernist academic might jump on the issue of "othering" as it's portrayed in these movies. Ape/human speciesism can be seen as a metaphor for racism. Along with these themes is a not-well-hidden anti-gun agenda.
So what should we learn from these films, both of which seem keen to teach us something? That we should be kinder to animals? That we should put aside our guns? That we should put aside our fear of the Other? That peace is preferable to war? That science needs ethical constraints to avoid global disaster? That super-apes can be reasoned with, but zombies can't? That an alpha-ape on a horse, wielding two machine guns, is too cool for words, even though the ape is mowing down humans? Whom do we cheer for?
Actually, that last question is by far the most interesting one for me. The movie is at its best when it presents a balanced view of the nobler and less noble members of each rival species. "There's enough blame to go around," the movie seems to be saying, "and it's up to you to figure out where you stand." The second movie ends on an ominous note, paving the way for an inevitable sequel: all-out war is coming, and not just in the remains of San Francisco. Conflict is on the horizon, but blessed are the peacemakers.
Both "Apes" movies are suspenseful without being scary. Both are heavily didactic, but also disappointing in their unrealistic treatment of simian violence: despite all the flying bullets and slashing fangs, there's very little actual blood and gore. Still, the films are watchable and entertaining, and they make you think. They're a worthy successor to Heston's old films, thoughtful in a Christopher Nolan sort of way, and standing in contrast to Tim Burton's maladroit attempt at a reboot. I should also note that the two movies, although helmed by different directors, flow easily, one into the other. The stories are almost seamless, so if you've seen the first film, you're well prepared for the second. Go watch. Go enjoy. Then go ape.
It's halftime for the match to determine third place at the World Cup. Brazil is playing against the Netherlands, and at the half, it's 2-0 for the Dutch. Brazil seems to have lost all of its fighting spirit; it's a dying man on an anthill, being slowly eaten alive. Good thing I'm not actually watching the game; I'd be too depressed. Unless Brazil rallies in the second half, I expect a Netherlands victory after I wake up.
Yup—going to sleep now. At 6AM. Up at the crack of noon, folks, just like Tenacious D.
UPDATE: Brazil loses 3-0. The horror. The horror.
Your 420 for the day—a sheer coincidence made of light and shadow, sure to please all my pothead readers:
I saw the above phantasm of Mary Jane on a brick sidewalk while I was doing my 10000-step campus walk this evening (it ended up being over 12000 steps, thank you very much). It almost made me want to sing "O Canada" in honor of our laid-back neighbors to the north, who always end up on the Korean news for growing their national leaf in their apartments (not to fear: many Yanks in Korea engage in the same stupidity; I suspect they either secretly harbor Canada-envy or secretly desire a hobbit-style hit of Old Toby).
Smoke 'em if you got 'em.
Saturday, July 12, 2014
I'll be in Seoul this coming July 15 to 18, leaving for Hayang again on the afternoon of the 18th. I'm currently feeling a great deal of pain because I had to turn down a massively lucrative work opportunity: a three-month, 9-to-5 stint in Luxembourg at the Doosan Corporation, earning an incredible W8 million/month translating documents from Korean into French. Alas, my Korean's not nearly good enough for such work, even though my French is. So I had to turn the job down. (Thanks, anyway, John Mac.)
On the very day I arrive in Seoul, the 15th, I have to sprint over to Sookmyung Women's University, my old employer, to grab another jaejik-jeungmyeong-seo, i.e., an official employment voucher—proof that I worked at Job X during Period Y. Dongguk University, to which I'm applying for work, is giving me a hard time: first, I'm not allowed to just email my documents to their office: I have to print out and snail-mail everything; second, Dongguk wants a voucher from every university I've worked at. I can't fathom why; Sookmyung was six years ago. Be that as it may, I do appreciate the fact that Dongguk was professional enough to call me and tell me that they still needed the extra voucher to complete my application package. An unprofessional racket like Sungkyunkwan University would have left me hanging out to dry instead of bothering to contact me.
On the 16th and 17th, I'll be in Yeouido, at KMA, working on some tasks, partly in preparation for my return to Seoul the following week to teach a Saturday class at KMA. I'm also hoping to get together with a CEO that I had "met" on LinkedIn, but this CEO isn't answering my emails, so that might fall through.
My buddy Tom says he's currently acting as a "mystery shopper," one who visits various high-end restaurants, and he's invited me to join him for an expensive dinner paid for by the company tab. "We only have a W250,000 budget," he said wryly. Hey, I'm all for buying a $125 dinner somewhere. Why the hell not?
The following week, as mentioned, I'm back in Seoul to teach at KMA and earn a little coin. KMA is great about paying promptly; that income, plus the income-tax refund I'll soon be receiving from the Commonwealth of Virginia, will be a small boost as I transition from Hayang back to Seoul.
In between these two trips to Seoul, I have to visit the Daegu Immigration Office to request extensions on my visa and my alien-registration card. This is particularly uncomfortable because I still don't know, yet, what my immediate future holds: will I be teaching at Dongguk University? Will I be teaching at Catholic University Seoul? Will I be with the Golden Goose? It's a bit frustrating to be where I am right now, not knowing what's coming next. It's even more frustrating to know that, despite my being an educated guy, my credentials are no longer exactly what the Korean language-education job market is looking for. These days, the requirements are pretty specific: a CELTA certificate and/or an MA TESOL—or a doctorate in applied linguistics. (Of course, if you have a doctorate from a foreign university, why on Earth would you work in Korea?)
No matter... I'll take each day as it comes. Right now, I've got to go do a 10000-step walk.
I weigh myself before my evening walk: 127.9 kilograms. Not good.
I walk 12,000 steps and take a massive dump while I'm on campus. Sweat, walk, sweat, walk.
12,000 steps and one poop later, I stumble home and weigh myself.
126 kilograms exactly.
Yeah, baby. Suck on that.
Friday, July 11, 2014
A colleague of mine pointed me to a YouTube video of an entrepreneur named Chris Lonsdale, who gave a very exciting TEDx talk that dealt, in part, with his experience learning Chinese, but more significantly with his claim that any adult can learn a foreign language to fluency within six months. That's a bold claim, and a suspicious one. I immediately smelled hucksterism. Lonsdale is an entrepreneur, after all, not a teacher: his primary goal is to sell products and make money, not to disseminate proper knowledge and technique.
Still, I didn't want to commit the genetic fallacy by dismissing Lonsdale before hearing him out. So I watched the video. While Lonsdale makes certain claims about language learning that I would consider legitimate, I couldn't help noting that certain crucial elements were missing from his talk, and that he also contradicted himself at least twice during the TEDx spiel. Let's first review what Lonsdale has to say, then I'll move into my critique of his sales pitch.
Because this is a TED talk, Lonsdale's speech is under twenty minutes in length (in fact, it clocks in at around eighteen minutes). I have to give the man credit for keeping his talk very clear and organized; if nothing else, Chris Lonsdale is an excellent motivational speaker. He begins his talk by identifying and refining a problem. At first, the question he claims to have asked himself was, "How can you speed up learning?" As he dealt more specifically with the problem of language learning and acquisition, the question eventually became, "How can you help normal adults learn a new language quickly, easily, and effectively?" This is the question Lonsdale tackles for the rest of his presentation.
The answer to Lonsdale's question is, according to him, threefold:
• look for people who can do it (i.e., who can speak the language)
• look for situations where it’s working (i.e., where language learning is effective)
• identify and apply those effective learning principles ("modeling")
Lonsdale goes on to highlight five principles, seven actions, and two myths. He begins with the myths.
Myth #1. You need talent to learn a foreign language (quickly).
Lonsdale thinks anyone, from any station in life, can learn a foreign language quickly. Effort, motivation, and focus matter much more than talent.
Myth #2. Immersion is necessary for learning.
Lonsdale cracks, "A drowning man can't learn to swim." Simply being immersed in a sea of information is no guarantee that learning will take place.
From there, Lonsdale moves on to the five principles of language learning:
1. Attention, meaning, relevance, and memory.
We focus on whatever aids our survival. Whatever aids our survival is relevant, so that's the language we need to learn first, and which we do learn first.
2. Use language as a tool to communicate from Day One.
Hit the ground running.
3. When you first understand the message, you acquire language unconsciously.
Lonsdale here relies primarily on Stephen Krashen's "input hypothesis," which postulates that language learning happens best when input—what we hear, what we read—is comprehensible. This brings us back, I think, to the "drowning man" image that Lonsdale had used earlier on: a sea of incomprehensible input is no aid to learning. Without something to grasp, no progress can be made.
4. Learning a language is physiological training.
There's muscle memory involved in learning a language; so much of this process is physical, not mental, which is why Lonsdale downplays intellectual tasks like memorization of vocabulary in favor of just practicing, practicing, and practicing more. We have natural filters in our heads that screen out unfamiliar sounds; getting rid of those filters is part of the learning process, and practicing new sounds and speech patterns takes physical effort. "If your face hurts, you're doing it right," says Lonsdale.
5. Your psychological state is important.
Here, Lonsdale focuses on the need to tolerate ambiguity. A person who always needs to know what every little phoneme and morpheme means will "go nuts" and undermine his own progress in learning a language. Communication can, believe it or not, proceed in a "fuzzy" cognitive state, one in which not all the linguistic elements are known. Go ahead and make assumptions while practicing your second language. Misunderstandings might occur, but they can be corrected in the course of a conversation. Throw away your perfectionism.
There are seven ways to enact the above five principles:
1. "Brain soaking": listen attentively by putting yourself in a situation where you hear "tons and tons and tons" of the target language.
2. Get the meaning first, before the words: this is possible, contends Lonsdale, by watching the non-verbal cues of your interlocutor—things like body language and tone of voice.
3. Start mixing: if you know ten nouns, ten verbs, and ten adjectives, then 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000 different combinations, a thousand different possible utterances. That's already a great start, and it's the road to creative output.
4. Focus on the core. There's a core set of important, high-frequency vocabulary that you need to learn, as well as a "toolbox" of expressions, like "What is this?" "How do you say [X]?" "I don't understand..." If you know 3000 vocabulary words, you've got a handle on 98% of all everyday discourse in the target language.
5. Get a "language parent." This person will serve as a sort of guide who provides the learner with a safe environment in which to practice and make mistakes. A language parent works hard to understand you, never corrects you, provides feedback, and uses words you know.
6. Copy the face: pay special attention to facial muscles in order better to understand how to make proper utterances.
7. "Direct connect": this means not relying on translation. You don't want your first language to be the medium through which the second language passes; instead, you want the second language to connect directly to your brain. Most words come down to wordless images and concepts, according to Lonsdale; one of his PowerPoint slides shows a person with a mental image of "fire," plus the English word "fire" connected to that image, and the Chinese word for "fire" (火) also connected to the fire-image, not to the English.
That's Lonsdale's spiel in a nutshell. But does it add up to anything?
I generally agree with one online critic of Lonsdale who feels there's nothing wrong, in particular, with any one of the principles and actions that Lonsdale suggests, but that the parts don't add up to the whole that Lonsdale is trying to convince us of: learning a language to fluency within six months. (For his part, Lonsdale claims he took six months to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese, but that native-level fluency took a little longer.)
My problem is that Lonsdale undermines his own trustworthiness, and reveals his hucksterish nature, by not offering us a self-consistent vision of language learning. He contradicts himself, at least twice, and he also leaves much unexplained.
First contradiction: Lonsdale rejects immersion as a learning strategy because "a drowning man can't learn to swim." But later in his talk, he advocates placing oneself in an immersive environment to absorb the target language—an act he calls "brain soaking." Lonsdale's advocacy of brain soaking is essentially for the same reasons that immersion proponents insist on immersion: throw enough language at someone, and eventually (unless the person is congenitally stupid) some of it will stick. So much for the metaphorical drowning man: there isn't any real "drowning" occurring in an immersive linguistic environment.
Second contradiction: Lonsdale rejects building up vocabulary through focused vocabulary drills, claiming that language learning is more about "physiological training" than about memorization. But again, later in his talk, he goes back to vocabulary in his Action #4, which is "focus on the core," i.e., memorize a core list of vocabulary that can be used as building blocks to constructing creative utterances (10 nouns x 10 verbs x 10 adjectives = 1000 things you can say!). So memorization does play a crucial role in Lonsdale's paradigm.
The notion that elements of language can serve as exchangeable building blocks also harks back to 1960s-era audiolingualism, a language-teaching approach that held that language is basically habit-formation (repeat, repeat, repeat), and that the elements of language are like the parts of a car: switch one element out for another, as long as it's context-appropriate. While audiolingual teaching methods do still find their way into the modern classroom, most teachers, these days, see the method as a quaint holdover from a bygone era. Audiolingualism failed to appreciate the creative, unpredictable nature of natural, free-flowing conversation, sacrificing that naturalness and creativity at the altar of habit and structure.
At one point in his lecture, Lonsdale quickly flashes us a graph that purportedly shows the difference in performance between people who have learned language through more grammar-explicit methods and people who have learned via a more comprehensible-input approach. My trouble with the graph is that, since Lonsdale makes no effort to explain its specifics, it is effectively meaningless to me. And as the aforementioned online critic pointed out, it could well be that the graph is showing us a false comparison: "comprehensible input" is not an actual teaching method, after all, and there is a wide spectrum of pedagogical approaches that make the learning of grammar explicit.
It also would have helped if Lonsdale had shown some concrete examples of his "method" in action, and if he had provided some hard performance data (perhaps in the form of before/after videos) of people who went from zero to fluent within six months. At the very least, I'd have liked to have seen video of Lonsdale speaking at length in his supposedly native-fluent, accent-free Chinese. In all, I don't know whether his Chinese is accent-free, but Lonsdale's spiel is remarkably evidence-free.
I agree that some of Lonsdale's advice is valid, but only the advice that he borrowed or stole from language experts. Aside from that, I think his method is pretty much a gimmick and a sham, and will work only for those who are especially gifted at learning languages. His approach is not aimed at the fat part of the bell curve; it's aimed at the narrow part—at the talented elite, much the way fad diets are aimed. Lonsdale claims that talent need not be a factor in learning a language, but little about his method actually supports this contention.
Lastly, I'll note that, when Lonsdale refers to a "language parent" who somehow never corrects errors yet always provides feedback, he's referring to a mythical beast. No such chimera exists: the provision of feedback will inevitably involve explicit error correction. There are movements in language teaching that advise against ever correcting student errors, but I think these movements are sadly mistaken. Students who aren't made conscious of their errors will form bad speech habits that calcify over the years as the errors are endlessly repeated; I've seen this time and again among Korean students, who have had years to learn how to drop articles, fumble verb tenses, and even mistake "he" for "she." A typical "oral-proficiency" approach forgoes error correction in the name of "fluency," itself a vague, ill-defined notion. Learning correct speech means slowing down and going old-school, but the end result is a student who is far more competent in the language than one who has graduated from the oral-proficiency school. (See my post on my teaching philosophy for more.) True proficiency in all four macroskills takes much more than six months, and native-level fluency may take a lifetime.