Monday, March 31, 2014

the Butt Goat has arrived

The Korean way to say "cherry blossoms" (벚꽃, beot-ggot) sounds suspiciously like "butt goat." Some Korean words sound amazingly beautiful to me; butt goat is not one of them. Nevertheless, butt goat season has arrived, as this shot from a few minutes ago, on DCU campus, demonstrates.

Ugly name or not, a butt goat by any other name would have just as fragrant an ass.


something to say soon

So I saw "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" on Sunday afternoon. Watchable film, if a little long and a little too bombastic toward the end. I'll be writing a review of it, and of the first Cap film ("Captain America, the First Avenger"), very soon. Stay tuned.

Oh, yes: I also need to review "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," which I also rented a couple weeks ago.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

feels like home

I saw something in the first-floor restroom of our office building the other day, and the sight of it transported me back to America, where such things are common. I don't recall ever seeing anything like this in a Korean restroom before:

Yes, boys and girls: it's the Toilet Paper Wad. Were it smaller, I'd call it a "spitwad," but as you see, this thing is huge, and obviously not the result of a kid's chewing. The sheer size of the wad was mesmerizing; it hinted at a heart filled with extravagance and chutzpah.

American students, when bored, are prone to bouts of aesthetic mischief. If they're not flinging sharpened pencils into the soft material of a restroom's drop ceiling, they're soaking wads of toilet paper and throwing them upward to see whether they'll stick. The above clump looks, to my professional eye, like a major success. And as I said, it made me feel right at home.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

the age of feminist messianism

Young-adult fiction, also known as "YA fiction," seems to follow a reliable formula. Especially in recent years, the formula seems to be this:

(1) Be a female author who
(2) writes about a girl
(3) with one or more boyfriends
(4) who lives in a dystopia and
(5) overturns the system.

Themes of female empowerment are important in these stories, whether we're talking about Bella in the Twilight tetralogy, or Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, or Tris in the Divergent stories. What makes the protagonists messianic, though, is their social role as agents of radical upheaval. The Jewish notion of the mashiach wasn't as cosmicized as the Christian messianic vision: the mashiach was the bringer of a new terrestrial political order, a "new earth" governed by a temporal authority, albeit supported (and perhaps impelled into existence) by the divine. The messiah was the agent of revolution, herald of a new age. The women in these new, fem-centric stories cleave more closely to the Jewish paradigm than to the Christian one: they're unrepentantly earthbound, mortal, and human.

Today's popular YA novels all seem to follow this same feminist-messianic pattern. As statements of empowerment go, such stories take women about as far as it's possible to take them: what could conceivably lie beyond messianism, unless it's actual apotheosis? What I find interesting, though, is that this current wave follows hard on the heels of the fantasy/adventure wave introduced by JK Rowling and her Harry Potter heptalogy. In that previous wave, we had the Artemis Fowl books, the Percy Jackson adventures, and the Eragon stories. Such books were about cleverness, grit, loyalty, and purpose. The new wave is about finding transcendence through the combating of misery and oppression, the destruction of the old order, and the establishment of something better.

What might have prompted this sea change in YA themes, this feminization? Rowling's adventures were muscular, focused on outright war, and her three protagonists, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, all embodied traditionally masculine virtues, as mentioned above: courage, loyalty, and purpose—but also nobility, excellence, and self-sacrifice. The Artemis Fowl and Percy Jackson novels were boy-centered as well, and they were just as focused on masculine virtues (the very word virtue contains the Latin word for "man," implying manly qualities). The new wave of feminist messianism could be seen as a response to, or even a refutation of, the previous wave: more feminine virtues like insight and compassion come into play in The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent sagas. Katniss Everdeen, for example, may strike readers as a hardened, almost masculine, warrior, but it's her insight that leads her to murder President Coin in Mockingjay because Katniss can see, like an oracle, that history is about to repeat itself if Coin lives. Of course, the reasons behind the popularity of certain forms of fiction are complex and not easily reducible to a mere back-and-forth conflict of ideas. Flavors of the month change; perhaps the readership is in the mood for a good, rollicking feminist adventure. Perhaps feminist messianism is simply an idea whose time has come.

How many more copycat YA authors can we expect? What prompted my musings on this topic was the sheer number of filmic adaptations of YA novels out there. The bombardment, which continues with a promised slew of Divergent films, shows no signs of stopping, as The Maze Runner (another YA dystopia series—but by a male author and featuring a male protagonist) will soon be at bat.


le retour des bestioles

The bugs are back—mosquitoes, fruit flies, and gnats—now that things have warmed up. (We were almost at 80ºF [27ºC] yesterday, dammit.) My vinegar traps are out, and I've got Windex—the best insect killer—ever at the ready next to my computer's keyboard. Once again, nature is my enemy. It is impossible to live in blissful harmony with creatures that insist on invading your body's holes.


Friday, March 28, 2014

a friend's loss

Steve Krodman, who goes by the online moniker Elisson (it's a double "s," not a double "l," because the name comes from "Eli's son"), just lost his father. I know that there's some overlap between my blog's readership and Steve's, so I encourage you to go visit Lost in the Cheese Aisle to pay your respects. Steve—Elisson—always wrote about his father with great esteem and affection. I can't begin to imagine what such a loss means, or what it feels like. Elisson had lost his mom years ago; now, he finds himself in the position that we must all eventually find ourselves in: living life without earthly parents. As trite as this insight may seem, however, I like to think that there's a sense in which our parents live on through us, we who have internalized their wisdom, compassion, humor, knowledge, and love. Our parents, once departed, occupy the shrine of our hearts, still lighting the way before us from the vantage of the corridors of memory.


a double dose of Captain America

I rented "Captain America, the First Avenger" the other night and watched it in preparation for seeing "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" this weekend (possibly tonight, if I'm done with work early enough). I'll have something to say about both films soon, I'm sure.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

cashew chicken redux

Another batch of cashew chicken tonight, this time on pan-fried Korean pasta:

Unfortunately, this batch wasn't as good as my previous batch: I tweaked the sauce somewhat, but its flavor missed the mark by a wide margin: it was simultaneously too sweet and too salty, which is the kiss of death. At least the food photographed well.

I'll spend the rest of tonight reminiscing about that first batch.

UPDATE, Friday, March 28: The chicken was better today, with rice, than it was yesterday. I'm wondering whether the sauce ingredients simply needed time to marry overnight. The sauce's flavor, today, was much more integrated overall, more coherent and less violent.


the honeymoon is over

Without getting into details, I think it's safe to say that, for my 3PM Thursday class at least, the honeymoon period is now over. Today, they were tired and a bit surly; I suspect they're in need of a radical change in routine. Maybe something a bit more Total Physical Response-ish for them...? I'm not sure. Korean students often hate moving around while doing language activities; coming up with something the kids will think is fun is going to be difficult, but that's one of the tasks I've set for myself this weekend.


still no aspirin

It's been 24 hours, and I still haven't taken any aspirin. Because there's lingering pain, I can't declare myself cured, but that one little click of the bone in the socket seems to have worked wonders for me.

My fear is that, if the femur was able to slip out of place and then slip back into place so easily, this could happen again (and again!). I suspect that, if the bone shifted during the night, it probably had something to do with how I slept, and must have happened while I was sleeping on my left side. Another argument for losing weight, I suppose; I need to be more like John McCrarey and get my ass up a mountain or two.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

a possible breakthrough on the hip front?

When my hip pain originally began about three weeks ago, I could have sworn that the problem was something like a dislocation. Range of motion became restricted, and it truly felt as if the head of the left femur had slid, ever so slightly, out of the ball-and-socket joint of the hip. Not being a doctor, and not having any understanding of the complex network of muscles, tendons, and other connective tissue in that region of my body, I had no idea whether a partial dislocation was even possible: it could well be that, with a hip joint, a dislocation is an all-or-nothing proposition—either the joint is in, or it's popped all the way out.

But last night, I rolled over in bed and felt a small but very distinct pop when my body put pressure on my left hip. Since that moment—almost eight hours ago, now—I've taken no aspirin, which is a first since this whole stupid affair began. My range of motion is still restricted: swinging or rotating my thigh too far in certain directions still produces pain. But I have a feeling that whatever was wrong, earlier, has now righted itself.

So I'm going to experiment on myself this morning by not taking any aspirin until I absolutely need it. I've got a long walk to campus ahead of me. If there's pain to be experienced, that walk will conjure it up. We'll see how far I can go. That tiny pop seems to represent progress, given that I haven't needed aspirin for a third of a day, but does it represent significant progress?

UPDATE: I've been aspirin-free for eight hours. There's still some vestigial pain, but it's the sort of pain one would expect after a dislocated joint has popped back into its proper socket. There's been no debilitating pain at all; I limp slightly, but am otherwise walking normally. This comes as a relief; I was starting to worry that taking too much aspirin would lead to a stroke if I sneezed too hard (or pushed too hard while on the toilet!).


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

and a very brief thought this evening

Despite my Tuesday's being a relatively uncluttered day (I had only one class this morning), it was also rather unproductive. I've got some things to do tonight, and I hope to be finished in time for my pronunciation class tomorrow (we meet at 1PM). Wish me luck.


Monday, March 24, 2014

teaching and learning Korean: some disjointed thoughts

Starting next week, the beginning of April, I'll be teaching Korean for not one, but three days a week. Last semester was easy by comparison: just one 90-minute day a week. This time around, my Monday/Wednesday "Absolute Beginners" class will be twice a week at 90 minutes per class, and my Tuesday "Veteran Beginners" class will be for two solid hours. Am I a glutton for punishment?

Obviously, this can't be "punishment" in anything like a true or literal sense; I wouldn't be doing this if I sincerely thought it was a burden. I like teaching, even if I'm not the world's best teacher, and I do feel that non-Koreans can use the extra help to ease into Korean culture. There's a lot about this country that seems, especially at first, nonsensical or even ridiculous (nine years later, some aspects of Korean culture still feel that way to me!); Korea and Koreans can rub foreigners the wrong way, and vice versa. At the same time, I think another reason to get foreigners learning Korean is that, as I've said before, it's the least thanks they can offer back to the country that feeds them, clothes them, and puts a roof over their heads.

So let me rant a moment. It's a familiar rant to longtime readers of this blog. I have a great deal of trouble understanding the foreigner who cruises along for decades—decades!—in Korea and never picks up more than a very basic, pidgin/grunting version of Korean—a jumbled storehouse of random expressions and interjections like "Kaja!" and "An-dwae!" and "Aigu!" I always want to grab such people by the shoulders, shake them until their brains are sloshing, and bellow, "What the fuck have you been doing all this time? Actively hiding from Korean society?"

I suppose some people are experts at creating tight little cognitive bubbles around themselves, bubbles that selectively screen out most of the reality of living in Korea, allowing in only those few things that would have piqued the person's interest back in his or her home country. Did you like beer back home? Well, there are bars in Korea! See? No need to change yourself! Such foreigners are amazingly incurious about the rich world around them. Instead of asking themselves "What's the name of that fish in Korean? What do you call the job that that old guy with the flattened cardboard boxes is doing? What's that sign over the restaurant mean?" or asking themselves "What does 'jjajeung-na' mean? I hear it all the time...", they let Korea just wash over them in a wave of squandered sensory data. The country is 90% opaque to such people, and they don't care. Why don't they want to know more?

To be fair, I have to concede that some folks really do have a tin ear when it comes to learning foreign languages (although this is sometimes selective: a person might master five European languages, then be brought up short by basic Korean). Other folks may be so paralyzed by their introversion that they find it difficult or impossible to insinuate themselves into Korean society on any level. Still other folks plead age as the reason why they don't seem to be catching anything about the culture. About this latter claim, I'm sure that theorist Stephen Krashen would say that, no matter how old you are, you're capable of learning quickly and well as long as the "affective filter" is low, i.e., as long as you're motivated and in a low-stress environment, free of the fear of embarrassment or failure.

If I may digress further, that in itself is an interesting topic: is a low-affective-filter language classroom always an ideal language classroom? I'm not entirely convinced that's the case. In my own experience learning French, some of my most mortifying mistakes have also proved to be some of the most effective teaching moments for me. My most embarrassing gaffe came early on, in 1986, when I was a rising high-school senior at my French host family's house over the summer. I wanted to compliment the Ducoulombiers on their excellent raspberry jam, so I asked, "Do the French put preservatives in their jam?" Unfortunately, the word I used was préservatif, which caused some guffawing. You see, un préservatif is a condom. You can talk about un agent conservateur (a preservative) or, more generally, about des produits chimiques (chemicals), but don't mention un préservatif unless you're feeling amorous. As you can tell, there's no way in hell that I'll ever forget how to say "condom" in French.

It's only one example, but it can be multiplied indefinitely, and I think an argument can be made that embarrassment and failure can actually be excellent motivators when learning a foreign language. What worse feeling can there be than in not being understood the way you intended? A language learner with any sort of conscience will do his or her best to avoid such a pitfall. At the same time, it's the teacher's responsibility to strike a balance between not over-coddling the student (who shouldn't be told that s/he's a great success when s/he just failed to perform a simple linguistic task) and not inadvertently abusing the student through teasing or ridicule. There probably should be some fear of failure in the classroom, but only enough to keep students alert and on their toes.

So those are some very scattered thoughts on teaching and learning Korean. Sorry about the rant, but I do feel strongly that it's the height of stupidity to move into a foreign culture and then spend the rest of your time avoiding it. I've got eleven students signed up for my classes thus far: six in the Absolute Beginners class, and five in the Veteran Beginners class. I doubt there'll be more: I've sent out several emails, hoping for replies from a few stragglers, but they haven't nibbled. Our loss, I tell myself. Perhaps these hold-outs will see the light and try to learn some Korean next semester.

Once these classes begin, I'll have to exercise discretion and respect people's privacy by not writing in detail about what happens during the lessons. I'm aware that one or two of my students know about and read my blog, so if any students turn out to be raging assholes, you, Dear Reader, will never be the wiser. (In all seriousness, though, these incoming groups both look to be great. I'm not too worried about how they'll get along with me, but here's hoping they all get along with each other!)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

North Korea: endgame meditation

People who live outside of the Korean peninsula often ask questions of us peninsular types—questions that sound rather naive and silly, despite the questioner's best intentions.

Isn't it dangerous there? is probably one of the most common questions, but it's also one that requires a bit of unpacking, a Gandalfesque stepping-back and grousing, "What do you mean?" When I try to imagine what's going on in the questioner's mind—why this particular question is being posed—the image I get is one of living in an urban gangland: like people who live in ganglands, Seoulites must be paralyzed with fear because, with a single misstep, war could erupt at any moment, destroying everything that South Koreans have built. South Korea is a Mexican standoff writ large, a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie, with three fear-maddened guys pointing their guns at each other, frightened fingers poised on triggers. Or so these questioners reason when they think about how dangerous Korea must be.

There's a sense in which this non-peninsular perception of Korea is correct: it is a Mexican standoff of sorts, and things could very easily go to hell once that first domino falls. But here's the rub: it would take a lot to make that first domino fall. You see, that's the thing that most non-peninsular folks don't get: the situation in Korea is tense but stable. Very stable. The other thing that might not be obvious is that there are rational actors on both sides of the Panmunjeom negotiating table. Yes, Virginia: North Korea's leadership isn't crazy. It knows quite well what it's doing, and has been playing this game, now, for several decades.

Let's grant that the North's supreme leadership has been declining in quality and competence with each successive generation; despite this deterioration, each Kim has been steady at the helm and has followed pretty much the same playbook since North Korea's inception. North Korea was remarkably stupid about its own economy, having squandered Chinese and Soviet help in the 1950s and 1960s (the North's economy was rated more robust than the South's back then), but it's been a master of statecraft, playing nations against each other, conjuring nightmare scenarios that paralyze potential enemies with fear. In 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing a handful of South Koreans; that same year, it sank the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, killing nearly fifty military personnel. South Korea offered not a single substantive response. Why? Fear of war, of course.* The North knows it can bloody and re-bloody South Korea's nose for eternity, and therein lies one of the major reasons for the current situation's stability: the North understands the minds of its opponents only too well.

My own frustration has been that the South is equally capable of bloodying the North's nose repeatedly, too, if only it had the cojones to do so. Neither side wants, or can afford, a full-scale war. Both sides shrink from the prospect of one. Why not destroy a major North Korean building or monument—one for each South Korean killed by a North Korean attack? North Korea would undoubtedly mass troops at its border and appear to make ready to attack, but I'd bet the attack would never come, and with the attack off the table, we'd have a new understanding: you bloody my nose, I bloody yours—exactly what you say to a bully. South Korea has the technology to attack targets of symbolic (and therefore psychological) importance to North Korea. North Koreans would learn that the South can attack North Korean targets at will, and with impunity—a humbling lesson that would demonstrate the truth of how little North Korea actually controls. This realization could finally lead to the spark that ignites a rebellion.

Unfortunately, that's not the world we live in. The South—and the South's allies, including the United States—isn't that courageous. What we have instead is a tense equipoise, a situation with little potential to dissolve into chaos. No one knows how long the current state of affairs can last; much depends on the resolve of those imposing sanctions on North Korea, and on whether China complies with UN wishes or, instead, secretly supplies the North with food, weapons, and other necessaries.

So let's fast-forward to the endgame, since there's little more that can be said about the too-stable present. What scenarios can we expect to play out?

The worst possible scenario would be a replay of the 1950-1953 war, with the possible addition of nuclear weapons. In this scenario, China drops all pretense of helping the UN, declares itself a true friend and ally of North Korea, and commits massive numbers of troops to a long and drawn-out war against South Korean and US-led United Nations soldiers. Such a war would likely start suddenly and flare immensely, like a cascade failure swamping a computer system. I expect that the war would end similarly to how the 1950 war ended, but would hope the South would press hard to unify the peninsula under its banner. China is against this, of course, so we could see two Koreas, again facing off across a redrawn DMZ, their habitable areas reduced thanks to the presence of high-radiation zones.

The best possible scenario would be something like the 2003 invasion of Iraq: we discover that sanctions have been eroding the North's economy, that the North Korean military is embarrassingly backward despite all of its blustery, Baghdad Bob rhetoric, and that capturing Pyongyang and dismantling major emplacements are a breeze. China, meanwhile, drops its North Korean burden with relief and allows other powers to swoop in and clean up the clutter. The war ends within two or three short weeks, completely on the South's terms, and the messy business of reunification begins.

Very likely, however, the real scenario will be something in between these two pictures. North Korea's military is indeed antiquated and undernourished, but it's also ubiquitous, indoctrinated, and well-entrenched. Fighting to take the northern half of the peninsula will be reminiscent of the US Navy's "island-hopping" campaign when it went after the Japanese in the Pacific theater, literally burning the Japanese out hole by hole, losing men the entire way. It wouldn't surprise me if nukes were used, although I'd pray they weren't used effectively. It also wouldn't be realistic to think that China would simply wash its hands of North Korea: even if China were not to support North Korea during a hypothetical war, it would still have a great interest in not seeing a US-style democracy that came up all the way to its border. But what, then, would China want in the face of a US/UN/Southern victory? A Korea that was still divided? I hope not: South Korea should assert its rights as a sovereign, unified nation to decide how best to handle the situation. There should be no repeats of the recent and distant past—a past in which Korea was treated as a vassal state and/or as a plaything or beachhead for greater powers.

Another, darker possibility might be that China would assert certain ancient claims about Koguryo and take over North Korea for itself, thereby creating a situation that, in some ways, echoes what's happening in Ukraine. Chinese imperialism always works the same way, whether we're talking about Taiwan, Tibet, or Korea: "Land X was originally Chinese: we are one people." That's how it always starts. This would leave South Korea right where it is, but China would now have forced itself onto the peninsula, and the slow process of assimilating North Koreans into Chinese culture will have begun.

All of these scenarios rest on the assumptions that (1) things now are tense but very stable; (2) the stability is such that it will break suddenly and catastrophically if too much pressure is put on it; and (3) Chinese and South Korean actions will be the primary determining factors for the peninsula's future. Which scenario will come to pass? Only time will tell.

*As fellow tweeter Barry White pointed out, it's very likely that, in 2010, South Korea was persuaded by the United States not to retaliate because the situation would not have been in the US's best interests. It's therefore possible that the South—or at least its military—was in a warring mood. Still, if South Korea was, in fact, persuaded not to attack, this was a matter of choice, not coercion: it allowed itself to be persuaded. The country could have ignored US warnings and still have launched its air strikes. Korea remains responsible for its own fate.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Zero Dark Thirty": review

"Zero Dark Thirty" is a war film directed by Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") and starring the unrepentantly ginger Jessica Chastain as CIA analyst Maya Lambert. The story focuses on Lambert's determined hunt for Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3000 Americans. The final thirty minutes of the film are devoted to Seal Team Six's raid of bin Laden's fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

As movies about manhunts go—especially movies like this, in which every audience member already knows the outcome—"Zero Dark Thirty" was entertaining enough. The film included some supposedly controversial scenes of torture and abuse, but from what I saw, the movie also made a point of showing that it was the bait, not the switch, that led to the juicier intelligence. Unfortunately, the film also tended to telegraph its moves from a mile away (I knew, long before it happened, that Maya's friend was going to die in a suicide bomb blast, for example); that didn't help the buildup of suspense.

Sometimes the film's deliberate pacing, combined with its self-seriousness, allowed me to think idle thoughts while I was watching. There was one scene in particular that made me laugh—not because the scene was funny, but because of how it could have gone. In that scene, an unnamed CIA supervisor (UK vet Mark Strong) appeared in a conference room full of analysts, and he was in a holy rage. He gave a fiery, table-slamming harangue about how the CIA needed to do its job and give him targets—people to kill. Once the supervisor left the room, my first thought was that some joker should have stood up and shouted, "And who the fuck was that?" No serious film should give the viewer time to think such idle thoughts.

As for Osama himself, he's treated almost like a MacGuffin; we catch only glimpses of his corpse. Jessica Chastain, as Maya, was somewhat inconsistent in her delivery; there were times when she seemed almost self-consciously to be reading lines instead of delivering them naturally. I also question the film's implication that this lone girl was the ultimate driving force behind the push to kill bin Laden. As for the torture and the dust-blown terrorism... "24" prepared me well for all that, so there were no surprises. In all, "Zero Dark Thirty" was watchable, but not memorable. Would I want to see it again anytime soon? Probably not.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Ave, Holden!

Finally—finally—my friend Holden Beck will be leaving hospital after weeks and weeks of hospitalization following his motorcycle accident. His latest post takes us on a journey among broken bones as he tracks his healing process from shattered beginnings to eventual reintegration. Feel free to visit his blog and congratulate him on toughing it out for this long.


good fucking riddance

No "ululate!" for this joker: Pastor Fred Phelps of the Kansas-based, hate-spewing Westboro Baptist Church succumbs to the ravages of time and biology, dying at the age of 84. One of the world's great mysteries is precisely this: the unpleasant and toxic among us linger while the good are taken by the Reaper well before their time. In a just universe, Phelps would have been ripped from his mother's womb, tied by his umbilical to a pole, and used as a tetherball for hungry bears. It is decidedly unsatisfying to know that the man lived a long life and died a quiet death of "natural causes."

May he spend an eternity in hell being raped by horses that cum lava.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

not pushing the envelope?

The Korean sense of humor is remarkably simple, chaste, straightforward, and above all, safe. Very little Korean humor would qualify as black comedy, for example: "The War of the Roses" (Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito) would never have worked—could never have been made—in Korea. Peninsular sarcasm exists, to some extent, but it's usually loudly telegraphed and almost never driven home with the sneering precision found in the best forms of British humor. Subtlety may or may not exist in Korean humor; I haven't checked into the matter very deeply, but I'm not hopeful. When I think of Korean comedy, adjectives like loud, blaring, and obvious pop into my head.

Korean humor seems largely based on scenarios and dialogue that have evolved little beyond Punch and Judy—people verbally bonking* each other on the head. Topics for such humor normally arise from the natural rivalries we associate with class and region: it's great sport to mock the rich for their clueless buffoonery or to make fun of people's local accents. Koreans have a long history of resistance against and satirization of the yangban, the nobles, which makes Koreans today very aware of class-based inequality (a state of affairs also driven home whenever they watch TV dramas portraying the troubled lives of the super-rich). And these are mountain people: the history of the country is a history of isolated valley communities that developed fierce local loyalties and bonds of trust; these days, where a politician comes from has much to do with his or her future political prospects.

I imagine that Korean humor also contains its dirty, sexual, and/or taboo side, but I'm not linguistically adept enough to have discovered it. If you asked me for a list of dirty jokes told to me by Koreans, I don't think I could cite a single one. Many of my Korean relatives are Christian, with all the verbal prudery that that implies; my non-Christian relatives, meanwhile, have never struck me as the dirty-joke type. This was far different from my experience in France and Switzerland. In both countries, I engaged in the age-old ritual of the joke exchange: I found myself in a certain mood, alongside my French or Swiss "brother," and one of us would start telling a joke, which prompted the other to tell a joke, and so on, until the mood passed. No such thing has ever happened in all my years of living in Korea.

Yesterday, I discussed the word "sacrilege" with my pronunciation students, giving them the example of a crazed man who throws a bucket of red paint all over a statue of the Blessed Virgin. After that explanation, I asked the class about sacrilegious humor: does Korea have the equivalent of a Bill Maher, who recently called God a "psychotic mass murderer"? The students looked at each other, shrugged, looked back at me, and shook their heads no. No such irreverent comedians exist in Korea.

It's quite a thought, really. I'm so used to irreverent humor in the West (Claude Serre's hilarious cartoons about Jesus come to mind) that its absence, in a place like Korea, comes almost as a shock. Koreans go through the day blissfully unaware that this lack even exists: it's a culturally self-imposed limitation, or a blind spot, the awareness of which might prove interesting to Koreans themselves, once they started thinking about it.

So now I'm curious about dirty jokes and irreverent humor in the Land of the Morning Calm. I want to ask my intermediate class to write out one naughty joke per person on pieces of paper, then hand the jokes in to me without signing any names. I want the worst, nastiest jokes the kids can think of, and I might consider letting them use their cell-phone dictionaries (which I never allow) as aids to get the slang right.

*Sorry, British readers. "Bonking" means something more innocent in American English than it does in the Queen's. Sort of like "fanny."


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

that Malaysian flight

I haven't said anything, up to now, about the missing Malaysian flight, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 bound for Beijing. To be honest, I'm not inclined to say much, mainly because there are so few data. Speculation, meanwhile, has proliferated all around me—some of it intelligent, some of it positively wild-eyed. Until we know something concrete, I think it prudent to avoid committing myself to a particular theory or set of theories. All I'll share is that same astonishment that others have expressed: that in this over-surveilled, over-monitored, over-tracked modern world, something as huge as a plane with nearly 240 people on board could get lost—poof. That in itself is scary enough.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

I had a nice trip. How about you?

After my one lone class today, I had taken my big shoulder bag to the office, but because I'd wanted to get a haircut, I left the bag where it was and made the long trek over to my scary barber's salon. A wasted trip: the salon turned out to be closed. Whether it was simply closed for lunch (it was about 1:15PM) or closed for the day, I have no clue. Suddenly needing to poop, I lumber-waddled back to my place, where I did my business and rested a few hours. Around 6PM or so, I decided to wander back to campus.

It was getting dark. I had gotten into the habit of taking a particular shortcut from our "back gate."* This shortcut took me up into a construction zone, where the finishing touches were being placed on a spanking-new centennial center. Normally, my path takes me up a dirt ramp, onto an asphalt parking lot, then onto a smooth, white concrete plaza in front of the building-to-be. Tonight, however, my foot snagged on what felt like a fishing line that had been strung across the white concrete, and I went down like a tree, slamming both knees and one hand onto the hard surface. There was more fury than pain: I imagined wrapping my fingers around the neck of the dumb motherfucker who had set up the tripwire. Part of my brain hoped against hope that the impact of my knees would re-pop my hip joint back into place, but... no dice. My hip simply hurt a lot more after my tumble.

Slowly, cumbersomely, I picked myself back up while mumbling angrily about the piece of shit who would set this trap. Meanwhile, my inner Bear Grylls was noting, unhelpfully, Never trust your footing in Korea. That insight's been true ever since I came here in 1986: there are no guarantees, in Korea, that the ground will be your friend—no guarantees that your next step will be as level as your previous step. Korean sidewalks, even in the city, are often randomly lumpy; only subway stations, with their stark Bauhaus-rapes-modernism architecture, are relentlessly smooth and geometrical. Korean mountain paths aren't always well-maintained or well-manicured; expect jutting roots and loose rocks and clumps of leaves that hide hazards. Koreans themselves, with their shorter stature and lower centers of gravity, have far less trouble navigating these dangers than bigger Westerners do. Koreans are also probably conditioned from birth to practice a sort of atavistic situational awareness that prevents them from clouting their foreheads on low-hanging objects, or from twisting their ankles in randomly buckled asphalt. I've had to train myself not to take my footing for granted, but who the fuck expects a tripwire on a well-walked path? That's complete bullshit.

Sure, sure—never attribute to malice what can be traced to incompetence. But to my mind, incompetence is as much of a sin as malice is. I'd be happy to strangle the perpetrator either way, be he deliberately nasty or innately obtuse.

I took a few more aspirin once I reached the office. It was nearly an hour before my hip stopped screaming like a little girl under a steamroller. I'm probably well into acetominophen-overdose territory at this point, and it burns me that I'm now dealing with unnecessary extra pain, all because some inbred fuckhole strung a line across my path.

*It's not really at the back, 180 degrees from the front. It's called a hu-mun ("back gate"), but it's actually more like 90 degrees from the front.


round robin with the intermediates

Good job by the intermediates, today, with their first round-robin lesson. They all talked in English for a solid hour, which was music to my ears. As was true last semester, the method works beautifully at this proficiency level, so I see no reason to stop using it. I didn't tolerate the tiny, furtive bursts of Korean that I heard today; luckily, there weren't many such incidents. Overall, I'd say the class spoke English well over 90% of the time, which is the sort of goal you'd expect to meet using something like the Direct Method or the Natural Approach. So to compensate for some of the method's flaws, pointed out during last semester's presentation, I incorporated some review exercises at the end of class to check students' comprehension. The kids know that this will be the format from now on: they'll be teaching each other for the rest of the semester, like grad students. I'm glad they're such good sports.


Monday, March 17, 2014


My Monday kids weren't quite as bright and responsive this week as they had been last week—I had to do a lot of shushing as some students became annoyingly talkative*—but they did take well to the round-robin drill that I put them through today, and that I'll be doing with my beginners on Thursday. Given my experience last semester, I have no plans to foist the round-robin format on my beginners as a permanent arrangement; instead, it'll merely be a periodic thing, happening only twice more this semester.

I have other activities planned, in the meantime, such as "unpunctuated dialogues," which are usually kind of fun: the students are given lines of dialogue, completely unpunctuated, and it's up to them to figure out who says what, and how. They have to exercise their own creativity, inventing scenarios that match the way they want to deliver the dialogue (or crafting the dialogue so that it matches the scenario). The results can be a little wacky, which is what I'm going for: oral production in a relaxed, low-affective-filter ambiance.

*Being talkative in a language class isn't necessarily a bad thing, but being talkative in the wrong language is.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

hip pain

Perhaps it's finally time to talk about something that seems to have happened around two weeks ago, and has been with me ever since: my left hip's ball-and-socket joint has me in agony. I have no idea why. One night, I went to sleep problem-free; the next morning I woke up, and my hip was killing me. It felt (and still feels) almost as if the femur were somehow dislocated, as if it had popped loose during the night. Range of motion has become limited, and approaching those limits (by trying to flex my leg as far as possible) is now very painful. Sitting or lying down in any position has also become painful; the downward tug of gravity ensures that the femur seems never quite fully inserted into the hip joint. Walking has turned into limping, and I've begun having flashbacks to 2008, when I was using one of my adjustable walking sticks as a cane to get around. I also have fantasies about lying on my back with my feet together, sole to sole and drawn up close to my crotch, and having someone stand on my knees, thereby popping my left femur's head back into place or ruining it entirely.

Several days ago, while I was shopping at a local grocery, the hip pain became unbearable, so bad that I even had trouble breathing, and it suddenly occurred to me that I could just take some aspirin. I went home and downed six. Within about half an hour, the pain went mostly away, leaving only a faint ache. I've been self-medicating ever since, which gives rise to two fears: (1) aspirin can cause stomach ulcers as well as bleeding from various orifices (I had my first bloody nose the other day), and (2) too much aspirin might lead to a tolerance for aspirin, meaning I'll eventually need to take more of it—and more frequently—to blunt the pain.*

So I've resolved that this coming week will be my final week of coping with this alone. As much as I hate to put myself at the mercy of Korean health care, I'm going to hit a clinic this coming Friday and see what can be done. I saw my supervisor and asked him whether we profs needed some sort of insurance card (as I did when I worked at Sookmyung); he said no—it's all done via one's alien-registration number now. He also mentioned two or three halfway decent clinics that I could hit, so I'll be choosing one at random and hitting it.

More than anything, I find this situation angering and frustrating. We all take walking for granted, but now, for me, every step forward involves labor. I can no longer walk to campus as fast as I used to; 15-minute walks are now closer to 20 minutes in length. I must constantly watch the time, and my pain levels, so that I know when to take my next dose of aspirin. Because the aspirins' effect lasts only four hours or so, I wake up in pain and have to fight through it just to shower and dress and prep for the day. Hiding my limp from my colleagues has met with varying levels of success; two coworkers noticed me limping and asked what was wrong. Being the confessional guy that I am, I told them.

I'm not looking forward to visiting a clinic. I've read too many nightmare stories from fellow expat bloggers about what it's like to be "treated" at a Korean hospital. The local hospital in Hayang is a fairly dirty, run-down, unsanitary-looking place with outdated equipment and antiquated procedures. I didn't see any infection-control protocols in place, although I imagine that some hospitals are better than others in this regard. My supervisor assures me that the international clinics he recommended are decent by comparison. We'll see. This coming Friday, I'll limp into a clinic and, I hope, get an X-ray to find out what the hell is going on with my hip joint. I'd rule out arthritis right away: the pain came way too suddenly and intensely, and arthritis normally builds up slowly over time. That doesn't leave me with many pleasant options.

Cross those fingers and tentacles.

*During my 600-mile walk, I began taking loads of ibuprofen to keep down the excruciating pain of my ruined knee. Like aspirin, ibuprofen is an NSAID, i.e., a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. NSAIDs can be effective, but they can also make the patient bleed. During my walk, I began bleeding from both my nose and my ass, which was, as you can imagine, a less-than-ideal situation. By the time the bleeding was getting bad, I had decided that simple rest might be a better solution to the pain problem. Here in Hayang, however, I can't simply rest: I have to walk 15 minutes to class every day, then 15 minutes back home again. There's always pressure on my hip joint.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

pan-fried goodness

For only W3500, I bought a huge bag of frozen, Chinese-style mandu.* The bag probably has close to 50 of those suckers in it, and as far as mandu goes, this is the best deal in town.

I love how easily these puppies fry up. No need to waste oil with deep-frying, either—just stick 'em in a pan and let 'er rip.

*We can debate whether these really count as Chinese-style. Typically, thinner-skinned mandu are closer to the Japanese gyoza end of the spectrum, whereas thicker-skinned mandu are closer to the quasi-jiaozi you find in both American-style and Korean-style Chinese restaurants.


Friday, March 14, 2014

you take what you can get

I'm at the office. Been here since, oh, 3:30PM, and will probably be here until very late—perhaps as late as midnight. I've got a ton of stuff that I want to do, and if I do it all tonight, I don't have to worry about it tomorrow or Sunday. Unfortunately, I have a suspicion that the work is going to bleed over into Saturday; there's just so much of it to do.

Sick of not having an Internet or printer connection, I took matters into my own hands, bought some CAT-5 cable couplers, and routed my computer to a LAN socket in a far-off wall by connecting three CAT-5 cables together and threading them under our team's work-station cubicles. I also plugged in the nearest laser printer and USB'ed it to my computer. Our team leader had set up his own Internet and printer in much the same way, so I decided that, if he felt free to do such a thing, then so did I.

The concept of sharing has gone out the window, at least until the IT guys come in and set everyone up properly on the LAN. It's a bit like the Wild West in our office, with everyone doing their own jury-rigged computer/printer setup. We've been told that it'll be at least another week before the IT guys finally get to our office; we'll be nearly a month into the semester—a quarter of the way through—before even minimal facilities have been set up.

I imagine this all might be a bit of a disappointment for our newbie profs, who doubtless expect better, but part of the problem is the general zigzagginess of Korean culture: nothing ever moves in a straight line here, and in many cases, timetables just go out the window. A Westerner working in Korea must recalibrate his sense of what professionalism means. On the bright side, Korea provides plenty of opportunities to learn how to exercise patience and live in gratitude for whatever does go smoothly. And to be fair, there are things that happen far more quickly and smoothly in Korea than they do in the States.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

energy drain

Thursday is likely going to be my most difficult day of the week this semester. My classes begin late in the day: 1PM and 3PM. The 3PM class, in particular, is going to be hard to motivate; as I may have mentioned in an earlier post, this class is the final class of the day for most of those students. As a result, they're tired and ready to go home; learning English isn't their top priority. So, perhaps just for the 3PMers, I'm going to need to develop some unusually entertaining strategies to keep everyone awake, alert, and motivated—games and other activities that get the kids out of their seats and moving about.

If I can somehow map our textbook's content onto, say, a Total Physical Response (or a theater) format, that would be an improvement right there. Right now, things aren't bad, but I can already see signs that the 3PMers—tired and easily distracted—have the potential to become a handful if I'm not on my game.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

stairwell art

My university has some talented students:

It's an interesting image to contemplate. There's fire at the bottom, but a paradoxical sense of youth/age and serenity at the top (young face, white galaxy-hair), almost as if our eyes are supposed to follow a heavenward path from the terrestrial to the celestial. The bubbles also lend something of a science-fiction-y aspect to the work. Is this a Mircea Eliade-style hierophany? Is the being at the top of the painting somehow above it all?

So what does it mean? What should the English title of this work be? Pixie's Victory? The Coming of the Goddess? My House on Tatooine Burns While Space-girl Watches?


Tuesday, March 11, 2014


I put my new crop of intermediates through the round-robin method today. They did pretty well, although I had to stop several kids from speaking Korean. We'll be talking further about the method next week, but the kids will also be teaching their very first chapter next week. It's a good group; they did everything I asked them to do, and today's class was, I think, very productive. This is going to be a good semester.


Monday, March 10, 2014

monitor problem: solved!

My supervisor figured out that I had plugged my monitor data cord into the DVI slot, which was the wrong 19-pin slot into which to sink that plug. There was, as he noted, a proper slot at the bottom of the CPU—one I hadn't seen despite having spent minutes on end staring at that stupid computer. I switched the plug to the new slot, and—bang. I've got a computer again.

So now I need a connection to the Internet and to a printer.


staring down the barrel of Week 2 (of 16)

The second week of classes now begins. I'm mostly prepped and ready, I think.


Sunday, March 09, 2014

no computers

My team's faculty office transitioned from one building to another, along with all the other teams in the Practical English Department. That was a massive move, most of which took place during the two-month break. Alas, the process wasn't quite finished: we have work stations, chairs, and storage space, but only a scattered few of us have computers and printers properly hooked up and networked. Some bad things happened during the move, too: I lost my mouse (my current mouse isn't the one I'd used last semester), lost some drawer keys, and my monitor doesn't seem to be working. I've been told that the IT people are supposed to have everything properly hooked up, for all of us, by this coming week, but some among us have expressed doubts that that will happen. I'm skeptical, too.

So this means doing all my office work at home, printing copies from my own laser printer, then running those printouts through the lone photocopier at the new building's office. Strangely enough, our faculty offices moved, but our department office, with our two office assistants, is still in Aquinas Hall. We can liaise with another department office in the new building, but I'm still not sure what relationship that new office has with our Aquinas office. It's all a process of discovery right now, with a bit of unnecessary inconvenience thrown in. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping the logistical issues will all be resolved by this week, but my inner realist says that's not likely. A good time to practice patience, then.


Saturday, March 08, 2014

Russia, European inaction, Putin, and green energy

Crises arise and highlight the strange connections that bind us. Here's one example: as Russia has moved troops into Ukraine, effectively annexing Crimea, the West—meaning mainly Western Europe and North America—has dithered and bitten its nails. Vladimir Putin has been moving boldly and decisively while North Atlantic democracies have fumbled about, unsure of what to do or how to act, all testosterone drained away. And now, free to do what he wishes, Putin has threatened to pinch off the gas that Russia, through its major company Gazprom, supplies to much of Eastern and Western Europe.

It's enough to make me wonder what Europe has been doing all this time in terms of green/alternative energy. Russia's threat is a serious one precisely because Europe remains so dependent on petrochemical resources. Thanks to its green factions, the EU cannot move forward with any plans for fracking, despite its massive shale-oil reserves. The US has done much more in that regard—enough that US pundits are talking about a "fuel revolution" that will bring America closer to energy independence.*

Europe often likes to compare itself favorably to the US when it comes to research into and development of green/alternative energy—wind, solar, wave, and the like. But one has to wonder: given Europe's boasting, just how far along has it gotten toward proving that any of these alternative energy sources is, in fact, economically viable? Why does Europe shudder at Putin's threat? How green is Europe, really? Surely, by now, Europe has become so evolved, so enlightened, that it has no need of petrochemical fuel, yes? Surely it can laugh at Putin, yes?

Well, no.

Ah, those foolish Europeans and their green fantasies. When American conservatives disparage green-energy efforts, it's not because they prefer to live in clouds and piles of filth: it's because they see a human cost when alternative energy produces little return on investment.** Green companies fail right and left, often despite heavy government assistance. This means a lack of job security, a destabilizing factor in the economy. Solar energy is still inefficient and unreliable; so are wind and water energy. Geothermal energy is promising, but such energy is easily accessible only at certain points on the earth. Greens bizarrely shy away from nuclear energy, too afraid of the potential for meltdown to appreciate how clean such energy is. And so it is that, in Europe and North America, the green agenda undercuts any efforts toward creating healthier, more prosperous countries. At every step, the greens shoot themselves, and others, in the foot, tripping up true progress and denying true flourishing.

So I issue this challenge to Europe: let Putin stanch your gas, then put your noses to the grindstone and produce a realistic, viable alternative energy source within the next five years. Stop with the cheap, boastful rhetoric about how supposedly enlightened and advanced you are, and show the world some actual progress when it comes to alternative fuels. This is Europe's big chance to prove how backward America truly is.

Either that, or pull your heads out of your asses and start fracking.

ADDENDUM: Regarding that fuel revolution, referred to earlier, there's this:

As Barack Obama considers his options, he has a substantial new weapon that he is not sure how to deploy. In the last few years, the shale revolution has utterly transformed America’s energy fortunes. When Putin invaded Georgia, it seemed as if the US was running out of natural gas – and George W Bush meekly wondered whether to buy some from Russia. Since then, the shale bonanza has sent American crude output soaring by 60 per cent, taking the country into a thoroughly unexpected era of energy abundance. Its gas prices have fallen by two thirds; factories and jobs are flooding back to former rust belt states. By the end of this decade, America will be exporting more energy than it imports.

Do take the above with a grain of salt. The claim "Its gas prices have fallen by two thirds," for instance, is hard to believe. First, I don't know what the possessive "Its" is referring to. The nation's gas prices? Second, if that statistic is, in fact, a reference to average gas prices across the nation, then that would mean gas prices have fallen from over $3 to over $1—which hasn't happened. I just checked: in my former town of Front Royal, Virginia, gas prices are currently right where they were when I was living there (2010-13), i.e., around $3.20.

*It should be noted that many Americans mistakenly believe that most of America's imported oil comes from the Middle East. In truth, the US imports the greatest volume of oil from Canada, its friendly neighbor to the immediate north. In this modern, highly consumptive age, complete energy independence is probably not possible, but near-independence will have deep ramifications for the US's economic and political relationship with Canada—not to mention its relationship with the Middle East.

**My thoughts on environmentalism are here generally, and here specifically.


"The Wolverine": one-paragraph review

"The Wolverine" (XMTW) continues the Marvel moviemakers' obsession with the Wolverine character. Hugh Jackman's gritty, muscular portrayal is, I admit, compelling, but I often feel the other X-Men are getting short shrift. XMTW takes Logan, the Wolverine, from the Yukon to Japan as he meets an old friend from World War II, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a Japanese soldier saved by Logan when Nagasaki was hit with the atom bomb. Now a rich, powerful old man dying of cancer, Yashida claims he wishes to repay his debt by giving Logan mortality—a trait that Logan, who suffers nightmares and questions life's meaning, has long craved. Yashida is the CEO of his own enormous conglomerate and has been doing scientific research on two properties of Logan's existence: his adamantium skeletal supports (and claws), and his super-regenerative ability. Yashida bequeaths his conglomerate to his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), much to the consternation of Yashida's son, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada). Mariko is slated to wed Noburo (Brian Tee), the Minister of Justice, but she finds herself falling for Logan, who saves her life from a Yakuza attack during Yashida's funeral. Along for the ride is Yukio (Rila Fukushima), Mariko's adoptive sister—a fighting expert and mutant able to foresee people's deaths. XMTW is watchable but predictable; I figured out who most of the real bad guys were before the film was halfway done. Logan's own character arc is interesting, though, as he moves from being a man with a death-wish clinging to the past to someone who sees that life, even an immortal life, is worth living. The end-credits scene adds a little spice to the film: Logan meets Magneto (Ian KcKellen) at airport security, as well as an apparently resurrected Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), thus setting the stage for "X-Men: Days of Future Past." In all, XMTW is worth at least one viewing. It's fun and not very deep, but it offers plenty of eye-candy. Oh, and watch out for the Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova). She nasty.



From Twitter: a great article—in PowerPoint format—on how PowerPoint has become the scourge of academia, ruining teaching and dehumanizing the educational experience. It's enough to make me rethink how I want my students to do their projects this semester.


Friday, March 07, 2014

new changes to the SAT!

An ex-coworker of mine recently informed me that the SAT will be changing format, and that the changes will be rolled out in 2016. This CNN article has some specifics:

The SAT college exam will undergo sweeping changes on what's tested, how it's scored and how students can prepare, College Board President and CEO David Coleman said Wednesday.

Standardized tests have become "far too disconnected from the work of our high schools," Coleman said at an event in Austin, Texas. They're too stressful for students, too filled with mystery and "tricks" to raise scores and aren't necessarily creating more college-ready students, he said.

The SAT to be released in spring 2016 is designed to change that, he said.

The test will include three sections -- evidence-based reading and writing, math and an optional essay -- each retooled to stop students from simply filling a bubble on the test sheet.

"No longer will it be good enough to focus on tricks and trying to eliminate answer choices," Coleman said. "We are not interested in students just picking an answer, but justifying their answers."

The test will shift from its current score scale of 2400 back to 1600, with a separate score for the essay. No longer will test takers be penalized for choosing incorrect answers.

I have no idea what that last part is supposed to mean, but I welcome the shift back to a 1600 scale. Hooray for the old school! OK, well, that's not entirely true: I think I do have some notion of what the "not penalized for wrong answers" paradigm means. If it's like the AP Calculus test, the point of the new test will be more about methodology—a student's thinking process, etc.—than about final results. On the AP Calculus test, it was possible to arrive at the wrong answer but still receive credit for having used a solid method.

As my colleague noted, this is going to mean an overhaul of all the tutoring materials at YB, my previous place of work. I wonder whether all the YB tutors will have to take the new SAT themselves so they can know what it's like from the inside.

One observation. David Coleman's remark that standardized tests have become "far too disconnected from the work of our high schools" seems to put the cart before the horse: in my opinion, it's the work of our high schools that keeps students from rising to the standards of standardized tests. Curricula keep getting dumbed down. The best example of this problem that I can think of is grammar knowledge: the current SAT is grammar-heavy, and students who have no notion of subject-verb agreement, tense control, faulty comparisons, pronoun shift, dangling/misplaced modifiers, etc., do miserably on the Writing portion of the SAT because they've been given no explicit background in grammar.

This trend away from teaching grammar as an explicit set of rules has been going on for several decades. In the language-teaching field, we see this quite clearly: grammar charts are disappearing in favor of "contextualized" utterances and vague notions like "communicative competence." The emphasis is on dialogues and on simply getting the students to talk, whether their utterances are correct or not. The very notion of correctness, any sort of correctness, seems to be going out the window. My own feeling—going back to the old school—is that teaching explicit linguistic rules provides students with the bricks and mortar they need to construct competent utterances that convey their thoughts in a clear and rational way. This in turn has the advantage of creating disciplined minds that more coolly and carefully apprehend reality, and it counteracts the tendency, in this Internet-driven age, for young minds to become unfocused and easily distracted.

The move away from the explicit teaching of grammar has been a huge mistake, and our kids are paying for it. I wonder whether the new SAT will reflect a concurrent dumbing-down of standardized tests commensurate with the continued dumbing-down of the American educational curriculum, or whether it will remain rigorous, but in a different way from what we've seen up to now.

UPDATE: The College Board website has this to say about "no penalty for wrong answers":


The redesigned SAT will remove the penalty for wrong answers. Students will earn points for the questions they answer correctly. This move to rights-only scoring encourages students to give the best answer they have to every problem.

Not quite what I had in mind, but OK.


"12 Years a Slave": the one-sentence review

You would have to have a heart of stone not to cry while watching this harrowing, amazing, wonderful movie, which features stellar acting, gorgeous cinematography, stately pacing, and a creaking shipload of misery, betrayal, horror, and humanity.


office mission

I'm off to the office rather late in the afternoon after having promised myself that I'd be there around 9 this morning. The road to hell, and all that. My mission at the office is twofold: first, get my computer set up and connected with a printer—any printer; second, crank out my plans and materials for the following week. Much to do.

I'm also reconsidering whether to teach that basic-level Korean class. I had told people, earlier, that I wouldn't have the time to do it, but... we've got some true newbies among our recent hires—people who have never lived in Korea before, and who can't speak or read a lick of Korean. These folks need some way to ease their transition into Korean society.


Thursday, March 06, 2014

Day Four: the week in review

Thursday turned out to be a good day. I had my final two classes for the week—both beginner-level groups, one at 1PM and another at 3PM in the same room. The 1PM group was pretty good, the 3PM group less so, but not bad. Most of the 3PM kids were aching to go home because my class was their final class of the day (they applauded when I ended class with a flourish). I'm going to have to harness that yearning somehow.

So all in all, the first week back at school was much better than I'd thought it would be. This is still the honeymoon period, of course; we'll see whether this high can last through the entire semester. Everything normally goes smoothly on intro days, but starting next week, the students have to have their textbooks and we need to get moving. The little boogers had better be ready.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

the scare

The campus registrar's office called me in the middle of my lesson today to say that there was a mistake on my weekly schedule: I had seven classes to teach, not six. This was alternately surprising and annoying, as I had already been through this with my department's office: I had received an email in early January that included a tentative class schedule pegged at seven classes. Then, in mid-February, I received a followup email with my "confirmed" schedule, which showed only six classes. To confirm this revised schedule, I spoke with our new office lady this past Monday, and she said that the revised schedule was indeed fixed and confirmed. I had no reason to mistrust her, which is why today's call was a surprise.

The registrar asked me to come visit ASAP, so right after class, I trudged across campus to the Admin Building, Room 110, and spoke with the same gent who had helped me arrange my KMA work. He asked me who had given me my assigned classes; I told him, and he called our department's office. After speaking with our new office lady for a few minutes, he shrugged, hung up, and told me that I had only six classes. That was a relief; I was worried that I had somehow skipped a seventh class. At the same time, I was sad not to have the seventh class because that would have meant a slight bump in income. As things stand, my salary will be no different from what it was last semester; the main difference will be in the money I pull in from side work.

So all's well that ends well, I suppose: no extra burden on my weekly schedule.


Day Three: pronunciation class

Day One was two beginner-level classes that both went wonderfully. Day Two was a single intermediate-level class that, while not quite as riotously good as the previous day's classes, was nevertheless good.

Today, Day Three, was my pronunciation class, and I'd say that it went well, all in all. The only hitch was that I had twenty-three students. Normally, for conversation classes, the maximum number of students is twenty, but because this pronunciation class is both a new course and a different animal from typical speaking classes, I wonder whether it counts as a special case. The attendance rules may be different. At least one student in the class told me he was there simply as a tourist—there was no guarantee that he'd be back the following week, so it may be that I have only twenty-two registered students.

In any case, having twenty-three students today meant that three students went without a syllabus and first-day materials. Everyone shared, luckily, so there wasn't a big problem, and I'll be printing out extra copies of the syllabus for students next week.

This is the first of my classes to reach or exceed the 20-person limit. All three of my previous classes have been short: 18 and 17 beginners the first day, and only a cozy 14 intermediates yesterday. That number will likely change next week: some students get confused about where to go on the first day; they sometimes end up skipping the first class as a result. Attendance isn't a huge issue the first week, but it gets serious starting with Week 2.

So I'd say we're batting a thousand thus far: I've liked every class I've taught, and I have high hopes for all of them. Two more classes to go—both beginner-level afternoon classes, 1PM and 3PM. May the streak of good luck continue.


Tuesday, March 04, 2014


Having shown off my mad cashew-chicken skilz, I thought it would be a good idea to recruit my leftover shrooms for a different purpose: spaghetti sauce. This is a quasi-bolognese in the style my mother used to make at home: shrooms, ground meat (beef and pork in this case), green bell peppers, and a tomato sauce fortified with oregano, parsley, basil, bay leaves, garlic, salt, pepper, and a wee bit of sugar. I'd have liked to have fresh herbs, but at the local E-Mart, none were to be found (the E-Mart in Seoul, near where I used to live in the Sookdae neighborhood, did have fresh herbs, including basil and parsley). Still: dry herbs are better than nothing. You work with what you have.


I don't know why, but the sauce burns very easily if it's not being stirred constantly. I don't recall having that sort of trouble in the States. Normally, a spaghetti sauce should be able to simmer for hours with only occasional stirring.

The two types of mushroom I used were (1) oyster mushrooms, which are amazingly meaty, and (2) a Korean mushroom called iseul-songi (이슬송이). I have no idea what this latter shroom is called in English; it looks like a slightly enlarged, round-capped button mushroom with a brown, flaky surface reminiscent of shiitake (pyogo in Korean; see here) Also like shiitake, the iseul-songi has an almost piquant, rebellious-yet-subtle pungency to it. As soon as I smelled this mushroom, I knew right away that it would be perfect with red wine, which in turn made me wish I had been making some boeuf bourguignon.

Anyway, here's the finished product:

Smells as good as it looks. I should have made some garlic bread to go with it.


Day Two: still good

The second day of class had me teaching only a single session, from 9AM to about 10:40AM. The class ended with applause, which I found to be a good sign. These were intermediate-level students; while they weren't quite as energetic as yesterday's beginners, they were generally agreeable and willing to do what I asked. So once again, I'm optimistic about this semester, and I feel I may have dodged a bullet by being granted a decent group of kids.

I warned my intermediates that they'd be teaching English to each other, à la last semester's round-robin method, which worked so beautifully with the previous intermediates. My charges nodded seriously as I told them what was in store, and they looked ready for a challenge. We'll see how it all goes.


Monday, March 03, 2014

Day One: praise Jeebus

I can only hope that the rest of this week turns out to be as good as today was. I admit I was cringing at the thought of teaching four classes of beginners (I have six classes: four beginner, one intermediate, one mixed-level pronunciation), given how things went last semester. But today's crop of kids was alert, responsive, and downright cheerful, so I have no complaints at all. The second of my two classes actually applauded me—twice!—for no reason I could ascertain. I gave my usual cheerful, energetic "Welcome to class" spiel in both classes, changing my style very little from class to class, so I can only assume the second class was just way peppier than the first—and the first class was actually quite good.

Tomorrow and Wednesday, I have only one class each day: Intermediate Speaking tomorrow, and Pronunciation on Wednesday. Mid-week is when I get my easy schedule—the saggy part of the hammock, if you will. Then we're back to business on Thursday with another two classes, one after another, like on Monday. What will the collective temperaments of my final four classes be like? I'm a bit worried: given how amazingly the week started, things can only go down from here. Sae ong ji ma.


two contra Gary Taubes

I summarized Gary Taubes's Why We Get Fat here.

Two reviews and rebuttals to Taubes are here and here, and both focus on the same complaint I had: Taubes's dismissal of the calories-in/calories-out paradigm.

To me, the essential proof that c-in/c-out obtains is that it's possible to starve to death. Starvation can only happen if the body is consuming more calories than it's receiving.

Whether you agree with these rebuttals may depend on your view of the authors' arguments. In the comments, some Taubesian defenders reject the arguments for reasons that seem logically and evidentially legitimate, so I leave it up to you to decide for yourself. As with most dieting "wisdom," you need to figure your way through the mass of contradictory arguments.


Sunday, March 02, 2014

cashew chicken!

Tomorrow's the first day of classes; Samil Jeol is over, and the winter/spring semester has finally arrived. I had done quite a bit of shopping—much of it expensive because I was buying Western goods at non-Costco locations (mainly E-Mart and the local grocers). March 2 is Mardi Gras, and I had hoped to find ingredients for a remoulade so I could make chicken po' boys for the troops, right there on campus, but it was not to be. Instead, I bought ingredients to make something I haven't made since leaving Front Royal: cashew chicken, Kevin-style. The following two photos show off my labor of love. Behold—cashew chicken with green bell peppers, Korean gochu, and oyster mushrooms in sweet sauce:

And the chili-dusted final product, on top of white rice cooked without a rice cooker:

Like most appliances and electronic products, rice cookers in Korea are about two to three times more expensive than in the States. In the States, a decent rice cooker might set you back $12 to $15; here in Korea, a cheap (and pitifully small) rice cooker runs about W35,000 (about $32). I always find it a bit ironic that an electronics powerhouse like South Korea bilks its own citizens (and its expats) by selling products at double and triple the American price for the same thing.

In any event—wish me luck. The Hunger Games begin in the morning. My weekly schedule:

MON: 11AM-12:50PM, 1PM-2:50PM Beginner Conversation
TUE: 9AM-10:50AM Intermediate Speaking
WED: 1PM-2:50PM Pronunciation (a new course, developed by me and a very innovative colleague)
THU: 1PM-2:50PM, 3PM-4:50PM Beginner Conversation
FRI: Free

So... mostly beginners this time around. Ought to be fun. I've got no KMA until April, and I'm not sure when my next Golden Goose job will be happening. We'll see.


Saturday, March 01, 2014

Sad Turd Day doings

1. Meet a colleague in a few minutes to talk over a course we're both teaching (same course, but teaching it separately).

2. Tromp over to my campus office to drop off my load of textbooks. Maybe stick around a few hours and write up some icebreaker activities for this coming week. (Or just do this at home.)

3. Go shop for some shtuff to eat.

4. Take a walk around town...?

Starting next week, I won't be buying any more carbs. I'll use up the carbs I currently have in storage, then concentrate, over the next few months, on buying fresh meat and fresh veggies. Once pay day rolls around, I plan to go and finally get a Korean Costco membership (about W35,000, from what I hear), at which point I ought to have access to real cheese for cheaper than can be found at the typical Korean grocery. Once I'm Costco-ified, I'll be doing meat-and-cheese runs, stocking my fridge with delectable edibles.

Not that I won't cheat every once in a while. I plan to reserve two or three "naughty" days per month. Just to give my insulin something to do.

And—no promises—but I want to start waking up very early, like around 6AM or 6:30, to do morning walks. Time to follow Ben Franklin's wisdom about being early.