Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Who runs Seoul? Hint: it's not you

Anyone who has ever run a large road race has seen people lined up near the front who don't belong there, but I'm sure you've never been shoved aside by people out for a Sunday stroll interrupted by a 20,000-person road race. The only way out was to elbow through 20,000 fluorescent-wearing 20-somethings, and that's what they did. This is hardly news, of course.

Between the bruising here, not to mention the late-afternoon sun, the lingering smoke from the fireworks and the sharp 90-degree turn after about 30 metres, it was a hell of a start. Still, it was a nice chance to run on two major highways as well as two bridges.

Nike also scored an interesting place for a road race, a concrete square by the water next to some tall buildings, with a highway and subway bridge way above. As ugly as Seoul can be sometimes, the starting area looked pretty good by the water, and looked even better looking across from the south side of the river.

This was as large of a race as I've ever run, and with only about two lanes of highways and bridges made available to runners, the staggered start was nice. I'm pretty sure that I saw the tail end of the last group 500 metres into the race as I finished. There were no elite athletes, so people with towels tied around their heads in the tradition of the Korean jjimjilbang were right up at the front.

The fastest marathon run this year by a non-African is Iaroslav Musinschi's 2:08 (faster than Ryan Hall), but in fifth place is South Korea's Ji Youngjun, who ran a 2:09. The last non-African to win Boston was also a Korean, so clearly the talent at the high-end is there. Despite all that, the winner ran 30 minutes, women running 48 minutes were in the top 10, and my time of 40 minutes got me into the top 20.

All this proves, of course, is the power of about a few hundred dollars in prize money. Any race that offers this would get about a half dozen guys at 30 minutes. With all of Nike's money and their commitment to putting your footprint on your souvenir T-shirt for free, maybe next time they could do this, but I wouldn't be holding my breath.

Purists might turn up their nose at a race of this sort, but this makes sense only if you're capable of running about 28 minutes as a man or 35 as a woman, in which case you would've had no competition whatsoever. Otherwise, it was great fun, with none of the heart-tugging about charity (why does my run have to be for some sort of cancer or terminal illness?) or other platitudes about having had the courage to start. This was taking 20,000 people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who weren't really runners but hopefully in some sort of shape, finding out how hard it is to run a 10k.

When you get 20,000 people running a race, even in a city the size of Seoul, many people you know just happen to be running the race. Purists will be heartened to know that their 37:59 or 42:11 will seem that much more impressive after hordes of people have tried their hand at it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Float like a butterfly, sink like me

I hate teaching classes right after lunch. This happens Wednesdays and Fridays with a fun-loving group of kids that I otherwise like, if not for the fact that I'm in a food coma (rice with a side of spaghetti?) and they're energized from a just-short-enough 20 minutes playing outside, about half of our 40-minute lunch period. This creates obvious match-up problems, with a large, sluggish force against smaller, more mobile units in a confined urban environment.

I used to be a complete control freak in the classroom, until I gradually relented to the fact that it's possible to learn, even if every single student isn't looking directly at me in complete silence. Since then I've become a proponent of using my students' strength against them, turning their energy around against them to tire themselves out and generally work out the excess energy that they get from lunch. I am, however, unrelenting in my view of the teacher-sovereign as necessarily being a dictator with a monopoly on power.

This excellent article from the New York Times taught me a lot about teaching. It confirmed what many people had told me about teacher's college, namely that it's long in time but short on the valuable, complex skills that are so crucial to successful teaching. In job interviews, I've often been asked why I want to teach, or why I want to teach in Korea.

For some people here, the answer is to make enough money to finance weeks-long trips across Southeast Asia to places whose names begin with Kota, and then cornering hapless coworkers and bartenders in South Korea to tell them all about it in excruciating, mind-numbing detail ("first we went to Kota Kinabalu, but it wasn't very good, until we met this crazy giant squid that could talk, and we were all like 'no way', and then Jordan lost his wallet and we were like 'no way! what a couple of crazy waegooks we are!'").

One of the nice things about teaching here is that intelligent people from various different backgrounds end up teaching, some of them very well and some of them badly, but they all bring different perspectives to the process. Leaving aside the idiots that want to make English fun because the only way to learn a foreign language is to attach to it the same intellectual rigour as playing Xbox at home with hands covered in cookie crumbs, often we can see a pure, distilled version of what it is that we're supposed to accomplish in the classroom.

Things like giving actual instructions ("put your hands on the desk, please") instead of vague admonishments ("don't do that!") are a start, but what drew me to teaching was the challenge of phrasing everything just right. If you choose your words slightly the wrong way ("hand that in" instead of "give it to me"), you'll have two dozen kids muttering about your incomprehensibility.

So, when I stagger in after a lunch of carbs with a side of potato and a dessert of spaghetti, I often give instructions in a way that baffles even me. "Open your books to page 67, er, 76, er 36. Now be quiet and don't touch the books I asked you to open. Great--you there, please don't touch the book. Okay, now, everyone close your books please. Close your books. Great, now everyone look here please. How are you today?" As someone on The Simpsons once said, the trouble with first impressions, of course, is that you only get to make one.

Friday, October 22, 2010

My disdain for TV, as seen on TV, in lieu of a real entry

The Simpsons' endless capacity for self-parody lists the following top shows on the fictitious FOX-inside-the-FOX:

(here's the episode)

America's Ripest Bananas
So You Think You Can Judge
Who Wants to be a Welder?
Poodle Versus Elephant
Leg Swap
Old People Try to Figure Out Computers
American Idol
Dancing With Cars of the Stars
America's Drunkest Nobody
Let's Make a Veal
Somali Pirate Apprentice
Fix Andy Dick
Bottom Chef
My Life On Kathy Griffin
Pimp My Crypt
Are You Fatter Than a Fifth Grader?
Grave Robbers of Orange County

Credit goes here.

My favourites are Somali Pirate Apprentice, Are You Fatter than a Fifth Grader? (probably not, two of my students lost a lot of weight over the summer), and American Idol.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Value theory and happiness, as taught to 7-year-olds

Today my class read a story called "Hang on, Rose!" in which a boy wants to make his sullen dog feel better. He exchanges an apple to another boy for a jump rope, which in turn he trades for ice cream, which in turn he trades for a bone. The bone makes the dog happy, but we examined this story from a couple of different angles.

First we established the idea of trade and then discussed the good trade, as well as the bad trade. The goodness of a trade, of course, is linked to value theory, a concept by which we judge which things have value and which don't. I offered money as an approach to value theory.

So, we started by establishing the price of all four items involved. Most students pegged the value of a single apple as between $1 and $6, which was probably not as embarrassing as myself not having an idea of how much anything costs. I figure that the price of a half dozen apples is going to vary, at most, by a dollar or two, and it's not going to affect my decision to buy the apples or not. So, I never look at the price. I do often buy some bananas on the street, and they are between 30-60 cents each, so I figured an apple is the same price.

Most kids said that the price of jump rope was between $5 and $10, and I was inclined to agree, but then I consulted an adult more in touch than I am, who informed me that their low-quality jump ropes (they serve as often as sashes as jump ropes) are probably on the order of $2. I took the lowball estimate of 80 cents for an ice cream bar in favour of the $5 that someone gave, presumably for a tub. The price of a bone was interesting idea in itself, but I said that it had no monetary value.

Measuring the trades in monetary terms, I pointed out that the boy had traded a 50-cent apple for a $2 jump rope, and then gradually blown it all on nothing but a bone. Was this a good trade, I asked? No, said most, because of the money. But, the crucial point of the exercise was whether there was another way of assessing the value of a trade.

Patty pointed out that while a jump rope is long-lasting, an apple would not last very long, so the jump rope offers greater satisfaction. A move away from money towards happiness was what I was going for. Patrick countered with the idea that we could simply take one bite of the apple every year, a thought that puts him on par with the hiking-boots-and-heavy-metal-mural-t-shirt-wearing segment of upper-year philosophy courses.

As class came to an end, I broached the idea of what the end of trading was: was it financial gain, personal gain or, following the plot of the story, the dog's happiness? By the first measure, the jump rope was best, by the second the ice cream was the best, but keeping with the spirit of the story, the worthless bone was the best. Some students found the idea of pursuing happiness intriguing and probably we all would have liked to pursue it further, but we ran out of time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The largest playing field of them all

Whenever I go to watch a marathon, I always get a sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach that I'm going to miss whatever it is that I came to see. The problem with watching a marathon, unlike a football game, baseball game or even a cross country meet, is the sheer size of the playing field. The one I went to see yesterday went to about three different corners of Seoul, and I had a hard enough time just getting across a massive highway to get to the waterfront course.

As I ran the marathon course backwards, I noted the somewhat unsurprising difference between courses in Korea and courses in North America. North American races typically not only shut down streets, but they close them off. This race was going along a waterfront path, which is the equivalent of a two-lane road, but it wasn't even the only ambulatory procession along the Han River.

As the fitter marathoners hustled east, a slow-moving procession of seniors headed west carrying signs. At first I thought it was a union protest and then, seeing the words for 'sex' and 'girl', I thought it was some sort of save-the-prostitutes-campaign a la William Gladstone, but then I remembered that 성 also means saint, so I concluded this was a march for female saints.

Anyway, long trains of cyclists (ie 40-50 people) also unnerved eastbound marathoners around 25 km, but this open course wasn't all bad. Many people out for Sunday morning strolls came by the water stations as they were closing down and helped themselves to the water and Gatorade. For a country that prides itself on an often-vexing formalism, this was the sort of heartwarming Korean communalism that gets Westerners to stay another year.

Yesterday was also the Chicago marathon, which is where my paranoia regarding marathon courses comes from. I remember trying to go from mile 12 to mile 20 of the Chicago marathon, less than 3 miles apart in reality, and emerging after about 75 minutes (it was hot, but not too hot to walk at 25-minute-mile pace) thanks to subway confusion. It really ought not to be so hard.

In many ways, it's better to watch at home on your computer. Unlike watching on the street, where at best you can get someone to note that "dang, that skinny feller sure can run", you can second and third-guess the pros with the people at LetsRun while counting the number of mistakes on the online feed. Yesterday, for example, NBC's commentators were debating who the third-place finisher was. It was either Feyisa Lilesa or Deriba Merga, except that Merga had not only dropped out about a half hour ago, but he is rather distinctive-looking with a retro mustache, and is also one of the 10 best marathoners in the world. It was like a football commentator not knowing Adrian Peterson from his backup.

As much as I've enjoyed the sheer 'wow factor' of being able to watch elite runners in person, it's a bit like only being able to see a football game when the ball is between the 15 and 20 yard-line. In a big city, with good planning, you can see the frontrunners of a marathon a handful of times at most, but you will almost certainly miss the excitement. Consider the blow-for-blow finish to yesterday's Chicago Marathon, a dead sprint for the last mile. If you stood at the 25-mile marker, you would have seen an amazing race, but you actually wouldn't know who won...until you called up your friend sitting on his butt following along on LetsRun.

Friday, October 08, 2010

This week's sign that the apocalypse is upon us (assuming we work in publishing)

Students: That is a useful dictionary
Adeel: So, what's a dictionary?
Students: It is for searching words. On the Internet!
Adeel: Good! Can it also be a book?
Students: Nooooooooo!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Woman assaults child on Seoul subway, no one cares

This video above is best summarized by this article:

The video clip shows the old lady reprimanding the student for sitting cross-legged and the young girl talking back to her. Losing her temper, the old woman grabbed the girl’s hair, pushed her around and threw her on the seat in the car, while other passengers watched the scuffle.

At the end of the clip, the teen girl shouted into her cell phone, “I hate Korea, dad!” and swore at the old woman. Then she noticed the person recording the scene and said: “Upload it onto YouTube.”

Eyewitnesses explained other details not included in the video. They said the student sat with her legs crossed, wearing shoes smeared with mud and it had stained the old lady’s clothes.

She asked the girl to remove her dirty shoes from the seat and the student apologized twice. The old woman continued to scold her with abusive words and the teen girl then refuted and began talking back to the old lady, when the recording of the clip started.

The two most popular comments on the YouTube video as of right now are, unexpectedly, these two. They both have 13 votes.

"저 할미 2차선 지하철 마귀할미로 유명하다던데.. 아무것도 하지않은 여자애 다리꼰다고 시비하고, 미안하다고 2번이나 말했는데도 부모 욕하고 거기다가 머리 휘어잡으며 폭력까지한 할미를 우린 존경해야하나? 저 할미는 지금 정신상태가 정상이 아닌것같다.. 아무래도 병원에 가봐야함... 무개념한 10대 교포소녀라고 욕하기전에 저할미가 얼마나 무고한 사람들을 괴롭혀왔는지 알고 떠들었으면 한다.."

My Korean isn't great, but this one basically says that the old woman is something of a crazy old loon who is "known" (to the extent anyone is "known" on the Seoul subway) for picking fights. The commenter notes that the girl even said sorry twice, but the old bag wasn't having any of it.

The second one is simply bizarre:

"생각이있고 나라의 명예에 조금이라도 관심있다면 지우십쇼...."

"If you have even the slightest interest in this country's honour, please delete this video."

There are a couple of interesting pieces about how Korea sees itself. First, it's a country that, like the people that make up the country, is obsessed with its image. Newspaper articles are filled with rankings. I've learned more about how Korea ranks in various ways than I ever did about Canada. Whatever survey the OECD puts together is bound to make press in Korea.

Second, it's a country that sees itself as something of a secret. Korea's faults are one giant national secret until someone blabs them all onto YouTube via a video that's actually incomprehensible to the outside world without an English speaker to provide context. I'm constantly met by Koreans bemused to know that not only do I know the language, but I know the quirks, history, culture and various trivia and tidbit that make up an ancient civilization. It's not a well-kept secret Korea, nor should it be, for good or for worse.

As for the video itself, it tells you a lot about Korea. Essentially, this is an adult beating up a child in a public place while being recorded. In most of the civilized world, I think (or hope) legal charges would be forthcoming. However, when it's an old woman who has been offended by a young person, Korea's status-obsessed culture means that it doesn't matter.

All that's necessary to understand the immense power that older people have to treat younger people like garbage (though it certainly goes both ways), is to consider if the person mistreating the girl had been a foreigner. Say, a foreign man. One with dark skin, like myself. Or, one with even darker skin, like, say, a black man. A foreign black man (trust me, the foreign modifier is important) throwing a female middle school student (trust me, the female modifier is important) around like a rag doll in public? With about a hundred witnesses? And someone recording this?

Would the outcome have been the same? Of course not, and I would be the first person to argue that the guy should be arrested and, preferably, thrown out of the country. But why doesn't the woman get a similar treatment?

Friday, October 01, 2010

Perfectly useless or uselessly perfect?

From the moment I saw my first Bollywood movie with English subtitles, I've always been amused translation. Or, more to the point, just what is the point of translating? Is it to tell you what the original speaker said or is it to say it in your language? This is an obvious issue. For example, the English expression "to make the bed" translates into Korean as using wood to construct a bed, and the equivalent phrase in Urdu is to correct or "clean the bed". I once had someone literally translate "make the bed" for students ("침대를 만들다"), which was not helpful at all, especially since many Koreans don't sleep on beds in the first place.

At any rate, these are probably well-worn issues in the fields of linguistics, translation, interpretation and maybe even the philosophy of language, none of which are fields with which I'm well-acquainted. So, I can't write several paragraphs on the topic, but I do have an actual problem that I've noticed lately.

On the Seoul subway, announcements for transfer stations are made in four languages: Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese. If you take Seoul station, named after the train station above, it's pronounced Saw-ool in Korean, like the word 'soul' in English, roughly like "show her" (首尔) in Chinese, and saw-ooh-roo in (ソウル) Japanese. When I first got here, all their different languages had their distinct pronunciations. Speakers of English and Japanese could get by, but trying to get to Seoul station with "show her" is probably not very helpful.

So, the subway announcements were changed. Chinese announcements for Seoul station now have the Korean pronunciation in the middle, though they strangely refer to it as "Seoul station" station (서울역站). Yongsan station is called Yongsan, instead of the Chinese 'longshan'(龙山), the Dongdaemun market is Dongdaemun instead of Dongdamen (东大门), and Gyeongbokgung is spared the other-worldly Jingfugong(景福宮).

But, because the world revolves around English speakers, we still get to hear everything translated because we can't handle strange pronunciations. If you ever wanted to go to City Hall station, you'd have a tough time asking for directions, because 시청 is pronounced 'she-cheong'. The value in letting everyone know where city hall is probably lower than the value of letting everyone know what the station is called. Chinese and Japanese announcements approximate the 시청 sound.

There are limits, of course. Koreans often helpfully sanitize things in English because English speakers tend to be mystified by Korean vowel sounds, where an 'o' is always an 'o', no exceptions. Sometimes I'd like to see it carried to its logical conclusion for amusement's sake. We could call Dongdaemun "Great East Gate", Gwanghwamun could be "Enlightenment Gate" and Yongsan could be "Dragon Mountain". My favourite, though, would be Dongguk University station. Its colloquial name (동대입구역) translates literally as "Big East Entrance station".

Ultimately, though, translation will be an imperfect art for obvious reasons. Translating to make the reader see the same thing that the original reader sees is probably the best way of doing it. It's not necessary to make a reference to heaven or hell if subtitling "get the hell out of here!" What was probably more unusual all along was writing Korean place names (Yongsan, 용산) in Chinese characters (龙山), but then providing the useless Chinese (longshan) or Japanese (tatsusan) pronunciation, which is a long way from the usually correct English pronunciation (Yongsan).