I leave tomorrow for a month long trip to the USA. As is always the case I’m stressed out and anxious, and one of the things that stresses me out the most is having the identical bullshit conversations with people about living in South Korea and Asia in general.
So, as one does, I made a bingo card of all my anxieties. This way even if I have a panic attack while listening to someone drone on I can still feel like a winner!
This past weekend I went to Gwangju for Alleycon, a fan con that wants to be a meeting place for local geeks, nerds, and dorks. A trifecta I identify with in variable proportions. It was a four hour bus ride, and overall a pretty good time, but a different vibe from last year. The biggest difference being due to the venue change from a university to a design building, which is the difference between 30 people filling a classroom and 30 people milling around a cavernous loft space. Not sure what the attendance numbers were but it felt emptier. I was also a little sad that there was no book swap. But I played a ton of games, met new people, and had a fun time. Not to mention you have to give credit to folks running a con. They’re up against a lot of expectations, and the whole effort smacks of the Sisyphean. Mishaps will occur. Folks will be discomfited. You’ll get blamed for it. And all for what? You’re not being paid and are just doing this out of love and an urge to do something for the community. So, hats off to the volunteers and folks running the con.
I hope they have it again next year. It’s a good thing those folks do. They do seem to be making the effort to build a community and inviting people to join them.
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.
It starts like this:
I’m back home visiting the States and out and about as it’s generally when I have a social life. I try to cram in as much time as I can visiting everyone I know. Invariably I’ll meet someone I don’t know and it comes out in conversation that I live in South Korea at which point they’ll slip into a script where they mistake things they’ve heard about South Korea for knowing something about South Korea. It’s like they can’t help themselves, and they have to tell me right now about one of these four things:
1. North Korea and/or the Korean War. It’ll be about the war if it’s an older guy because that’s the war the guys my dad’s age remember from when they were kids. MacArthur will get mentioned. If it’s a younger person they’ll go on and on about North Korea cribbing from Vice documentaries.
2. Asian Sex Tourism. This is always a younger guy and he’s incapable of not sharing everything he knows about sex tourism. I find it best to back away from these people and leave them as quickly as possible.
3. Plastic Surgery. Mostly women bring this up. And they may or may not bring up foot-binding as well. This is what I term an obsession with an obsession. And you can generally throw a wrench in the works by asking them if they think getting braces is plastic surgery. At least with this one I can have a conversation.
4. Dog Eating. Not as common as the above three, but still on the list. As with the Korean War and sex tourism when someone starts down this road I can actually see their eyes gel over as the obsessional script-worm burrows through their psyche and erupts from their mouth.
Lady Hyegyong was an 18th century Crown Princess in Korea’s Cho’son dynasty. Her husband was the “infamous” Prince Sado.
What’s known about Prince Sado is that he was put to death by his parents the King and Queen. Since no one could harm a royal person, Sado was ordered to climb into a rice chest, where he was locked until he suffocated after eight days. The reason given was because Sado was “mad” and considered a risk to the dynasty. In the 19th century there were rumors Sado was not “mad” but the victim of a conspiracy, and his father unjustly killed him. Lady Hyegyong, by now an old woman, decided to counter these rumors and set the record straight. That the late King, Sado’s father, had all mention of the incident removed from castle records, makes Lady Hyegyong’s account the definitive one. And like I said it’s a fascinating book. Lady Hyegyong gives a first hand account of what happened and details Sado’s “madness”.
But that’s not all that’s in this book. There are four memoirs here. In all of them Lady Hyegyong shows herself to be a perceptive judge of character and court life.
The first details Lady Hyegyong’s life from her childhood through her marriage at age nine to Prince Sado, her removal from her family home and her residency in the Royal Palace. From there she speaks briefly of Sado’s tragic life, the aftermath of his death, and her ultimate resolve to keep living and raise their son (who also happened to be the heir to the throne).
The second and third memoirs deal with her family members and their involvement in court intrigues. I recommend skipping these two, and going straight to the last.
The last memoir is a character study of Prince Sado, his illness, and his relationship with his father. It’s highly detailed as if Lady Hyegyong is trying to find the source and cause of Sado’s madness. Was it because he was separated from his parents at an early age, that his father failed to provide him with decent overseers, or something more sinister – such as the proximity of his palace to the ruined palace once belonging to a Queen who poisoned her competitors in the court? What is certain is that Sado’s episodes were often violent and he killed and/or raped many servants. The first Lady Hyegyong witnessed was the death of a eunuch and she speaks of his being the first severed head she had ever seen. Later Sado beat one of his consorts to death, and nearly knocked out one of Lady Hyegyong’s eyes after hitting her in the head with a chess board. These and other instances were what caused the royal family to fear Sado and led them to giving the order that he should be sealed in the rice chest.
As a modern reader it’s impossible not to try and diagnose Sado’s “madness”. That he was neurologically atypical is likely. Possibly he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia or a bipolar disorder. He also exhibited several phobias and obsessive compulsive disorders (Lady Hyegyong talks about a clothing phobia that would require a steady stream of fresh cloth, since Sado would destroy any clothes he found fault with), along with a murderous rage. Yet, Lady Hyegyeong is clear in stating that these were episodic and when he wasn’t in one of these phases Prince Sado could be a kind and gentle man, and often Sado comes across not as a monster but a victim. He suffers, even if he is a murderer.
Then there’s the weird stuff – the things that would make a good horror story. It’s like there’s a ghost story waiting right behind the actual tragedy.
Prince Sado was obsessed with Taoist magic, in particular one book of rites known as the Jade Spine Scriptures. He believed the God of Thunder was angry with him and was terrified by thunder storms (that one occurred on the 8th day after he was locked in the chest doesn’t go unnoticed by Lady Hyegyong). Often he would leave the palace dressed as a commoner and no one knew what he did during these times. And when he died, his father had his associates, a group including several shamans and a Buddhist nun, put to death.
It’s one thing to read about Caligula or some other ancient ruler known for being “mad”. It’s another to have a near modern account of a neurologically atypical ruler, one where the individual is painted so vividly that it’s like looking at an evolving portrait of their life. Lady Hyegyong provides that level of detail in her account, and as a book The Memoirs make for compelling reading. Maybe your library has a copy.
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.
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.