Smoke Break

11 05 2010

In Korea, cigarettes were part of the standard rations issued to every soldier. By law, all male citizens were required to serve for two years and most emerged from the experience with a recently acquired nicotine habit.

In fact, smoking enjoyed a broad popularity throughout Asia. From the upper class, suited, hair-parted, heavy drinkers in expensive bars to the grime-faced, blown-back haired motor bike delivery drivers of fried chicken, cigarettes were an ubiquitous presence on Asian lips. College students immersed in a game at Internet cafes, bar goers practicing their rudimentary English with drunk foreigners and old men squatting to gamble at a card game or just the traffic go by, all had packs in their back pockets.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Importance of Being Polite

19 06 2009

Learning the hard way often seems to be the only method from which I am capable of perceiving any discernible lesson. For certain subject matters, I lack the kind of common sense intuition that comes naturally to most. One of the standout incidents examples would be in the area of tact and politeness. My mother spent hours drilling a relentless amount of such lessons into what has proved to be a very unreceptive brain. She apologizes for this profusely to any women I date and stresses that she tried, really she did.


What is Soju made of? As it costs about a dollar a bottle, I'm gonna say it's chemically synthesized.

Korea then, presented an interesting challenge. How would I fare with my prospective employers considering I now had two barriers to scale, that of my own lack and that of geographic displacement? Asians, presented in the stereotype of the American mind as formal and stiff, might find my more casual attitude lacking in propriety. I discovered Koreans to defy this categorizing and instead presented themselves as an effusive and warm people, given the proper environment. This small story details one such situation and the lessons in Korean mannerism which I gleaned from the experience.

Two weeks into my new career as a molder of young minds, our boss decided to prove his gregarious nature with a generous buffet at a local raw fish joint. The whole staff was to be treated to plates of raw fish and bottles of booze, for Korean employers like their employees to think the company is doing so well such a feast can be afforded. This is often the case even when it’s actually not. Indeed my particular academy had long since left the black for the red, but appearances had to be maintained, I suppose.

As a recent transplant, the whole experience served as an introduction to many quintessential aspects of Korean culture. We dined on the delicacies of the sea, imbibed the national liquor of Korea (Soju) and heard speeches presumably about the general awesomeness of our work establishment. Or at least, this I assume as no one bothered to translate said articulations for me. This was the first of many linguistic lapses on my employer’s part (the sign that informed us, in Korean, that we would be paid five days late springs readily to mind).

As the diner wore on, I grew tired of the chatty company of women, both foreign and local, that surrounded me and spied the Korean men, cigarettes in hand, engaged in animated discussion further down the low tables at which we sat. I had learned zero Korean at that point, but knew that at least one of the three could speak some English, so I decided to attempt a conversation.

Aware of my own intrinsic lack of courtesy, I made every attempt at politeness and learned a very hard (that’s in terms of alcoholic content, not difficulty) lesson about Korean culture. The three I had joined consisted of my direct manager, the owner of the English academy and the head bus driver. The owner, who’s name I learned many times but never remembered, had no grasp of English and instead supplanted this absence with a firm grasp of the Soju bottle. Koreans have many rules governing the consuming of alcohol and it’s important to show the proper respect when drinking with elders. I had already learned the very basics, such as holding your glass out with two hands when an older person pours a drink for you, but there was a second rule about which I had not been instructed.

In such a social business situation, it is considered rather rude for someone to have an empty glass and borderline insulting if you must fill your own glass. Upon sitting down with the three gentlemen, a large shot glass full of Soju was offered to me. Such a presentation is bound to confuse the average American. To us, liquor in a small glass hearkens back to the days of our drinking’s first experience. We know that to maintain our machismo, the liquid must be consumed completely, quickly and without hesitation. The offer thus made to me, I quaffed the libation and set the empty glass down.

The thorough dispatch of the beverage amused my Korean compatriots and I immediately found another full shot in my hand. This I also vanquished in seconds and in seconds more, my glass was brimming again with Soju. I thought of my mother then and how she always stressed the importance of being a gracious guest and properly respectful in all manner of interactions. Compelled by such a creed, I threw back the glass yet again, bringing laughter and bemused smiles from those who had offered it.

Yet, they were not satisfied and a fourth full glass sat on the table in front of me. At that point, I decided that if I desired to be able to walk away from this restaurant under my own power, it would be best to adapt the virtue of restraint. My glass no longer in need of refreshing, the Koreans continued merrily with their conversation while I contemplated ordering some water.

Minutes later, however, the shot which I had been regarding warily on the table in front of me needed consumption. Koreans, as it turned out, are also quite found of toasting, cheering and clicking their glass together whenever possible. Such an occurrence demanded my participation, though I cannot say to what I was so heartily saluting. So, my mother’s instruction ever in my mind, I dutifully obeyed my superiors and got well and truly drunk.

Lesson learned. I think. My memory of the evening grows increasingly foggy from that point onward.

Lessons in Authoritarianism

21 05 2009
pagoda 3

Can you ever imagine listening to a guy like this? The answer for most students seemed no.

The initial response I gathered upon announcing my intention to teach English in Korea provoked some playfully derisive skepticism from friends and family. Most of this stemmed from the fact that I have a very low, gruff voice that tends toward mumbling and often renders me incomprehensible to listeners. I’m also infamous for mispronouncing certain words, namely “archive” with a soft “ch” instead of a hard one.

However, I had my own personal doubt that I thought would far exceed my sometimes garbled speech. Teachers, especially those of young kids, need to possess a presence that commands authority. Ever since I tried (and failed) being a patrol leader in Boy Scouts, I’ve known that I lack leadership qualities as such. I can’t really summon the kind of demeanor or personality that would instill terror in the heart of anyone, especially misbehaving Korean children.

I said to hell with it and flew over there anyway. Plus, I expected that upon arriving I would undergo a week or two worth of training to compensate for my complete lack of teaching knowledge. Instead, I arrived for my first day of work, was handed a stack of books and a schedule, and then shoved in front of a classroom of 12 nine-year-old children with absolutely no instruction as to what I should do with them.

Deep breath.

The kids were enthusiastic enough, gleefully shouting out the names of objects as I pointed to them in the class book. “Bee!” “Flower!” “Lizard!” Okay, fun enough, but it took all of about five minutes to knock out the first two pages in the allotted six for the entire class. I looked up at the clock, at my increasingly talkative (not in English) students and realized with dread that I had another 45 minutes to kill.

It was a rough first day.

For the next six months, I struggled for control. I tried making jokes (went over their heads), yelling fiercely (they couldn’t understand what I was saying) and giving up (class time = game time!), all to no avail. Overall, my approach’s defining characteristic remained its inconsistency. Depending on my mood, the boundaries about what constituted acceptable behavior and not shifted. This made enforcing rules difficult on the rare occasion that I had the courage and energy to enact them.

All this frustration culminated about halfway into my year-long contract with a physical altercation. There are no laws in Korea forbidding corporeal punishment, and Korean teachers often carry thick bamboo sticks with them to class. I had on occasion tapped kids on the head with a marker or folder to get their attention but never with any force behind it. On this particular day, I found myself so annoyed with an individual kid that I lost my temper, rolled up a book and swung full force at the standing boy’s head. Lucky for him (and me, in retrospect), he nimbly ducked under my brutal swing, resulting in gales of laughter from his classmates and extreme embarrassment for me.

This incident caused me to seriously rethink my general approach. I realized that I had been trying to control and corral these mischievous kids but losing control of my own self in the process. A flustered person does not inspire much respect.

Over the next few weeks, my teaching style evolved to compensate for this. However, I didn’t consider how I had changed or what I had accomplished much until after I came back. The realization occurred to me as I was dispensing tips to a friend about how to deal with authority problems at her new job. I had actual, constructive advice (which I almost never do on any subject) gleaned from my trial-by-fire in Korealand.

Thus, I present the three most important maxims for exercising brutal authority:

1) Develop an impenetrable skin. People are going to say or do things that inevitable rankle you, but remaining calms is key. Learn to yell without yelling. If your emotions start to color your scoldings, this signals victory to most misbehaving children.

2) Lay down the lines. Two parts to this, you must make it clear what isn’t allowed and then convey with your body language and tone of voice when the rules are being violated. My default mode was friendly and joking, but I would quickly lose the jovial tone if some kid started acting out and adopt a very even and serious voice. From there, I would ratchet up the anger and noise until obeyed. However, because my rage wasn’t emotional, I could just as quickly switch back to being fun and kidding again.

3) Know when you’re beat. Some kids just don’t listen, so don’t waste your time with a situation you can’t handle. For me, this meant sending a kid down the hall to one of the Korean teachers who would ream them in their native tongue. Korean mothers can be quite scary, so threatening to inform their parents worked well also.

Depends on Where You’re Standing

5 05 2009

I’ve always found it hard to be ideological in any serious matter, like politics or religion, but find no problem in being an absolute hard-liner when it comes to more trivial concerns. Is Coke a better product than Pepsi? You’re damn right it is! When it comes to more complex matters, however, I have trouble committing myself to one option and instead tend to see both positive and negative in any proposed solution.

This is amplified by my somewhat skeptical nature. I need to see some kind of hard evidence before I believe something and even when such evidence is presented, I usually convince myself that there are facts somewhere else to dispute it.

However, I sometimes get in trouble when I allow this two tendencies to mix. The result is that I take my inclination toward opinionating and merge it with my affinity for considering all sides of an argument. Yes, I am one of those annoying people who will argue with you just for the sake of argument, especially if it someone who I don’t know too well. I view it as a kind of intellectual exercise, a way for me to evolve my analytical skills by attempting to convince someone of something I don’t even necessarily believe myself. Others have given it less charitiable descriptions.

Throughout my college years, my penchant for political discussion drove to usually espouse views that would be considered extremely leftist, even beyond my already liberal nature. College students in general are reliably Democratic and so when I would engage in random political discussions, I’d sometimes shift myself further left so that I could argue instead of benignly agree.

However, this dynamic changed in a surprising way when I arrived in Korea.

The population of foreign English teachers in Korea is overwhelmingly Canadian, so most of my new-found friends hailed from our neighbor to the north. It’s common knowledge that Canada’s political center, like Europe, is much more liberal than America’s. So, when I entered into the arena of political debate with acquaintances of Canadian descent and tried my usually my move to the left, I found it politically impossible. They had already beat me to the far left and I couldn’t really outpace them without entering the lunatic fringe of the political spectrum.

So, I took the opposite approach and tacked my arguments toward the right. While this ensured that the debates stayed lively, it made me wonder about where my political center lay. With my political perspectives thus shifted, I began to realize that I had always been more of centrist (pragmatic, if you will) than I realized and felt slightly worried about my lacking liberalism compared to my Canadian compatriots.

Now, back amongst my fellow Americans, my fears have eased away. I’ve found comfort in the acerbic rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh and the ignorance of Miss California, assuring me that yes, indeed, I can still be considered a liberal whacko.

Running, By Way of Introduction

27 04 2009

Running, to me, has always seemed to be one of the world’s most primordial sports, a test of endurance once intrinsic to our very survival as a species. Given this ancesteral link to all humanity, I figured it would be a form of exercise followed the world over. Living abroad in Korea, I quickly discovered such is not the case.

From my experience, I would not say Koreans are actively more health conscious than you’re average American. America’s problem is more in the fact that we have a scale heavy in extremes, from those so grotesquely large to impair walking upright to fitness nuts too obsessive to enjoy anything in life. In each country, there is the sentiment floating out there that one should eat healthy and exercise, but the execution of this practice has its variations.

For example, my favorite form of physical activity, the ancient art of running a long way for no damn reason, has about zero adherents across the Pacific. For the first months I lived in Busan, I spent my runs weaving through sidewalks crowded with uniformed students and hunkered-down grocery sellers, gathering up plenty of strange looks as I sped along.  To them, I seemed a crazed man.

The geographical layout of the Korean Peninsula is shockingly uniform. It has small, low lying mountains pretty much the whole way. Thus, the Korean inclination is to inclines; they go up, not out. Hiking is the national past time for Korea, especially among the older set. To them, the idea of a lazy Sunday stroll is a half-hike, half-climb scaling 500 meters (or more) in elevation straight up the hillside. After a picnic usually involving several bottles of the Korean liquor Soju, they take the return trip down, barely winded. To me, this seems crazy.

While I’m not a stellar runner, it’s the only sport in which I possess some above-average talent. So, it has always been a bit of an ego booster for me, and I felt pretty good cruising by all the slowly walking Koreans on the city streets. But those same 60-year-old ladies I was breezing by on the sidewalk overtook me with steady, paced strides once I hit the mountainside myself. I huffed and wheezed, clamoring over the constant rocky protrusions along the path, a term used altogether too loosely. In my head, I keep thinking that my 5k time would probably destroy theirs but such thoughts gave me small comfort.

Exercise, like most things, is relative. What’s pragmatic in the flat plains of the Midwest isn’t so in Korea’s undulating environment. From this observation and many similar ones, my blog gets its name. I would like to consider myself possessive of a certain set of virtues and capable of certain accomplishments, but the more people I met and more things I do in this life, the more I realize my methods of measurement are circumspect.

Sure, I’m pragmatic, but only relatively so.