30 September 2009

Private vs. Public Education in Korea (Year 3, Day 36)

There are still things to learn even after over two years being here and even about the educational system that I've been working in for both of those two years. I have merely scratched the surface of this dig...

Apparently, the differences between public and private education in this country are even slimmer than I realized at first.

During today's Advanced Adult Free-Talking discussion, we were discussing the Korean education system. This is comfortable for all of us, usually, because it's familiar for them and it's at least interesting for me. Talking about the weather and what we all did this weekend (the same thing as the weekend before) doesn't exactly do it for me. Today's topic started out being the certification process for teachers in Korea and the U.S.

At some point there was a lull in the conversation, and I casually asked, So, how much does it cost to go to private school here? "About 300,000 won ($253) per quarter in H.S. About 50,000 won ($42)." Wow. That's really cheap! "Yes, it's about the same as it costs to go to public school." Excuse me?

Apparently, you have to pay to go to public school. Taxes don't completely cover the cost of educational materials. I'm familiar with that. When I went to high school in Winona, we had to pay a school activities fee to participate in extracurricular activities and had to raise money for special events like school plays and band trips. Paying a little extra to fill out my public education was something my family was more than willing to help out with.

But, the logical corollary to the prices in Korea is that private schools are actually mostly publicly funded.

Well, there must still be something special about them, even if they are publicly funded. There must be some distinction. Maybe they're allowed to accept only certain kinds of students?

Not so! In fact, all schools (yes, even the private ones) in major cities are compiled into a computer database, students choose which three schools they would prefer to attend, and an algorithm decides which schools match up with which students.

Well, then surely students with higher test scores or closer geographic locations must receive preferential treatment in the assigning of these schools! This is Korea after all and testing is king.

Not so! In fact, the assigning is completely random (yes, even for the private schools). The only way to boost your chances of attending one school over another is to place it higher on your preference sheet.

So, let's say that one school is particularly famous in a city. It has good teachers, good facilities, and a high success rate when it comes to scoring well on the national college entrance exam. Naturally, many students will select it as their top preference. However, since too many students will have selected this school, most will be assigned to their second or third choice. This may mean that you will have a school that is an hour and a half commute by public transportation from your home or, yes, even attend a private school.

The school has no option but to accept the student. The student, once assigned, has no option but to attend the school. Even if the school is private.

This boggles my mind. Private schools are publicly funded, and they must accept whatever students the local government assigns to it. I asked, Then what precisely distinguishes a private school from a public one?

There are a few things, actually. Wheres public schools are founded by the national government, private schools are founded by private citizens who form a sort of school board. But considering that most of them fall under government funding eventually anyway, this seems to be a minor point.

More helpful in differentiating the two is the fact that whereas public school teachers are assigned by the regional government (neither the teachers nor the schools have much of a say in who is placed where), a private school's board makes the hiring decisions for faculty and staff at its school. In addition, while public school teachers must rotate schools every 5 years, teachers at private school may stay as long as the school will have them. This allows the school to cultivate a prestigious and effective faculty.

Probably the most significant difference is the religion question. Let me be clear, whereas in the States, when we say private education we think of religious schools, in Korea, this is not always the case. A private school may not be in any way based on religious principles. However, quite a few are, and they are allowed to have religious services and supplement the standard curriculum with religious courses. Public education, as might be expected, remains a-religious.

Now, there are exceptions to all of this. Some schools are fully private and can thus design their own curricula and accept whomever they like without government interference. The same holds true for international schools. These schools are usually very difficult to get into and fairly prestigious. The students must take some sort of equivalence test to be reintegrated back into the public Korean education system, but this is usually no problem since the quality of education at these schools is usually far superior than at government funded public or private schools.

In addition, some areas do not adhere to this policy of placing students in whatever school a computer randomly places them in. In smaller cities and rural areas especially, schools still have the right to reject a student if the school does not have the capacity to take them in. This holds true for both private and public schools. (It is also noteworthy that students in especially poorer rural areas pay lower fees to attend school, and sometimes no fees at all, while students in urbanized areas will pay higher fees in accordance with the wealth of their area.)

It is larger cities that, as a general rule, choose to implement the random assignation policy. Still, since around 80.8% of the population is considered urban, this policy affects the large majority of Korean students. Especially large cities like Seoul divide the city into educational districts, but still implement random assignation within those districts. This has led to a problem of families buying small one-room student apartments in more wealthy districts like Gangnam in order to send their children to public schools in those areas.

Still, what is troublesome with a randomized placement system is that a secular, Christian, or Buddhist student could be forced to attend a school that they would feel uncomfortable or even resentful about attending. A Christian student may have to attend the public school across town even when his number one choice, a private Christian school, is right next door, while a Buddhist student ends up at that Christian school even though he may be made to participate in activities and classes that do not reflect his beliefs. Who would even conceive of such a system?

Apparently, it was designed to eliminate the sort of relocation patterns that Seoul experiences and general corruption in private schools.

In the first case, when a particular neighborhood in a city is richer than another, parents may sell everything they own to purchase an apartment in that neighborhood so that their son or daughter can attend the better funded school. When the school you attend is decided completely randomly, it doesn't matter where you live. This also serves to make sure that the rich don't receive all the benefits of their geographic location just because they are rich. (On the other hand, since it is completely random instead of achievement based, it does seem to discourage, or at least it doesn't encourage, academic excellence.)

As for corruption in private schools, since those schools needed to find ways to finance themselves, they involved themselves in what my co-teacher described as "illegal activities". I'm not exactly sure what these might be, but I imagine it involved accepting suspiciously large donations from parents whose children were then accepted at the school. Funding the schools publicly and forcing them to accept certain students served to alleviate this apparent injustice. My co-teacher did say that some private schools in the past would fire a teacher when they reached a certain age (older teachers are paid more) or fire a female teacher for getting pregnant. Apparently, with government funding comes certain rights for teachers.

When you plug one leak, you create another. Now, instead of overcrowding and corruption we have students making crosstown commutes and going to schools they'd prefer not to.

To be honest, this is just all a little strange to me and thus interesting. I don't actually know how satisfied or unsatisfied Koreans are with this system. Given the society's tendency towards corruption, I'd imagine they think of it much as I think of American democracy. It's not the best, but it's the best we can do.

Many thanks to Mr. Kim Dong-geun and Dr. Kim Dong-sang at Kyungbuk Science High School (경북과학고등학교) for the information in this article.

28 September 2009

Translation: Given Names (Year 3, Day 34)

An explanation: Part of what I am working especially hard on this year is improving my Korean reading ability to prepare for reading (hopefully a little faster) whatever graduate school is going to throw at me next year. I am already taking classes to help this along a little, but I thought it might be good to just throw myself into the pool, so to speak, as well. So, starting this Monday, I am going to try to translate one article from a Korean newspaper every week. Wish me luck!

* * *

A disclaimer: Please understand that this is a very rough translation by a humble student of Korean. While I'm pretty sure it'll be more accurate than any internet translation engine to date, it still may not even be close to the original since I typically have to look up every three words when I try to read the newspaper. (Hanja constructions are killer...) If you can translate Korean yourself, I would appreciate your constructive criticism. Leave your mockery at the door.

* * *

Taken from Donga Ilbo (동아일보) 2009.09.28

“우리 서로 이름을 부르면서 친하게 지내자.

버락 오바마 미국 대통령(48)과 하토야마 유키오(鳩山由紀夫·62) 일본 총리가 24일 미국 피츠버그에서 열린 만찬에서 앞으로 서로 이름을 부르며 지내기로 약속했다. 오바마 대통령을 ‘버락’으로, 하토야마 총리는 ‘유키오’라고 부르기로 한 것. 한국으로 치면 성을 붙이지 않고 바로 이름만 부르는 셈이다.

격식을 매우 중시하는 정상외교에서 이는 이례적인 일이다. 그만큼 두 정상이 친밀하다는 점을 내외에 과시하기 위한 것으로 보인다. 양국의 퍼스트레이디도 남편들 뜻을 따라 미셸 오바마 여사는 ‘미셸’로, 하토야마 미유키(鳩山幸) 여사는 ‘미유키’로 부르기로 했다고 한다.

하토야마 총리는 국제무대 데뷔전이기도 한 이번 방미에 앞서 “오바마 대통령과 신뢰관계를 쌓는 것이 중요하다”고 말해왔다. 그런 점에서 서로 이름 부르기는 일단 ‘신뢰구축 1단계 목적’으로 달성됐다고 할 수 있다.

하토야마 총리가 이번 방미 기간 중 오바마 대통령과 개인적 얘기를 나눌 시간을 가진 것은 모두 세 차례였다. 23일 뉴욕 정상회담에서는 오바마 대통령이 예정보다 일찍 도착한 하토야마 총리를 대기실까지 찾아와 회의장까지 직접 안내하기도 했다. 이런 오바마 대통령에 대해 일본 대표단에선 ‘소탈한 사람’이라는 칭찬이 이어졌다. 일본 언론에선 상대의 마음을 사로잡는 데에는 오바마 대통령이 한 수 위였다는 평가도 나왔다.

도쿄, 윤종구 특파원

Obama-Hatoyama, by using each others given names... display intimate feeling

Lets use each others given names and become friendly.

American President Barack Obama (48) and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hotoyama (62) on the 24th in Pittsburg, USA at an open dinner made a promise to use each others given names in the future. Calling Pres. Obama by Barack and P.M. Hotoyama by Yukio intends to hit Korea where they use family names.

Very seriously showing formality is strange in sincere diplomacy. Two diplomats acting intimate with each other displays their inner and outer feeling. The countries first ladies also, following husbands meaning, said they will use first names, Michelle Obama by Michelle and Mrs. Hatoyama Miyuki by Miyuki.

P.M. Hatoyama before his debut on the international stage with this visit to America said, Building a confident relationship with Pres. Obama is important. From that, using each others first names as the 1 Purposed Step in Confidence Building was the first achievement that he could attain.

During the period of this trip to America, P.M Hatoyama divided his private allotted speaking time with Pres. Obama in three steps. On the 23rd at the New York diplomacy conference, Pres. Obama before the meeting found the early arrived P.M Hatoyama in the waiting room and the meeting room in order to give him information directly. Concerning this Pres. Obama, the Japanese delegation praised the informal person as a success. In the Japanese speech, Obama, who captured the oppositions heart in that place, was the first do bring about peace.

Tokyo, Special Correspondent Yun Jong-gu

27 September 2009

On Diaries and Weblogs (Year 3, Day 33)

Corrections: My mother informed me that it was one of my teachers at Ramona Elementary School that inspired the keeping journals on vacation idea mentioned in Paragraph 3, probably Mrs. Tuioni, my kindergarten teacher. (I always thought it was spelled Tioni, but then again, I was in kindergarten at the time.) This was supposed to make up for the week or so we usually missed at the beginning of the school year for family vacation. The things we don't realize as children...

* * *

Cool. Raining all day.

I only say that because, one, it's significant and has kept me cooped up inside all day and, two, as I was thinking about what to write today it occurred to me that most diaries make some effort at recording the weather and the location of writing. While this isn't really a diary, it is an attempt at a quasi daily record. I've always been one to follow form when I have no compelling reason not to and thus, "Cool. Raining all day." (If you want the location of writing too, just glance at the sidebar. I haven't gone anywhere.)

I've had quite a bit of experience with diaries. Starting when I was about six years old, my mother sat my sister and I down everyday of every vacation to write a few words, or at least draw a picture, in hardcover books, the ones with blank lines that can easily be purchased at any major book vendor. Often, on an adjacent page, we would tape a postcard of whatever historic monument or stunning vista we had visited that day.

My family didn't have money to spend on vacations abroad or even to local resorts. In fact, besides a day trip through Canada (We only stopped to pitch a tent for the night near a mosquito infested lake in Ontario on our way to Maine), my only experiences abroad came through a 10-day field research trip in Japan and a going-on-3-years cultural immersion experience in Korea. Still, I find I am more than satisfied with my experiences visiting every contiguous U.S. state and a good number of the major national parks to boot. Cancun, Fiji, Hawaii, even--well, I don't much like the beach anyway.

Fortunately, I can remember these experiences with all the detail that a 6 year old could muster by reading the diaries I kept, and the bindings of those few hardbound books are exploding with all of the postcards we managed to cram in there. Even more entertaining is being able to look back on my own growth as both my sentences and my observational skills became more complex. I have my mother to thank for this, and probably for my interest in writing as well. Even today, I feel uncomfortable traveling anywhere without at least a pad to write on, even if I rarely write anything while on the actual journey anymore. Having those childhood diaries, to me, is very cool, no matter how uncool it might actually be.

Then there was my experience with the 2500 page diary that was my main primary source document for my final departmental research project at Valparaiso University. I basically shut myself in Washington University in St. Louis' library for the duration of that voyage through history, learning how the Japanese first perceived Victorian-era Europe and America. It was a monumental task (How much more so to compile it!), and, though my own minuscule entries as a child followed the same theme of cataloging all the new things learned and experienced while on a vacation, it was humbling to read the thoughts and opinions of the future leaders of a powerful nation as they gaped in childlike awe at countries far more powerful than theirs. They were recording everything they saw because they knew that what they observed was the only way to keep their country from falling under the sway of European imperialism. I was recording what I saw because Mommy told me.

And it makes me wonder what the use is of these diaries in the first place. After all, was my recording those entries as a child anything more than an exercise in practicing grammar? It's not like those will ever be published for their own merit.

And then there are pieces like this blog. And that blog. And the other one.

And besides these, there's Facebook and MySpace and Twitter and manifold other ways that we as a race have devised for us to tell everyone every minuscule bit of data about ourselves in every way possible, willingly putting out information that just a generation ago would have been completely private, not only because of the barriers in communication but because what we did with our lives was no one's business but our own.

I was reading an intellectual piece from a very scholarly source the other day. Though little of it was meant to be taken seriously (In reality, it's a comedy piece on what future history textbooks will say about Obama's efforts in 2009), it did hit on something particularly poignant:
Did you know the combination of reality television and sites like Facebook told an entire generation of people a) that they could be famous for doing nothing and b) that everyone was remarkably interested in what they had to say! It's true! We raised an army of delusional narcissists with inflated senses of self-worth [and we] were still shocked when things fell to shit! The more you know! [Source.]
And yet, here I am, quite self-consciously doing the same thing that this article mockingly warns against. After all, I'm not the only person recording their experiences in Korea. But, if you want the opinion of someone who's more serious than Mr. Dan O'Brien up there...

Upon returning to VALPO a year after graduation, my former college dean thanked me for continuing to send him and some other members on the faculty these mass emails I compile every once a month or so documenting my experiences here. It goes out to friends and family as well and is the best way for me to both keep a diary and to keep in touch with everyone. However, the dean also said that he was worried about the amount of information that was out on the Internet in general and its ramifications for actually inhibiting communication. With so much information out there, how can we ever possibly ingest and interpret it? In other words, everyone's talking, but no one seems to be listening.

What's worse is our sense of entitlement about this. That is, everyone thinks that what they have to say is actually worth listening to.

I am, however, skeptical about whether this sense of entitlement is actually a new revelation or just something old that we can suddenly make manifest to a much wider audience.

For instance, at the risk of sounding like a freshman year term paper, people have always had opinions and have also desired to express those opinions. However, before you had to get through a slew of people to have those opinions heard in any sort of mass public fora. With speaking, it was always a matter of if you had something interesting to say that a following wanted to hear. Past that, your only limitation was how far you could project your voice. With writing, it was more a matter of having something interesting to say that a small group of people who regulated the publication process (editors, agents, censors) wanted others to read. In both cases, only a select few could actually distribute their information to a large audience.

So, in reality, maybe the urge to present one's ideas was always there. We just weren't able to.

It then becomes a question of, now that we have this power of expression to let everyone at every time know exactly what we are thinking and doing, should we? After all, we're no where near a Japanese envoy exploring Europe in order to import technologies, ideas, and ideologies into his country to save it from social and economic servitude. We aren't really all that important and, let's face it, few people really do care besides our mothers (Hi, Mom!). Should we be writing at all?

I say, yes, but only if we feel comfortable with it and only if we're still paying attention to the voices of others that are out there, especially if they speak with authority. I still think that the more information that is available to access, the better off we are as a whole. In the end, it really is the audiences' responsibility to regulate what they watch, listen to, and read. We, as the authors of that material, should be humble about our expectations and grateful when we find an attentive ear.

Take this blog for example. It has a low readership and fewer commentators (and those mostly by other means like email or Facebook), but I still keep it because my expectations are not that it will become a source of fame and income, rather that it will help my friends and family back home know what I am experiencing and, later, allow me to look back on this time and to contemplate what my 24 year old self thought.

Or take my grandfather and great uncle. When my grandfather moved from Germany to the U.S. after WWII to make a new home for his brother and parents and to eventually bring them over, he and his brother kept correspondence. My great uncle saved almost all of these letters, and they now tell a compelling narrative of moving to and adjusting to life in an alien nation. It's even a published book that some college classes are using as a primary source document for discussing the Cold War and American immigration. From such humble beginnings as these...

My point is that recording the information is good for both us and for posterity, but that we shouldn't have such a high opinion of ourselves to think that either we or our posterity will find it by necessity interesting or useful. I keep this blog, but I don't mention it to my friends every chance I get, whispering seductively, "Take and read. Take and read." My grandfather and great uncle didn't edit their letters into a book. That was my grandmother who did that and long after my grandfather had passed on. Still, it was good that they wrote them at the time, just as it is good for us to write.

And so today's weather: Cool. Raining all day.

(On a side note...

I also think that there are some things that I just don't need to tell you about myself, just as you probably have some things you don't want to tell me about yourself. And it's not even the skeletons in our closets that I'm talking about. There are things far less insidious that most of us, though there are exceptions, consider private affairs.

In a very real sense, we are the first generation to grow up with the Internet, and so we are still learning what the etiquette and appropriate boundaries are for it. It's like the Internet is in puberty, and we are its raging hormones and teen angst. During this time of growth and development, people are going to post pictures of themselves doing stupid things on their Facebook pages and then be shocked when their employer doesn't like it and fires them, or they're going to impulsively lash out at their best friends in high school and seemingly irreparably break an unbreakable bond in a way that we would have done in private diaries in years past.

People always recorded these events and feelings, even when the cameras were film and the writing was done with paper and ink. After a while, we're probably going to start telling our children to not repeat our mistakes about posting our lives on the Internet. After a while, Internet safety will be taught right along side learning how to look both ways before crossing the street. After a while, we're probably going to have a moralistic TV show targeted at teens like Saved by the Bell with an episode where Billy learns an important lesson about not making fun of friends on his MySpace page.

But that's adulthood. Until then, most of us are still going to keep our diaries publicly and learn from the consequences.)

25 September 2009

Teaching, Week 5 - (Hidden) Charlie the Unicorn, Riddles, and Names (Year 3, Day 31)

As I mentioned in my last teaching post, we're coming up on the 10th grade mid-term examination period, and, as I also mentioned, the lesson immediately before that week, I like to play a game or perform some other light activity to give the students a chance to relax and take their minds off the test.

So, the plan this week was to do a used car salesman activity on Tuesday, which really is a lot of fun, and do a brain teaser race on Thursday, which is also a lot of fun.

On Tuesday, lesson plan in hand, I burst through the classroom door, as is my custom, and shouted, "Hello, how are you?" As is our custom, those students that were napping in between periods--and there's always at least five; seriously, they bring pint-sized pillows for these cat naps--should have immediately snapped awake and shouted back at least as loud if not as enthusiastically, "Fine, thank you! And you?"

Instead my traditional way of saying, "Hey! Wake up! It's time for class!" was greeted with the proverbial crickets. Not a head stirred, much less lifted, from their repose on the desks.

So, after getting them awake, I scraped the lesson in favor of something far stranger than they could ever have imagined, called it American culture, and called it a day.

Thursday was brain teasers, and while I had fun in my sense of superior intellect (I had the answer key), the students had fun completing each question so they could tell my co-teacher or I the answer in English and thus receive the next puzzle.

Some even saw fit to stump me with their own riddles, diabolical constructions that resembled ancient runes inscribed on a stone wall (You're going to have to enable Korean script on your browser to see this one. [Menu Bar-->View-->Encoding-->Korean]):


The goal is to discover what the '?' should be.*

A riddle of less demonic origins was "Are there earthquakes on the moon?" Besides the obvious lack of tectonic plates and magma trying to reach the surface, I'll let you figure out your own reason for why there aren't.

I've been making a concerted effort to learn my students' names this year. This leads me to confess the sad truth that I have been remiss at learning them in the past. I could blame it on lack of exposure with the students and on the fact that names aren't used all that often in Korea, but the plain truth of it is that I've been lazy and a little conceited, learning only the names of students who deigned it good, right, and salutary to participate willingly in my sessions. This is my confession. May my students forgive me.

But when you start learning some students' names, you had better make sure you get all of them. They are like locusts that way. Spray the pesticide all you like, but if just one of them survives, you've got a whole new generation of locusts that think of that pesticide like we think of a light spring rain. Well... maybe they're not exactly like that.

I've had trouble with one particular student's name. I told him that the next time he sees me in the hall, he should come up to me and say, "Teacher, what's my name?" If I failed to produce the correct one out of my hat, he would earn a piece of candy as my punishment. I have only failed once since.

The students, at first, were happy with my new found facility. Basketball games go smoother when I don't bean a kid in the head with a pass because I can't call to him, and classes are more efficient when I don't have to say, "Hey, you three! No, the other three."

However, they are now guardedly optimistic. They have realized that me knowing their names means I can discipline more effectively in class, evaluate their English abilities better (or to the student's grade's detriment, depending on the student), and rat them out to their homeroom teachers.

Uncle Ben, your words of wisdom never rang more true. I know my flock now. Let us hope that they know me as well.

*I think I know the answer. The first six letters of hangul (the Korean alphabet) are ㄱㄴㄷㄹㅁㅂ. I think the point of the system given in the riddle is to connect any two exposed line segments that end parallel to each other and to bisect any interior line segments. Thus, when we connect the exposed ends of ㄹ and ㅂ and bisect their interior line segments, we get 田 and 田. Following this pattern, the ㄷ would only need its exposed ends connected giving us ㅁ. But, I have yet to check this with my student.

23 September 2009

Soccer! or Football, you know, if you're not American (Year 3, Day 29)

Pohang Steelers 5, Busan Pride 1; Peace Cup Tournament Final Match
Soccer - The football that's actually played with the foot.

I like sports, but not like most American guys like sports. Don't get me wrong. Put a leather clad ball of whatever kind in front of me, and I'll run, tackle, jump, pass, shoot, or whatever else we're supposed to be doing like the rest of them. I love that part of sports.

What I don't like is the sitting in the armchair, speculating on which team is going to win, knowing every player's name and stats, and yelling coaching tips at the TV part of sports. Except for big games like the Superbowl, the NCAA Basketball Tournament, and maybe the World Series, if sports is on the TV, I change the channel to watch something more stimulating. That's just how I roll.

Going to watch sports in a stadium, on the other hand, that I'm all for. The atmosphere is what gets me. The cheering people, the open air (when outdoors, that is), the vendors and hawkers, the smell and yes the stink of it all is just wonderful. It makes me feel as much like I'm a part of the game as watching on TV makes me feel disembodied from it. Heck, I'll even watch baseball, to my mind the single least exciting sport on American television, if we're going to a stadium.

Pictured: My only reason for being a spectator. (The Pohang Steelers' Steelyard Stadium)

The only trouble is that in Korea my options are extremely limited. I can go to basketball games, which are rarely well enough attended to make them interesting, baseball games, which are rarely interesting in and of themselves regardless of the number of spectators, or I can go to soccer matches. In Pohang, that trio of opportunities becomes a despicable solo. That's right. Pohang has one sport offering. Soccer. Whoo. Hoo.

Soccer is probably the least American sport in the world, both by popularity and by competency. Much like the Scots consider basketball to be a game for lasses, Americans, according to Chuck Klostermann, consider soccer to be a game of mediocrity only fit for elementary school children who haven't developed the muscular strength, the hand-eye coordination, or the competitive spirit and will to play our real sports. Stereotypically, our moms take us to soccer pitches. Our dads take us to the battlegrounds of the field, court, and gridiron.

Even the language of soccer is all wrong for American sports. A pitch? Please. And a match? I have news for you, matches in America recall the mano a mano brutality of boxing or at least the agility, finesse, and strategy of tennis. Calling sporting events "games" recalls the honor and prestige of Olympic competitions both modern and ancient, feats of strength and will and endurance. They are a test of the human spirit! All a soccer match brings back for us is memories of aimlessly and awkwardly kicking a ball in the general direction of a goal larger than the size of my bedroom wall and still not making it in--all this while our mothers and fathers discussed the most recent series for the baseball home team or the chances the local high school football team has of making the playoffs that year.

So, yes, despite the dirt cheap admission price, it took me a while to get out to a soccer game.

Last week Wednesday was my first one, and I only have one thing to say about the experience: I loved it.

And so did this guy! (One of the cheerleaders. In Korea, this is not a misnomer. He actually led cheers.)

Allow me to elaborate. American sporting events have nothing on Korean ones for what I referred to earlier as "atmosphere". Forget the Seventh Inning Stretch, no one at these games sits down. Ever. Towards the end of the match, I couldn't keep up and had to sit down momentarily to give my legs a rest.

And the cheers? The cheers are amazing. Rather than just shouting random inarticulate phrases like, "Go!" "Come on!" and the unfortunately-popularized-by-Rob-Schneider-speaking-in-a-Hispanic-accent "You can do it!", we had a veritable repertoire of chants and even full fledged songs with verses to choose from. At the head of each section was a cheerleader, usually wearing the colors of the home team (the alternative being nothing but his pants). I assume this person was just a fan (or perhaps it is better to use the etymological source, "fanatic") of the team, but he led his section with incomparable ardor and zeal. The cheerleaders would even work together, taking cues from each other about when to start different songs, cheers, or actions like the wave. (Yes, they do that here too.)

In terms of the club itself, it makes sure to give the fans the materials needed to ensure the appropriate mood. At the entrance to the stadium, each patron was bestowed with a flag for enthusiastic waving. And waved they were. Some fans even brought their own over-sized flags and banners. This flag was collected at the end of the match, though it was no trouble to keep it as a souvenir if one so desired. Around the field were written slogans declaring the spirit of the game--"Your spirit makes our blood boil!" "Soccer is war!" "My pride is here!" "Dokdo is Pohang's responsibility to protect!" and so on and so forth. (Actually, I'm not quite sure that last one was appropriate at the game. It'd be kind of like someone having a "Let's win in Afghanistan!" sign at a basketball game in the states. I mean, I agree with the sentiment, but at a sporting event? Really?)

And then there's the adoration of the fans for the individual players. They are loved. They are cheered on no matter what. If you make a goal, the throbbing masses will shout your name in unison while raising their hands in victory for at least a minute if not more. If you even make an attempt but miss, they will still praise your effort and will to win in the same manner. Everyone has their favorites, and much as is the custom in America, you can tell by the jerseys which they wear proudly. One was hard pressed to find a person without a jersey or at least the appropriate colors in our section. Upon a bad call by a referee or the possibility of a goal by the other team, the most outrageous cacophony of noise erupts from the stands. In this stadium, the audience really is the extra man on the field.

Goals are not only celebrated with lofty adoration, but with fireworks as well, and we were treated with a mini-show upon each and every one. Fans get in on the action as well by lighting flares.

After coming home from the game, which in itself was the most exciting sporting event I've ever witnessed in person, I enthusiastically posted the following to my wall:
The Steelers win against the Busan Pride, 5-1. MOST EXCITING SOCCER GAME EVER!!! I will have to go again. (hangs head in shame)
A good friend of mine, in jest, then cast this barb at my American pride:
'Most exciting soccer game ever.' So, like, it was almost as exciting as the most boring baseball/basketball/American football/watching paint dry/etc. game ever?

... you're either with the terrorists or your against them. It's American football or terrorist football. American football comes with beer and cheerleaders. Terrorist football comes with secret detention and enhanced interrogation techniques. You can choose.
It's a fair question. You may question my sanity with this new found love of mine, thinking I have somehow lost my American-ness or what have you, but consider this. Take a closer look at this picture:

Remember this guy?

Do you see that row of men in the foreground of the picture, and the row directly behind them, and ye, even unto the row behind them? Notice that they all wear the red and the black jerseys (and the expensive ones at that), that some even have the team's towel scarfs, that they stand ready to cheer at the direction of the craziest cheerleader. That sturdy bunch, that motley crew, the rowdiest of the rowdy fans--they are the United States Marines.

When the U.S. Marines, arguably the most American, macho, and hardened of all possible spectating groups, are cheering for a sporting event, it's gotta be an event worth cheering for.

20 September 2009

Ultimate (Year 3, Day 26)

One of my favorite past times here is playing Ultimate. For the non-initiated, Ultimate is an amalgam of different sports that's easy to learn and exceptionally hard to master if only because it's played with a disc that will either fly away or stop in mid-air depending on the direction the wind is going. There are end-zones like American football, constant running like basketball, and team-play like soccer (or football, if you prefer). Usually, it's a non-contact sport, and a congenial one at that (Even high level events are self-officiated). It's very popular with college aged kids in the States, and apparently with Whites in general. You might be surprised to learn that it's a popular activity in Korea, and indeed I would be too because it isn't, at least not among actual Koreans.

Expats on the other hand love it, and some cities actually have tournaments in not full out leagues. Jeju-do, Korea's island paradise, has international tournaments with teams even flying in from such exotic locales as Idaho, USA. One friend told me that the league in Seoul is so competitive that you actually have to know what your doing or you'll get chewed out by the other players on your team. There are friendly pick up games too, of course, but in the expat crowd, Ultimate is serious business.

Here in Pohang, we usually have a modest--some might say impoverished--showing of about 8 people on a good week, although two weeks ago we had as many as 14. Sometimes, the numbers are as low as 5. It's not enough to host tournaments or to have leagues, but we still have a blast playing our quick 5-point games, and it's something we look forward to every week. In fact, I'm rather disappointed when we don't get a game going, but that's Ultimate for you, I guess.

One of the biggest obstacles to playing Ultimate is finding a place to play. We used to play on POSTECH's soccer field. It was spacious, flat, and well-maintained. The only trouble with this was incurring the ire of locals who wanted to use the field for its intended purpose; that is, soccer. Go figure.

Now, we use a rather narrow and short field near POSTECH's campus. The terrain is rough, the grass is rarely mowed, and because it's surrounded on trees, it has the dual disadvantages of debris on the field and the creation of a wind tunnel that invariably blows directly against one of the teams.

It also has the disadvantage of being in a scenic locale. This makes it a prime place to take pictures for portraits, have church picnics, and just go for a plain old walk through the middle of the field. This is presumably because the soccer field is unavailable for these activities as well. This is a problem because when you're playing a game with a disc that, in a skilled thrower's hands, can cross the length of a soccer field, there's a potential that people in the vicinity could get nailed in the head with one.

Now, when a church group is there playing, we move to the other end of the field. When a group of children are shooting pictures in hanbok for their portraits, we try to make our field a little shorter. If a group has decided that the best place to do either of these is smack dab in the middle of the field, we politely ask if they might mind using one end of the field instead. We understand about sharing space, and everyone can enjoy their respective activities that way.

A lot of Koreans on the other hand do not seem to have the same concerns about shared space that we do; or, to phrase it another way, Western society believes in sharing space, not time, and Koreans believe in sharing both.

Let's say, for instance, that you are walking along with your spouse and two kids and see a group of people playing a game. The game involves running, jumping, and throwing a large white disc at each others' heads. You see that the game space is marked out with cones indicating boundaries of play.

Do you

A) ask the people if they might stop the game momentarily so that you can pass quickly to the other side of the field?
B) walk around the field thereby avoiding any unnecessary contact?
C) walk through the middle of the field at a slow pace without apologizing and nearly get clobbered by a player a time and a half your size?

If you picked C, I need to talk to you about imperiling your life and your elementary aged daughter's life as well.

Let's take another example. Let us say that this time you are leading a small group of children in some traditional activities and games. They are having a grand old time of it. A group of strapping athletes approaches you and asks if you wouldn't mind using one end of the field so that they can set up their weekly game. You acquiesce, the children continue their activity, and the players start their game. During the game, the children begin to stray onto the playing field.

Do you

A) ask the children nicely to come back over the play area?
B) order the children to return the prescribed zone at once? Their lives are in peril!
C) leave them be (they're just children after all), smiling all the while, until the players stop their game and come over and tell the children that it's dangerous themselves?

If you answered C, I need to talk to you about placing other people's children in peril.

This isn't confined to our Ultimate games either. When I practice shooting basketball, I often have children walk through the court in front of me, sometimes even stopping right under the basket that is my intended target and then just stare at me. (Actually, given my accuracy, that's probably the safest place for them.) Adults are not immune to this either, and although they won't stand directly under the basket, they will walk in front of me in herds on their way out of the elementary school where I sometimes practice. No apologies, no rush, just a person moving from point A to point B by the most direct course--a straight line.

In the States it's a little different, and, while I'm not sure about the rest of the Western world, I imagine the same case might hold. At an early age, I was instilled with the wisdom to avoid running out onto basketball courts when games were in progress, that I shouldn't have my picnic on an active soccer field whether defined by chalk lines or cones, and that I should always ask permission before crossing through someone's campsite.

I mean, we even apologize or ask to be excused for passing in front of someone's line of vision at a store with narrow aisles! Let's face it, there's only one way through and that way is in front of the other person. Aren't we basically saying, "I apologize for the limitations of space-time and the cramped interior design of this room"?

I think there are two things going on here. One is that Koreans have a different conception of shared space. As I said before, Koreans don't necessarily consider occupied space to be off limits. If it's in a public area, then your Ultimate game will have to deal with the picnic that's smack dab in the middle of it. That's just something I've had to get used to over here. If a person bumps into you on the subway, there's no apology because it'd basically be saying, "I apologize for the limitations of space-time and for the fact that my country is 15.7 times more densely populated than yours, but hey, at least I'm not blocking your view in the aisle!"

(Actually, over the summer while I was visiting Seattle with my cousin, we noticed a Korean tour bus in the vicinity that I deftly translated for her. Later, in the Pike Place Market, a densely built, hunched, Asian woman practically bowled my cousin over without a word of apology and continued on her merry way. My cousin just stared after her in utter disbelief, and I grinned at her and said, "Don't worry about it. I guarantee you she's Korean, and that's just how they role over there.")

But what's more reflectively interesting to me is the second thing that's going on, and it's a new experience for me.

This is mere speculation, but remember when I said that Ultimate isn't popular with Koreans? It would be better to say that Koreans just don't understand about Ultimate. I don't mean that they can't comprehend the rules, in fact a few Koreans play with us and quite well. I have even taught some of my students to play as a cultural lesson. I mean that, as an imported game that is almost exclusively played amongst expatriates, they don't get how important it is for those that enjoy the game to have uninterrupted play. For them, it's just a goofy thing that the foreigners do every once in a while. It isn't anything past that, and, since it is unknown, doesn't garner respect. By marking out the space on the field, we don't actually reserve it because, when you try to explain the game to a Korean, they say, "That's ridiculous! It sounds boring." (I often have the same reaction when someone mentions baseball, actually.)

Let's put this in perspective. Imagine that you play tennis. One day you come to your regular tennis court that you've played on every weekday after work for a whole year and you find that a game of sorts is already in progress. Some foreign men are kicking a soccer ball back and forth across the net, and while it's clear that it's some sort of game they're playing (It has a ball, an obstacle, passing... Seems like a game to me!), it's also fairly clear to you that it's not tennis and has no right being played on a tennis court. You tell them they have to leave so that you can play your game, or you at least scowl at them through your racket as you sit on the bench waiting for them to leave.

The thing is, that game is a real sport called chok-gu, and in Korea is quite popular (It's similar to volleyball). There are televised national tournaments for it, even. It seems ridiculous to us because we've never seen it or never played it, but it's a real thing that just isn't well-recognized in the rest of the world.

Ultimate's the same way here. It's a sport native to my country that, when transplanted, just doesn't register as an organized, team-based activity. In fact, for all intensive purposes, it is just a bunch of strange foreigners having a laugh on a Saturday afternoon.

Still, it'd be nice to have a laugh without running over any bystanders.

By the way, those kids that interrupted our game this weekend? C-U-T-E! Enjoy the pics.

18 September 2009

Teaching, Week 4... or the lack thereof (Year 3, Day 24)

For reference, here's my normal teaching schedule.
  • Monday: Low-level Adults Conversation
  • Tuesday: Intermediate Adults Free-Talking; Grade 1 (American system 10), Classes 1 and 2
  • Wednesday: Intermediate Adults U.S. History
  • Thursday: Grade 1 (10), Classes 1 and 2
In all 7 class hours. It's a pretty light schedule, and it's probably the lightest of all the teachers in my program. My friend has often quipped that my school is the program's retirement home, and there's justification for calling it that. As if it weren't light enough, my students are advanced, so agonizing over restricting my vocabulary and grammar patterns, talking like a robot, clarifying every minute detail over and over aren't really issues for me. I have been blessed.

Besides having a fantastic schedule and comprehending students, as an additional bonus, every so often I get a sort of unofficial vacation from teaching, a week or so of class-less bliss. (That's class-less, not classless. I've never been short on class.) This week was one such week.

Don't get me wrong, school is still in session here, but testing and preparing for the new group of students has decimated my class load. Specifically, this week we had Grade 2 and 3 (11 and 12) mid-term examinations and all grades had to take the national university entrance mock examination on Thursday.

On Monday, my Adult Conversation class was canceled apparently. No one showed up at any rate, and I realized that with mid-terms both students and faculty take the afternoons "off". The scare quotes are there because the students study for the next day's subjects and the faculty grade the tests so they can get them back to the students IMMEDIATELY. (The faculty do this for every test at this school, and I admire their dedication. Student scores are usually posted by the end of the period following the previous exam.)

On Tuesday, all of my classes being in the morning, I taught all three of my classes for that day. Grade 1 (10) read through personal ads and played match maker, a lesson I borrowed from Laura K., one of our better educated teachers in the program.

On Wednesday, two of the three teachers that usually participate in the U.S. History topic course had to go on a recruitment trip, so we decided to cancel that course as well.

Thursday was the national mock examination, so no classes then.

And Friday, my only responsibility is to sit at my desk for a bit.

Let me be clear. It's not like these mini-vacations allow me to get out of town. I have responsibilities here still (Korean classes, faculty meetings, etc.). So, what do I do with my free-time then? I write, and I read. Preparing for grad school is no small task.

These schedule interruptions are troublesome, especially when one is trying to develop lessons that build on each other. A few weeks ago, I did a lesson series on environmentalism that incorporated practicing open forum debate and discussion skills. Although it is fairly typical for teachers in our programs to teach single lesson topics, after teaching for two years I prefer these lesson series because it allows the students to acquire and practice new vocabulary instead of just retaining it for the one lesson.

This is difficult to accomplish with interruptions, however, because students will often forget what they've acquired with too much time in between lessons and because, as is the case with testing periods, students have trouble concentrating on their English when they're worried about the math exam they have to take tomorrow. To combat this and to help the students relax a bit, my co-teacher and I have adopted a policy of playing games during the lessons before major exam periods like mid-terms and finals, and I am careful not to schedule major projects so that they are due immediately before examinations.

Next week, for instance, I really only have Tuesday for a constructive English conversation lesson. The week after is mid-term examinations for Grade 1 (10), so Thursday will be a game day. After those Thursday lessons, I won't have class with my students again for another 11 days.

Of course, one might ask, why not just make them study in your classes? You are a teacher after all, and your responsibility is to the kids and their learning. Kids may not like broccoli, but parents make them eat it anyway because it's good for them to grow up healthy. Students may not like learning certain subjects, but we make them do it anyway because it's good for them to have a well-rounded elementary and secondary education.

I appreciate the sage-advice, oh, rhetorical device, but the reality of the situation here is, while I feel my classes are important and helpful for these students, I also realize just how supplementary they are.

Native teachers who first come to Korea often come with the misconception that they will be like their teachers in their home country. They will have control over their classrooms and curricula. They will stretch and enhance their students minds. They will improve their quality of life.

When I first came here, I was loathe to give up any of my classes for the sake of examinations. I decried the system. It was unjust to subject students to the kinds of torture studying for the national examination system entails. It was unhealthy for the students, and it was a poor measurement of aptitude besides. I fought for every class and bargained with teachers to make up classes I would miss because I knew that my class was making a difference in these students' lives and was helping them to see the world in new and better ways!

And while I truly believe that we do make a significant impact on these students, I came to realize that in the Korean education system, for better or for worse, we and our conversation classes are the sideshow. The main event is the examination. For most students, this means acquiring facility with English reading and listening, no more, no less. For most of my students, this means getting a good score on TEPS, largely a vocabulary knowledge examination, so that they can put that on their early admittance applications for top technical universities.

My point is, after a couple of years here, I've realized that we need to strike a balance. Yes, we should teach. Yes, we should educate. Yes, we should do all of these things with intention and diligence to present the best possible window into English speaking culture and to get our students actually communicating in our language rather than just comprehending it.

On the other hand, speaking English like a pro and knowing what Americans do on Thanksgiving Day isn't going to help my kids get into college. I have come to realize that I need to be humble, to step aside and let the students prepare and study and pass their examinations.

And these few hours, these few moments I am given to interact and explore with my students--these are all the more precious for it.

16 September 2009

What is Authentically Korean? or, A Visit to Yangdong Folk Village (Year 3, Day 22)

Yandong Folk Village

Recently, my co-teacher, Mr. Kim, invited me along on a recruitment trip to a middle school in Pohang. "Afterwards, we can visit Yangdong Folk Village. Have you been to Yangdong Folk Village?" he asked. I've been to many folk villages. "Mr. Son's ancestors lived at this one. If you have time, how about going there?" Well, I've never been a recruitment trip, and the personal connection with the village could make it more interesting. Sure, why not?

The recruitment trip was uneventful. The way the teachers kept talking while the students listened unconfidently to the pitch reminded me of when military recruiters would come to my high school when I was "of age."

The village on the other hand was quite interesting, if for no other reason than Mr. Son offered this little tidbit on the way up to the village.

Can you see the church? Neither could I.

"This church used to be inside the village, but the government ordered it to move." Oh, really? "Yes. It did not exist during the Joseon dynasty," the dynasty which the village was supposed to reflect. I see.

There it is! Behind the tree with a non-descript roof so it won't disturb history.

According to the handy tourist guide, we can extrapolate where it used to be!
Notice the location in the middle of town and the bright red roof.
Isn't photographic history fun?

That seemed reasonable enough. I've just recently finished reading Henderson's Korea: The Politics of the Vortex, a book that, among other things, discusses the Korean national character or what it means to be truly Korean. I'm reading a book right now that just came out this Spring called Seoul: A Window into Korean Culture that indeed is at least giving me a view into the author's, Mr. Choi's, window on Korean culture. Both delve into what is the authentic Korean, the former primarily in terms of his or her social-political character, the later in terms of his or her aesthetic character.

But in reading both books and in taking in their respective perspectives, I have to ask, What is authentically Korean? This has been an especially poignant question for me since reading Konrad Lawson's "Why not Teach Us Hwatu?" in the 2008 Fulbright Korea Review. In the article, Mr. Lawson wonders at the cultural components of Korean language classes designed for foreigners living in Korea, classes that I myself have attended many times. These cultural components tend to place a heavy emphasis on things authentically Korean, games like yutnori (윷놀이)and traditional musical styles like pansori (판소리), while neglecting more modern imports like Go-Stop (고스톱) and Trot (트로트). He speculates that since these imports reflect past imperial oppression, especially at the hands of the Japanese, Korean teachers are loathe to teach them. This would seem logical enough if it were not for the fact that Go-Stop and Trot appear to be infinitely more popular in Korea than yutnori and pansori, and thus would be a boon to those trying to learn Korean as it would help them make friends.

I myself had some experience with this. When I asked my Korean tutor in Pyeongchang to teach me Go-Stop since she said she knew the rules, she said, "I'd rather not." Why? "Because it's not really Korean. It's from Japan."

Fair enough. There is a terribly brutal history between the two countries, and many Koreans tend to feel a mix of shame, anger, and saddness over that occupation period.

Perhaps this tendency towards seeking the "authentic" and "genuine" in one's own culture is natural in largely homogeneous nations with profoundly deep histories not built on the need for massive immigrant populations. Perhaps it is only because I'm from America--a nation with few traditional customs, dress, or lifestyles that apply to any specific group, much less to the nation as a whole--that I cannot imagine throwing out mariachi music or Indian food just because it doesn't reflect my ethnic background. After all, if we started doing that, there'd be no American culture left, or at least, granting that America has developed some wonderful additions to world culture of its own accord, far less than there was before.

And, being the historically interested fellow that I am, I can understand the need for accuracy in the presentation of a cultural exhibit. Still, walking through the village, I couldn't help but notice something. Tell me if anything looks out of place.

I'll give you a hint. LG, satellites, and plastic all come from the 20th century...

Tractors are a bit earlier, but not diesel tractors with internal combustion engines.

There was also a horse, which makes sense. This is a farming community. Traditional Joseon society was primarily agrarian. But, I've gotten to know the difference between northeast Asian horses and European horses. Asian horses tend to be squat and powerful. He was most certainly not Asian, much less Korean.

So, why is it that all these manifestations of foreign influence are allowed in the village, but the church is not? Why can we have the electrical convenience, but not spiritual? When I asked Mr. Kim about this, disclaiming that he of course did not know the exact reasons, he speculated that a few factors could have been involved.

The church does not reflect Joseon architecture. Seodang on the other hand could be allowed because they reflect Korean Confucianism. He was unsure at this point whether it was just the physical building that was the problem or the teaching that happens inside the building as well. Also, while everyone needs electricity for good health and survival, not everyone uses the church.

This becomes an even more interesting question for me for two reasons. The first is, Does the church represent a break from Korean culture? and the second is, If we are to base the village on the traditional Joseon dynasty, are we allowed to determine a certain time period within Joseon in order to eliminate that break?

The first question interests me because, from what I have seen, Koreans have made the church an integral part of their culture. Christianity is a recognized religion in Korea and, depending on which data sets you are using, comprises between 26% and 49% of the current population, and even at 26%, they are about equal to the number of Buddhist adherents. (There are few admitted adherents of Confucianism and Shamanism left, though you can find them.) And, although the church may have originally been an import, it is a far cry from that import as it is practiced today. Koreans have made the church their own. As I have observed it, it is legalist, prosperity gospel driven, and, perhaps most poignant, nationalist. The last sermon I heard at a Korean church insisted that God had chosen Korea to convert China so that China could then convert the world and Korea could control the world through China. Not all Korean churches are like this, of course, but the point is that Korean Christianity is Korean.

The second question--whether we can modify the inclusive dates of the Joseon dynasty--interests me because Christianity began making inroads into Korea during the Joseon dynasty, albeit rather late. The Joseon dynasty lasted from 1392 to Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910. The first Christian in Korea actually came over during the Hideyoshi invasion (Not exactly an ideal way to start...) in 1593. In 1603, the first missionary came over from China and began disseminating literature. It is important to note that this first missionary was not from the West and was in fact Korean. However, the successful planting of churches and the first big numbers do not occur until 1784. From that point on, though the church is persecuted, it flourishes, and it does so within the context of Joseon culture.

Now, I won't argue that Christianity isn't an import. I am however concerned about Korea's tendency to erase aspects of its history that it doesn't find particularly reflective of its culture or history, or perhaps more appropriately, of what it wants those things to be. Why not have a memorial sign outside the church explaining what it is doing in the middle of the village?

Mr. Choi, the author of that book on Seoul I mentioned above, also has concerns about this, but for something much closer to the Korean psyche. If you decide to hike up Namsan in Seoul, you might come upon a small clearing with a fountain within a well shaded grove. However, unless you know what this grove used to be, you will never realize that it was the site of Japan's Shinto shrine worshiping the Emperor. After the occupation, it was demolished and a small garden was planted in its place. Yet there is no sign to indicate what the place is. No plaque. No educational guide. No shame. You will, however, see the statue of a Korean patriot who assassinated the governor-general from Japan.

It's concerning because the powers that be in Korea (and throughout the world, not least of all in my own country, America) want to present a certain history to you, a history that conveniently ignores certain truths about its past to present a traditional culture that satisfies its own perspective on Korea's traditional national identity. This identity, all present evidence to the contrary, doesn't include imports like Christianity, though it is more than happy to include air conditioning units made by LG.

Then again, it's not as if everyday Koreans won't talk with you about these things or aren't aware of them. My co-teacher was fine with explaining the situation of the church with me. When I visited a fellow teacher's host family last year, they were more than happy to show me how to play Go-Stop.

13 September 2009

Corporal Punishment, or What Does Korea Have to Do with Star Trek? (Year 3, Day 19)

Every time I write one of these, I'm tempted to start, "Captain's Log, Stardate ..."

I have been watching far too much Star Trek. I would give you precise information as to shows, seasons, and episodes completed, but suffice it to say I have finished all of "Enterprise," most of "Voyager," and nearly a full-season of "The Next Generation" since the beginning of the year. I am tempted to make it a goal to finish all of the Star Trek television series by the end of my contract, but at 45 minutes per episode, about 26 episodes per season, and between 3 and 7 seasons per show, it represents a considerable time commitment--about 528 hours, in fact, or 22 full days, if I've calculated it correctly.*

I have far better things to do with my time here in Korea.

For better or worse, I have my parents to thank for my interest in this indulgence. "Star Trek-The Next Generation" was one of two shows I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch, the other being Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Why my parents chose these two shows in particular, I do not quite understand, but I will say this about having watched Star Trek. It has shaped me in significant ways.

For one thing, I'm still a little afraid of the dark. I actually don't recall being scared of the dark before watching a certain Star Trek episode, season four's "Identity Crisis," although I'm sure I was since I remember having a nightlight before seeing it. In this episode, Geordi transforms into an alien creature that has extremely high photo sensitivity. In layman's terms, it hates light. The night I saw this episode, I had a dream that I too turned into such a creature in my own back patio. Every night since then, I get the nagging feeling that either A) something in the dark is watching me or B) two pairs of digits on each hand will fuse together leaving me with six fingers and I'll suddenly have huge veins sticking out all over my body. Awesome if you're a body builder. Not so awesome if you're an eight year old kid. Like I said, I'm pretty sure I was scared of the dark before this. It was just this episode in particular that continued that fear into my adult years, if only the littlest bit.

More importantly though, I find that those years of watching Star Trek have prepared me for where I find myself today--in an alien country with an alien culture. That sounds absurd, but in re-viewing these episodes, I find myself struck at how much of that Trekkie culture has actually been a boon to me in Korea.

The impression one gets from the Star Trek movie series is that Star Trek is an action packed, sci-fi thrill ride. In reality, the television episodes that are the foundation for those epic confrontations are more often than not social commentaries on interactions between different groups and how our assumptions can hinder our understanding of other cultures; indeed, the episodes do not always agree and serve as a forum for discussion.

Take for instance "Suddenly Human" in The Next Generation. The Enterprise crew rescues a human boy raised by a warrior alien race from a stranded space ship. They wish to return the boy to his biological family immediately, but the boy's alien adoptive father is willing to start a war to prevent this. When they find that the boy shows evidence of recent broken ribs and internal bleeding, they are even more loathe to return him even though the boy insists that he is happier with his alien brothers than he is with the humans on ship. The father explains that with the rigorous training their youths go through, every child is bound to have a few broken bones by the time they are adolescents. However, the doctor on ship thinks that the boy is suffering from Stockholm syndrome, a psychological condition whereby captives identify with their captors even if abused. Eventually, the captain decides to let the boy return in respect and deference to cultural sensitivity even after the boy attempts to murder him!

On the other hand, there is Voyager's "Initiation" wherein a very similar situation unfolds, but instead of allowing the youth (this time an alien native to the antagonist culture) to return back to his violent warrior race, the Federation-trained crew attempts to rescue him from his "persecutors" who are putting him through a training exercise--albeit a violent one--so that he can reach adulthood.

On the one hand, it would seem that cultural relativism rules the day; on the other hand, universal dictates for raising children. This is made even more complex by the fact that in "Suddenly Human," the main voice of the cultural doctrine is the character least likely to be conciliatory when the laws are on the line, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and in "Initiation" it is the character who is most likely to be so, Commander Chicote.

So, what does this have to do with Korea? In fact, I've been faced with almost the exact same conundrum over where my responsibilities lie with regard to corporal punishment in schools. In Korea, it is perfectly legal for a teacher to strike a student, and violently, in school as a form of discipline. Infractions may be as simple as showing up late or falling asleep or as serious as starting fights behind the main building.

The first time I heard this happen it was outside of the main teachers' office room. Let me here emphasize that I heard the rod coming down on the students. I did not see it. I remember being mentally jarred from the lesson plan I was writing. I remember staring through the screen as I realized what was happening on just the other side of the wall. I remember the look of disappointment on the teacher's face when they re-entered the office. I remember seeing, through the doorway, the students scurry back to their classes seemingly no more the worse for wear. And I remember thinking, Just what exactly is my role here?

In the states, teachers are encouraged to refrain from even touching their students for fear of abuse or sexual harassment law suits against the school, much less hitting them with a bamboo switch or sword. I was raised to believe that the only people who should ever administer corporal punishment on a child were the child's parents, and then only sparingly. To see--and believe me, in my two years here, I've had the opportunity to see as well as hear--such a thing at a publicly funded school shocked me to my core. Shouldn't I do something? I thought. Can I really let this pass?

That day I did, but the question became even more poignant for me in Taekwondo class one day when I myself was involved in the problem that led to the discipline. A child had been continuously saying, "Fuck you!" to my face for no other apparent reason than to show off the new English "bad word" he'd just learned that day. I told him not to several times, and eventually began ignoring the student entirely. When the sabeomnim heard that the student had been saying such disrespectful words to a fellow trainee, he made everyone assemble in lines and rank and gave the student a dressing down in front of everyone. The student, already in tears for shame, was made to go into a kind of bridge position, arms and legs straight, his body forming a 90-degree angle as the sabeomnim called for one of the bamboo swords from the back. The child was hit a number of times, I don't remember how many, but he was sore when it was over and had trouble walking without wincing. I remember screaming at myself, in my head, You must stop this! I tried to speak up, but the sabeomnim told me to keep quiet. Apparently, a lesson in respect had to be learned.

Another English teacher here asked me recently, "What do you do about corporal punishment in schools?" I'll admit, my feelings on it are mixed.

On the one hand, I don't think corporal punishment is an effective discipline in school. The reason for this is that discipline of this kind will never happen in the real world except under extraordinary circumstances, e.g. torture, and if you find yourself in those circumstances, no amount of "reasonable" force in school is going to prepare you for them. In fact, in some cases I've observed, what happens here is abuse. There is no qualification I can give for that. Look the word up in the dictionary if you want to know what I mean.

On the other hand, we've taken our loathing of corporal punishment to an entirely different extreme in America. When I worked as a camp counselor, I was told to be wary of touching the children or giving them hugs for fear of calling a law suit down on the camp from an over protective parent. In Korea, on the other hand, I can pat my kids on the back, playfully punch them in the shoulder, and, on the rare occasion, even give a hug without fear of reproach. When I volunteered as a Vacation Bible School instructor last summer in the United States, having grown accustomed to the more congenial attitude in Korea, I gave one of my students a light bump on the chest both to get his attention and to say, lightly chiding, "Hey, pay attention up front!" Both the kid and I were a bit shocked at this--I, when I realized too late the cultural boundary I had crossed--and I resolved to keep my actions in check from then on.

So, in Korea, should I follow Captain Picard's dictates or Commander Chicote's? Are our cultural norms as regard disciplining children relative or universal?

I don't have an answer for that. I do think that corporal punishment should be the reserve of parents, especially in the states where we all raise our children so differently.

But this here is not my culture. Here, it is not my place to make a public outcry. In the future, I will continue to be a passive observer.

However, I do know that, on that day, cultural considerations be damned, I should have stopped my sabeomnim.

*For the Trekkies who are thinking, "Wait a second! He's missing a full 22 episodes in that calculation," relax. I cannot bring myself to watch the Animated Series for whatever reason. I will, however, entertain arguments for its worth.


I should note that according to Wikipedia, "In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled in Ingraham v. Wright (1977) that school corporal punishment is exempt from the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments." 20 states in the USA still allow corporal punishment in public schools. Of the 30 states that prohibit it, two have extended the prohibition to private schools as well. Wikipedia also has a map though I can't help but notice that the corporal punishment states are Republican Red and the states against it are Democrat Blue.

14 September 2009