Monday, June 29, 2009

After eleven months here, I think I should do a series of posts, let's say 10, about the differences between Canada and Korea. Let's start with age.

I went to a barbecue with about a dozen Korean two weeks ago. A lot of them hadn't met each other for the first time. When they were introduced to each other, the person introducing them would say "you're the same age". Then they could relax and talk to each other. If there is a difference in age, you have to talk up to the older person, who can, if they want, talk down to you.

The real substance isn't in how you talk, but in how close you get. I once asked a student if a student she knew in another class was her friend. "No! Not friend! Baby!" You see, my student was 7, and the other student was 6. Friends are only people that were born in the same year as you. People that are older or younger get described more specifically: co-workers, study group members, "we go to the same church" and so on. It's a big deal to meet someone that's the same age as you, people remark on it all the time, sort of like meeting someone who went to the same university.

At 22 and now 23, I've almost always been the youngest person in every situation save the classroom. Everyone I've met has asked me my age. Since I'm 24 in Korea, saying I'm 22 makes me out to be a university student. Four years of university, 20 months of military service, possibly a year studying abroad and the extra year for "Korean age" make guys 25 or 26 when they finish university. I usually just reply with '86, to which everyone gasps: students because it's so long ago; friends, co-workers and even travel agents because it was so recent.

After seeing the awkward, formal style in which people talk to those older than them, I consider myself fortunate that I'm not Korean.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

One of my reasons for studying Korean was to understand people if they were talking about me. At first, I was disappointed to see that nobody even bothered to make even a simple joke about me, but then I came to realize that nobody really uses pronouns in Korea. E.g. "I go by taxi" is "go by taxi" and "he's a jerk" is simply "jerk".

It's really bizarre to hear someone talk about me right in front of me, as though I'm not there. Here are some of the things I've overheard of late:

Adeel: Boys and girls, is your school old or new?
Boy: New!
Girl : Old!
Girl turns to the girl next to her
Girl: It's really old, built in the '90s!

Dismas: Oh, you've seen that commercial?
Adeel: Yeah, I have.
Dismas: Really? How?
Erica: Yes, he has. He really loves commercials.

(Background: Erica teaches me Korean. Most of my questions come from commercials I saw.)

Adeel: Bye Dismas, bye Dismas' girlfriend.
Dismas (to his girlfriend): Say bye to the foreigner.

Student (to Korean teacher): Teacher, the English teacher said...

Kim: How much is the blowfish? My foreign friends would like to know.

Student (to new student, as though foreigners roam the school for fun): This is the teacher.

Rachel: Oh my God! What're you doing? Adeel doesn't have anything to eat! Look at him!
Rachel (in English): Adeel, do you want more meat?
Adeel: Actually, I'm okay.
Rachel (in Korean): Hurry up! He needs more meat!

Mother (to child): ...the English-language-person...

Erica: He speaks really good Korean.
Friend: Hi, how are you?
Adeel: Huh?

Taxi driver: You speak Korean well.
Adeel: What?

Taxi driver: Your pronunciation is very good.
Adeel: What does pronunciation mean?
Taxi driver: Your Korean...
Adeel: What?

The last few are technically conversations, but I wasn't doing much more than hearing. In that vein, I was walking through a park by my house a couple of weeks ago. There was a family with a toddler playing badminton. The toddler was standing by himself. He stared at me wide-eyed as I approached.

When I passed by, he covered his eyes with his hands.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

From conversations in recent weeks with one of my dimmer students:

Adeel: Do you like Fridays?
Student: Bicycle.

Adeel: Who is your favourite singer?
Other student: Rain
Student: Sun

Adeel: What is a food that comes from plants?
Student: Milk

Adeel: When is summer?
Student: January?
Adeel: No, when is summer? What months?
Student: Winter?

This is what he wrote the other day:

Chicken is a food that comes from an animal. It is apple. Milk is a food that comes from plants. It is banana.

I have learned more about the unpredictable decaying processes of the human brain teaching this student than I did in my fourth-year seminar about the philosophy of mind.

Monday, June 22, 2009

This is why you'll see Mao on the US dollar bill by 2030:

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bracing for New Protests, Iran Tightens Crackdown

TEHRAN — In the face of a growing official campaign to block channels of dissent with arrests and restrictions, Tehran braced for a third day of mass defiance by opposition supporters on Wednesday after Iran’s leaders failed to halt demonstrations against last week’s disputed election results.

Thrown on the defensive by the biggest demonstrations since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the authorities on Tuesday offered a concession to the sustained rage here, saying they would allow a limited recount of the vote — an offer that was resoundingly rejected as opposition leaders sought to maintain the impetus of the protests.

The massive protests in Iran are exhilarating. Here's hoping they continue and achieve some effect.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Update: My mother said I can't go to Pakistan. Since it would be catastrophic to go to Pakistan without visiting relatives (and availing their support), and I can't contact them without her, Pakistan is out. My new plan is to cross from China into Kyrgyzstan, fly to Turkey and then travel across Europe. Resorting to air travel breaks my heart, but there's too much dead space going north through Siberia. Land travel west from China towards Europe involves going through one of Pakistan (and a very dangerous part of Pakistan at that) or Turkmenistan and then Iran.

Unsurprising to anyone who discovered that a train across Canada costs $2,000 but a flight is less than half of that (although a bus is about $200), the Bishkek-Istanbul flight saves me about $200 and 4 days of my life. I imagine Manas International Airport to be not unlike Franz Kafka International Airport, so perhaps the dignity lost through the attendant vagaries will simulate the dignity lost from overland travel.
Maybe it's life in homogenous Dae Han Min Guk, but I have a very strong desire to travel to Pakistan. There are a few causes, I think. If I was a minority in Canada, I'm a minority within a minority in Korea as an English-speaker who looks Indian, Bengali, Nepali, Filipino, etc. I'd like to go somewhere where I look like everyone else and, believe me, my first choice would definitely be India if not for visa regulations. And, of course, I like traveling to strange places. Pakistan isn't all that strange since I lived a third of my life there, but nobody travels to Pakistan, at least not anybody I know since I don't know any Pakistanis.

After finishing my contract two months from now, I fantasized about a train trip across China, central Asia, Russia, and Europe, finishing in London. Never having been one for planning anything, I was discouraged by the vagaries of four different visas. The suffocation of spontaneity and arbitrary choices by being slave to a dozen different train schedules, such as the twice-weekly train to Kazakhstan from China, made me want something different.

Instead, I'd like to travel capriciously and aimlessly across China, from Dandong on the North Korean border, to the Himalayas and across into Pakistan via a border crossing at 15,000 feet. The problem here, however, is Pakistan. Two hundred and fifty people were killed there by terrorism last month and I know of two distant relatives who have been kidnapped (and released) in the last year.

I like to think I'll be okay as long as I buy some cheap dress shirts while in China, the more garish the better, and refrain from shaving and minimize personal hygiene while there. Still, there is a long list of do's and don't's, mostly don't's, when it comes to travel in Pakistan:

  • There is a high threat from terrorism and sectarian violence throughout Pakistan
  • We believe there is a heightened threat to Westerners in major cities.
  • We also advise against using the rail network across the whole of Pakistan
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) has raised its Pandemic Threat Alert Phase to Level 6.
  • Avoid demonstrations or large crowds of people, including at busy shopping malls, tourist sites and public events, including religious events. Exercise caution in other public places including hotels, airports, markets, restaurants and on public transport.

    The warning extends to virtually every region of Pakistan, as well as road and rail travel. The British government advises against Western hotels as they're a target for terrorists, while the Canadian government says that "only the very best hotels, with stringent security, including metal detectors, should be used".

    Soon, I'll have to make a decision to go somewhere. The third option, a North Korean tour, is tempting in the absence of actual plans, but it's a great way of spending a month's money in fiv days.
  • Wednesday, June 10, 2009

    17-Year-Old Thinks She's Getting Into Photography

    EUGENE, OR—After wasting an afternoon taking pictures of a broken tricycle, moss on trees, and the shadow of a wrought-iron fence, Churchill Alternative High School senior Jessica Ivers falsely informed family and friends Saturday that she was getting into photography. "I love the way real film looks," said Ivers, who has owned the old single-lens reflex 35 millimeter camera for exactly one week, and named as her favorite photographers "probably Diane Arbus" and the French guy who took the picture of the boy with the wine bottle.

    Sunday, June 07, 2009

    The mountains are everywhere in Korea. In a country where you can't swing a dead cat without hitting two public buses, six middle-aged women and a dozen middle school students eating meat-on-a-stick, the mountains are lush green oases of calm. There are a few here in Suwon and about a dozen in Seoul. None of them are especially big (between 2,000 and 3,000 feet), but they're a fantastic addition in a very crowded, urbanized country. Namsan is right there in centre of Seoul, as obtrusive as can be.

    Hiking mountains is very popular in Korea, and even that's an understatement. When I was in Japan, I spotted a few Koreans by how they dressed: they were dressed to go hiking. Ordinary people back home dress like professional athletes by wearing jerseys and baseball caps. Koreans dress like they're going to go hiking even if they're just going about their daily business.

    The outfit is very distinct: a meshy, polyester blend golf shirt, black pants, immaculate hiking boots, topped with a jacket unless it's hot, hot like over 30 degrees, in which case a vest will suffice. On top, you wear a hat and on your back you wear enough equipment to last about two weeks on the mountain. In one or both hands is a ski pole. If you hike by yourself or don't like to talk much, you can bring a radio that plays all the Korean songs you've never heard, largely music dating to the Korean War. So far, I'm halfway there in assembling this outfit.

    Once you get to a mountain, you realize that they're lush and beautiful, but not really oases of calm. In fact, mountains are really like any other place in Korea, most of all like a subway exit. There's a neverending procession of people going up and down, all of them dressed the same, which is to say that they're dressed better than you.

    At the summit, it's common to drink beer, smoke a cigarette, drink coffee and generally eat the foods least suited to the occasion. I thought strawberry-flavoured milk in 30-degree temperatures was a good choice. The largely middle-aged crowd then engages in good-natured banter and grunts at you to get out of their way or, if you're not being obstructive, laugh and give you a thumbs up while bellowing "OKAY!"

    What's humbling is that whether you're climbing up a well-maintained trail or facing death on a cliff, you're not going to do it nearly as well as a 70-year-old woman carrying her weight in supplies. I once climbed two mountains in one day and felt reasonably proud of myself for hauling myself up steep cliff after steep cliff to reach the impossibly distant summit (the tower in the picture), only to find out that my friend's father climbed the two mountains twice as fast, and he was twice as old.

    Friday, June 05, 2009

    When journalists from CNN and the BBC went to Tiananmen Square on June 4 to see what was happening, China resorted to the embarrassing tactic of using umbrellas to obstruct their view.

    These videos make me laugh.

    Thursday, June 04, 2009

    In addition to the Kim phenomenon, I also have the Bright Kim phenomenon. Bright Kim is an adorable little boy (he just turned 6 this weekend) who is as peculiar as his name indicates. For a long time, I thought that 'bright' was a translation of his Korean name, but Bright is his English name, and Bright Kim is his full name. In this sense, he's a bit like Bob Dole or Matt Boles in that he always goes by his full name.

    Bright Kim speaks near-perfect English. He doesn't really have an accent, only a sonorous, somewhat nasal voice that sounds like a cartoon (he told me today that he goes to sleep at 9, after watching The Magic School Bus). It's not just that his voice is strange, his tone is roughly that of a cartoon character (exaggerated, friendly). I was recently surprised to learn, however, that he sounds strange when speaking in Korean because he spends so much time studying English.

    Bright Kim likes me, which is good, because he's my favourite student. He has a very large head, useful for storing such facts as "the school bus is tubular", "that's an anemone" and the shape of the African continent. He tends to live in his own world of made-up games and intriguing ideas, which he imposes on other students in my absence.

    "Okay! Now let's play the leaping frog game! Okay! You be the frog and I'll be the alligator who's going to catch you! Okay! Let's go! Okay!" His excessive use of the word 'okay' as nothing but filler is the strongest indication that he's well on his way towards becoming a native speaker.

    About him liking me: one day I walked into class to find him standing at the board lecturing to the other students, copying my tone of voice and far-too-frequent use of the filler "okay" and "guys". Imitation is the most amusing form of flattery.

    Wednesday, June 03, 2009

    It was 20 years ago at this time, late on the night of June 3, 1989, that the People's Liberation Army rolled into Tiananmen Square and killed hundreds of people. An unusual article here challenges the traditional view of Tiananmen as a failure. It should be somewhat gratifying for the victims that their government is troubled to this day by what it did long ago. Never mind that to Westerners, Beijing's most famous landmark is synonymous with a massacre.

    A pessimist could charge that the Tiananmen Square protests amounted to little. Nothing changed in the years that followed, and China's liberalization followed its modernization by the very power structure that protesters targeted. Tiananmen Square remains part of a subversive undercurrent in Chinese culture but had little direct influence.

    One of the nicer parts about Chinese governance this decade is that the federal government allows citizens to challenge the state in court, partly as a means of guarding against unscrupulous local officials who defy orders from Beijing. As well, the Chinese government has a duty to ensure a commodious living for everyone in the interests of maintaining social stability. When thinking of social stability, the State Council likely remembers the lessons of the spring of 1989, when thousands of students protested for weeks in Tiananmen Square.

    No discussion about the Tiananmen Square protests would be complete without a mention of Tank Man

    Broken English has really been growing on me lately. I bought a book in Tokyo by the founder of Engrish which pointed out the surprising eloquent and poetic qualities of non-native speakers' English. My elementary-age students as well as Korean co-workers and friends use English in sometimes innovative, thought-provoking ways.

    I have a student who likes to say "___________ has a what?" instead of "what is ________?" If you think of what something is being expressed in what it has, the results can be amusing. What's a dog? A dog has a what? A dog has four legs and a bark.

    Students of English also struggle with using articles in the right way. My oldest students are 8-9 years old and they put "a" before everything. When you do that, you never talk about anything of your own, instead you talk about something that might be somebody else's. "I am going home" becomes "I am going to a home". "I like to ride my bike" becomes "I like to ride a bike". You don't go home to your mother, you go home to a mother, perhaps somebody else's mother.

    Too many students begin "I am" sentences with "my is". My is cold. My is go to the grandmother's house. My is not! My is go to the Sally house and come back. There are all sorts of interesting possibilities there that I haven't even considered.