Friday, December 24, 2010

Koreans are people too

Some of the things I see written about Korea stun me for the outrage they would cause if Koreans said it about Westerners or non-Koreans. Granted, I'm one who frequently criticizes Korea, particularly Korean government, but I would like to think that I've kept my criticisms qualified by degrees or as reflective of parts of Korean society.

I came up with the idea for this post about a month ago, when I read this post on a message board, which positions Westerners as rational and Koreans as inherently irrational because:

"remember we Westerners want to talk in facts and such (our tv shows are full of info and history), but alot of the "facts" they know are from their books and such"

The writer goes on to say, "(dont get me started on the emptyness of the local tv programming)". Anyone who has ever seen Western TV, especially the most popular programs, would never claim that it is "full of info and history", except for some staunchly racist boor who can't conceive of reason and intelligence existing apart from, our outside of, the West.

At the end of the post, he uses the word "locals". There is perhaps no more pejorative term for Koreans used online than "locals", even more pejorative than "K-girl", "K-teacher", "Kimmi". Local implies an unfathomable gap between the writer and Koreans, the sort imagined by European explorers. It's really a step or two above something further dehumanizing like "natives" or "savages", as in "I spent a lot of time with the locals, who were quite adamant about the healing powers of some fermented cabbage they referred to as 'kim chi'".

A discussion I once saw about the Korean tendency to have the window open a crack even during cold weather turned into a discussion about Korean manners, which concluded with someone saying something to "the only manners Koreans have..." I'm sure the person wouldn't make such a statement about Korean-Americans or blacks, no matter how much time she had spent around people from those backgrounds and how much frustration she had received at their hands.

Based on the Internet and discounting venues like YouTube or newspaper articles, the only one who seems to be openly racist or xenophobic on legitimate Internet fora is us. We go on and on about how Korean women are not attractive, intelligent or bearable as companions, we talk about the pervasive irrationality of the education system ("what exactly do they learn all day anyway?"). It's undeniable that Korea has a problem with being nativist and xenophobic, but we don't act that much better, if better at all, when discussing Korea.

We have a vast belief in the superiority of Western values, to the extent that we conflate Western values with the West. This is why we ask for Western doctors because Korean doctors aren't logical, though with a life expectancy higher than America's, Korea is probably doing something right. In believing in our supreme, invincible superiority while paying lip service to the value of other cultures, we become the caricatures we mock, The kind of person who says "yes, I believe that all people are equal, as long as none of them are black and all of them are Korean."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Week 5 of Seoul International Marathon training

This was an all-round crappy week, but not without its positives, namely that I ran for almost two hours and 30 minutes on Sunday, probably the longest run I'll do before this marathon.

I ran a 12 km race at Buramsan in northeastern Seoul, though anyone who could read a map could see that it was 14k. The course was simple: 5.3 km going north up the mountain (500 m elevation), and descending a quick, steep 350 m to a pass before going back the way you came.

I thought it would take about 90 minutes and we would only go to the top once. It took 47 minutes to get to the top and another 20 minutes to manage the steep mile down to the turnaround point. That was pretty much all the energy I had on this day, so between not being very good at at hiking, not carrying any food, and not being in great shape, I was left far behind by people I'm much faster than on the roads.

I sputtered down in 2:24. My reaction at finishing, as captured by a high-powered lens is shown below. This was definitely the hardest race I have ever run in my life. Even if I was good at this, it was the equivalent of a 20-25 km race with a tough, icy trail. The winds at the top (it's named Turtle Rock for a reason) were torturous when already tired, hungry and also somewhat confused about the way down.

The rest of the week was also a wash, mostly due to staying up too late and not running in the morning.

december 13 - december 19

monday - 4k
tuesday - off
wednesday - 6 x 800 at art school, -12
thursday - off
friday - off
saturday - 4k
sunday - buramsan 12k in 2:24, 5.3k to the top in 47, turnaround in 1:08, very tough


Friday, December 17, 2010

Two minutes to go, you're down by 7 marks, who do you want at that desk?

This week I finished about 100 report cards, writing a short paragraph about each student. Often I ended up noting that the student's marks were not an accurate reflection of their ability. For whatever reason, some students consistently underperform on tests, but would be judged as being better at English by any measure except for testing.

Judging students to be better on the basis of a semester's worth of classes, though, is like judging a team or a player to be better after a season's worth of practices and regular season games. The English Premier League just does this, as my Patriots-loving brother noted after a particularly grievous upset loss. The lore of sports, particularly football, where teams can not play more than 20 meaningful games in one year, is built around the idea of "making plays".

"Making plays" is an empty, just-about meaningless statement that is no more informative than Nike's "just do it", or the fabled track coach's advice to "run fast, turn left". Football does reward those who perform well in the post-season. Whether it's a fluke or otherwise, you are good because you perform well in designated high-pressure situations. Consider the 10-6 Giants who upset the 16-0 Patriots: the Giants' miraculous playoff run isn't held against them, rather, it's Exhibit A in their greatness.

The analogy between football and school isn't quite the same, though. Where it breaks down is that football teams have a season that is consists of competing towards an obvious goal. You could argue that the goal of school is to have the best marks possible since that's the only tangible outcome, but school was never an agreed-upon competition in the same way.

As well, students aren't teams. Teams are easy to compare, but players are not. Even in cases where an individual is statistically superior to another (passing yards, grades, whathaveyou), there are other factors at work: the quality of his teammates, the way his team plays, and even the climate in which he plays his games. Clearly, with players, the agreed-upon goal that lets us arbitrate between teams breaks down, because there are still debates about the greatest quarterback ever.

Morever, some of the quarterbacks who won the most Super Bowls generally aren't considered to be the absolute greatest ever (Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw), and quarterbacks with the greatest individual statistics aren't always considered the greatest (Vinny Testaverde, Jim Kelly and Drew Bledsoe all rank highly in passing yards).

So, if individual football players, typically quarterbacks, can't be judged by neither individual statistics nor by designated high-stakes events such as Super Bowls, how can we judge them? We use heuristics, much as we judge students and our peers by a mix of daily performance as well as high-stakes performance. We discount Testaverde as a great quarterback despite his individual statistics and discount Aikman as one of the absolute greatest despite being somebody who did very well on tests. Obviously, we have our reasons.

The heuristic sometimes used is the hypothetical "your team is down by a touchdown with 2 minutes to go, who do you want in the huddle?" question seen on message boards or polls. The idea is to strip players on great teams of their supporting cast, and to judge players who accumulated great statistics without great skills in a high-pressure situation. This would be akin to judging students by simply cornering one in the hallway at random and asking them math problems. This is neither a test, nor a meaningless class, but some sort of "real knowledge". Another example would be a peer in high school or university that we felt wasn't that smart, despite high grades, based on a semester's worth of interactions.

This is not a bad way of doing things, though it's not without its ambiguity. Peyton Manning, John Elway, Joe Montana, and Tom Brady could easily be trusted to overcome a touchdown deficit with 2 minutes left, as could second-tier quarterbacks like Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair or Jim Kelly. Similarly, much as tests supposedly only prove that someone is good at tests, someone who is smart when you talk to them is, therefore, only good at seeming smart in conversation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Week 4 of Seoul International Marathon training

I missed a couple of days this week due to being sick, but that was probably a good thing since the rest of my runs were longer.

december 6 - december 12

monday - 5k
tuesday - off
wednesday - off
thursday - am 3k, pm 7k tempo on namsan loop with backpack
friday - 6k, raining
saturday - 10k
sunday - 17k


It's that time of year again

There are two traditions in my life every December. First, the San Diego Chargers will overcome a slow start to mount a strong playoff run. Second, I will blog about it. Last year, the Chargers overcome a 2-3 start against the 6-0 Broncos. The year before that, it was a 4-8 start that turned into a playoff win in the first round. In 2007, a 5-5 start led to the AFC Championship game.

Today, I was excited to see two good games, the Chiefs-Chargers game that was very important to the AFC West, and the Patriots-Bears game that let the NFL sell something to the Chicago market. This year, the Chargers started 3-5 and, not including their 21-0 fourth quarter lead, are 6-6 behind the 8-4 Chiefs. When I saw that Matt Cassel wouldn't play, I sensed that this would also be a cakewalk. Lo and behold, both games are routs, by a combined score of 57-7.

The result will be a narrow 1-game lead for the Chiefs. Head-to-head games are a tie, both teams will be 2-3 in division games, and even 5-4 in conference games, after this game. It's definitely easy to see the Chargers edging into the playoffs, even as a wild card, though the 9-3 Jets and 8-4 Ravens are a distance ahead. The logjam of similarly-situated wild card teams is also impressive. The Dolphins, Colts and even the Raiders, along with the Chargers, trail the Ravens and Jets for two wild card spots.

In the NFC the logjam behind the Giants and Saints really only has the Packers and Buccaneers, but the Rams and Seahawks are in a grim 6-6 battle for first place in the NFC West, which could even be won by the 3-9 Cardinals. The Cardinals are on their way to a win, while the Rams and Seahawks are both losing. Clearly, the Chargers have set the bar very low.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don't ask, don't tell, Chinese style (part 2 of what is sure to be an ongoing series)

After this earlier case of China enabling and defending North Korean acts of war against South Korea, we have another case. None of this is news, of course, but the following peak into China-South Korea relations is an interesting window into the new, intransigent, passive-aggressive China.

Foreign Policy magazine reports on a Washington post article about a meeting between Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo and South Korean president Lee Myung-bak. Dai is often described as China's top diplomat, though his position merely makes him a high-ranking cabinet member without a portfolio per se.

As an aside, China's secretive, brutal government is murky in many ways, but especially for its organization. Dai is a State Counilor because he is on the State Council, China's cabinet, but also a Central People's Government, which is apparently synonymous. Hu Jintao is China's president, but there are also the posts of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, premier, Chairman of the Central Military Council (Kim Jong-il holds a post with a similar name), and Chairman of the National People's Congress.

There is also the position of Paramount Leader (held by Hu), which you can hold without being president, premier or any of that fun stuff. In fact, Deng Xiaopeng ran the country for 15 years without a truly lofty title except for Paramount Leader. In short, outcomes in Chinese politics are arrived at in the same bizarre, non-adversarial way as NCAA football championships.

At any rate, this is how the Post reported on the meeting, with the truly egregious parts bolded:

China's attitude to the problems on the Korean Peninsula was on display Nov. 27 when its top diplomat, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, visited South Korea for talks. China, according to South Korean officials, notified South Korea 15 minutes before Dai's departure that he was headed for Seoul and that he wanted to land at a South Korean air force base that is normally reserved for heads of state. China also informed South Korea that it wanted President Lee Myung-bak's schedule cleared for an immediate meeting with Dai. The South did not agree and Dai met Lee the next day.

During that meeting, Dai essentially gave Lee "a history lesson on the relations between Beijing and Seoul" and did not mention the North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong, said a South Korean official. "He just told us to calm down," the official said. Then at the end of the meeting, as the two were readying to shake hands, Dai, off the cuff, told Lee that China wanted to call an emergency meeting of the six-party talks, grouping the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia, China and North Korea, to help lower the heat on the peninsula. Lee told Dai that - given North Korea's actions, a meeting would be tantamount to rewarding North Korean bad behavior. But Dai ignored Lee's rejection and when Dai returned to Beijing, China's chief North Korean negotiator, Wu Dawei, announced what it framed as a bold Chinese initiative: more talks.

Yesterday the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo. In response, China took the following measures:

- Beijing police warned restaurants and bars to be on the guard for celebrations from large groups of people (six or more), after some people wrote on the Internet that they would observe Liu's absence from the ceremony by making reservations for six people and leave one chair empty.

- Security forces abducted human rights activists

- A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman referred to the Nobel peace prize committee as "clowns"

- made up a new peace prize, the Confucius Peace Prize, which it awarded to the former president of Taiwan, who had no idea that he'd won

- the websites and television signals of foreign news organizations like the BBC or CNN were blocked

China is very popular in the developed world for its "don't ask, don't tell" approach to foreign relations. We know this best in its support of North Korea, but it increasingly finds allies with dictatorships around the world, such as in Africa, because it's willing to do business with questionable governments without tying business to some social good as well. This country boasts a vast network of international support one day and the next day says it exerts no influence over a basket case like North Korea (China supplies it with cash and fuel to stay afloat).

I get questions

From the moment I thought about teaching as a career, I imagined a classroom full of students riveted by my every word, not just my explanations of World War I, but also my off-topic explanations of the Greek origins of certain words, or the difference between 'e.g.' and 'i.e.'. In reality, of course, it's nothing like that, not in the least because I teach motivated students that couldn't understand my inanities even if they really, really wanted to.

I've by large settled for defining abstract English nouns in Korean and trying to make them relevant by giving concrete examples, only to realize the gap between tourist plaques and the typical socio-historical knowledge of a 12-year-old.

At any rate, with about 20-25 kids disinterested in yet another class in their long day, this time in English, my dream isn't realized as often as I would like. On the other hand, when I volunteer with a small group of three kids on Wednesdays, I find that I command much better attention, even though these students speak English in words here and there rather than sentences.

This week, after I finished teaching the past tenses of irregular verbs including read/read, one 11-year-old looked up from her book and asked, "who invented English anyway? Americans?" I explained the relationship between the 'Eng' in English and England, as well as Britain's settler colonies around the world, which obviously is not something that many Koreans (or English speakers) give much thought to.

We spent the next 20-30 minutes looking at middle school final exams (one student had a stack of them), while I marveled at some of the math that's done in grade 8 here. As an aside, while I used to think that these kids were far better-behaved than the students I'm paid to teach, I think it probably points to the fact that I'm too uptight in class. Some of the things I said which stunned these kids:

  • Many Americans can't speak English, or rather, don't speak it fluently. I estimated that 15% of Americans, or about 50 million people, don't speak English at a native level due to immigration. The relationship between America and English was tautological to them. "Wow! Fifty million people are Americans but can't speak English! Amazing!"

  • "I heard that in America, if teachers hit students, they go to jail."
    "No way! Really?"
    "Yeah! You have to go to the police office."

    Corporal punishment is also not very popular here.

  • If you speak English in America, it's not a one-way ticket to a cushy life the way it is here. In fact, there's a premium for Americans to learn foreign Korean.

  • English is an absurdly hard language to learn. French, which seems to be characterized as a series of gargling noises (not all that far off the mark), is probably easier.

  • In Canada, I finished high school at 3 pm and was free to go home. In middle school, there were no final exams. Come to think of it, in middle school we put a premium on expressing complex historical ideas through drama. This would explain, later on, why students were unable to write a paragraph: the time to learn how to write had been spent avoid writing in favour of skits.
  • Monday, December 06, 2010

    Week 3 of Seoul International Marathon training

    I ran a half marathon this weekend, partly because I haven't run one in over a year, partly because I wanted to see how my endurance compares with speed. I ran a 39:31 10k last month, which is good for about a 1:28 or so, but I'd have been happy with a 1:30.

    This race started at 2 pm on a cold afternoon, but I was so lazy and unconcerned that I got to the start line (mercifully in front of the subway exit) just to see the race take off. Thanks to the wonders of chip timing (there's probably a picture of me holding my gloves in my mouth as I cross the line), I calmly started 2 minutes late and got to pass most of the field.

    Like I often do in half marathons, including my fastest, I ran the third quarter way too fast, and ran out of steam near the end. Not having much strength, the last 2-3k were a real struggle and I finished in 1:32. The 5k splits were 21:46, 21:19, 20:50 and the last 6k in about 28 minutes.

    Other than that, I ran every day this week, but no more than 20 minutes.

    november 29 - december 5

    monday - 3k
    tuesday - 4k
    wednesday - 3k
    thursday - 3k
    friday - 3k
    saturday - kookmin gungang half marathon in 1:32:10
    sunday - 4k


    Beggars can't be choosers

    I've had a hard time watching football this year. My work schedule and the time difference means that it's really only practical to watch mid-afternoon games back home, and even those tend to finish just as I have to get to class. One of the ironies of watching online is that you can choose the games you want, but with limited time, I tend to choose the closest, most exciting game going on, which tends to give me more or less randomly chosen teams.

    The last few weeks I've seen three Colts games in a row, which is always a welcome sight, if only because watching the same team for three weeks helps me make some sense of the season, as opposed to no sense at all. So, as I watch the Colts and Cowboys, I know that one team has underperformed this year by a little, and the other by a lot.

    The Cowboys have been good at, first, getting blown out this season, but are now good at coming up just short. They jumped out to a 17-0 lead while I watched a reasonably important Chargers-Raiders game. With the Chargers still lethargic, I came back to this 27-14 just in time to see a Colts touchdown, a long Cowboy kickoff return negated by a penalty, and then a third-down sack and a fourth-down punt blocked for a touchdown. Just like that, it's 28-27.

    Of course, if I know one thing about this game, it's that these two teams excel at finding a way to lose. Someone on one of these two football teams, Jim, is going to find a way, is going to find a way to make that play. And we know that on these football teams, somebody is going to make that play which gives their team a chance to lose this football game and make a disappointing season--you know, we talked this year a lot about how both of these football teams had a lot of playoff hopes--that much worse for these two football teams.

    Slightly creepy quote of the day, from Troy Aikman: "Leonard Davis is the biggest human being I've ever seen and I find myself absolutely mesmerized looking at him."

    Vacuous quote of the day, also from Aikman: "I think this guy's a player."

    He goes on to say: "In the last three years, he has averaged four yards a carry." Note that this makes him an average player.

    Sunday, December 05, 2010

    A room with a view

    At Kyung Hee University near where I live is the 평화의전당 (Peace Hall?), a shining structure on top of a hill. I noticed it almost immediately when I first got to this neighbourhood. Now, don't let the title fool you, it's not that I can see this from my house. Far from it, I can't see anything from my basement apartment.

    From my classroom on the top of another hill, the Hall of Peace is visible clearly. As is obvious to see, it's a replica of Notre Dame in Paris, albeit shinier, slicker and a frequent venue for concerts. Seeing it day after day after day, I finally decided, based on the subliminal prompting, to go out and read Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame.

    After a month of waiting to give up on The Karmazov Brothers, I started reading the story, bit by bit. I remember seeing the Disney movie on TV one afternoon about 15 years ago, which forms my impression of the area and the building moreso than actually being there just last year.

    Having had a long fascination with the people supposedly living in the subway tunnels of New York, and then old, abandoned urban spaces like Lower Bay station in Toronto, I really enjoy Hugo's belaboured description of the derelicts of medieval Paris, particularly a late-night scene at the curiously-named Court of Miracles, a square of vagabonds posing as disabled beggars. The lengthy, detailed treatment of the layout of medieval Paris as seen from the towers of the cathedral would otherwise have been tedious but here was amusing, as was the praise of Gothic architecture in favour of Renaissance architecture.

    Hugo writes from the perspective of a narrator in 1831 describing the events of 1483. Seeing contemporary accounts of those in the distant past condemning the slightly-more-distant past is as enlightening as it is amusing for the (hopefully) brief moment of superiority the advantage of time gives us. Greek philosophers often made it a point to condemn poets, such as Homer, for representing the uncritical conventional point of view of the establishment.

    They went on, of course, to concoct fantastic, elaborate tales of their own that were seemingly pulled out of nothing, with almost nothing in support. Consider Plato's Timaeus, simultaneously a work of immense genius and confusion, where he both considers the origins of the universe and argues that the world is made of triangles.

    On the other hand, the judgments of the distant past against the slightly-more-distant past are often spot on. The Greek intellectual tradition serves us well to this day, as does Gothic architecture, which Hugo was certainly not baseless in defending from unwelcome intrusions by progressive-minded Renaissance architects. Consider this abomination where modernism is appended to antiquity like a pigeon sewn to a rat.

    Thursday, December 02, 2010

    더 작은 세상 만들기

    I've always been enamoured of this man for shrinking borders. I was amazed at how the village of Chomrong, the last permanent settlement on the Annapurna Sanctuary trek at 2300 or so metres, was in some ways the nexus of the world. On my way up towards Annapurna base camp, I met an American who worked north of Seoul. On my way down, I met two medical students who live in the same neighbourhood as the American.

    Now, we didn't meet just anywhere, but at this particular corner of the world, a Time-magazine featured lodge in a mountain village of Nepal accessible, at best, only by a long day's walk from a provincial city.

    These two guys had been volunteering in Nepal for about a month, so when we met up this week, we went to a Nepali restaurant. I was stunned to see that one of them, at least, could have a decent conversation in Nepali. He explained that Nepali was reasonably easy to learn because of its subject-order-verb grammar ("I you love"), unlike the subject-verb-object order of English ("I love you"). Until I heard a Korean pronounce the "th" in "theek thak", I didn't really have an idea of what it was to speak a truly foreign language. An American speaking Spanish or a Pole speaking Russian isn't quite at the same level as an Arab speaking Chinese or a German speaking Punjabi (I've heard of the latter).

    We often make fun of Koreans for being not as cosmopolitan as Westerners who grew up with a supposedly wider perspective, though one not so wide as to understand that not everyone grew up in the same multicultural environment as us. In many cases, however, at least with respect to languages, I think Koreans would outclass us those of us who don't speak a foreign language for reasons of ancestry (ie I speak Urdu because I was born in Pakistan).

    For further evidence, the next night I was at a pizza restaurant near my house, which has long been searching (explicitly) for a Chinese female to work there. At the table next to mine were three people from Spain, Korea and China. These students switched between Spanish, Korean and Chinese depending on the topic and the combinatino of speakers. Unlike in a large Western city, where it's by no means hard to find people who speak all three languages speaking in English or some other local language, these three seemed to have genuine barriers of communication that could only be surmounted in this way.

    I sometimes find Korea's internationalism a little more raw and a little more real than what we see in Canada, in the sense that a Pakistani person in Korea will be more Pakistani than a Pakistani in Canada, who usually speaks English and has been Westernized to a far greater degree. No one quite gets Koreanized to that same degree, so the experience sometimes seems a little truer. Of course, that leads us into snobbish, usually Western obsessions about authenticity ("this is nice, but it's not real (insertethnicityhere) food") that are best avoided for reasons of tedium.