research1

Sobriety

It was back in September, and the Korean doctor was running the ultrasound wand back and forth across my lubed-up abdomen, shaking his head and looking stern. “Patty Ribber” he repeated, three or four times, pointing at the monitor, on which I saw nothing but the usual indecipherable patterns of amorphous grey blobs. I nodded like I knew what he was saying, which is my usual strategy. After nearly 15 years since I came to Korea, I’m still not that great at parsing things out when I’m in an unfamiliar situation.

The doc sat back down behind his desk while his disconcertingly attractive nurse wiped the lube off my stomach, and started talking at my wife, in the arrogant tones that Korean doctors favour. I was catching one word in three, as usual, but when she grabbed a piece of paper from a stack on the shelf beside her and handed it to me at his behest, and I saw the picture, “patty ribber” suddenly resolved in my brain to “fatty liver” and my blood ran cold.

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splosion

Armageddon Schadenfreude

When I was a teenager, I thought a lot about the end of the world. In particular, the rain of nukes that always seemed just around the corner. I was fascinated and terrified. I suppose that’s not an unusual thing for kids that age, and might even have been the usual for m-m-m-my generation. I grew up in the 70s, came of age in the early 80s. I was convinced that nuclear war was near-inevitable. I had no doubt that doddering dimwitted Ronald Reagan (read ‘his handlers’) and whichever equally doddering Soviet supremo was currently being propped up and jerkily animated with electric current (read ‘his handlers’) were going to blow the crap out the world. I dreamed about it. I can remember a grand total of one wet dream from my pubescent years; I can remember literally dozens of atomic holocaust dreams.

I remember Helen Caldicott and her Canadian-made If You Love This Planet. They showed it to us in high school. I remember the TV movies Threads and The Day After. Two and half decades after seeing Threads, I still remember the camera lingering on the puddle of urine at the woman’s feet as the mushroom clouds rose. I watched The Road Warrior when it was first released. I remember reading A Canticle for Leibowitz. I sucked up all the ’50s bomb-shelter paranoiac sci-fi juvenilia I could get my mother to buy for me at the bookstores on our shopping trips to the nearest city. I read what little I could find about the growth of the Cold War arsenals. It was… a hobby of mine.

Not that I was the archetypal Weird Kid or anything, muttering head-down through greasy locks about the ‘end of the world’. I had normal hobbies, too: comics and computers, swimming and biking, booze and friends’ fast cars. Girls. I showered regularly. But I did dream a lot about the end of the world.

And they weren’t all nightmares by any means. See, I grew up in a tiny town more than 1000 kilometers north of Vancouver. I was completely confident that when the bombs fell, we’d be safe and secure. When I was in Grade 5, my gifted-group teacher had had a meteorologist boyfriend who’d lent me (and the other smart kid they’d cut from the herd to study what and how we liked) his weather maps. I’d learned about the prevailing wind currents of north-central British Columbia. We’d be all good when the balloon went up. The nearest mushroom cloud might sprout and rain its deadly ash 500km away, at worst, accidental mistargetings notwithstanding, and leave us basically unscathed.

We had moose and squirrel salmon, we had farms and ranches, we had endless forest. Fruit might get a little scarce, but hell, I didn’t much like fruit anyway. My house had a deep well, and the lakes and rivers were sweet and clear. Nuclear winter? No worries. We lived through -45°C spells every damn year. We’d get by. Let the mad bastards down south kill each other off en masse. We’d be the inheritors of the earth, us hardy northern canucks, ululating our diesel-powered ways down out of the arboreal wastes, antlers strapped to the hoods of our Barracudas and pickup trucks, to rebuild things in our own Royal Reserve-powered image. Proud Canadians. There’d finally be some kind of payoff for living 40 miles up the asshole of the earth for so many years.
Armageddon didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Not the best result in a lot of ways, sure, but Ouroboros the world-turd was spinning at the bottom of the bowl, anyway. Time for cleansing holy nuclear fire! It’d be a shame, all those innocent people getting torched, but we kept reading how overpopulation was going to kill the planet even if the nukes didn’t.

So talk these days of a coming economic armageddon with Ground Zero in America’s bubble have actually put me in a nostalgic mood. Headlines like China threatens ‘nuclear option’ of dollar sales take me right back to 1982. Media tidbits like Jim Cramer’s recent howling monkey-boy histrionic meltdown — ‘It’s Armageddon out there!” have fascinated me in the kind of way that (metaphorical) nuke-porn did back in the day.

It’s far from certain, of course, that the blow up is going to happen, or even that things will fall apart. But I’ve been watching the whole thing for years now, after decades of conditioned ignorance about economics, and the New Great Depression feels as likely to me as nuclear tennis did back in the early ’80s.

Then again, that didn’t end up happening, did it? There’s some comfort in that, I guess.

A comment from the sometimes-overheated Malor in a recent Metafilter thread (among many others about the subprime mortgage mess, the yen carry trade, the liquidity dry-up, and all the rest) lays out genesis of the worst case scenario pretty well, I think. Is it a Minsky Moment? Yeah, probably.

Malor said:

We should have gone into a horrific recession after the stock market bubble popped in 2000. The size of that bubble was far bigger than the one in 1929, so the consequences should have been even more severe… something on the order of severity of the Great Depression, although I think a 1970s-style stagflation writ large was the likeliest outcome.

What happened instead is that the Fed panicked and hit the liquidity button, flooding the system with incredibly cheap money. New money chases inflation, and causes more of it, so it went into housing, and then people started leveraging themselves up into massive debt to buy more of it.
Bubbles have been called the fiscal equivalent of a nuclear weapon; the only way to avoid the fallout is by not having one in the first place. The stock market bubble was a huge deal, though probably survivable.

But the Fed, which set off the original bubble with easy money, tried to fix the fallout with more of the same medicine that got us sick in the first place. To stop the fallout from one atomic bomb, they set off two fusion weapons instead…. and we didn’t even dodge the fallout from the first bomb, we just delayed it. The explosion of the other two bombs just sent the fallout into orbit, but it’s still up there, and we’re still gonna eat every rad.

At the very least, we’re going to have a full generation of very hard times, tougher than anything in living memory. I think we will be exceptionally fortunate if the United States continues to exist as the same legal entity.

In terms of likely outcome, my operating theory is that we’ll go into a short-term deflationary crunch, but the Fed will open the floodgates and send us into an inflationary death spiral. Not just nasty horrible stagflation for two decades like we would have had from the Y2K pop, but an actual hyperinflationary death spiral for the dollar.

With fiat currency, I just don’t think a true deflationary collapse is possible… although with the unbelievably massive leverage in the derivative positions, I suppose it could happen. Money could be destroyed from debt default faster than the Fed can lend new dollars into circulation.
There’s one name you should remember in the coming crisis: Greenspan. This is all his doing. His refusal to ever allow a recession, ever, led us directly into this mess. He never met a problem he couldn’t cover up with liquid paper.

I think Malor might be overstating the case when he talks about a generation of hard times. On the other hand, if China pulls the economic trigger, he might be understating it.

Anyway, the winds taste the same to me because as the tension builds I’m once again far from the places where the corpses will litter the ground if and when the hammer falls. Two and half decades ago I was in the far north of Canada, confident that we’d be able to sustain ourselves while the rest of the world went to hell. Now I’m in Korea, and if economic armageddon happens, once again I’m not directly in the line of fire. Once again, if it all goes to hell, I’ll feel sorry for all the people (even the stupid ones who went for their two year no-money-down teaser-rate no-declare ARM mortgages for a McMansion they knew they couldn’t afford) who lose it all. The rich will make it through, as they always do, this time with Bushy legislation and offshore accounts rather than hardened bunkers and hidey holes.

Well, I like to say I’ll feel sorry about the end of days. I said to myself when I was 17 that I’d be sorry about all those crispy corpses down in CanadAmerica South. But not entirely sincere the sentiment, I have to admit, then or now. The truth is, of course, in some ways, on some days: I think I’d feel like pumping my fist, taking a deep breath, and shouting ‘That’s what you get for shortsighted greed and systematic stupidity, you bastards!’ Or more succinctly, ’cause my wind is not what it once was, ‘Suck it, dummies!’

I’m a bad man that way. Or part of me is and was, at least.

Bad things are going to happen to the Korean economy, certainly, if and when America’s economy goes tits-up and takes the rest of the world with it. But if I lived in North America, if I was mortgaged to the hilt, if I was living from paycheck to paycheck, I’d be a lot more worried about it than I am here in Korea with my life savings in won and no debt.

Maybe we ought to buy some gold, though.

So I am back where I was when I was young — a cleansing fire might just be what’s needed to clean out the corruption and cauterize the wounds. Part of me almost looks forward to it. I’m not sure if I really believe that, or if it’s just the romantic teen I was surfacing again for a last misanthropic gasp before he goes down into that dark cold water for the last time.

Either way: armageddon schadenfreude. It’s not just a good name for a postmodern superhero.

[Update: more background material and some excellent explanations of the IMPENDING DOOOOOOOM in this MeFi thread.]

Wonderchicken Industries Presents

OK, it took about a month longer than I thought it would, what with my back going kablooie and the summer doldrums setting in and me just generally not working all that hard on it, but OutsideInKorea is finally open for business.
The dust is still settling, and I’ve dropped my tools and cracked a beer to celebrate, but most of the stuff I wanted to do is in place. There are lots of features and content yet to come, but I think it’s ready to pull back the curtain and hope that people like what I’ve done. Some things are probably broken, or look weird, but I’ve tested in Firefox and IE and Opera on Windows, and it looks pretty good to me. If you have problems, it’ll help me if you drop a comment here or there and tell me what’s busted.
The only content other than the welcome message is repurposed essays about Korea from this very site, but I promise that I will be writing regularly and frequently. I’ve done a lot of work on the design (and I’m no designer, and it probably shows), and now it’s time to start filling the bucket with words, Roxanne, words. If you’re interested in Korea, I hope you’ll bookmark the site, and pass the URL on to friends and neighbours, ex-lovers and therapists, your mom and the guy who sells you your drugs.
I’ve decided to put ads on the site — though there will never be ads here on the ‘bottle — and in my Welcome! post over there, I talk about why. It may seem hypocritical of me given my stance about advertising in the past, and I’m willing to accept that criticism. If I can make some money from the site, though, I’ll be well-pleased. It’s not my only reason for building it, but it’ll certainly help me to keep up my enthusiasm, if it happens.
So. Go, and I hope you like. Help me out, my scattered blog tribe, and spread the word.
This site won’t die, I promise, but I’ll be writing about Korea over there from now on.

Coming Soon

I’ve been working on a new project, which will hopefully be ready for a triumphant launch within the next week or two, if I don’t get distracted by any shiny objects.
Keep on eye on this URL, and if there’s anything you’d like to see in a slightly-toned-down but still wonderchicken-y site dedicated to information and commentary on Korea, the expat experience, and all things peninsular, please drop a comment in the usual place.
Huzzah!

billiards

Ball Squeezing Time

It’s a scary moment when you finally stop telling yourself that everything’s fine, and accept the fact that it might just be possible that you’ve got cancer of the balls. Especially if you’re someone like me, who, although built like a veritable Adonis (well, you know, with a few extra kilograms and body hair that’s just slightly more simian than I might like), is a bit on the body-shy side. Almost as bad as the idea of actually having something sinister growing in your satchel is the idea of having a stranger squeeze it, or, god forbid, stick his finger up your ass searching for the lost gold of Tumacacori. It seems insane, but there it is. I’ve gone 40 years with my nether sphincter working in one direction only (with entirely too much vigour, usually), and I wasn’t about to change now.
For a while, I’ve been having the occasional dull ache in the lower back. I figured that it was sleeping in my customary discus-thrower pose on the new, Korean mattress my wife had bought a few months back. Being new, and in particular being Korean (although cunningly named ‘Lady Americana’ to give it that so-important New Jersey cultural cachet), it is approximately as hard as a slab of granite. Not that soft, dissolute western granite, either. Good, hard, Korean sleeping-granite, ripped from the very earth in the mattress mines of Kangwon-do.
But a couple of weeks back I also started having some pain in the old goolies. Kind of a dull ache. I figured: ‘Well, I ride the bike to work everyday, I use the exercise bike at the gym a few times a week, I spend far too much time sitting on my butt at work lately, and, having emerged triumphant into my fifth decade, I have developed a major case of the Swingin’ Dad Balls, which remain largely unconstrained by my capacious boxer shorts. The poor boys are just getting mashed and mauled a bit more than they like…’
The ache went away, came back, went away, always just south of being really painful. Much closer to ‘crossed my legs and squashed ’em’ than ‘log-rolling accident of the worst kind’. Ignorable.
I did the self-exam thing, conscientiously. Soaped up the sack, squeezed and stroked, had a fine old time. Couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. They did feel a little bigger than I remembered, perhaps, but I put that down to the continuing expansion of the universe or losing weight in my fingers or something.
But last weekend the pain came back, and didn’t really go away. I made the mistake of telling She Who Must Be Obeyed, who promptly freaked out. I hate when people freak out, even though I do have a tendency to do it myself, when it’s about something other than the possibility of ball cancer. It was fun teaching her all the slang words for testicles, though, and that seemed to calm both of us down a bit. Balls hadn’t ever been a topic of conversation for us before, so it was a new experience.
She made me promise that we’d go… to the doctor. Damn it. I don’t like doctors. I agreed, realizing that now that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, there was no putting it back in.
So yesterday, we went to one of the approximately 70,000 little clinics in this small port city. Here in Korea, you don’t go and see a GP who then refers you to a specialist, you just go straight to the specialist. Don’t even bother making an appointment — those are for dupes! That’s not the way I recall it in Canada, but then, last time I went to a doctor in Canada, they were giving me a lollipop if I made wee-wee in the cup without getting it all over the wall. Or at least that’s how I remember it, officer.
Although there are about 120,000 clinics in this town — three for every citizen, and about half as many as there are singing-rooms cum blowjob parlours — there are apparently only two that deal with maladies of the male meat-and-two-veg. One is the hospital, where I’d been before when the wife had been ill last year, and where competence is second only to cleanliness at the very bottom of the priorities list. The other was a place called, predictably, ‘Mr Kim’s Dermatology and Urology Clinic’. It was also dim and dirty, but that barely fazes me these days. I just wanted to get it over with.
After a short wait, in we went, and the doc in front of the computer spoke a little English, as most of the doctors seem to. As I sat down at his desk, he looked at me and asked pleasantly “Your face, right?”
“Er, no, actually.” Christ, I thought I was looking pretty good these days! I glanced over at my wife, as I’d already forgotten the polite Korean word for ‘balls’, and she obliged by explaining the symptoms.
He got me to stand up and drop trou, and shunning such undoctorly nuisances as gloves of any kind, went to town on my danglers.
It actually didn’t feel too bad. He’d clearly done this before. I forgave him for the dermatological blunder earlier.
The good news hooray! was that he didn’t figure there was any cancer to be found. He said he figured the problem was either a)kidney stones b)orchitis or epididymitis c)prostatitis. I was rooting for epididymitis, because one of the songs on my Monty Python records from 30 years ago ended with ‘…epididymi-iiiii-tis’, and I’d been singing that line for a week or two to myself, and I thought that’d be pretty cool, given the alternatives. It was time for a urine test to check for white blood cells or spimes and blogjects or something, which’d show that there was a bad thing happening somewhere. His English wasn’t all that great, when it came down to it. I dutifully took the cup down two flights of stairs to the — dim and dirty, of course — toilet, and did my best not to pee on the walls, hoping there’d be a lollipop for me somewhere at the end of all this. I was expecting the Greased Digit of Humiliation, and somewhat distracted.
We sat for about ten minutes in the waiting room while the machine did its thing with my pee, and the receptionist showed us back in.
His diagnosis: prostatitis, and a not-terribly malign and quite common sort. No treatment, no major worry apparently, brought on and aggravated by stress and, like I’d fancifully told myself weeks earlier, the rough treatment my bottom had been receiving by various bicycle saddles. He told me to rest and eat lots of vegetable protein — soybeans, in particular.
He also demonstrated how to take a ‘sitz bath’, a phrase that I’d encountered before, but didn’t really understand. Taking off his lab coat, he squatted down, and brandished an imaginary wand. ‘Shower,’ he said. He held the wand under his butt. ‘Five to ten minutes.’
‘Ooookay,’ said I, uncertainly.
I was still expecting the command to bend over at this point, but he talked to my wife in Korean for a bit, and then it was all bows-and-goodbyes.
Maybe he was out of rubber gloves. I suppose I should count myself lucky. Korean men don’t tend to trim their fingernails that well.
We paid at the counter, and there my story ends, almost. As we were walking back to the taxi rank at the bus terminal to return to our Corporate Island home, I asked my wife (who is the wielder of the plastic) how much it had cost.
It was 3000 won. Under four dollars.
Korea never ceases to surprise me.

Same As It Ever Was

Nigeria: Christians massacre Muslims

ONITSHA, Nigeria – Christian youths burned the corpses of Muslims on Thursday on the streets of Onitsha in southeastern Nigeria, the city worst hit by religious riots that have killed at least 146 people across the country in five days.Christian mobs, seeking revenge for the killings of Christians in the north, attacked Muslims with machetes, set fire to them, destroyed their houses and torched mosques in two days of violence in Onitsha, where 93 people died.”We are very happy that this thing is happening so that the north will learn their lesson,” said Anthony Umai, a motorcycle taxi rider, standing close to where Christian youths had piled up the corpses of 10 Muslims and were burning them.

Iraq: Muslims massacre Muslims

BAGHDAD At least 138 Iraqis, most of them Sunni Arabs, including a number of clerics, were killed in central Iraq on Wednesday and Thursday in the maelstrom of sectarian violence that followed the bombing of one of the country’s most sacred Shiite shrines, Iraqi officials said

Online: Koreans massacre Chinese

SEOUL (login:doofus/doofus) Chinese-Korean relations have their ups and downs, but it’s been a long time since they resorted to violence to settle scores. However, in cyberspace South Korean gamers are ganging up to obliterate the Chinese, whom they view as greedy and rude. “If we don’t kill the Chinese they will grow up to harm Korean players,” wrote Fifth Finger, a Lineage player, on the game’s message board. “They’re just logging on to Korean servers to make money.”

So it goes.

Language Drainage

It’s a common thing for people (and by ‘people’, I mean expat English teachers; many would justifiably disagree with my choice of collective noun, there, I admit) who’ve served a long sentence in the grammar mines of Korea to complain that they feel as if their ability to express themselves in English has drained slowly away. They’re in a bar somewhere and suddenly find themselves totally unable to describe clearly how much they hate whatever bug it was that crawled up their ass that day. And it’s not the booze that’s split mind and mouth, damn it! No, it’s the daily grind of feeling compelled to speak in monosyllables, to shoehorn their thoughts into non-complex sentences. It’s grown into habit. It’s become instinct for them to avoid using the present perfect or the passive, or even, depending on the age and language ability of most of their students, to begin to avoid using auxiliary verbs altogether when speaking to the Koreans with whom they spend so much of their time. It’s begun to feel like communication is more effective for them and everyone else if the difference between “Where you go yesterday?”, “Where you go now?” and “Where you go tomorrow?” gets restricted to that single, terminal time word.

something_silly.jpg

Of course, that’s dumb, but trained language teachers tend to be like honourable politicians amongst the unwashed hordes of the hogwan†istas. Which is to say, pretty damn thin on the ground, and automatically under suspicion merely because of their rarity.
† cut-throat, private language institutes.
Anyway, they get used to that deliberate act of pulling their arms back into the communication train before it enters the tunnel. They start to feel tongue-tied when digging any deeper than the equivalent of ‘See Jin-Ok run! Run Jin-Ok! Run!‘ They shelve their Great Canamerican Novel and start to limit their self-expression to ‘HAHAHHA yuo suck!’ on message boards or ‘HAHAHAA pwned joo newb!’ in Counterstrike or Q4. Or even ‘That’s a transparent strawman argument, and I know that this is an ad hominem attack, but yuo you suck!’ and ‘On preview: HAHAHHAAA 5-dolla newb!’ on Metafilter.
Me, I’ve noticed two things that have emerged from paying attention to what I say and speaking as clearly and correctly as I can, almost all the time.
The first is that my writing is getting, if anything, more parenthetical and rococco. That’s probably not a good thing, but much as I love writers who are spare and sinewy and rippling with Harlequin-romance-cover muscle, wanky pyrotechnics and goofy juxtapositions have always played a too-large role in the stuff I’ve written. It’d take too damn much effort to change that now. You know, unless somebody paid me to do it.
I write the way I talk when I’m drunk, I think, even though I never write while drunk. I admit I am always trying, what with the Strunk & White tattoos I had done in invisible ink on my forehead back in high school, to eliminate unnecessary words. The problem there being that I have so much difficulty deciding which ones are unnecessary (and I’m pretty sure, unlike many of those teachers I mention above, that it’s not the auxiliary verbs) that I just don’t bother editing myself at all.
Also, I’m lazy.
The second thing that’s emerged is that when I speak, naturally and extemporaneously, I never use idiom or slang. I rarely use contractions, and my Canadian accent (I think) has all but disappeared. I am the (literal) model of clear, expressive use of standard English. My students are elated that they understand me easily, and inevitably depressed when they can’t understand a damn thing that American engineer who’s visiting this week is saying. I’ve always spoken quickly, and though I still do, now I merely give you a mild case of windburn rather than lift your scalp right off when I’m excited about something. These are good things, I think.
I’m trying like hell (well, maybe just like heck, to be honest) to find a shiny, happy medium between these two poles. Me talk pretty already, but me hope me write pretty someday, too.

Bitch, Bitch, Bitch

So I’m having one of those days. Must be the onset of the Hot and Wet season. Man I hate that.
A Few Random Things I Miss About Australia (or Canada, I guess), Because I Chose To Come Back To Korea For More Punishment

  • beer other than fizzy, metallic lager
  • cheese and deli meats of any description
  • driving
  • magazines
  • books made of paper
  • libraries
  • bookstores
  • bars and pubs
  • good bread
  • turkey
  • international food – Thai, Turkish, Mexican, you name it, other than Korean and nasty yankee junkfood badly imitated or franchised
  • having an oven
  • promotions and professional recognition
  • clean air and water
  • TV and movies (that I don’t have to download illicitly)
  • off-the-rack clothing and shoes that fit
  • random jocular interactions with people at shops
  • being invisible
  • cocktails
  • friends
  • beaches
  • ‘taking the piss’ and ‘going out on the piss’
  • Nicorette Inhalers
  • drug stores
  • nice apartments
  • community other than virtual
  • Edit: jesus christ on a popsicle stick, I forgot limes. I miss limes like you would not freakin’ believe.

AusThings I Don’t Miss So Much

  • exorbitant health insurance
  • telemarketers
  • rent and utility bills and ratbastard real estate agencies
  • pauperizing income tax rates
  • metred broadband
  • Australian banks
  • the utter lack of internet shopping

Could be worse. I could be a dog in outer space. [/obscure injoke]

Away Team

We spent the last couple of days AWOL from the Corporate Disneyland where we live, and ventured out into the Real Korea for the first time in a while. Jesus tapdancing popsicle-stick Christ, it’s scary out there! Everything’s dilapidated, dirty or broken, and that’s just the stuff they bother to slap a new coat of paint on every decade or two.
On the upside, I’d forgotten about all the attractive young females — not many of those around here in Chaebol City, Arizona. She Who Must Be Obeyed did notice my noticing, but by the time I regained consciousness, the wounds had already been stitched up, so it’s all good.
A couple of chapters from the Modernization for Stupid People™ handbook that exemplify for me — this weekend at least — the Timeless Wisdom of The Korean People:
1) Build condos in one of the most beautiful places in the country, nestled deep in fragrant woods that in October begin to assume such a magnificent symphony of colour as to take the breath away, beside a lake, in the mountains. Then proceed to allow those condos to become filthy, dim animal caves, poorly lined with stained, grafitti’d wallpaper, reeking and unkempt. Ensure that nothing works, and that the cigarette burns in the cheap plastic bog-standard yellow floor-covering are unconcealed by any furniture, other than the lumpy bed in one corner. Make certain that the rooms, while being as depressingly drab and horrible and dirty as possible, cost more than US$100 per night, because you know the f–kin’ proles got nowhere else to go. Laugh and laugh until you piss yourself, as the lucre rolls in.
2) Build tawdry eyesore asphalt chancres on the most attractive bits of coastline, buttress them with kiloton sprinklings of concrete tetrapods, and festoon the pleasure palaces gaily with buzzing, flickering neon and bellowing signage. Make sure there is plenty of opportunity for the whores to earn their trade, and make sure that tinny speakers howl out 24/7 the cookie-cutter ’80s K-pop that gets the housewives a-rockin’ while they’re getting drunk and trying to forget what their husbands are doing. Because this is the coast, and the view is spectacular, build a raw fish restaurant underground, and make of the walls vast aquarium tanks, into whose murky depths you can peer, hoping to spy the algaed, parasite-riddled beast that will become your lunch.
A moveable feast, Korea, a moveable feast.

50907534

Taking One For The Home Team

So, I was at the bar on Friday night. This is a sentence that, in my dotage, is far less likely to pass my lips and fingertips than it once was, back when I was positively dripping with vim and vigour and fluids of a more bachelorly nature. But nonetheless, there I was, gazing somewhat blearily at myself in the mirror through the bottles, propping up the fake-mahogany with my buddy J. There was an impressively long line of empty bottles neatly lined up in front of us. I think the Korean guys like the empties left in front of them as a display of their alco-power, but that conspicuous consumption display tends to backfire when me and my equally thirsty drinking buddy, the livers who walk like men, come onto the scene. Shrug.
The gaggle of young women behind the bar are paid as much to be decorative as to actually sling piss, and station themselves right in front of you, whether you want them there or not. Orders. I tend to ignore them, after an initial smile to show I’m not entirely ogrish. It’s pretty clear, at least when it comes to old bastards like us, that getting pole position in front of the foreigners is pulling the short straw. The ladies do tend to make a valiant attempt to be hostessy with their few phrases of English, but the time is long, long past when I much enjoyed talking pidgin with bargirls, no matter how attractive they might be. Not to say that I wasn’t young and foolish, once. Thousands of young men around the world would be pouring over my seminal textbook, ‘Bargirl Bricolage and Soju Semiotics: The Ineluctable Modality of The Boozehound’ if I’d ever written the damn thing.
So we were tanking up, smoking, talking sh-t, enjoying the once-a-month concession to our younger selves our wives allow us. At the outer edge of my OB Lager-induced tunnelvision, I noticed a group of 4 guys sit down beside us at the bar, but J and I were deep in discussion about how cool it would be to be first on the ground when the Kimchi Wall comes down, as writers or otherwise, and I didn’t notice much other than that the guy beside me was Korean. He didn’t say anything to me, so I assumed, as one does, that he didn’t speak English, and ignored him after giving a terse nod.
Not long after, though, J announced that it was time to break the seal — I, as usual, had been peeing like a racehorse since the first friendly whissht! of escaping beer vapour — and wandered off to the toilets. Turning to me, the Korean guy said ‘How’s it goin’?’
In those few syllables, I knew not only that he spoke English, but that he fluent, and that he’d lived overseas for a time, or was maybe even a returnee. My English Radar is strong. Well, that and the fact that the three other guys sitting with him were all foreigners, and pretty clearly not the English teacher type.
So we started in to talking — and having a conversation in idiomatic, natural English with someone new is such a rarity for me that I was almost giddy with the strangeness of it (nutty expat syndrome ahoy!) — and I learned that he was the language liaison for the other three, who were Americans, a couple of soldiers and a contractor, and here at the deep water port in Sunshine City to expedite the transhipment of tons of US military equipment from Korea to Kuwait.
That may have been classified information, but we were all pretty drunk.
I was right, both about his English and his history. He’d lived in America and gone to both high school and university there. I asked him how he’d liked it, and he told me this : he went to high school in Illinois, university in Los Angeles, and he hated America. Those were the words he used. I suspect saying so wouldn’t have gone over too well with the guys he was with, but they were busy clumsily and loudly hitting on the waitresses, who, in the Way of The Korean Bargirl, tittered fetchingly while failing to hide the look of abject panic in their eyes.
I asked him why he would say such a thing, and he told me that while he was going to university, he worked to make extra money, in a relative’s liquor store. And that he’d been shot during the regular hold-ups. Twice.
This boggled my mind.
When he was in hospital, he said, he’d decided that he was leaving America as soon as he finished school, and not coming back. Not surprisingly. Now, I’ve been around the world a few times in the last 15 years. Been in war zones, been in all the worst places in dangerous cities all over the map. Even LA, one mad weekend on my way down to Mexico, when I heard gun shots in my friends’ Hollywood neighbourhood as we stumbled around, indestructible Canuck style, at 4 am. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who’s been shot. And this guy, this mild-mannered Korean whose parents sent him over to America to get out of having to do his military service, he’d taken a couple of bullets for the home team.
And now he was back home, getting paid to translate the crude pickup lines of his military colleagues to the girls behind the bar.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, a twisty-cruel just-so story, I imagine. I leave it to you to tease it out, if you’re so inclined.

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New Day Dawning

The general election here in Korea has come and gone, and the results are being characterized as a democratic victory for the left, the first one since, well, ever. As is usually the case when people resort to such sledgehammer thud-dullard simpletongue™ words as ‘left’ and ‘right’ or ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’, though, that’s a simplification that does as much to obscure as it does to illuminate. The Uri (‘Our’) Party has won a clear majority, and as the presumptive representative of the young, the disenfranchized and the reform-minded, it may represent the first significant shift in the political landscape in Korea since the initial stumbling steps towards real democracy 16 years ago. It gives me some hope for the future.
The final numbers of parliamentary seats, of 299 total, are :

  • Uri Party:152
  • GNP (Grand National Party) :121
  • MDP (Millenium Democratic Party):9
  • DLP (Democratic Labor Party):10
  • Others:7

The Uri Party, formed in November 2003 by a band of breakaway MDP legislators after months of the kind of factional infighting that has paralyzed Korean politics since there was such a thing, is the party Noh Moo Hyun said he would join, and for which he publically expressed his support a couple of months back. This infraction of election laws — public servants and elected officials are (somewhat inexplicably) barred from expressing support for a political party — led, along with charges of corruption from the mind-bogglingly corrupt GNP, who held a majority in the assembly, to his impeachment last month. A ruling on that impeachment by the Constitutional court is still pending, but the disgust felt by the vast majority of the population at the hypocrisy of the impeachment, made clear in pre-election polls, has been hammered home by yesterday’s election results. Few outside the oligarchy took kindly to the Lord of the Flies stink of the impeachment, and most who are not locked in to that corporate-sponsored network of bribery and kickbacks — sometimes hyperbolically referred to as the Korean Disease — had any interest in seeing it rewarded.
But the story is deeper, I think, than mere political bullsh-ttery. It’s a story of young against old, of modernity against tradition, of the emergence of a wired netizenry and an unwired elite, and most of all, of a culture rooted in a neo-Confucian world-view that is simply not acceptable to a majority of the population that understands that the strict vertical hierarchy of such a world-view serves only the old, the male, and the wealthy, while rightly cherishing the elements of the ideology (made the state ideology more than 500 years ago, during the Choseon Dynasty) that support the fading communitarian underpinnings of the Korean spirit. Korea is widely held to be the most orthodox Confucian nation in the world, and for good reason.
In an essay on Confucianism and Korean communitarianism, Professor Park Hyo-chong writes :

In Korea, there is no concept such as the self or “ego”, which is radically disassociated from mutual relations or social context. If one could identify the concept of the self, it would turn out to be the “encumbered self”. Korean communitarianism tends to provide individuals with a strong sense of a place, identity and a role in a community, whether it is a political order or the family. This is a core meaning of the thesis that relations rather than persons matter. Individuals cannot be defined in their solitude but in their relations with others. A person is said to belong to some particular category of social roles or family roles.
As suggested earlier, the roles of ruler or subject, father or son, husband or wife, among others are thought to be of prime importance. The priority of relations over persons has been characteristic of Confucian culture of which Korea is a part. This is in contradistinction to Western liberalism which emphasizes the value of individual uniqueness, which is but the “unencumbered one”.

What Professor Park does not mention, perhaps because it militates against his thesis (or merely because it’s tangential to it) is that this definition of self in terms of relationships with others has a dark side as well. In today’s urbanized Korea, if there is no readily identifiable relationship between one person and another, that other is summarily ignored, or merely disregarded as a sort of speed bump in the road of daily life. Not to say that Koreans won’t struggle mightily to establish some sort of relationship, no matter how tenuous, if they wish to interact with you (the seemingly overpersonal questions about age, marital status, religion and so on that so annoy newly arrived foreigners are examples of this in action) — they do, and will. But if there is no reason to do so, the default mode of interaction with strangers often seems to be brusqueness to the point of derision. Rude by the standards of an overly-sensitive Canadian like myself, but not so much impolite as simply a way of managing one’s way through life while buried in a complex, dense web of relationships, relationships through which one defines oneself.
This dependance on a web of relationships and the tendency to simply ignore those with whom there is no first-order relationship through blood or money or alma mater creates an ever-thicker wall between the haves and the have-nots. This is one of the things that has helped empty the countryside of young people, as they seek both fortune and contacts in Seoul, and has made a good part of an entire generation of young adults simply give up if they did not gain acceptance to one of the ‘good schools’. It actually is about who you know here, in a very real and destiny-defining sense.
But this is far from the worst of what Confucian values have wrought, despite the communitarian benefits they have sown.
For those not entirely hip to the Confucian two-step, I wrote a little bullet-point summary of some of the underlying human taxonomy it requires in an old piece on linguistic relativism.
Confucius focused on the need to maintain social order though willing or unwilling submission to the five primary relationships (although of course there is much, much more to the system of thought) :
1) Ruler and subject
2) Parent and child (teacher and student)
3) Husband and wife
4) Older and younger person
5) Friend and friend
All of these relationships are explicity hierarchical, excepting, significantly perhaps, the last.
The implication is clear, I should think, and for anyone with any knowledge or experience of the differences between the old and new guard in Korea, it should be easy to divine the pattern : man over woman, old over young, teacher over student, ruler over subject.
It is this structuring of duty and fealty, of dominance and willing submission, that underpins a great deal of day-to-day life in Korea, and, I believe, has been one of the guiding forces in the evolution of Korean politics, just as it has been in all things here. It’s a force that is fading, or more accurately, being transformed, but it still has deep and mostly unquestioned influence in the relationships between Korean people in both the personal and the public spheres.
The one constant in Korea, as the cliché goes, is change, though. One of the alarm bells that anyone who was paying attention might cite was a UNICEF poll back in 2001, that showed that among Asian 17 nations surveyed, Korean young people had the lowest levels of respect for their elders.

After the UNICEF findings created such a stir — 20 percent of young Koreans surveyed said they had no respect for their elders, compared with 2 percent on average for the other East Asian nations — the daily Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper weighed in with its own poll. The findings were somewhat more hopeful, but 49 percent still said there were few elders they respected, blaming changing social values, out-of-touch adults and their corrupt ways.
“Who is there to respect?” asks Kim Young Soo, a 27-year-old restaurant worker. “The president? Politicians? Lawyers? Teachers? Parents? They’re all hypocrites. They preach Confucian values but turn around and have extramarital affairs with young women that undercut the family.”

When the mostly old, mostly male politicians and teachers are unfailingly corrupt and obviously unworthy of respect or fealty, and when the very foundation ethos of the cultural history that they cling to demands that that respect be paid, things start to fracture.
Beatings of students by teachers, like this one captured on a camera phone recently, are not the exception, and only go part of the way to an explanation of the disgust and anger most young people and many of their elders feel with the state of things. Although it’s little discussed in English, for example, it is standard procedure for public school teachers to accept bribes and gifts from parents in order to ‘do a better job’, or pay special attention to their children. Arbitrary exercise of power, corruption, and disregard for rule of law are everywhere.
And young people today, thanks to penetration of broadband internet into upwrds of 80% of households in Korea, know that that’s not the way it needs to be. They’re angry that the moneyed elite, all of whom, with very few exceptions, graduated from one of the Top 5 universities in Seoul, have developed an insular network that locks out anyone from the wrong class, or the wrong province. They’re angry at the university entrance examination system, which theoretically offers a level playing field, but like the continuation of the old yang-ban government service exams that created a small de facto nobility and a vast population of peasants and outright slaves during the Choseon Dynasty that it is, they realize that the game is rigged against them. They know that if they don’t jump through the hoops presented to them by an archaic and entirely anachronistic education system, in which they can only excel by putting in 18 hours days throughout their entire public school careers, greased by the liberal application of their parents’ money, they have little to no opportunity to rise to the top. They know that anything can be bought, and everything is, and they’re sick of it.
Then, last year, when a man who had not attended university, who came from a peasant background, who spoke plainly, whose background was as a human rights lawyer (and to rise to that level, he had to repeatedly retake his qualifying examinations), when this most unlikely of people to actually be put forward as a candidate for president of Korea, when this totally unexpected watermelon seed suddenly squirted out of the scrum — well the young and the disenfranchized elders voted for him in droves. For better or worse, he represented the truly revolutionary idea that you might not need to be part of the oligarchy to succeed.
And when, after being blocked and bullied at every opportunity by the bought-and-paid-for money men who held the majority of the seats in the assembly, after wobbling from crisis to crisis, he was impeached in what was clearly a power grab, ostensibly for the kind of corruption of which it was abundantly clear so many the impeachers were equally guilty, the outrage went ballistic.
All countries are well-stocked with corrupt politicians, of course. Korea may be cursed with an overabundance of them, but ordinary people, especially the young, are clearly not willing to bow down for them much longer, as the watch the scions of the tiny overclass ride blithely past so much abject poverty, safe behind the tinted glass of their Chairman sedans.
It is entirely possible the Uri Party will end up being as mired in corruption as the others, and equally possible that the chaebols like LG, Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai that own the country and its politicians outright will buy up the new power brokers in short order as well. It is likely that the bickering and internecine backstabbing that has been the hallmark of Korean politics since they were occupied by the Japanese (and further back than that, of course) will cancel any forward momentum. The young, who, while idealistic, are also fatter, lazier, more selfish and less driven than their parents and grandparents, may continue to think of the evil bastards up in Pyongyang with a misguided, romanticized fondness right up until bombs start to fall.
Will it mean that the education system will be reformed? Probably not. Will it limit the power of the oligarchic chaebols and their rentboys in the assembly? Doubtful. Will it bring about greater rule of law, and more respect for individual rights? I’m not going to hold my breath. Will it break the strangehold on money, power and the future of the latter-day Gangnam yangban? Hell, no.
On the other hand, this deliberate break from a rule by corrupt corporate whores, this disgust with a perpetuation of the status quo that weakens Korea and its people in every measure but the monetary, this understanding of the power of democracy a decade and a half after the country became democratic in name if not nature — perhaps this means a new day is dawning. It’s the first real step in the right direction of this magnitude that I’ve seen in 8 years here, and it will, I hope, mean that the transformation of this society, massive and rapid as it has been, has only begun.
Now let’s just hope as more pegs are knocked out from under the rotten superstructure that there are people with the energy and ideas to build on the traditions, the drive, and the indomitable spirit that has brought Korea to where it is today.
And that Kim Jong Il doesn’t get any bright ideas.

Walkabout

Went for a wee walkabout with an automotively-blessed buddy on the weekend, and took a few pictures. Here are my favorites from a pretty average bunch. Line on the left, one cross each.

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Blog Korea, Blog!

Although I have long since stopped talking about Korea much here at the ‘bottle, except when something smacks me upside the head, an active and vibrant community of Korean webloggers (mostly expats or ex-expats, writing mostly in English, but including some Korean folks and the occasional surge of multilingualism) has sprung up. I haven’t been following any of them until recently, except for the occasional Friday night beer-fueled drive-by-commenting, but my newfound appreciation of aggregation inside Bloglines has got me out there reading them, finally.
Although there are some talented, insightful writers out there in K-land, and many who certainly know more about Korea than I do, the Korean Kluster is probably the most insular, self-regarding echo chamber I’ve ever seen in weblogging (other than perhaps the warblogger circlejerk that reached its zenith between 911 and the beginning of the Iraq Mistake, with whom some of the KK’s netizens share their political leanings), and if you’re careful you can get dizzy following the logrolling in ever-tightening circles. Don’t step in the blog-jizz! This is one of the reasons I eased myself out of posting about Korea all the time, back a year or two ago — I didn’t want to be perceived as a one-note writer, and the fact that I live in Korea is merely an accident of geography and economics and matters of the heart, not the overriding central fact of my existence. And to be honest, the vast majority of waeguk-in (foreigners) I meet in Korea are damaged, ranting weirdos, with whom I’m happy to have minimal interaction.
Than again, that’s what people say about me, too. In a nice way, of course.
The other reason that I’ve had little to say about the Land of The Morning Traffic is that I’ve found myself a job and a place to live that is extremely pleasant and comfortable, and I’m happier than a pig in sh-t, as they say back in the homeland. I simply can’t get charged up for a good rant, when most of the things I’ve been distressed, annoyed, or astonished by here are not things I actually experience any more, here on my corporate Fantasy Island, and hell, I’ve already complained about them enough anyway.
But as I was doing my thrice weekly workout today, sweating it out on the treadmill, hooked up to the headphones and watching BBC World on the TV conveniently mounted at eye level in front of me, I heard such thuddingly inept analysis of the current impeachment debacle from one of the talking heads on Asia Business Report that I found myself talking back to the monitor. In ungracious tones. Unquietly. Which drew some sidelong glances from the other treadmillers, not surprisingly. See also : damaged, ranting weirdos.
This guy — a kid really (damn kids today, working for merchant banks and appearing on TV!) — has appeared on Rico’s show (whatever happened to that dropdead gorgeous woman they had anchoring the show last year? I miss her) before, but had never been tapped to speak about Korea. It was clear why he hadn’t.
I won’t go into details of how laughably far off-base his ‘analysis’ was, but it inspired me to write up a little primer on the last 20 years or so of Korean politics and why we are where we are today, whether you want it or not. Most of the people who read this site do not do so because they’re in search of anecdotes about life in Korea, I’m sure, but I love this place, and I resent it as much as any Korean does when the reality of what is happening here is totally lost by some dipsh-t on TV who gets his information from USA Today.
Stay tuned for an Impeachment Primer, coming to an empty bottle near you, as soon as I bloody well get around to it.
In the meantime, here’re some links to some of the Korean blogs out there that I’ve noticed of late. I missed the Other Friday Five last week, so this can be my atonement. I’m still accumulating a roster of KK reads, so I have no doubt missed some good ones, but since them fellas tend to ink to each other so incestuously, you shouldn’t have much of a problem blogroll-surfing around to find more. If anyone has any suggestions that I should add to my rounds, feel free to add them in the comments thread.
Share and enjoy.

night

In The Belly Of The Beast

It’s huge. It rumbles in the distance, ominously. It squats down in the dangly bits of Korea, terminus for a thousand cargo ship routes, sucks in one kind of stuff, and spits out another slightly more value-added kind of stuff, all the while belching beautiful mushroomy columns of billowing white steam by day and chthonic-god pillars of flame by night. Oddly enough, it’s the cleanest, greenest, most orderly place I’ve seen in Korea in more than 5 years of living here. And it’s my new home.
Did I mention that I took that job with the Koreastyle Ontologically Repulsive Empire of Avarice, Incorporated (KOREA, Inc, geddit?). I did. It didn’t take a great deal of thought.
But see, back when I worked for UltraHyperMegaNet™ in Sydney 2000 Oi Oi Oi, all I wanted was to get away from the moneyfication of my every waking moment. I was so sick of ROIs and business cases, of scope document meetings and steering committees and a new mission statement every week, each torturing the language a bit more with a further application of those ‘positive power words’ electrodes to the genitals. Empty words that everyone seemed to believe would magically draw profits, sympathetic magic from chanting corporate shamans. I was sick of the valuation of everything and everyone with the holy pumped-up technodollar.
Still, it was a hell of a lot of fun, exhausting and lucrative fun, and it turned out, after a couple of years in academia, where there are just as many sh-tweasels and not nearly as much money, that my experience in Oz, rather than turning me off entirely from working for Big Evil Corporations, just taught the importance of Avoiding the Assholes.
Avoiding the Assholes is, I realize more with each passing year, a skill to be sought and nurtured in the rest of Life as in work. Perhaps this is self-evident to many. I’m a slow learner. Or an optimist. Or a pugilist. My first and overriding reaction to assholery is to fight it, rather than run away from it, which has resulted in a number of CLMs over the years, none of which has much impacted on my slow and inevitable rise to the very top of my chosen profession.
OK, that’s not strictly true. I don’t have a chosen profession, really. I tend to choose where to live, as much as I am able, and the professions just kind of follow on from there. Which has made me versatile, if nothing else. And mercifully free of possessions.
Anyway. I wanted to talk about the KOREA Inc. chaebol I’m working for now, or if not the company itself, the strange feeling of being a Company Man, living in a company apartment, with my electricity and water and heating and telephone and massive broadband all provided gratis by the company, shopping at the company store, breathing company air, flushing my well-formed chlorellafied company lunch turds down into the company sewer, riding a company bus out into the real world occasionally, there in the distance, off the company island. It is, in many ways, the apotheosis of capitalism, and I’m smack in the middle of it. Not that I’m anti-capitalist, you understand, so much as just generally contrary. I’m driven more by cussedness and outrage at injustice than I am by any ideology. I’m as likely to punch you in the nose if you call me a lefty liberal as I am if you call me a rightwing conservative (not, of course, that many would call me the latter). Both are pejorative drooling simpleton simplifications for stupid people to try and get a handle on complicated issues.
Still, me, in the belly of the corporate beast. Funny how life works, ain’t it? And the belly of the beast is f–king plush, I’m telling you.
Most of Korea is littered with massive apartment blocks, cereal-box shaped, terrifyingly ugly in their cookie-cutter 70’s-style brutalist pragmatic anti-architecture, standing knee-deep in clusters of crowded, decrepit shops and halfhearted half-dead clusters of tired, leafless trees. They’ve been designed, if such a high-falutin’ word as design can be countenanced when speaking of these dystopian monstrosities, to maximize floor space, measured in pyung, and little else. People are clamouring for opportunities to move into these things, and their value has skyrocketed in recent years. More, thousands more, are being built beside highways everywhere, and particularly in Seoul, where prices for these concrete shoeboxes have increased by 25% in the past year alone. If you move into one of these ‘apart‘s (and what an amusing and sad little Konglish borrowing that is, because life in these monads, as far as I’ve been able to divine, is one deliberately designed to keep one cosily apart from one’s neighbours, an aim freakishly self-destructive in such a traditionally village-collective, group-oriented society) anywhere in the country, its layout will be one of a small number of trivial variations on a depressingly similar theme. Fittings and finish will vary, especially if you buy a ‘premium apart’ built by one of the omnipresent chaebol, for which you’ll pay anywhere up to a $50,000 premium, mostly for the name, which it is assumed will help resale value. In the past 15 years the housing demographics have shifted from something like 15% of the population living in these human beehives to something like 85%. Flying into Seoul, particularly at any time during the year other than verdant late-spring and summer, presents you with a death star landscape, carpeted in bumpy grey concrete as far as the eye can see. It is one of the ugliest cities I’ve ever seen, from the air. (Meanwhile, predictably and depressingly, the city is planning on allowing development inside its barely adequate greenbelt of (guess what!) more apartment buildings. Not clever, not even a bit, but no doubt enormous sums of money changed hands, and when the culprits are hauled up in front of the TV cameras a few years hence, it’ll be too damn late.) Smaller cities are equally strewn with concrete eyesores, and it is not uncommon to see clusters of them inexplicably rising out of rice paddies in the middle of the countryside as well.
Outside of the moneyed central enclaves of Seoul (around which 47.7% percent of the entire value of the Korean economy is spun from air, the latest numbers say), urban life is a struggle to breathe, a tarantella dance to keep clear of garbage piles and throat oysters, a race to avoid being run down by taxis and diesel-smoker buses, a clattering clamouring cacophonic maelstrom. Of Dooooom!
I’ve read in a number of guidebooks the claim that Korean streets are amazingly clean, and I’m always forced to wonder what country the writers actually visited, or if the bastards ever even left their offices. Let me set the record straight : that’s a big stinky bullsh-t beanbag, there, friend. Or at least it’s bullsh-t for the entire country that lies outside the very innermost core of Seoul (plus Gangnam), outside of which most recent guidebook writers apparently don’t venture, at least given the execrable quality of the latest Lonely Planet Korea book, to choose a particularly lame example.
It has been variously described as a reaction to invasion, as a legacy of poverty, as a manifestation of collective self-loathing, or as an absence of civic responsibility, but the reality is a long long way from order and cleanliness and nuanced concern for the harmony of one’s physical surroundings that arises, I guess, from the Japanophile-fueled expectations of many foreigners. Which is to say, without putting too fine a point on it, that most homes I’ve seen here are nasty, claustrophobic concrete boxes, packed with haphazard piles of cheap plastic gewgaws and cardboard boxes, harshly-lit with naked flourescent tubes and pallid shafts of pollution-filtered sunlight weakly penetrating through never-cleaned windows, grimy with the grease and cigarette smoke of years. And it’s usually a lot more pleasant inside than it is out. I don’t understand why this is the case, but it is, more often than it is not, Seoul-published womens’ magazines notwithstanding. If I err, I err on the side of restraint. It sometimes seems to me that if there is a window outside the richest shopping precincts of Seoul that has been cleaned since it was carelessly fixed into its frame with a messy ejaculatory squeeze of silicon rubber, I haven’t seen it.
I know that’s a weird thing to focus on windowglass, of all things. I have a clean window fetish, I admit it. Sue me.
So, all that said, perhaps I have given you some small sense of how I feel as if I have stepped through the looking glass in my new home, living deep in the piney bosom of KOREA Inc. Fountains and public sculpture. Low-rise apartment buildings widely separated, with lawns and shrubs scattered pleasingly between them, linked by flower-edged walking paths. Broad, well-paved streets, with freshly painted markings, lined with broad tree-shaded sidewalks. Public trash receptacles, frequently emptied. Gardens, parks, manicured topiary.
It’s not unlike the best, most pleasant neighbourhoods in, say, Vancouver, if you turn the architectural clock back 20 years or so. It is unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen in Korea. Tellingly perhaps, since it’s built on an island that is almost entirely reclaimed land, it’s not really even in Korea. It’s only offshore by a couple of hundred meters, but those couple of hundred meters might as well be a couple of hundred thousand.

All of which makes me feel deeply, existentially guilty. But not unhappy, by any means. Life is weird, the way I like it, and it’s good, too.

Teaching in Korea – The Skinny

There’ve been a few questions on the (still-beta) Ask Metafilter that I’ve answered with some variation ‘why not teach in Korea?’ (goddamn the pusher man), and I realized that there was no place of which I was aware that served as a no-bullsh-t comprehensive introduction to the White Slave Trade. So I’ve written this, in an attempt to atone for my earlier Presidential Porn. Versatile, ain’t I?
Truth : I have been working on (OK, thinking about) writing a book in the inimitable wonderchicken style, one digging into the topics whose merest surface I scratch here, and one that also answers some of the million questions of general survival (“Oh sweet jesus, where do I get real cheese?” “When my male adult student just told me he loves me, what did he mean, exactly?”) that loom large in the minds of newbies in Korea. A few thousand people a year show up here to teach, at a minimum — there’s gotta be a market for a book like that.
(If any of you, dear readers, might know someone who might know someone who might be interested in paying me massive (or non-massive) quantities of cash for such a tome, well, you know, point ’em my way. But please warn them that I do tend to swear a bit. Heh.)
So here it is, hot off the keyboard, so that in the future I can answer questions about teaching in Korea with a hyperlink rather than repeating myself all the damn time :
The Skinny
It’s pretty often the case that Teaching English in Korea involves very little teaching and not a whole lot of English. This is perhaps the most important thing about all this that nobody ever tells the newbies. In other words, for a very large proportion of people coming to Korea thinking they’ll be teaching the English language, the reality is that they probably won’t, really. If they have been hired by a kiddie hakwon (variously romanized, a ‘hakwon’ is a private cram school, and every city, town, village, hamlet and roadside rest stop has 2 or more in any given building), they may well end up in reality as a babysitter, thrown like human chum into the toothy screeching kindy shark pool with no guidance whatsoever from management and no means of self-defense. The actual English teaching that gets done in this situation may be minimal, while the neophyte teacher is busy struggling for survival. These teachers, with no training and no idea of what’s expected, end up relegated to the position of entertainers. Many, having had no experience teaching, are completely OK with this.
Some do end up actually teaching, and teaching older children, or university students (who, in Korea, have for the most part an emotional age of about 13, from the western perspective, except that the boys are required to interrupt their schooling to do military service for more than two years, which bumps them up to the level of, say, extremely sullen abused 16 year olds, perhaps, on their return), or even adults. Whatever the age, these students are for the most part veterans of the hakwon churn, and if they’ve studied English for any length of time, have seen a rotating cast of wide-eyed foreigners go through the Korea Newbie Cycle :
1) Wide-eyed wonder
2) Blissful confusion, pleasant buzzy disorientation
3) The three-month barrier : missing home, missing food, missing easy conversation
4) Unblissful confusion, culture shock, isolation
5) Resentment of Korea as personified by one’s boss, xenophobia, alcohol abuse, ranting
6) …
The next stages depend on the person.
Not a few freak out entirely, experience a psychotic break, and go wobbly. This is sometimes a permanent condition. Many of those who flip their noodles leave Korea, either suddenly or at the end of their contract, broken and dull-eyed or raving and newly-racist. Of that group, many nonetheless return, finding themselves unable to function properly back home. A self-perpetuating cycle of odd activity (which finds little to no censure in Korea, as most Koreans expect foreign devils to behave in inexplicable and aberrant ways anyway, and most expats tend to have a degree of quirkiness already, and are unwilling to criticize others in their small groups as there are so few around) begins, the end result of which is Freaky Waeguk-in (”way-goog-in” – Korean for “foreigner”) Syndrome. This is epidemic.
Some, after going a bit loopy temporarily, settle down, get a grip, and fall into one of two general patterns. They go native, learn the language, marry a Korean, and in a range of different ways further their isolation (or not, and try to maintain a balance) from their countrymen and mothertongue siblings, or they shrug, accept, and learn to enjoy the chaos, ferment, stares and prejudices and insults, and take it all with a sense of humour. Some of these stay for a while, some go elsewhere, or back home, after a year, or two, or three. If they’ve been cautious, they’ve been able to pay off their student loans, if they had them, and more. It is commonplace, although illegal (if caught, you will be at least fined and at most fined and deported), to teach private lessons at rates ranging from $30 an hour on up. I do not personally do this, but most people I know do, and you can double your income quite easily this way. I’ve known some people who have left Korea after 5 years with enough cash to buy a house back home. How they dealt with issues of taxation on their return was their business.
But that may not be what most people are reading this for, especially if they’ve arrived on the wings of Google. You probably want to know what the deal is with working in Korea, in one handy, pre-packaged essay. The dirt, the skinny, the Good Oil. You’re probably in your 20’s, and you probably have student loans to pay off. You might be looking a first adventure overseas, or you may be an old hand at the backpacker trail, and need some ready cash.
OK, here’s the story, in a very very small nutshell.
You will be offered the following, with some variations.
Anywhere from a bottom end of 1,700,000 won per month to a high end of 2,100,000 or more (this being winter 2003), usually for a contact-time workload of 25-35 hours per week. If you have any teaching qualifications, you should be able to negotiate your way towards the upper end of that salary range, but there is no guarantee. Some people make more than this without qualifications, and some less, I am aware. University positions, for which the required qualifications are sometimes MA degrees, but more frequently BA/BSc degrees with 3 or more years experience (in Korea), usually pay at the low end of the scale, but often have very generous holidays (12-16 weeks per year) and low contact hours (12 – 18 hours) per week. There are growing numbers of exceptions to this rule of thumb as Korean universities become ‘hakwonized’ and cash-flow oriented. Many university teachers are asked to ‘teach’ children these days, and are working as hard for their salaries as hakwon teachers.
Although some teachers will fly into a foaming frenzy of resentment if it is suggested, it is nonetheless true (again as a generalization) that there is a hierarchy of job desireability in Korea, which may be different for different individuals, depending on factors like how much they like children, how important free time is to them, how much money they want to make, or how professional a teacher they consider themselves. It does exist, in general terms, nonetheless. Remember, success and relationships in Korea are all about hierarchy, and assessing hierarchy requires assignment of status. You may not like it, but it is the reality of the situation.
At the bottom of the scrum are the kiddie hakwons, and the elementary/middle-schooler hakwons. These make up the vast bulk of teaching opportunities in Korea, and as a newbie, chances are this will be the kind of job you are offered. There are good schools and bad, and good bosses and (very, very) bad. Whether you get a good one or a bad one is often a matter of sheer, dumb luck. If you get a personal recommendation about a school, that makes all the difference, although it is not unknown for people to talk up a school in order to find their own replacement, nor is it unknown for people to keep the names of good schools to themselves and their circle of friends incountry. The best jobs are frequently not advertised, as in many industries.
Next up are the more reputable chain schools (which often have individual branches that are hellholes, so being part of a chain is no guarantee of quality), where you may teach kids, university students, and/or adults. Adult classes almost invariably mean an early start (before they go to work) or a late finish (after they finish work) or, in the most horripilating of cases, both. Split shifts — where you work from, say, 6:30 am to 9 am and then again from 6 pm to 9 pm — are less common than they once were, but still almost the rule in adult hakwons. This kind of schedule may well drive you insane, even if you are allowed to go home and sleep during the day, if you do it for any length of time. Some of these hakwon jobs are good, and some lucky new srrivals find great bosses or great salaries, or truly love teaching kids, and stay at the hakwons for many years. Some.
For many, the next step up the food chain is getting a university position. The workload is easy, the students are, if not motivated, at least generally quite pleasant, and although the money isn’t great, such a position leaves plenty of time for travel, writing, study, drinking, or whatever. At my last university position I worked four hour days four days a week, with four months paid holiday (plus national holidays etc), and made in the lower mid-range of the salaries quoted above.
Top of the heap for many is corporate jobs, teaching, editing, proofreading, developing curricula, and so on. These positions are few and far between, and unless you’ve been incountry for a number of years and have a great deal of experience with teaching Koreans and knowledge of Korean cultural norms, you might not even get an interview. There are exceptions, but they are few. Your alma mater means almost as much in this situation, as it does for Koreans, as anything else.
You will pay tax, healthcare and pension from this. For Americans and Canadians, it is law that your employer must deduct 4.5% of your salary for pension, and kick in an additional 4.5%. This money will be refunded (but you must apply) on departure from Korea. After a year, it will be somewhat more than a month’s salary. Antipodeans may not be able to reclaim their pension — the law may be changing there. Some universities use a private pension plan, so your contribution may vary.
Income tax will be deducted, at a rate that should not exceed 5%. Healthcare should be provided through the employer, and deductions will be on the order of 50,000 won per month, perhaps less. You will receive a paper healthcare booklet with a plastic sheath that you must take to clinics and hospitals to receive coverage.
You will often be promised training when you are offered a hakwon job, but there is a 90-100% chance you will not receive any. This is a cruel joke, but every time someone new to Korea complains about it, I am compelled to laugh nastily, mostly because I’m a complete bastard. Buy a book or two before you come, is my best advice, if you’ve never taught.
You will be offered accommodation, and you will in almost all situations be required to pay utilities for your apartment. Gas, water and electricity can be very expensive here. If you consume them to the same degree you’re used to in North America or Australia (or…) you will probably be paying between 100,000 and 200,000 won per month. Your accommodation may be single or shared, and this is something you should verify up-front. Many schools, understanding the preference of many for single housing, are offering it these days. Asking for pictures of your housing may be a good idea – it will in many cases be incredibly tiny, old and dingy. This is by no means always the case – it is increasingly common for good schools and universities to offer quite attractive, modern housing – but it is something to look out for. Nothing will depress you faster than a dim, mildewy closet to go back home to after an exhausting day of teaching.
Most schools offer airfare, either upfront or on a reimbursement basis. None will pay your return airfare if you break your contract, and if you notify them that you are quitting early, rather than just disappearing (as many do, which makes the level of trust for the rest of us grind down another notch), the school may well try to deduct the inbound airfare from your salary. Some school have begun withholding a portion of the first few months’ pay as a kind of insurance policy, usually because they’ve had teachers to a Midnight Run before. This is technically illegal, but if you sign a contract that mentions it, you really can’t complain too much. Read your contract carefully before you sign it, is the lesson here.
Most schools offer a contract completion bonus, usually equivalent to one month’s salary. This is sometimes finessed by claiming that the bonus was built in to the salary, and paid in installments. This is a scam, but a common one, and needs to be verified up front.
Bosses
Korean hakwon owners are almost universally reviled, and with good reason. The vast majority are entirely unconcerned with education per se, and obsessed with making (and scrimping to save) money. That’s why they got into the business, in almost all cases, and it is a lucrative one, if they play their cards right. There are horror-stories galore available around the net, and many of them are true, so I won’t bother getting lurid here, but a warning : caution is advisable. Treat your boss with deference and respect, and never disagree with him (chances approach 100% that it will be a ‘him’) in public. Don’t trust him until you’re sure you can, but not in a negative way, until you’re given reason. Just be sensibly cautious. Buy a book like ‘Ugly Americans, Ugly Koreans’ to learn about some norms of behaviour and how accidental offense happens in both directions, before you come. It is better to err on the side of overcaution and over-solicitiousness than to give offense, because once you do it, you may well be cast into the ‘waeguk-in who will never understand Korea’ bin, never to be recycled. Koreans love to label others, as do most folks, but their labels can be very sticky indeed.
That said, your Korean boss may just be a total psycho. It really isn’t that uncommon.
Do not assume that your director is cheating you by default, but have a clear understanding of what your mutual responsibilities are, and be vigilant (in a polite and professional way) to ensure that if you are upholding yours, he is similarly upholding his. Never accuse him of anything to the contrary in public, unless you have gotten to the bridge-burning stage. Try and remain calm in the face of apoplectic bluster, rather than giving back as good as you get. Korean men are brought up to believe that temper tantrums are an effective and acceptable means of dealing with confrontation and frustration, particularly with those who they perceive to be beneath them in the social, Confucian strata.
Confucian ideas are an important substrate to dealing with people here, particularly older males. Understand (even if you don’t agree), and try to leverage the fact that your only hook into the hierarchy (especially if you are young, female, and foreign, or any combination of the three) is that you are a teacher, and teachers are to be given respect. At least when they behave in a manner deserving of respect, where people can see ’em.
Paperwork
You will be asked for originals of your qualifications and other paperwork, if you get to the contract signing stage. This paperwork is sometimes lost. Korean immigration recently lost my original university diploma. Yeah, I know. It happens, but these things can be replaced, although it generally does cost. Once immigration approves you and you have signed a contract, one of two things will happen — you will either be sent a document which authorizes the local Korean consulate to issue you an E-2 Teacher visa, good for one year, or you will be told to fly to Korea (no visa is required for most nationalities to enter as a tourist) and, once here, be sent to Japan to get the visa. The school should pay for both trips, although many schools try to refuse, often successfully. Be aware that if you teach after arrival in Korea and before you have that E-2 in your passport, you are breaking the law, and can be fined or deported.
To start a job at a new employer, you must receive your E-2 outside of Korea. Signing a new contract with the same employer only requires a trip to the local immigration office.
Recruiters
The Dave’s ESL Cafe Korean Jobs list, which is probably the single best resource for finding a job for people both outside Korea and already incountry, has been swamped in the last year or so with recruiter ads. “We have best jobs! All wonderful happy time fun! Beautiful city most good living in Korea!” and so on. The community is divided on recruiters – some have had positive experiences, and experienced no problems in finding jobs through them. My first job in Korea was through a recruiter, although I did not realize it at the time, and in many ways the job was a good one. But there are many who will tell you to never, ever use a recruiter, just because of the sheer number of unscrupulous, unprofessional agencies out there. I tend to agree, but if you take care, you may get lucky.
I recommend dealing with a school directly. The fewer intermediaries there are between you and the person you’re actually going to be working for, the better. Recruiters receive a payout for every warm body they deliver to a school, and sometimes a cut of the salary paid, which inclines them to push candidates toward positions regardless of the quality of that position, which is not a situation that should inspire trust. Using a recruiter may make your job search easier, but that is not necessarily a good thing.
Contracts and their importance (or lack thereof)
Contracts are a mixed bag in Korea. Some are stuffed with pages and pages of badly-written minutiae, all inserted, in most cases, because some previous employee behaved badly or performed poorly or drank too much or something of the kind, and the school is trying to close loopholes that might allow such things. Some contracts will have clauses that are outright illegal in Canada or America (or…), and these can be argued against but will rarely be changed. They are for the most part left unenforced, anyway, but when it is in the school’s interest, your director will not hesitate to point out the letter of the contract, and demand compliance. In no uncertain terms.
The other side of this is that with many Korean employers, the relationship between the parties to a contract is more important than the agreement on paper. This happens not only at the level we’re talking about, but manifests itself in the frustration that many western business people experience when negotiating with their Korean counterparts – Koreans frequently want to revisit language and conditions of an agreement long after, from the perspective of the westerner, all pertinent discussion has been finished, and the agreement has been ‘put to bed’.
This puts the employee into a difficult situation : when making a complaint about conditions of employment that appear to breach the agreement signed, many Korean directors will explain that ‘that’s not way do in Korea,’ and attempt to get out of their responsibilities, which the teacher assumes, rightly, are legally binding. On the other hand, when a teacher does or requests something that is outside the contract language, the director may turn around and say that ‘sorry, that’s not in contract’ as a reason to refuse the request or censure the activity. It can be maddening.
The EFL-law website is a great resource of last resort in this situation, but it must be said that in 9 cases out of 10 pushing a dispute to the point where legal or human rights recourse is necessary will mean that the foreigner loses. Not that you can’t win, but that you probably won’t. You should be aware that the system is strongly weighted in favour of your boss, and chances of prevailing are not good.
Which means that you should do everything possible to avoid getting to the point where conflict is inevitable. Flexibility, sensitivity to the concept of ‘face’, reasonable and professional behaviour in the workplace, and care to develop a positive relationship with your employer, on their terms, will help this. It’s a cultural minefield, but if you learn the rules of the game upfront, almost all conflict can be avoided before it occurs.
Your job
The failings of the Korean education system are manifold, but with regard to language teaching, they are quite specific. In the past, and to a large degree in the present as well, many people studied English with people who couldn’t speak it. They studied in the ‘traditional’ Korean style, which is firmly in the model of ‘teacher as source of knowledge and wisdom’, lecturing. They studied grammar, translated passages with dictionaries, were taught incorrect pronunciation and in many cases incorrect idioms and grammatical constructs (older Koreans without fail use ‘as possible as’ when they mean ‘as much as possible’ as a result of the former being nominated as the correct formation and taught as such in the all-important university entrance exams for years, for example), by Korean teachers of English.
As a result, most students, at most levels, need practice speaking, and listening to a lesser degree. Getting Koreans to speak in class, though, is frequently an exercise in frustration, as the learning style they have had beaten into them over years or decades is in complete opposition to the idea of speaking up in class. Asking questions of one’s teacher is considered, traditionally, as a challenge and a sign of disrespect.
New teachers believe their students to be taciturn and sullen — in fact, in most cases, they’re just showing respect in the only way they’ve been taught to do so in the educational context, by attentive silence.
So strategies must be devised to overcome the pedagogical catch-22. Each teacher approaches it different ways, and those ways vary with different student ages, but providing structure and clear examples to model expectations so that the student’s chances of failure are minimized is a good start, and is a wise strategy at all levels of language teaching. It’s all the more important in the Korean context.
People
Although many teachers in Korea — most, perhaps — make an avocation of complaining bitterly about the country and the people, and some leave with anger and a sense of relief at having ‘escaped’, a lot of those same people miss the Korean people and their nation, and inevitably return. Some others just settle in, bitching all the while, broken expat records, and they can be annoying to have a beer with, and are best avoided. Others choose their targets a bit better.
It seems to be the lot of foreigners living here to have a love-hate relationship with Korea, and with Korean people, who can be so xenophobic and yet so hospitable and kind, so abrasive and impolite yet so conscious and careful of the niceties and minutiae of feeling and mood, so puritanical but so boozy and sexy and free, so group-focussed yet so individualistic, so backwards but so modern. The contradictions never cease to fascinate, and for a foreigner who makes even a cursory attempt to understand the old, odd, and ornate monoculture he or she is leaping into, and to read and understand a modicum of the nation’s history, and to make an attempt to learn a little of the language, the rewards are great.
I won’t lie — it’s hard as hell to live in Korea, perhaps harder than anywhere else in the world with a similarly high standard of living, for the westerner. But it’s equally hard, once you’ve gotten under the surface a bit, to leave it behind. And if you’re young, and looking at a Nametag Nation job back home, the money, once you’ve added in all the benefits, is undeniably great.

Hanguk Hamlet

It’s been a week of firsts for me.
I started the first job I’ve had in Korea where I feel like I am a valued professional rather than another Disposable English Monkey™ (parse, monkeyboy, parse!), and where I am treated (and compensated) accordingly. I did my first television interview, kicked interview ass, and got my first comments about how (inexplicably) good I seem to be at it.
Although I’ve eaten raw octopus before, I ate it for the first time seconds after it was killed and chopped to bits, in the casually cruel Korean style, tentacles wriggling obscenely on the plate, suckers gripping fiercely to the insides of my cheeks and my teeth as I chewed.
And tonight, I saw a Shakespeare play, on stage and in real life, for the very first time.
Not only was the play — a performance of Hamlet, directed by Korea’s most famous and lauded theatrical director, Lee Yoon Taek — my first Shakespeare, it was my first play in Korean too.
Not having much to compare it with other than a vaguely-recalled Death Of A Salesman about 25 years ago, it’s hard for me to say if it was a masterful interpretation of the material or not, but hell, I loved it. It was affectingly (and athletically) acted, beautifully designed, and, for lack of a better word, crunchy. Although I couldn’t understand more than one word in ten thanks to my pathetic efforts thus far in mastering Korean, I knew the story, of course, and though it may be sacrilege to say so, I didn’t mind the fact that my Shakespearan cherry-buster was essentially mime, with music.
I was wondering before we went if the translator would be able to preserve the music of the language, the rhythms and surge of it, in Korean. Sadly, they couldn’t, for the most part, not, I would assume, because of a tin ear, but because the music underlying Korean plays such a different song than the one that makes us dance in English.
The setting, at least in its cultural accoutrements, was Korean — the samulnori drums and percussion played a major role, and there were countless other references that anchored the performance firmly in Korea; in music and dance, in costume and prop, in set design and approach. The costumes were a mix of traditional Korea, ye olde Denmarke, and 20th century styles both modern and archaic. I was pretty sure that the suit that Guildenstern was wearing at one point was supposed to be a reference to the Japanese emperor during WW2, for example, although I may well have been farting in an interpretive windstorm on that one.
Regardless, I found myself wondering how many references I simply wasn’t getting, or getting entirely wrong. There I was, watching a play I haven’t reread in a decade, in a language I can’t speak worth a damn, chock-full of cultural references I almost certainly wasn’t catching, and I was in pig heaven! In part I suppose that was due to the Korean-crowd-pleasing song and dance routines, the swordfighting and the broad comedy, but not entirely, I don’t think.
What I mean to say is that there were certainly scores of well-educated Koreans in that concert hall who were soaking in the myriad subtleties in Lee’s directorial choices, in the deliberate linguistic felicities of the translation, in the references deliberate and merely fortuitous to matters of Korean history and culture in the dance and music and set design and in the ways that the actors delivered their lines, and whose minds were awhirl with the buzzing intelligence of this cross-cultural artifact. While I was just happily watching, with perhaps the thinnest rivulet of drool dampening my goatee a bit.
And it doesn’t matter. While their take-away from the performance was certainly different in perhaps every aspect from mine, and in both kind and degree the experience they had and the one I had were incomparable, it’s of no consequence at all.
This is why I could never have studied art or literature or film or anything of the kind at university. Because nobody has ever been able to convince me that even if (for example) you’ve studied a Shakespearean play for years, until you know the history and context of each and every nuance of the language and can name every innovation in every performance in the last 50 years, until your encyclopaedic knowledge of the author and his works dwarfs that of any other living human, until your wife has divorced you rather than hear another goddamn work about that scribbling bald f–k come out of your mouth….no one has ever convinced me that you the ‘expert’ are any closer to the kernel of the art than me, unschooled and unsophisticated, if I roll up to the show in my pick-me-up truck never having heard of ol’ Willy before, and leave the theatre 150 minutes later with my head ringing like a bell.
I’m funny that way.

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Not Responsible

Given that Koreans are inclined — except in those areas of Seoul where us freakish, hairy, buttery barbarians are commonplace — to stare unblinking, or point and giggle when spotting a non-Korean, and are also known on occasion (when they’re pretty sure we’re not in earshot) to make westerners-as-apes jokes, this made me giggle. I don’t mind the stares as much as I used to, unless I’m having a bad day. I’ll probably have to get used to it again, living out in the boonies as we do now.
Anyway, I am so getting this made into a T-shirt.

lessons learned.jpg

The writing is Japanese, not Korean, but that’s OK. I’ll get that added in later. [found at The Site Which Must Not Be Named]

Komedy Korean Kontracts

[Update : It’s a hoax. A good one, though, and not far off reality by any means.]
I’m busy with getting ready to move house again — yet again — and so haven’t written what has become my weekly essay here on this incarnation of the ‘bottle. In lieu of that, I offer you this Komedy Korean Kontract, which had me damn near peeing myself with laughter. This comes to me third-hand, and its veracity is possibly a bit suspect, but I have seen ones nearly this bad out there, so I’m just going to throw it up for your amusement and elucidation, dear readers. Be assured that Korean labour laws are being violated and loopholes exploited (like people frequently getting fired at the 11 month mark, arbitrarily, so the employer can weasel out of the paid return airfare regulation) both in fact and in clear future intent all over the map here. Not that they’re enforced or anything, of course.
There’s a goldmine in Korea! ‘Course, you’d have to be f–king loopy to actually go down in there…

Employment Agreement for English Teacher
This Employment Contract (hereinafter, the “Contract”) is entered into between Krazy Korean Konglish Institute the Republic of Korea, (hereinafter the “Employer”) and the native English speaker XXX (hereinafter the “Employee”) a XXX citizen residing in XXX
Article 1. (Term of Employment)
[1] The Term of Employment shall commence on xx/xx/2003 and end a year later.
[2] If the Employee or Employer wishes to terminate the employment contract prior to the date of expiration, the Employee agrees to have the final pay deducted to reflect the cost of airfare, recruiters fees, housing deposit early termination fees, utility shut off fees, and an inconvenience fee which is to reimburse the school the trouble that early termination causes both the staff, students and the school.
Article 1a. (Conditions of Employment)
[1] The Employee attests that they cannot speak or read the Korean language and that this will not change significantly during the duration of the contract.
[2] The Employee attests that they are of Caucasian (white) descent and that they have no blood Asian relatives.
[3] The Employee attests that this is the first trip outside their county of origin for the purpose of work.
[4] The Employee attests that they are between the ages of 18 and 28.
Article 2. (Salary)
[1] The Employee shall be paid 2,000,000 Korean Won per month.
[2] The Employer will deduct any and all Employer deemed necessary deductions, to include but not limited to Korean Income Tax and Pension, as needed on a month-by-month basis.
[3] The Employee’s salary will be paid at some time on the 10th day of each month. Where that day is a Saturday, Sunday or School Holiday, the Employer will pay the Employee on the next business day.
[4] A fee of 700,000 won will be deducted from the first pay check as security against damage to housing, unpaid bills, and sudden breach of contract by the Employee. After said employment concludes the Employee must submit in writing a request for the balance (if any) of this deposit to be sent to the Employee somewhere out of Korea. In no circumstance will this be paid to the Employee while the Employee is still in Korea.
[5] If the Employee has been absent from his designated work place without prior approval, the employee will forfeit 50,000 won per hour of absence. A 1-hour fee will be automatically deducted after the employee is late one hundred and sixty (160) seconds for any class.
Article 3. (Working Hours)
[1] The Employee shall teach 120 hours per month. In Korea, as well as in the rest of the world, 1 hour equals sixty minutes.
[2] The workweek will be Monday through Friday.
[3] The Employee shall work any and all hours that the Employer specifies. This will change on a month-to-month basis.
[4] The Employer will pay overtime for all working hours in excess of 120 hours. The rate for overtime is calculated at 12000 Won per hour.
[5] That the Employer will require the Employee to work a different schedule during the government school vacation periods and other ‘special’ times.
[6] The Employer may change the working hours at will.
[7] There shall be a 10-minute break between each class regardless of how long said class lasts. In no event will a class be ‘split’ so a break may be taken. Employees are expected to behave in a professional manner and not leave the students unattended for any reason.
[8] In the event that the Employee teaches for less then 120 hours (7,200 actual minutes spent teaching) the Employer will assign various chores to the Employee to complete so as to be paid in full. An accurate count of all teaching minutes will be conducted on the 3rd Friday in the month. The following Monday the Employee will be given a list of tasks to complete to compensate for the lack of teaching hours. These tasks must be completed to the satisfaction of the Employer for the Employee to receive credit for them. Any tasks completed unsatisfactory or unfinished will be deducted from the pay.
Article 4. (Working Conditions)
[1] The Employee shall be assigned a classroom. Any decorating of this classroom, to include posters, is the responsibility of the Employee. It is expected that the Employee is a professional and, as such, will properly furnish the classroom with materials conductive to learning the English language.
[2] The Employee will be issued 2 (two) whiteboard markers every 3 (three) months provided a properly filled out requisition slip is submitted.
[3] The Employee shall be given a code to use the copy machine. The Employer assumes no responsibility for lost, forgotten, stolen, or misused codes. The code will credit the employee with 5 ‘free’ copies per day. Any copies over the initial 5 will be charged to the employee at the rate of 500 won per copy.
[4] The Employee shall be expected to keep the classroom presentable. This includes the floor, table, chairs, walls, door and windows. The employee shall empty the classroom trash at the end of each day. A broom, bucket and mop will be issued to the employee at the beginning of employment. These must be returned as serviceable or a replacement fee of 30,000 won will be deducted.
[5] The Employer will provide 1 internet connected computer for every 2 teachers. A login system will be used and tracking software will be installed. Any attempt to circumvent said software will immediately result in loss of login credentials. Additionally the Employer reserves the right to monitor and record any and all activities on the Employers computers.
[6] The Employer will offer a meal plan to the Employee. The meal plan will cost 9,500 won per meal at the Institute. This will give the Employee an opportunity to eat healthy and delicious Korean meals at a deeply discounted price.
[7] A list with all Foreign Employees names shall be posted on the first of the month assigning common area and school / Korean staff vehicle clean up duties. Those Employees with vehicle duties will be expected to completely wash and wax the vehicles they are assigned to once a week. Additionally the vehicles must be cleaned daily after the last vehicle has returned to the Institute for the day. The vehicle operator will make the final determination on vehicle cleanliness.
Article 5. (Housing)
[1] The Employer should provide the Employee with housing. Housing may include a leased room in someone’s house, officetel, apartment, or in a Korean type ‘Study Room’ or Yogwon.
[2] The Employer may provide temporary housing not exceeding 185 days until appropriate housing becomes available.
[3] The Employee may be required to share the said housing with anyone the Employer so sees fit.
[4] The Employee is liable and responsible for all fees, namely utility charges, gas, electricity, telephone, incurred whilst the said Employee is in residence.
[5] The Employer should provide the Employee’s accommodation with furniture, (one bed or rakuraku style bed, a tray or rack for hanging clothes, a few assorted kitchenware utensils, mini-refrigerator, bedding, washing machine).
[6] The Employee must take all due and reasonable care of said furniture and equipment, and that the Employee shall be liable for the cost of replacement to any equipment or furniture damaged in any way by the Employee.
[7] In order to conform to Koreas strict fire codes the Employer shall have the right to conduct safety inspections and fire drills at the Employees home at any time.
[8] The Employee may not change or tamper with any lock or safety device in the Employees home. There will be a 75.000 won locksmith charge if this provision is violated.
Article 6. (Airfare)
[1] The Employee’s economy airfare to Korea via the most direct route from outside Korea to the nearest airport near the place of employment will be reimbursed in Korea by the Employer.
[2]The Employer will reimburse half (50%) to the Employee on the first pay day.
[3] Where the Employee completes the contract as stipulated in Article 1 hereof, the Employer must pay to the Employee no later than 1 day prior to the end of the contract, the most current inexpensive return economy airfare to the country the Employee is a citizen of.
[4] Where the Employee is hired in Korea, the Employer shall roundtrip airfare for the Employee’s visa run to the nearest non Korean mainland Embassy.
[5] Where the Employee terminates this contract within 11 months of the commencement date, the Employer will deduct all the air fare paid to the Employee.
Article 7. (Medical Insurance)
[1] The Employer should pay the half medical insurance coverage of the Employee.
[2] That the Employer should provide the Employee a medical insurance booklet during the contract period. This typically (due to insurance company paperwork) is done around the 4th month of employment.
Article 8. (Sick leave)
[1] The Employee shall be entitled to 2 semi paid days sick leave per contract, calculated as one day per 6 months accumulative.
[2] If the Employee is sick they will call the institute and arrange to be brought to a doctor. In order to help the Employee with any language problems the Employer will and must remain with the Employee for the entire duration of said trip to the doctor. If the doctor and the Employer agree the Employee will be awarded a ‘sick-day’ at 50% of the specified rate of pay. If the Doctor or Employer deems the illness to be minor then the Employee will be expected to work that day. Failure to work that day subjects the Employee to the penalties outlined in Article 2 clause 5 for the duration of that day to include the lunch period as well.
[3] The Employee must advise the Employer in advance of the sick leave and expected duration thereof.
[4] Sick leave above and beyond the said 2 working days stipulated in [1] hereof, shall be unpaid.
Article 9. (Job Description)
[1] The Employee shall carry out all duties required by the Employer to (a) provide English language lessons to students and or Korean teachers.
[2] The Employee shall be required to work at any place of employment seen fit by the Employer. If travel is involved then the Employer must pay the Employee public transportation traveling expenses, and where travel exceeds 90 minutes via any one-way transportation, the Employer will pay 60% of the hourly wage for the said travel time.
[3] The Employer requires the Employee to attend any meetings or functions the Employer sees fit. These will not be compensated.
[4] During the term of this agreement, the Employee will accept, obey and comply with the instructions, supervision, training and discipline of the Director and any Korean staff of the Language Institute. These duties will include instruction for regular classes, administrative duties related to the Employee’s classes, student placement testing, attendance at scheduled instructors’ meetings and workshops and extra curricular duties (such as Bus classes, Lunch-time table classes, Field trip etc. would be included) as may be assigned by the Director. The Director is to set standards of performance for the Employee and is empowered to take reasonable steps necessary for assuring that those standards are met.
[5] The Employee will sign a ‘no compete’ contract stating that they will not teach any students not specified by the director and if they break the contract, agree not to teach English in Korea for a period of 5 calendar years.
Article 9a. (Employee Conduct and Appearance)
[1] The Employee shall post a ‘code of conduct’ in the teachers break room that shall be followed by the Employees.
[2] Breaching this code of conduct will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. However the minimum fine for a breach of the code is 75,000 won.
[3] The code of conduct is in force 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
[4] While in Korea the Employee is the public face of the institute. To that end the employee’s behavior has a direct effect on the perception of the institute by other Koreans. Damage to that perception will be dealt with severely harshly.
[5] In order to maintain the good will the institute already enjoys in the community the institute will hold bi-monthly ‘fun days’. These special days will always fall on a Friday. During that day the Employee will entertain prospective students during the regular workday. This entertainment can include taking part in a pie toss, the application of performance make up and the wearing of costumes, participation in the ‘dunk tank’ event, and other activities as required by the director. A special meal will be provided at the conclusion of the event, free of charge.
[6] A de facto professional dress code will be enforced for all foreign Employees. A poster displaying proper work attire will be displayed in the Teachers break room. Teachers who vandalize this poster will be fined 30,000 won.
[7] Employees must be ‘camera ready’ at all times during the workday as there will be sporadic photographs and video shot during the year.
[8] Male employees will shave daily. Male employees will take reasonable steps to ensure that their personal odor will not become disruptive.
[9] Female employees will take all reasonable steps to ensure that their personal and menstrual odor does not become disruptive.
[10] Employees will wash their hair at least once every 2 days and maintain proper nail hygiene at all times.
[11] Employees must endeavor not to dramatically change their appearance during the period of Employment. Planned significant change to the Employees physical appearance should be discussed with and agreed on by the director in advance of such change.
[12] Employees shall refrain from consuming alcohol during the week and shall never use illegal drugs while employed at the institute.
[12a] Additionally a 12 am curfew will be imposed Monday to Thursday to ensure that the Employees are receiving the proper amount of sleep.
[13] Employees may be randomly screened for the use of illegal drugs or the presence of communicable diseases, to include AIDS, by blood test.
[14] Single employees shall refrain from engaging in romantic relationships with Korean citizens while employed at the institute. Interracial dating is still a social taboo in Korea and reflects poorly on the Employee and the institute.
Article 10. (Vacation)
[1] The Employee shall be entitled to 5 working days annual leave per contract.
[2] The Employee shall be entitled to all public holidays stipulated on the official institute yearly calendar. These may vary from those holidays specified by the government.
[3] That where the Employee has worked the entire contract without absence, the Employee shall be granted a lunch at ‘Carne Station’ (various locations in Seoul) with all you can eat of food and beverages that are normally offered during lunch to be paid for by the Employer.
Article 11. (Termination of Contract)
[1] The Employer may terminate this contract upon any serious occurrences
[2] In the event that the Employer terminates the contract for a serious reason the Employer shall pay the Employee up to the date of termination minus any and all expenses previously referred to in this document. Additionally the Employees visa shall be cancelled within 24 hours. The Employee will vacate the apartment prior to any money being paid to the Employee.
[3] In the event of clause (a) termination, the Employer may terminate the contract forthwith, and further, that the Employer shall, if this section occurs within 11 months of the start date hereof, not be liable for the return airfare of the said Employee, and (b) the Employer may seek reimbursement of the airfare paid pursuant to Clause 6 hereof.
[4] It is a condition of this agreement that the Employer must provide the Employee with 2 days written notice of Intention to terminate the Contract, setting forth the reasons therein, and allowing the Employee to remedy the situation within that time.
Article 12. (Renewal of Contract)
[1] As no contract renewal issue has ever been addressed this will be taken care of on a case by case basis rather then having a ‘policy’ to address it.

Yeah! Where do I sign?
[found at ESLCafe]

Retail Rituals

In Korea, there’s F-Mart and D-Mart, L-Mart and G-Mart, and the current top dog of the X-Mart retailers, E-Mart. They are all much of a muchness, and are a microcosmic case study, I suppose, of the Korean predilection (and skill, it must be said) in taking someone else’s idea (in this case, a household goods retailer, K-mart (of course)), reshaping it for the Korean market, and barfing it out again, adding only the most cursory Groucho-glasses-and-nose disguise.

Yesterday we went to the nearby E-Mart to do some shopping, pick up some beer, and generally engage in the Retail Ritual. The Retail Ritual calms me, these days, if it’s in one of these huge ultramodern, brightly lit stores. Odd, for an old hippiepunk like me, who has little good to say about our marketing-driven civilization.
That said, I loathe shopping for anything other than food, so I guess I can still fly my freak flag proudly. And although stores like Walmart and Costco are a scourge on the landscape back in North America, sucking the life out of smalltown centres, feeding low-wage, no-security, permanent part-time slavery, homogenizing the already desperately whitebread-and-mayonnaise landscape even further….that’s not so much the case here. The box stores sit in the middle of already existing major shopping areas, beside subway stops, and have the opposite effect, if anything, revitalizing cruddy areas and triggering some urban renewal. These stores also tend to employ women under better conditions and for better wages than they might otherwise receive in this sexist nightmare of a nation. But more on that later.
So the wife and I were trundling around with our cart, happily sampling and grazing and knocking small children down (well, I was the one knocking them down, and the wife was the one scolding me – she pretends to understand my aversion to the little bastards, but I don’t think she really does), when one of those spine-chillingly weird Korea moments happened, that nobody else much seems to notice or comment on, a situation which sometimes leads me to theorize that I’m living an extended hallucination in a goo-filled pod somewhere, fed imagery to pacify me by some higher machine intelligence which is extracting my life energy to run pachinko machines or some f–king thing.
[Note to self : try not to injure children, at least when SK’s looking.]
Some facts first that will help explain, I hope, my flash of The Weird.
In Korea, like Japan, walking into a shop or restaurant will usually result in a hail of welcomes and other ritualized greetings from the employees. I hate these, but I must admit they make me feel all shiny and special too. I am a good consumer, and I really am welcome here, and I should buy something to celebrate that, I say to myself, before I realize their cunning ploy and adopt the anti-salesperson scowl that is my customary demeanor while in-store.
In Korea, it’s (and excuse the romanization, but I’m going for clarity of pronunciation more than the current textbook romanization) ‘uh-suh-ohseyo,’ which more or less translates to ‘welcome, and please buy lots of our crap!’ On departure, particularly if you have in fact purchased some crap, it’s ‘kahmsahmnida‘ or ‘kohmuhpsoomnida‘, both of which mean ‘thank you, and crap again’ more or less.
The other necessary fact to know is that upmarket department store chains like Hyundai or Lotte and also these more middle-class retails outlets like E-Mart and Walmart and Carrefour (and so on) all employ way, way too many people. Behind a typical watch-counter at Lotte, for example, you might see 6 to 8 men (always men, behind the watch counter, for some reason) loitering about, trying desperately to look busy, beseeching you with their eyes to please come and look at a watch or two, just for a f–king minute you rich bastard, come on …and then swarming up like Keystone-Kops-as-filmed-by-David-Lynch when someone does.
It’s good, in some ways, that so many are employed when they might otherwise not be, but you can be sure that the only way such a situation can be justified is by paying extremely low wages. The idea behind these clusters of clerks is that such heavy concentrations of service-people enhance the feeling — that wealthier Koreans, including the growing middle class, seem to just love — of being catered to by hordes of low-born types, grovelling before the shopper’s imperial whims. See also : Dynasty, Chosun.
Walking around the aisles of the supermarket sections of these stores is a hazard course of (usually) miniskirt-clad (invariably) young female product demonstrators, who want to give you a sample of coffee, or help you choose that perfect shampoo, and (usually) older (invariably) females in the fresh-food areas, cooking up some pork or slicing up some veggies, and inviting you to chow down, using the (invariably) plastic green toothpicks.
(What’s the female equivalent of ‘avuncular’? Damned if I know, but that’s what these fresh-food ladies are. Ajummacular, perhaps.)
The younger ones, the ones that staff the toiletries and dry-good aisles, are just plain goooood-lookin’, though, and pretty obviously hired on that basis, and apparently instructed to bend over, but demurely, whenever possible. Which makes astonishingly little sense, even ignoring the sex-discriminatory aspects, as the vast majority of shoppers are middle-aged women, who are unlikely to be seduced by the milky thighs of these miniskirted productistas.
Anyway. Any given row in the supermarket sections of these chains will house anywhere from a minimum to two to a maximum of six women, some of whom are apparently hired just to stand there and smile at people.
So back to the trundling and the shopping and the running-over of children. As we were rolling down the ramyeon aisle, the sixth or seventh repetition of the ecstatically faux-happy, 50’s-style E-Mart Song was coming to an orgasmic close, and there was a slight crackle over the PA, and a voice.
A female voice, one that was absolutely perfect in its unctuous, saccharine, mind-colonizing tone, oozing into your ears, grabbing whatever handholds it could find and whispering, irresistably : everything’s going to be all right, there there, just lay your weary head on my soft, perfumed bosom….
Anyway, this voice sweetly but firmly intoned ‘uh-suh-ohseyo.’ And every single woman employee in the place turned from whatever they were doing, as one, faced in the same direction, and repeated ‘uh-suh-ohseyo’ while bowing deeply, to nobody in particular. The voice paused a few seconds, then said ‘kohmuhpsoomnida‘, and once again, every single woman, matching the weirdly unnatural, woman-as-service-automaton voice, chanted ‘kohmuhpsoomnida.
This repeated perhaps four or five times, and you could hear the chorus of voices throughout the store. Nobody else even batted an eyelid, but I was just transfixed, with chills literally running up my spine. The Weird.
I know what the rationale behind it was, and understand that many Koreans really think that sort of stuff is spiffy, and are drawn to shop somewhere that shows that kind of rigorous employee-indoctrination methodology, but it was still deeply, excitingly Weird.
Of course, I forgot about it 5 minutes later, while buying beer, which was, after all, my secret mission for the day.