You can probably spare yourself a lot of trouble when you join a community by determining as soon as possible what kind of community you’ve joined. I can think of three types of communities and each has their value, but each also breaks in a way peculiar to itself.*
Community of Interests: “You like dinosaurs. I like dinosaurs. Let’s form a dinosaur club!”
This is probably the most common type of community, and you’d probably think it wouldn’t suffer from any problems, but there’s always going to be that asshole judging your love of dinosaurs and whether it’s “correct” or not, so when the gatekeepers exceed the members and every week brings a new test of devotion, you can be certain this community is sliding into dysfunction.
Community of Purposes: “You like dinosaurs! I like dinosaurs… and have access to cloning technology and an intact velociraptor genome! Let’s make dinosaurs!”
Beyond the shared interest, this community has an agenda it hopes to implement. It wants to do a thing, and everyone’s on-board to do it. Solidarity and intention become more important than interest. Often this type of community and the one above will exist within one community with members pushing it one way or the other. Of course when this one breaks, the assholes come out to test your devotion to the cause and see if you’re really about cloning woolly mammoths or are just so much talk.
Community of Circumstances: This is the community for people circumstance has thrown together. English teachers in South Korea, Pakistani Law Students at the University of Wisconsin, etc. Normally these people would have nothing to do with each other, but circumstance has thrown them together and so they’re now part of community. On the plus side, they meet people outside their comfort zone and become friends with them. On the downside once the circumstances change, people move on without looking back.
* Barring active trolls who delight in destroying/undermining communities.
Mysteries of Education
I’ve taught at the same school since 2011. For some these kids I’m the only English teacher they’ve had. One thing that’s fascinating to me this year is how utterly nice and good natured the current 6th graders are. Not that I’m complaining, but it puzzles me and I wonder if this was somehow created or if it’s just luck. Like, not every student is perfect or a great kid, but there’s no horrible bullies, which have been a problem in previous years, or kids prone to violent out-bursts (which is a problem at my other school). Instead the worst thing I have to put up with is some shenanigans where some boys have become competitive over who can be the best class clown. And if class clown shenanigans is the worst I have to deal with, I’ll say thanks and be happy.
And it is just these 6th and 5th grade classes. The classes coming up behind them are already showing some problem behaviors. So that makes me wonder what worked for those two classes and is it something that can be replicated?
Possibility 1: It’s dumb luck, and the chemistry between these students is just how it is and/or they had the good fortune to be matched with good teachers.
Possibility 2: It’s the environment. My school’s neighborhood went through a revitalization project that made the population dip while construction went on. Class sizes shrunk in real time (as opposed to always being small), so students bonded as a group better. Now this renewal project has ended and the neighborhood population has stabilized, but instead of having 3 classes of 22 students, the lower grades have 2 classes of 33 students, which is starting to feel crowded enough for students to get lost.
Possibility 3: A policy change, either regional or local. I’ve seen 3 principals come and go. Each one brought a different character to the school. Maybe a shift in the priorities at the top filtered down and affected the school’s character. Student behavior might reflect this.
But I count myself lucky for now despite the horrors of my second school – my main school’s all right, even if it does make me wonder.
My Favorite Thing About Korea
I realized my favorite thing about living in South Korea. And I don’t even think it’s a South Korean thing, as a hold over to being a country not the size of the USA thing. Like if I lived in Ireland or Italy, I suspect I’d encounter the same thing. It was also what made me like living in Queens, NY. I know, Queens!
Anyway, what I like is that the city where I live, Pohang, retains the quality where a single pedestrian who is probably elderly determines how the city is designed. It’s like if you took Betty White and made her a metric unit that measured urban accessibility. Okay, maybe not Betty White, maybe Jane Jacobs, but you get the idea.
Pohang is a kilojacobs city in that every neighborhood is self-sufficient. Within an easy walk of my house I have access to hardware stores, stationary stores, delis, grocery stores, a traditional market, and restaurants. It was something Joe Mitchell talked about in post-war New York where every neighborhood was a self-contained village. This single pedestrian is accommodated in other ways as well: lots of parks with places to sit down, a robust bus system, and cheap taxis. This is vastly different from the USA where the unit of urban measure is a family with an automobile, and therefore things can be spread out, the supermarket here, the school there, and your entertainment way over there. Public transportation is treated as a charity to be given to the unfortunate, and not as a tie that binds the city together.
Now, I am talking about a small city. I have no idea how Seoul compares, although even there I think it would conform to the model of Queens, NY as opposed to Detroit, MI. And like I said I don’t think this is necessarily a Korean thing, some kind of “Wow. Confucianism dictates that you treat your elders with so much respect!” bull shit, as it is related to country-size. The USA has “Settling This Vast Empty Land” as a foundational myth, and it shows in most of our cities.
Fortunately for me, Korea’s foundational myths don’t seem to effect urban planning all that much.
A friend from home came to Korea for a visit. She was doing both the ROK and Japan in one Far East swing. I convinced her to leave Seoul and had down to the country. We met in Gyeongju the next city over from where I live. She was impressed by my Korean, which shocked me since I can’t speak the language. What I know is maybe a handful of phrases and numbers. Basically I can go into a store and ask how much something costs and know how much to pay when I’m told. But after living here for four years I’m also a lot more comfortable not knowing what people say to me and having a “conversation” regardless of the fact that I can’t speak the language. Either I’m listening for one word I know and reply with one of the hundred or so I know, or I’m just playing a rather involved game of charades, which gets you pretty damn far.
Sometimes I know exactly what’s being said in some scripted exchanges because I know the script. If I’m buying groceries and I’m asked a question, it’s probably about whether or now I want a bag. I get a lot of mileage out of stuff like that. Or it comes back to the comfort level. Some people, like the shop keepers in my neighborhood, I see everyday, and I’ve stopped and chatted with them where they’re speaking in Korean and I’m speaking in English, but we’re having a conversation that I can only imagine resembles that scene in Ghost Dog where Forest Whitaker and his friend that works in the Ice Cream truck and only speaks Creole are having a conversation about a man building a boat on the roof of an apartment building. Neither speaks the same language but they talk to each other just the same.
Or in other words you can get pretty far here simply by playing a decent game of charades.
How Not To Teach English
Sometimes I wonder how effective it is having Native English Teachers (NETs) in Korean classrooms.
Some background for you all: the program that employs me is called EPIK. It’s a government agency overseen by the Department of Education. It was formed in 1995 and places NETs in public schools. Overall I suspect it’s a pretty expensive program to run. We’re paid quite well and receive other benefits like having our rent paid for along with receiving a decent renewal bonus. There are other programs, TALK and Fullbright Fellowships, that place NETs in Korea. I just know a lot less about them. Like most education programs EPIK is influenced by politics.
Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, has decided to focus less on English education and has done away with NET teachers in middle and high schools. This began in Seoul a year or so back, but has now been implemented everywhere. I teach elementary school, and figure I’m safe for a while yet.
Anyway, all this has got me thinking about English education in South Korea, and in particular the NETs role in it all. We’re a phenomenally underutilized resource. But at the same time I have no idea if it would be possible to measure our effectiveness.
First off, throw out whatever image you have of teaching English. Much of what I do is what I call Vocational English. Phrase book stuff. And what my students are tested on is their proficiency using these phrases. Understanding these phrases or being able to use them fluently are less important than being able to parrot the “correct” answers back. If I have a student that approaches an organic fluency or proficiency that’s great, yay for me. But that can’t be my goal. Nuance, organic fluency? If I dwell on those things, my students fail their tests.
Not that they want to pass them.
Other schools may be different, but 90% of my students could care less about learning English.
I teach in the old part of an industrial city in the poorest and most conservative province in South Korea. My students come from working class homes. Some are being raised by a single parent or their grandparents (or in one case I know of by an older sibling).
For a time now Korea has made English a benchmark in society. And what it’s spawned is an industry of parasites and resentment. Parasites in the form of testing agencies and pointless certifications (I have no respect for TOEIC exams). Resentment in what I see every day in my students, which I have to suspect is resentment they pick up from the society around them.
By having me or any other NET there, we’re likely increasing our student’s resistance to learning a foreign language. For one, there’s no payoff for my students. At best it’ll arrive 12 years or so down the line when/if they apply to college. They’re certainly not going to use English outside of school. Okay, maybe when they play video games, but again that’s phrase book “warrior needs food” parroting. Two, they’re bombarded with the general anti-foreigner mindset of their culture. To learn English would get them singled out as disloyal and unKorean.
The kid that’s really into English and dreams all the time about leaving Korea is a similar joke set-up to that kid in Ohio that always talked about going to LA or New York and making it big after high school. So why learn it, if it’ll single you out from your peers? And that’s not something Korean culture wires people to do easily, go against group consensus.
Social mobility? Errr, maybe. But the way the gap is growing between the haves and have-nots here is stunning, and I doubt the haves want to share.
Someone once said to me it was to make sure Korea got the jobs that outsourced to India, instead of those that get outsourced to China. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but Korea has no problem stuffing its own people in horrible factories for others benefit. Sure, the slogan is to make Korea a global player – but it’s an odd vision they have of global, when everything outside the country is depicted as broken, dirty, and/or immoral.
I suspect every Korean born after 1990 likely has English anxiety, all because it’s been forced upon them.
“Here’s another failure for you to dwell on, Sunmin! Only it’s English, and that’s okay, you can make fun of that.”
All I’m doing, I fear, is inoculating my students against English.
Law & Order: Elementary School Redux
Small follow-up on Law & Order: Elementary School. Three of the four kids have been removed from their class and switched into other classes. (There are four 6th grades at my school, all these kids were in one, now they’re spread amongst the four.) I’m not sure what affect this will have. Maybe it will make a difference. Possibly apart they’ll be less trouble. Or possibly they’ll spread their influence to all the other classes and I’ll end up with three more fuxxored classes.
I suspect it will be some alternating combination of the two.
Law & Order: Elementary School
Strange things are going on in the 6th grade.
For the past two days now, the half dozen lousy* students, an assortment of mean girls, bully boys, and their sycophants, are getting pulled out of classes and taken off to separate rooms where they’re being “interrogated” by the teacher in charge of our school’s anti-bullying program**. Granted it’s the end of the year and it would have been great if these interventions had occurred earlier, but in this world I’ll take what I can get.
* Lousy in the horrible person way, not the poorly performing student way. If you’re a crappy student, but a decent person, you’re okay in my class.
** There’s been a push to get anti-bullying programs in schools here, so that’s great – but in a lot of ways it’s completely at odds with the overall culture outside school (though is this much different than back in the States?), and it’s kind of toothless, which might also be the same as in the States.
The Bookstore Post
Last week I spent over a quarter of a million Korean dollars on books. It’s actually only about 400 USD, but it sounds cooler as a quarter of a million bucks. At the time I quipped that this only increased the likelihood of my opening a bookstore café here in South Korea, because eventually we will have too many books and what else am I going to do?
Have you ever read Lavie Tidhar’s Osama?
It’s a great pulpy novel, but I’m not sure if my amazement of it is transferable to others unless you’ve lived overseas as an expat.*
“Alfred was a man full of stories; now he filled his life with those of others, the small shop filled with worn and battle-weary books that had seen more of the world in their time, he liked to say, than he had and, like himself, had finally come to rest, for a while at least.”
It might be hard to get unless you’ve absorbed that ambiance of random books hoofed into a foreign country and left behind by carefree, downsizing backpackers, of going into a bar or burger joint and seeing if they have a shelf of cast-off Penguin classics, or maybe you’ve had a mental conversation like this one my buddy Gord Sellar outlined:
“Huh, well, I suppose I could read some Tom Clancy, since this Alvin Toffler looks a little like a retread of his last book, and I’m not interested in the bodice ripper. I wish whoever bought the books I brought for trade-in would bring in a few of theirs so I’d have something to buy.”
It’s a world made of cast-offs. You find yourself reading anything you can find. And you’re reminded by how disposable books are (unless you’ve lived in a big city where you can regularly find books tossed out in the trash). They’re what most people leave behind when they divest themselves of access baggage.
Every city that boasts a marginally sized English speaking expat community will slowly start to accumulate books. Whether in a bar or a café, you’ll find a shelf. Tired old paperbacks, the hip authors from the decade before, the disposable pulp novels, and the ones someone read to improve themselves. Stuff you never knew existed like the works of Stephen Leather or the foreign to you analogs. (Quick, who is Australia’s answer to Michael Chabon? Australians, no helping.)
And if you’re a reader what happens? You accumulate more, and think, maybe I should consolidate the cast offs. Maybe I should be the person with the shelf instead of the shitty frathouse bar. And since I’m at it, I’ll make it a nice place to hang out. Maybe let people tutor here or get a cup of coffee.
And that’s how it happens.
Another English language bookstore gets born.
* I recognize expat is a loaded term. Right now my definition is an expat lives in a foreign country expecting to leave it at some point. An immigrant lives in a foreign country with the expectation of settling there. And there’s likely overlap between the two.
Your Children Are Mutants
Seriously, they are.
Not only do they have warts, topical skin conditions, various physical tics, and other minor abnormalities, but their thought processes are different. They see things you don’t see. They hear things you don’t hear.
They think things you don’t think.
If its a physical thing, you might be in luck. Remember that kid in your class with the deformed ear, or the unsightly mole, or crooked teeth? Childhood is the great era of corrective surgery, braces, and the lasering away of unsightly blemishes. They’ve had that shit taken care – because doing so helps them blend in and walk among us with their weird, mutant thoughts.
It might be your world, but they’re adapting to it. And soon it’ll no longer be your world.
It will be theirs.