Monday, March 29, 2010


(Note: this blog post was started almost a week ago. Please disregard any time continuity issues.)

“Some days you eat the b’ar, and some days the b’ar eats you.”

“Is that some sort of Eastern thing?”

“Far from it.”

-The Big Lebowski

I probably shouldn’t be blogging at work but the internet is down and most weeks the bulk of my time at school has been finding photos on Google Image Search for my PowerPoint presentations. Some guy here in the gyomusil (teacher’s office) is trying to sell socks. I have a pair of sport socks sitting on my desk. (“Big size!” the salesman says.) I’m not sure if they’re a free sample or if I’m supposed to just be looking at them. If I keep them, am I obligated to buy more socks? What exactly is up with these socks, anyway?

The job has been good so far—spectacular, in a lot of ways. The work’s not too difficult, the expectations aren’t too daunting (from the school, at least—my expectations for my personal performance are pretty high), everyone seems to be happy with the job I’m doing so far, and if I were Korean and didn’t have piles of debt to take care of back home I could probably feed a family of eight on my salary. Anything you see here that looks like complaining—it’s not. A little kvetching never hurt anyone, though.

The one thing that’s a little frustrating is that, since I’ve never taught high school kids before, in a lot of ways I’m flying by the seat of my pants every day. All of my lesson plans are basically completely untested material, so sometimes they’re going great and sometimes… not so well. There are some pretty good internet resources out there for borrowing ESL lesson plans from other teachers, but so far I’ve felt compelled to try to develop all my own plans from scratch. After all, it is part of what they’re paying me for, plus I figure it will be best to save the “run to the internet” option for an actual emergency.

The main goals of the native English teaching program are to get the kids using the language and to get them used to hearing it from an actual native speaker. For the most part, as long as I can keep the kids listening, speaking and writing, I’m doing a good job. On the other hand, sometimes it’s tough to know what the kids will understand and when I’m going to get a bunch of blank looks after I’ve discussed an activity. Also, since my course isn’t graded sometimes it’s hard to keep the kids motivated and on task. (I could probably get the school to do it if I asked them to and if I could come up with a grading rubric, but I’m not confident enough in my skills yet to do that.)

I’m definitely starting to learn a few things about my students, though, above and beyond what common mistakes they make using English. (We’re definitely doing a lesson on articles and singular, plural and uncountable nouns at some point soon.) The girls are usually very interested in talking (sometimes too much, to each other, and not about English) but it’s a lot harder to get the boys to do anything. I’ve been told that they tend to be better at writing, but when it comes to getting them be imaginative or creative they seem to be a little resistant. I think they just become resistant to doing anything they don’t want to do at some age. Kind of makes me wish I could just take them out, get them full of soju and introduce them to the wonders of Johnny Cash. (Just to make things perfectly clear—THAT LAST SENTENCE WAS A JOKE. I am not going to ply my students with alcohol.)

This week I’m teaching a lesson about vacations. I figured since I’m teaching a foreign language, maybe it would be good to get some ideas about traveling and the excitement of visiting foreign places into their heads. One of my co-teachers gave me the very excellent suggestion to do a project about vacation islands, since Jeju Island in Korea is a very popular vacation destination here. The in-class project is to create a travel brochure for a destination of the student’s choosing. The place can be real or imaginary, and it can be somewhere they’ve been or some place far away, like space. Some students pick foreign countries or tropical islands, some students pick a country they don’t know and then get stuck because they don’t know anything about it, and some students pick a place that’s close to home, like the town we’re in or the beach in Busan, which is less than an hour away by train. (Every student that's picked the moon says they want to go there to play with the rabbit. Who even knew there was a rabbit up there? Also, one student chose Antarctica and the cover of his brochure was a penguin with another penguin in its pouch, and both penguins had knives. It was AWESOME.) Some students pick their family homes, which can be a little heartbreaking since these kids live at school. I mean that literally—Korean high school students live at school. The school has dorms and the students live in the dorms. Most of them pretty much do nothing but study from sun up to sun down and only get to go home every other weekend (there’s school every alternating Saturday here). In the evenings when the grade school and middle school kids aren’t at school a lot of them are studying at private hagwons, if their families can find a way to afford it. In the summer they go to school camps. In a way, part of me admires the dedication—after all, when I was in film school or working on a film in LA I was working from the moment I woke up to the time I got my precious five hours of sleep. Some kids in the US have similar schedules with after-school activities and other resume builders. Still, it’s a little tough seeing a high school kid whose dream vacation is going home, sleeping and spending time with his or her family.

On to happier things! Last weekend was the long-awaited bullfighting festival in nearby Cheongdo. (The locals who aren’t familiar with the term “bull” sometimes talk about the bullfighting as “cow fights,” which I think makes the event sound even more awesome.) For those of you not familiar with the Korean tradition of bullfighting, let me explain. Korean bullfighting is very different from Spanish or Mexican bullfights, where some guy stands in a ring and slowly tortures a bull to death even though the bull never really did anything to him and never really had a chance. In Korean bullfights, the bulls fight each other. Apparently the inspiration came from the yearly fights between bulls for the best grazing ground for their herds, and some genius came up with the idea of putting a ring around it and making it a spectator sport, These days there’s an entire arena dedicated to it in Cheongdo. The bullfights are the pride of the town—kind of what country music is to Nashville or the Indy 500 is to Indianapolis. There's a bullfighting statue in the park, there's billboards and banners all over town, and there's even cute cartoon bulls on the manhole covers. (One of these days I will have to get into the Korean habit of representing everything with cute cartoon characters, but again that feels like the sort of thing that's been discussed by numerous other commentators over the years.)

I suppose I better address that thorny issue of animal cruelty up front. “Bull Wrestling” or “Bull Sumo” would probably be a better name for the sport than “bullfighting,” since the latter brings to mind all sorts of nasty associations with animal blood sports like dog fighting or cock fighting. The bulls aren’t out to hurt each other, although some of them do end up visibly bloodied after a particularly hard-fought bout. The bulls basically butt heads until one of them gives up and runs away. Apparently there’s also a scoring system for successful pushes and attacks, similar to boxing or taekwondo, but I’m not sure how it works. Sometimes a bout will result in over thirty minutes of the bulls locking horns and pushing each other to the point of exhaustion, and sometimes one bull turns tail and runs before the referee has a chance to blow the whistle. Sometimes the bulls don’t really want to fight all that much and the trainers have to try to lead their heads together with the ropes looped into their nose rings. I'm pretty sure I saw one match called a draw because the bulls just plain didn't want to fight. I found something oddly satisfying about that; it wasn’t nearly as exciting as a good bull-on-bull battle royale but I think it did something to affirm the nobility of the species. So is it cruel to take something that bulls do naturally, put an arena around it and give them some gentle coaxing to do it for our entertainment? Yes and no, I suppose. I wouldn’t consider it that much crueler than horse racing except that the bulls do get a little scraped up from all the friction between their skulls. But is there a moral difference between a test of strength through combat and a test of speed through racing that goes much further than semantics? I’m not so sure. Is it in the same category as dog fights or Spanish bullfighting? Absolutely not. What about rodeo? Well, I was going to write that Korean bullfighting is probably less cruel since heard that they tied ropes around the testicles of rodeo bulls to make them buck, but according to the internet that's just an urban legend propagated by "certain 'animal rights' activists". So I guess I would put Korean bullfighting somewhere on the morality scale between rodeo and hardcore professional wrestling. (I'm not going to explain which end of that scale is which, I'll leave it up to you to decide.)

Speaking of animal rights, I have noticed that the Eastern perspective on domestic animals seems to draw heavily on the Confucian idea of hierarchies, with animals in a lower echelon than humans. The butcher's shops around here tend to have cute, non-ironic cartoons of smiling farm animals, as if the livestock were thinking, "It is my duty in life to provide you with pleasing meat! Thank you for enjoying my flesh!" I’m not a huge fan of the Confucian tendency to classify everything in rigid hierarchies, but I have to admit that the Western animal rights ideal that animals should be treated like humans goes a little too far at times. For example, before I left LA I noticed that there was a digital billboard popping up around town in off hours with some smiling doofus sitting next to a dog and the text, “Animals are children too!” I had two major semantic problems with this. First, grown animals are not children, they're adults. Second, ANIMALS AREN’T HUMAN! No matter how much you love your dog it is not your child. You didn’t give birth to it, it can’t name any state capitals, you’re not going to send it to college and it’s not going to come home mumbling for a month because it doesn’t want you to see that it got its tongue pierced. Yes, animals deserve to be treated humanely and we should make an effort to see that they don’t suffer, but in the end they’re not sentient and they’ll always be one rung lower on the food chain in the natural order of things. I like cows, but I also like to eat cows because that’s what cows are for. If we all stopped eating meat then all the cows would die because they’ve been domestic animals for thousands of years and they wouldn’t be able to fend for themselves in the wild, and I don’t want to see that happen because I like cows. I also don’t mind seeing them fight, because cow fighting is a bold display of raw cow awesomeness and the sheer mind-blowing audacity of cow power. Is that so wrong??!?!

I kept picturing what would happen if PETA showed up and plastered photos of naked Western women in cow horns all over town. The picture was a lot of Koreans shaking their heads and saying, “Yep, we were right all along.”

The bullfighting festival did have plenty to do for the bullfight-squeamish—inside and outside of the bullfighting facility were food, shopping, traditional and non-traditional entertainment and libations. If you like corn dogs, you’ll love crab stick wrapped in some sort of fish patty on a stick. (With ketchup!) I didn’t get brave enough to try the silk worm pupa, but maybe next year. My favorite thing at Korean festivals is definitely the clowns. I’m sure they’re actually called something else here, but in Western terms they’re clearly clowns. Korean clowning is somewhere between circus clowning, improv comedy, street theater and a drag act. What usually happens is that a small group of performers with traditional instruments will paint their faces, put on ragged, sometimes gender-bending costumes based on traditional clothing, and mime a performance of traditional music and older Korean pop songs. Often they lure some blind-drunk older people from the audience to join them in dancing and singing along. In the clown act that was happening at the bull festival some guy who was half in and half out of a ragged dress was dry-humping a drum and pretending to shit in a pot in front of children and everyone was having a great time. What's really amazing to me is that Koreans have these very strict social standards for not shaming each other--for examaple, you're never going to get an honest assessment of your performance at work because nobody wants to risk making you "lose face"--but at a festival or a bar or a noraebang (a.k.a. a karaoke room) it's perfectly OK for everyone to get falling down drunk and dance with a filthy clown in drag because it's a socially accepted tradition. Personally I love the irony. I mean, I would put up with a little ball-busting now and then if it meant I could get honest answers out of people at work, but imagine what would happen in the States if you put on a dirty Pilgrim dress, sang "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Car Wash" back to back and flashed your panties in public where there was a remote chance of a child being there. I know, right?

Also apparently the concept of "gay" isn't even on the cultural radar here. I'm not sure how that one works. Been trying to figure it out for curiosity's sake but I haven't had the chance to talk about it with anyone with first-hand information.

So what you’re probably wondering now is, where are the photos and the video? The photos (shot on crisp, clean, still-superior-to-digital 35mm film) are still at the developer. (It took me a while to find the Korean word for “digital scan”.) I may post some videos once I figure out how to pull them off my old Mini-DV video camera and onto my netbook, but I have to admit it’s not a high priority.

OK, time to log off and get back to that ESL certificate I've been working on...

1 comment:

  1. Of course there's a rabbit in the moon. I had always seen it referenced as a Japanese story, but it is the equivalent to our "old man in the moon" we claim to see in the light and dark shapes on the side that faces us.

    And, as a self-declared spokesperson for all ovo-lacto-fisho vegitarians, I would like to emphatically state that american rodeo is not cruel to animals. When I went to the rodeo in Santa Fe, every single animal got up again immediately and unscathed. The same could not be said for the cowboys.