The Price Of Oil

It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these. Here’s a song from the mighty mighty Billy Bragg that you probably’ve heard, but if not, you shoulda, by crikey. Listen here.

voices on the radio
tell us that we’re going to war
those brave men and women in uniform
they want to know what they’re fighting for
the generals want to hear the end game
the allies won’t approve the plan
but the oil men in the white house
they just don’t give a damn
it’s all about the price of oil
it’s all about the price of oil
don’t give me no sh-t
about blood, sweat, tears and toil
it’s all about the price of oil
now I ain’t no fan of Saddam Hussein
oh, please don’t get me wrong
if it’s freeing the Iraqi people you’re after
then why have we waited so long
why didn’t we sort this out last time
was he less evil than he is now
the stock market holds the answer
to why him, why here, why now
Saddam killed his own people
just like general Pinochet
and once upon a time both these evil men
were supported by the U.S.A.
and whisper it, even Bin Laden
once drank from America’s cup
just like that election down in Florida
this sh-t doesn’t all add up
it’s all about the price of oil
’cause it’s all about the price of oil
don’t give me no sh-t
about blood, sweat, tears and toil
it’s all about the price of oil

You reckon it’s sophomoric, I reckon it’s close enough to true. Buy me a beer, or I’ll beat you senseless. You know, metaphorically.

Lost In Translation

I watched Lost In Translation last night, and it made me feel all funny in my special place. Well, not really, but I can’t figure out if it really was a Fine Filmic Experience or not.

DIRECTOR (in Japanese to the interpreter): The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.
INTERPRETER: Yes, of course. I understand.
DIRECTOR: Mr. Bob-san. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whiskey on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in “Casablanca,” saying, “Cheers to you guys,” Suntory time!
INTERPRETER: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?
BOB: That’s all he said?
INTERPRETER: Yes, turn to camera.
BOB: Does he want me to, to turn from the right or turn from the left?
INTERPRETER (in very formal Japanese to the director): He has prepared and is ready. And he wants to know, when the camera rolls, would you prefer that he turn to the left, or would you prefer that he turn to the right? And that is the kind of thing he would like to know, if you don’t mind.
DIRECTOR (very brusquely, and in much more colloquial Japanese): Either way is fine. That kind of thing doesn’t matter. We don’t have time, Bob-san, O.K.? You need to hurry. Raise the tension. Look at the camera. Slowly, with passion. It’s passion that we want. Do you understand?
INTERPRETER (In English, to Bob): Right side. And, uh, with intensity.
BOB: Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.
DIRECTOR: What you are talking about is not just whiskey, you know. Do you understand? It’s like you are meeting old friends. Softly, tenderly. Gently. Let your feelings boil up. Tension is important!
Don’t forget.
INTERPRETER (in English, to Bob): Like an old friend, and into the camera.
DIRECTOR: You understand? You love whiskey. It’s Suntory time! O.K.?
DIRECTOR: O.K.? O.K., let’s roll. Start.
BOB: For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
DIRECTOR: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! (Then in a very male form of Japanese, like a father speaking to a wayward child) Don’t try to fool me. Don’t pretend you don’t understand. Do you even understand what we are trying to do? Suntory is very exclusive. The sound of the words is important. It’s an expensive drink. This is No. 1. Now do it again, and you have to feel that this is exclusive. O.K.? This is not an everyday whiskey you know.
INTERPRETER: Could you do it slower and… ?
DIRECTOR: With more ecstatic emotion.
INTERPRETER: More intensity.
DIRECTOR (in English): Suntory time! Roll.
BOB: For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.
DIRECTOR: Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut! God, I’m begging you.

What do you reckon? I’d like to hear from you, dear reader, what you thought about the movie. I know precisely jack sh-t about film, and place myself firmly in the ‘I dunno much about art, but I knows what I likes’ camp. Bill Murray, as everyone hastens to say, was pretty damn good, I thought, but was the movie all that, really, or just Japanophile pandering?
Inquiring wonderchickens want to know. Great movie, or just goodish?

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Criminal? Criminally delicious!

Posted this to MeFi a few days ago. Crossposting here, ’cause I can.
Article 98. From 1995 through 2000, the U.S. government supported the establishment of an International Criminal Court. In 2001, the Bush Administration ended US participation in ICC meetings and, on 6 May 2002, officially nullified the previous signature of the Rome Statute.
Since then, the Bush administration has been actively pursuing agreements — with such human-rights aware nations as Kazakhstan, Bahrain, Botswana and Bhutan[pdf], and through coercion in the case of destitute Nauru — which would provide immunity for Americans in the ICC. Human Rights watch, amongst other organizations, is appalled. Echoing the sentiment of most who have not agreed to US demands, Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner of Austria (who has not signed an agreement on Article 98 with the US) spoke out in 2002 about the need for a common position. “There is a fundamental need for everyone to be open to prosecution. It is important that there is no immunity.”

Sensible or sinister?
You decide.

Fluffy Bunnies

Fluffy Bunnies. Playful kittens. Romantic sunsets. Warm spring breezes. Crisp cotton sheets on a cold winter night. Happy puppies. Burbling babies.
Oh, and Saddam Hussein. What a wonderful world!
I’ve turned over a new leaf, I swear. Nothing but Happy Fun Times from here on in, campers.

[Update : Nah, f–k that.]

Mowing Down Motherfcukers

The theme today is: poo.
You know, some days it’s almost enough† to make one want to pick up an automatic weapon (you know, at the Gun-o-tron™ vending machine down on the corner) and start mowing down motherf–kers. The only problem with that, though, is that any motherf–kers you might in fact mow down, were you in a mowing mood, wouldn’t be the Bad People, they’d just be poor ordinary sh-t-blinded slobs like you or me, lied to, marketing-besotted, diaper-slinging members of demographic groups, and there’s no joy or sense in that. None at all. And, you know, killing folks is baaaad, mmkay?
So it’s down to trying with every breath one takes to fight the sh-tweasels in the boardrooms and situation rooms. Laughing at them, passing over the worthless crap they try so goddamn hard to sell you. Thwarting them, and believing nothing they or their turd-fellating father-figure-worshipping infantile apologists tell you. Not as cathartic certainly, and dangerously curmudgeony-enhancing, but it’ll have to do.
(And f–k that neck-flexing opportunist Howard Dean too, while I’m at it, just in case you think I’m just on an anti-Bush-te tear again. The American system is so deeply and completely f–king rotten that there is little doubt that, like Clinton before him, he’s just another poo-pellet washed up on the shore of the vast open sewer that is American politics. I’d almost prefer Bush won the election next year, as the blind, bumbling, lockstep stupidity of him and his corporate-coprophile posse would do more to hasten the decline and fall of the good ol’ US of A than anything else, and spur the kind of catastrophic, revolutionary change that may be the only option left to save that fading republic. I’m afraid there is very little hope, friends, and what little may be left is disappearing fast. Their lies are ascendant; they own your ass outright (and they’re making the final payments on mine). Emigrate while you still can, and start sending money back to fund the revolution.)
Oh yeah, here’s the nugget that set me off :

A senior executive with Britain’s biggest drugs company has admitted that most prescription medicines do not work on most people who take them.
Allen Roses, worldwide vice-president of genetics at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), said fewer than half of the patients prescribed some of the most expensive drugs actually derived any benefit from them.
It is an open secret within the drugs industry that most of its products are ineffective in most patients but this is the first time that such a senior drugs boss has gone public.

†No it’s not, really. Gotta cut down on the coffee.
Thus endeth the rant.

Decline and Fall

If you’re not reading Billmon already, you should be. He delivers another bang-on-target essay here.

Something at the core of the American spirit has been corrupted — by wealth and power and the steady commercialization of just about everything. And we’re a nation divided, more so than at any time since the Civil War, split into mutually hostile camps, secular and religious, liberal and conservative, casually cosmopolitan and reflexively, if not rabidly, nationalist.
So the war on terrorism has become just another skirmish in the war between the cultures. And the causes and consequences of failures — like 9/11 — get swept under the rug by the party in power, while the party out of power is either silenced by its own ineffectuality, or simply tries to score points of its own in the endless PR game.

Unyoung, Unpoor, UnRabbit

I was making croutons for the ceasar salad, for the lunch I’d invited my new colleagues to at our house this morning, damp tea-towel flung across my shoulders, when I said ‘f–k’ to myself. Just before that, I’d been inscribing and addressing Christmas cards to a few friends, for what was basically the first time in my life. In a couple, I’d added as a postscript ‘When the hell did I become this adult?’ and now here I was, puttering and polishing the grime off the salt and pepper shakers.
I’m trying to age gracefully. I’m neither Updike’s Rabbit, nor the amusingly and serendipitously named Charlie Stavros

…turning night into day and pally with gangsters and Presidents and that square gangster way of carrying your shoulders (Charlie Stavros has it) and Chairman of the Board and Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dean Martin before they dried out finally…

but I surprise myself sometimes, that a rough-cut boozehound like myself, all scarred and grizzled from mapcap adventures a-plenty, veteran of cliffhangers and close shaves galore, can find himself so happily domesticated, whistling the Montovani Orchestra’s version of ‘Uncle f–ka’ as he whips up some salad dressing in the kitchen.
At least until he realizes what he’s doing, balks briefly, and then as a sort of sympathetic magic, while the wife is off at the shops, cranks up Black Flag’s Damaged, and continues his happy homely activity, with just a bit more animation.

Uncle Fucka Exegesis

After much deliberation, after pondering, both weak and weary, after tugging my beard like the retro-sage in a technical age that I fancy myself to be, after eating a couple of eggs boiled in spiced soy (oh, yeah, baby), I have come to the inescapable conclusion that ‘Uncle Fucka‘ is possibly the greatest song ever written.

A brief reminder of the powerful and affecting lyrics :

Terrance and Phillip
[Terrance:] Shut your f–king face uncle f–ka
You’re a cock sucking ass licking uncle f–ka
You’re an uncle f–ka, yes its true
Nobody f–ks uncles quite like you
[Phillip:] Shut your f–king face uncle f–ka
You’re the one that f–ked your uncle, uncle f–ka
You dont eat or sleep or mow the lawn,
You just f–k your uncle all day long
[farting noises]
[Terrance:] Hmm!
[farting noises]
[farting noises]
[Some Guy:] What’s going on here?
[farting noises]
[Man 1:] That’s garbage!
[Man 2: ]Well, what do you expect — they’re Canadian.
[People:] OOOoooooooooooooh
f–ker f–ker uncle f–ka uncle f–ka f–ka f–ka f–ka
[T & P:] Shut your f–king face uncle f–ka
[Terrance:] uncle f–ka
[Terrance:] You’re a boner biting bastard uncle f–ka
[Phillip:] You’re an uncle f–ka I must say
[Terrance:] Well you f–ked your uncle yesterday
[Everyone: (laughing)]
[People:] Uncle f–ka… thats
[Everyone:] U-N-C-L-E f–k you Uncle
[Phillip:] Suck my balls!

From the opening strains to the final testicular injunction, this piece of music speaks of humankind’s chthonic impetus to understand its place in the world, to rend the veils that separate us from a direct apprehension of the divine. Perhaps Terrance and Phillip are telling us that through the f–king of uncles, a sacred understanding may be achieved. William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, said :

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plow.
Dip him in the river who loves water.

The road of excess is the road upon which Terrance and Phillip gambol and fart prodigiously, boner-biting their way to the palace of wisdom. Uncle f–kers, yes indeed, they embrace all within the scope of their gaze, with both love and scorn. Their joyous farts and caustic abuse remind us of the Rabelaisian island of Ruach,

They neither exonerate, dung, piss, nor spit in that island; but, to make amends, they belch, fizzle, funk, and give tail-shots in abundance. They are troubled with all manner of distempers; and, indeed, all distempers are engendered and proceed from ventosities, as Hippocrates demonstrates, lib. De Flatibus. But the most epidemical among them is the wind-cholic. The remedies which they use are large clysters, whereby they void store of windiness. They all die of dropsies and tympanies, the men farting and the women fizzling; so that their soul takes her leave at the back-door.

and point with gleeful loathing thereby at our folly and failings. They f–ked their uncles yesterday, our hyperkinetic flatulent Canadian duo, reminding us of the gloomy conclusion of Ivan Karamazov: “If God is dead, all is permitted.”

Is there a god who would allow uncle-f–king? Is the god who would have prevented such things indeed dead, and is all, in fact, permitted? Terrance and Phillip have no answers for us, as they caper and cut the cheese, only questions, questions with which the great minds of our civilization have wrestled for centuries, fruitlessly.

In the end, perhaps, like Neitzche, they hail the dionysian, as the true source of art, and as deliberate affront to the illusory appollonian order imposed by our minds on a chaotic universe.

Either way, as Walter Kaufmann said of Neitzche, so can we say of Terrance and Phillip, our foul-mouthed flatulent flip-top-headed Canadian friends :

[Their] phrases, once heard, are never forgotten; they stand up by themselves, without requiring the support of any context; and so they have come to live independently of their sire’s intentions.

Suck my balls.


I watched ‘Magnolia’ last night. Yeah, I know : get with the times you cheesy halfwit, that movie is soooo 20th century! We’re all about Keanu having a Mark Hamill moment over the pincushiony corpse of Trinity as the swarms of cgi-squid thingos penetrate (heh) the womb (woohee) of humanity (oh-ho!) like so many stainless-steel sperm these days, boyo. Get with the program!
Oh f–k off.
So, anyway, I watched all three hours of this fine film, and I am here to tell you, the last person in America that hasn’t seen it, that it is indeed a fine film.
Perhaps the best things about the movie for me were all the damp, crumpled-up faces, contorted and shivering under the hammerblows of nearly unbearable emotions, or close facsimiles thereof. The long long closeups of those emoting auteurs were a veritable emotional Dustbuster™, by crikey, sucking the carbon out of my psychosexual valves. Then squirting in a healthy spritz of WD-40, which your average Dustbuster can’t do without special attachments. Which was why this was so damn good!
(By picking this particular metaphor to describe the mood I was in as the credits rolled and I closed Winamp™ and toddled off for a healthy crap, I am in no way claiming that this movie sucked. On the contrary, it rocked me! Rocked me like a tropical depression at the very least.)
No, seriously, folks. I loved this movie with an unhealthy passion, and I’m merely cracking anticlockwise to try and hide the uncomfortable feelings it stirred in my heart. I cried a bit, even. Especially when Tom Cruise’s unfeasibly large package was flopping around. C’mon! That sh-t was scary, damn it!
Anway. When I die, if I don’t get a f–king rain of frogs, I’m complaining to the management.
(Thus ends my very first movie-review blog post, which is soooo summer 2003, unless you’re Mistah Kottke and can get away with that sort of thing, I know. I really am trying like hell to get with the program, I swear, but when you spend as much time as I do plucking the newly-lush profusion of hairs out of your ears, you get a little behind, all right?)