Sunday, December 25, 2011

I feel nauseous

There are three reasons why I feel nauseous right now. First, I am watching football in the condensed format that NFL Game Pass offers, turning each 3.5-hour bloated monstrosity of a football game, complete with cell phone ads, half-time interviews and repeated low-resolution replays of someone's knee touching the ground into a neat 40-minute package. However, it moves faster than what I'm used to and cuts out replays and explanations that I'd like to see. Most of all, I think I just saw about a dozen swings of momentum, points and possession in the span of three minutes in the Giants-Jets game.

This is what it looks like:

1. With 11 minutes to go, down 20-7, the Jets go for it on 4th-and-1. The pass is incomplete, but the Giants are guilty of pass interference. We already have two swings, as the Giants go from having possession to giving the Jets 27 yards.

2. Two plays later, the Jets score a touchdown, but Plaxico Burress is called for pass interference, putting them at 2nd-and-17.

3. On the repeat of the second down, Mark Sanchez fumbles, but the call is overturned.

4. The Jets manage to drive down the field and get to the Giants' 1, but Sanchez inexplicably fumbles the snap, which is recovered in the endzone, but by the Giants.

5. Eli Manning throws an interception on the first play of the drive, an odd passed that is tipped.

6. The Jets take over at the Giants' 11, the third huge break they've just caught, so naturally they proceed to shoot themselves in the foot with a holding call, pushing them back to the 21. On the next play, the ball comes out of Sanchez's hand and as there's no whistle, the Jets recover it back at the 38. However, the Jets successfully challenge and it's ruled an incomplete pass.

7. On a 3rd-and-12 play, Sanchez runs for 11 yards, but the Giants are called for defensive holding, resulting in a first down. Sanchez runs for a touchdown on the next play.

This was truly as repulsive, shoddy and nauseating a segment of football as I have ever seen. Comically, it was all for nought at the end.

To update my recent posts, the Chargers were blown out, effectively ending their playoff hopes. Tim Tebow was 13 of 13 with a touchdown and 4 interceptions, further indication that even the modest statistics he has accumulated are the result of cautious passing. In a less controlled environment where risks are required and the sample size is larger than six games, he seems to be struggling mightily with little to suggest improvement as a conventional passer in the future.

Who goes to jail in Korea?

The striking thing about the case of Jeong Bong-ju, a former politician and current host of the wildly popular podcast Naggomsu, is not that he was found guilty or that he was convicted of violating a nebulous law, but that he's actually going to jail. Jeong was convicted this week of spreading false rumours in connection with a scandal that erupted four years ago when current president Lee Myung-bak was a candidate, and sentenced to a year in prison. To put it in American terms, this is a bit like John Hodgman or Wyatt Cenac going to jail for what they said on the Daily Show.

You see, nobody goes to jail in South Korea. You'd have to do something really stupid, over and beyond the obvious things that land you in jail, like steal millions of dollars, rape disabled children put under your charge, order the wholesale massacre of civilians, or intentionally burn down a national landmark. You'd have to do something really, really bad like spread false rumours. Let's do a quick rundown over some of the awful things you can do here that don't earn you any time behind bars, as well as some of the awful things you can do to earn a sentence as harsh as Jeong's.

Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Electronics - convicted of tax evasion for which the prosecution requested a seven-year sentence, given a three-year suspended sentence, which in turn became a pardon by the president, all so that Lee could help promote Korea's bid for the 2018 Olympics (the reason for the pardon is not a joke)

Kim, administrator at the Inhwa School for disabled students - sentenced to a year in jail, identical to Jeong, for the crime of raping six students between the ages of 7-20

Kim, principal at the same school - convicted of the same crime, received a suspended sentence

Chun Doo-hwan, former president - while effectively ruling the country as a general, hundreds of protesters were killed, along with many others over his eight-year dictatorship; for this, Chun received a death sentence that was commuted to, you guessed it, about a year in prison

These are just some of the famous cases, but let's go through the news to find what else you can get away with in this country:

A man received three years for beating his son to death

A man received a two-year suspended sentence for running a gambling website

An actor received a four-year suspended sentence for raping a 17-year-old girl

Six bus drivers received suspended sentences for sexually abusing a disabled, underaged passenger

Two employees of a bank received suspended sentences for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the bank

As you might be starting to figure out, it takes a very determined man to go to jail, or in this case, a man who displeased the president. I don't doubt that Jeong broke the law, but aside from the politicization of this case that led to his unusually harsh sentence, there's also the fact that there are so many laws in this country that are very vaguely worded. I bet it is impossible to find one person in this country who is not guilty of something. To give one example, that is personally relevant, I display my favourite, from the Korea Immigration Service:

"Foreigners are granted rights to any activities granted by their visa, and may stay as long as their given period of stay. They are not, however, allowed to participate in any political activities except when specifically allowed by law."

The official Korean, for any sticklers out there:

"외국인은 체류자격과 체류기간의 범위 내에서 체류할 수 있으며, 법률이 정하는 경우를 제외하고는 정치활동을 할 수 없습니다."

As I wrote in a question to Ask a Korean, himself no slouch with the law:

"I find that baffling. To me, it seems that it's intended to keep out troublemakers of some sort, especially the sort of professional protesters you get at the G20. My guess, however, would be that the regulation predates the G20.

Leaving aside whether there's any law that makes note of political activities in which a non-citizen may engage, except voting in some elections, doesn't this mean I could be deported for attending a "Dokdo is ours" rally? Supporting comfort women? Tuition fee protests? Writing an op-ed piece? Blogging?"

The response, which I hope he doesn't mind my posting here, seems to confirm the opacity of the law: "I think you just identified a potential law review article. It's an interesting question, but it will take some significant research to answer."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Why is Chinese so hard? Or, do you know how to spell the word 'sneeze'?

David Moser from the University of Michigan has an excellent write-up that humourously but forcefully relieved me of my notion that Chinese was at all an easy language, particularly when we're discussing high-level or written proficiency. If you have even the slighest interest in China, languages or even learning anything, I promise that you'll enjoy reading what Moser wrote.

Whenever we discuss the complexities of English or Korean in the staff room, I always bring up Chinese as an easy language to learn for what, I suppose, are superficial reasons: verbs have no tenses, words are shorter, there is no honourific speech that Korean has, none of the weird superfluous words that English has, and it's easier to build simple sentences than it is with Korean or even English. Consider that if you can say "how are you?" in Chinese (ni hao ma), you've learned three important words (you, good, question indicator).

I wouldn't even consider myself a Chinese speaker, though I can have basic conversations, and manage to shop, eat and travel with some of the basic vocabulary you might pick up from introductory Chinese lessons in a variety of media. I also have an uncanny ability to read place names and signs with rules on them. Considering that I've studied Chinese using phrasebooks, subway announcements and the odd website, I think I'm doing alright. My strongest asset might not be the fact that I can say 我是加拿大人 ("I am Canadian"), but that I've never failed to be understood when I say it (that I might say it in response to "do you want fries with that?" is another story).

I think I've considered Chinese to be easy because I've managed, through more of a desire to speak basic Chinese than I ever had for Korean, to speak a few dozen well-rehearsed sentences. It might also be true that I've been enjoying the benefits afforded by low expectations (any Chinese I learn while traveling is really a bonus) and high practicality (you will never find an English-speaking hotel clerk in, say, rural Qinghai province). As well, it seems to be easier to learn a lot of Chinese in a short period of time, whereas I can't even explain how to say "how are you?" in Korean without giving a short speech about the culture and the language.

However, Moser makes it clear that beyond this basic proficiency, the road is absurdly hard. Coincidentally, the day I found this (about a month or two ago), I was explaining to a co-worker that you only need to know about 2,000 Chinese characters to be able to read a newspaper, adding that many characters are made by combining other characters, so that while 永 (forever) and 水 (water) are different characters, as are 王 (king), 玉 (jade), and 国 (country), learning the latter three is about as hard as learning the words hysteric, hysterical, and hysterically.

To this, the response is:

This fairy tale is promulgated because of the fact that, when you look at the character frequencies, over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones.4 But what such accounts don't tell you is that there will still be plenty of unfamiliar words made up of those familiar characters. (To illustrate this problem, note that in English, knowing the words "up" and "tight" doesn't mean you know the word "uptight".)


A non-native speaker of English reading an article with the headline "JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS" is not going to get very far if they don't know the words "jacuzzi" or "phlebitis".

The bottom falls out when you move on to writing Chinese, which is something I never do and likely never will, with the possible exception of writing addresses, as I did when traveling to Xining in China's Qinghai province. It hadn't struck me that I had no way of writing the address of the hostel where I was going, but I was lucky because I: 1) was sitting next to a Norwegian in a town of 50,000 people located at 12,000 feet and 800 km from the nearest city 2) found out that this Norwegian had come to China to study Chinese and had become reasonable at copying characters from a screen.

I regularly bother Korean friends to explain some ordinary Korean word that winds up written in Chinese in a newspaper, which probably has the effect of transporting them to their high school days, hardly a pleasant experience. If it's hard enough for them to remember the meaning of the character, it'd be impossible for them to write it, and they're hardly alone.

Considering that nothing about a word you know tells you how to write it, Moser says that "I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like "tin can", "knee", "screwdriver", "snap" (as in "to snap one's fingers"), "elbow", "ginger", "cushion", "firecracker", and so on."

Whatever you might think of English's shortcomings, the situation we have is not so bad that "a well-educated native English speaker [is] totally forgetting how to write a word like "knee" or "tin can"". To elaborate:

I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn't remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 "to sneeze". I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the "Harvard of China". Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word "sneeze"??

Whenever the topic of learning Korean emerges on the Internet among Westerners, an opinion often expressed is that Korean is a useless language, and that if there is an East Asian language worth learning, it is Chinese, or possibly Japanese. We rate the utility of learning Chinese to be quite high due to China's increasing geopolitical and economic significance, plain evidence of which is that cell phone stores in my neighbourhood frequently employ Chinese students to sell phones to other Chinese students.

This sort of viewpoint looks at language-learning as something that can only pay off with money, preferably lots of it and in exchange for employment. With the exception of people who have formally studied a language over a number of years, typically as a major at a university, very few people will ever make money from a language they learned. Nobody who spends their time half-heartedly studying Chinese on their own while living in Korea and not studying Korean is ever going to make a dime from their Chinese ability.

Learning another language does offer immense benefits that are probably greater than those of learning just anything, partly because of its portability and its interconnectivity. You could probably do more with, say, intermediate-level Chinese language ability than you could with a knowledge of Chinese history, not to mention the fact learning the former entails a great deal of the latter, while the latter typically does not entail the former.

In my case, I've tried to pick up Chinese words and phrases wherever I could all because I thought Chinese sounded impossibly hard with a large number of harsh consonant sounds that sound almost exactly the same. I don't imagine ever getting to the point where the difficulties of Chinese that Moser describes would ever really affect me. I would still tell anyone reading this that learning basic Chinese, at least, is far, far easier than imagined and being able to do nothing but distinguish small, medium and large as a Westerner (小, 中, 大)will give you a disproportionately high degree of satisfaction.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Here come the Chargers, again

As far as football teams go, the San Diego Chargers are a slacker's team. They play on the west coast after all the other teams, in a city that is essentially at room temperature year-round. They're a bit like Homer Simpson doing his taxes on the day they're due, driving to the tax office to arrive just as it closes, and launching his envelope from the doorway, watching it bounce around before finally landing in the bin, albeit the one for audits.

This is a topic I love to write about. Two years ago, I predicted that the 2-3 Chargers would win the division over the 6-0 Broncos, which they did. Last year, I made the same prediction, but the Chargers came up short against the Chiefs.

Now, the stage is set again. In an act of what may or may not constitute cheering against "my team", I'm rooting for the Chargers to overtake the Broncos for the AFC West title. Or, failing that, I'd be satisfied with a wild card spot. Just a few weeks ago, the Chargers were 4-7 while the Broncos were a heartwarming story-in-the-making at a slightly-better 6-5. Now the gap has been closed to 8-6 and 7-7, and while the 7-7 Raiders are in between the Broncos and Chargers, I have every reason to believe that one of the league's most talented teams can do this again.

Their record over the years:

2007 - 5-5 start, 11-5 finish, went to the AFC championship game
2008 - 4-8 start, 8-8 finish, went to the AFC divisional round
2009 - 2-3 start, 13-3 finish, went to the divisional round
2010 - 2-5 start, 9-7 finish, just missed the playoffs
2011 - 4-7 start, but I like their odds

This is a team that shows just how unpredictable and sometimes how meaningless the regular season can be, if you consider that an 8-8 team can go to the second round of the playoffs, or that a team that starts 5-5 can play for a chance to make the Super Bowl. In another setting, I believe that this is a team that could have won two Super Bowls in the last decade, but instead we have the peculiar phenomenon of miraculously fast finishes.

In fact, even I wrote this team off just a month ago, weepily noting that their window of opportunity has probably closed. I certainly wouldn't be surprised if a team that's made its name shooting itself in the foot managed to do so again and missed the playoffs, but right now I'm rooting for the Chargers to spare us the hagiograhpies of Tim Tebow in the playoffs.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Book #13: The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka

It took about four months of reading it and sixteen months from the time I bought it, but I have finally finished the complete works of Kafka. I thought it would be a lot better than it was, but I had to admit that Kafka's writing, in greater exposure, tends to be either riveting or impenetrable. Kafka's strengths is a jarring prose with the tone of dull bureaucratic pomp, often using run-on sentences or paragraphs. However, when the premise is dull, as is the case with some of the stories, the result is excruciating.

Nevertheless, it was my first time reading the Metamorphosis, which is perhaps Kafka's most famous work, though I've been partial to The Trial, if only for my familiarity with consular pomp over my travels. Many of the short stories amount to little more than a paragraph, while others appear not quite complete, though given Kafka's style, there's not much lost in reading an unfinished story.

Broadly speaking, the stories might be divided into ones with a political theme or setting, and those in a more natural setting. I enjoyed most of the ones that had a political component, such as In the Penal Colony, The Warden of the Tomb, and A Hunger Artist. Others were set in nature or discussed the ordinary lives of ordinary people in alarming detail, though my not enjoying them is probably a matter of personal preferences.

A few of the stories that Kafka wrote are written from the perspective of an animal. I was so struck by the transformation in The Metamorphosis that I didn't realize it was all written from the perspective of an insect. It is, of course, along with A Report to an Academy and Investigations of a Dog.

When I struggled to finish some of the stories, I did consider just what it is I like about Kafka's writing. I suppose it's easy when the writing is masterful and the idea is novel, as is the case with The Metamorphosis, but I struggled to put my finger on what it is that I find so appealing about the other works. At least some of my fondness for Kafka is for his excoriation of minor officialdom, the sort of which insists on rules for the sake of rules, as well as for the power that comes from enforcing those rules.

A Kafkan story today might well be about a mundane, absurd event in our lives where minor, unimportant people exert a great deal of influence in our lives. A perfect example might be the airport, where the insignificant, unimportant nonsense of our lives is elevated to life-or-death consequences, in part, as a giant make-work program for the individuals, agencies and companies that enjoy a stake in the elevation. I'm not sure how much I'd like Kafka if I hadn't traveled and produced reams of redundant paperwork for the privilege of doing so, though I imagine that I would regardless.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jesus Christ's superstar

Finally, the Broncos are winning and I've come to begrudgingly admire Tim Tebow, but still, something doesn't feel right. Sure, they've won six in a row to climb to 8-5 from a 2-5 hole, but I'm not that impressed, at least not with Tim Tebow. It was about fifteen years ago that I remember seeing, to pick one example, an athletic quarterback win game after game. Even as a child, I intuited that he really wasn't that good, and I know it now with Tebow.

In this week's miraculous Tebow comeback, he not only kicked field goals of 59 and 51 yards at the end of regulation and in overtime respectively, but he also managed to strip the ball from the Bears and recover the fumble. On top of all that, he threw the ball forty times and managed to complete more than half of those passes.

There are three things people can say about Tebow: one is not true, one is true, and one is intellectually lazy. The first says that because he can run, regular measures of a quarterback's value don't apply to him, and that detractors are merely jealous old dinosaurs who don't understand how the game has changed. This is simply not true.

Others say that it doesn't matter what he does or doesn't do, as long as the Broncos keep winning, which is intellectually lazy. Others will recognize that Tebow has played very well in certain situations due to a combination of skill, luck and athleticism.

Overall, Tebow completes less than half his passes and has thrown more than twenty passes in a game just once during this streak. He does have 11 touchdowns against two interceptions this year, but that's a function of how conservatively he's throwing. The best quarterbacks in the league average more than eight yards per attempt, meaning that their teams will gain nine yards for every time they drop back. Good quarterbacks will still average more than seven. Tebow is at 6.9 yards per dropback, and he's not making that up by running, because he averages about 5 yards per run.

Essentially, this is also a team that's playing well above its head, riding a defense and an offense both ranked around 20th in the league to an 8-5 record. You can't simply say that the stats don't tell the true story, because they do. Tebow has gotten help from his teammates, as we saw this weekend, and the hype that preceded him into the league has covered up his deficiencies. I would be surprised if this team doesn't make it into the playoffs, but this is obviously not one of the stronger teams in the league.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Taking the Metropolitician Challenge

On the recent EBS experiment which purportedly shows that Koreans are more likely to help those with white skin than those with darker-skin, Metro agrees wholeheartedly with the obvious conclusion and writes:

I propose more experiments!

How about a handsome, tall, black man and lithe, attractive Korean woman walk as a couple through the #1 subway line, from head to tail, on hidden camera? Watch the fun -- and verbal and perhaps even physical assaults -- ensue!

Or the same couple just walk through the Shinchon CGV as an obvious couple and watch all the people behind them snicker and point, as I did just a couple years ago? It was fucking ridiculous. Really? A couple at the movie theater?

Maybe we should have a black man in a suit try to get a cab next to his white buddy looking 90's-era Seattle grunge? Let's place bets! (I'm betting on Whitey, boys!)

Or sit an Indian man (or me!) on a crowded city bus and watch if the empty seat next to him is ever taken -- with a timer! First one who loses the bet that Koreans will choose to stand for an hour rather than sit to a dirty curry-eater buys lunch!

Oh, the fun we could have, EBS.

I'm game. Call me.

I can't dispute Michael's experiences, but I think that the discrimination he seems to believe (and if he doesn't believe this, I stand corrected) is dominant is more likely to be widespread, at least when we're talking about individual people in a relatively mundane everyday setting. The more you try to do, of course, the harder it gets, both as the stakes get higher or you deal with institutions over individuals.

I'd like to think that I count as something close to an Indian man (all four of my grandparents were born in British India), and I can't say I've ever had the privilege of an empty seat next to me when the bus is packed. Men, women, young and old usually have no problem sitting next to me on the bus or on the subway.

A few times, I've noticed that people sitting next to me will leap at the chance to go sit next to another stranger, which I concluded as discomfort with the way I look, where I'm from or even the fact that I'm a man. However, I remember that Metro once said something along the lines of "what do you call a nigger who went to Harvard? A nigger!"

Even back in Toronto, high school and the comments sections of online newspaper articles have taught me that the city with the motto "Diversity our Strength" nevertheless managed to have an immigrant-despising id. I've been told in Canada that I was the "good kind" of brown guy because I spoke better English than the angry white guy who hated Sikh immigrants, but when I take the 37A going to Islington, you don't necessarily know that. Here, too, I'd be considered the "good immigrant" for learning to speak Korean, but the drunkards on line 1 don't know whether I speak Korean and make twice what they do, or whether I came here last week from Nepal and live in a one-room with six others.

I would never consider my experiences here to prove anything, but in three years, I wouldn't say that I've had any significant or memorable instances of being treated negatively because of my skin colour. There have been cases here and there. Sure, if a Korean is going to approach a visibly foreign person to chat, they'll probably choose the white person before me. If you're going to choose the visible face of your institution for promotional purposes, you're probably not going to choose mine if you can help it.

Have I been called "monkey teacher"? Yes. Have kids told me I smell bad? Yes. Have I heard kids being Indian or Filipino as an insult in my classroom? Hundreds of times. I once polled a class of grade 6 students and while almost none wanted a Filipino or an Indian classmate, almost all would have loved an American classmate. They quantified it on the basis of language and wealth, which I suppose is true to an extent, but I think the wealthiest Indian would probably still be ranked below the poorest white American in their books.

As for what the video or what my experiences prove is debatable. I do regularly roll my eyes when I see the trope repeated that somebody with dark skin wouldn't get the time of day here. That I've been here for three years without a memorable incident and Michael is closing in on twenty years in Korea is evidence that it's not true.

If nothing else, I can tell you that much of what's said online about race in Korea is simply not true. Claims along the lines of "Koreans will choose to stand for an hour rather than sit to a dirty curry-eater" express indignation with many cringe-inducing practices relating to race and appearance, and we might even believe them, but I can tell you that thousands of people have sat next to me on Seoul's buses and subways, and I've seen hundreds of dark-skinned people on public transportation with honest-to-god Koreans sitting right next to them.