Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Kids Can’t Get No Satisfaction

In The Social Fabric on March 28, 2011 at 10:51 pm

In groundbreaking, earth shattering news…..Korean kids are officially unhappy.  Now as someone who has had generous exposure to children ranging from the ages of 5 to 15, I am not shocked into a coma from these new findings.  I have read enough essays and diary entries to know that Sunday is most kids’ favourite day of the week because they can finally sleep.  But now it’s in the numbers.  From a surveyed 5,437 students ranging from 4th grade to 12th grade, Korean kids ranked lowest out of 26 OECD countries.  The survey showed that 53.9% of children are “satisfied with their lives” compared to an OECD average of 84.8%.

Maybe it’s something in the wording, or maybe it’s because I’m too distanced from my elementary school days (well….let’s say not too distanced) but I don’t recall ever assessing how ‘satisfied’ I was with my life.  When I was a child, that was the end of it.  I was a child, and being satisfied or not was irrelevant. My control over my own circumstances was limited to the scope of my backyard, and how far I could stray from home without feeling the invisible strings of guilt.  But satisfied or not, I had a light at the end of the tunnel.  Once school was over, life would begin and the sweet freedom to make all the wrong choices I wanted could be all mine.  So in this respect, I can understand the doomsday attitudes of Korean kids, who have to tough out not just 12 years of the most competitive schooling imaginable, but also 4-6 years of equally competitive university, and then the confidence crushingly competitive job market.  And all this preparation begins at the tender age of kindergarten.  No light, no tunnel.

In addition to being ‘dissatisfied’ with life, a whopping 18.3% of kids surveyed ‘feel alienated’.  That figure also happens to be the highest of the OECD countries.  Clearly Korea is topping the charts in all the wrong ways.  This number got me to thinking, what is it that makes so many kids feel alienated?  Of course without the funding, time and resources to take up my own research, I can only hazard a guess.  My speculation?  The standards which are set that all kids must live up to, despite inclination or ability.  Creativity is not lauded as respectable or more importantly a marketable talent, and as such is systematically squeezed dry from children that show they have it.  Kids that are ‘different’ and have different learning needs, are often pigeonholed as difficult, or troubled, and there are few alternative outlets.  From birth, high hopes are pinned on the success of the child and their professional direction.  During the first birthday party ceremony, the child is presented with a number of objects on a plate to choose from, which will symbolize their future.  These objects always include pencil, book, toothbrush, globe, and of course what every parent wishes they choose…..money.  Indoctrinated before speech.  One can only imagine the pressure on a child who either shows no talent for the conventional, or worse, has talents that would lead to a path of uncertainty.

Of course, it’s not just school that makes a child happy or not.  When asked the source of their distress, the rankings showed school work number one, followed by physical appearance and then problems with parents.  Boys in particular stress about their height, and girls stress about their weight.  As if it’s not already difficult enough to study 10-12 hours a day, kids also have to worry if they will be Michael Jordon or Angelina Jolie.  At least in one area Korea did not bottom out completely.  Although 17% of kids “feel lonely”, when compared to Japan the figure was at 29.8%.  Everyone has their own brand of problems.

Out of pure interest sake, the highest ranking country with the most ‘satisfied with their lives’ children is the Netherlands, with a staggering 94.2%.  It was attributed to the parenting style of the Dutch, going out of their way to please children, and the lower expectations of teachers.  I’ll be keeping this information out of my classes for the time being….


Seoul Immigration Office….You’ve Changed…

In The Social Fabric on March 23, 2011 at 7:55 pm

There is one aspect in particular of expat living that has the immense power to disgruntle.  If you have lived in another country for an extended period of time, or in Korea’s case for a lot less, you become intimately acquainted with the process of visas.  Perhaps you live in one of the lucky, lucky few countries that have a relatively painless and reasonable system of immigration.  Of this I can barely contain raw jealousy.  Each year I promise myself  “I will renew this time….I will never get a new visa again”, and each year I find myself jumping through the same hoops of fire and utter inconvenience.

What makes Korean immigration so blood-boiling, is the fact that it changes the rules more often than students change their homework excuses.  I will spare the details of the past two months of bureaucracy, as it serves less  as informative entertainment and more as a  furious catharsis.  Actually, today prompted me to rethink this whole process, as for the first time I actually had a…..positive immigration experience.  2012 is inching closer.

For those of you have held an E2 Korean visa, you will almost certainly be familiar with the Seoul Immigration Office at Omokgyo.  I have perhaps become a little over-friendly with this dim, soulless building and all that his has put me through in the past.  My perspective was perhaps coloured by the fact that I used to have to travel from the eastern armpit of Seoul in Cheonho-dong to this unforgiving place, which was an uncomfortable hour subway ride.  This, and the fact that you never can guess what was going to happen to you once you crossed the threshold.

But today was different.  As I ascended the stairs at subway exit 7 and dodged the ajumma gauntlet of discount phone cards and subway maps, I considered how much money I could make out of a computer game based on the visa run.  10 points for every ajumma escaped from, 20 points for helping lost foreigners on the walk, 100 points for actually getting a visa unhindered.  I of course won’t staking my future on its success.

Filled with dread as I entered the building, I was fully prepared for the long, boring wait with my laptop, book, and ipod with episodes of Modern Family.  Having done this before, I got my waiting number before I filled out my application form, smiling to myself for my unusually forward thinking.  Much to my surprise, my ears were ringing with the sound of constant beeping as number after number ticked over.  I was actually racing the clock to finish my form, get cash out, go downstairs to the little lady in the snack store to exchange money for revenue stamps, and get back to the waiting room.  I never even sat down to wait.

Two things happened when I sat with my case officer.  First, she was extremely helpful.  She spoke to my employer to solve the mystery of missing documents, she allowed me to use the new internet station to retrieve the correct address without waiting, and she did everything possible to get it done.  Second, it was free.  No longer are we that are from countries without multiple re-entry agreements forced to cough up extra funds for the privilege.  She gave me my revenue stamps back and said see you in 10 days.

I left the building shaken, not sure what to think.  Could it be that the least efficient system is actually evolving for the better? Or was it a lucky chance that I am to be afforded from pure mathematical probability? I’m still unwilling to test the theory.

National Treasure File #29: Emille Bell

In Korean National Treasures on March 17, 2011 at 11:51 pm

With a 5000 year old history, it’s no wonder that Korea has a few items here and there that have a bit of a story behind them.  As a consequence of the attempted cultural dominance from the Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th Century, these  items now have even more importance.  So much so that since 1962, the government has been cataloging these various items into a National Treasure List.  It may be recalled that number one on that list, the gate at Namdaemun, also known as Sungnyemun, was burned to its foundations in 2008.

Many of the entries are pagodas, temples, celadon vases and other such remnants from former kingdoms.  However, some treasures come with dark stories, intrigue and mazes of interest.  The first item that caught my eye was entry number 29, “The Sacred Bell of King Seongdeok the Great” also known as the Emille (em-ee-leh) Bell.  Now I’ll be honest when I say my interest came from misreading the romanization of Seongdeok as “Seondeok” which was also a very prominent  Queen….and also the subject of a highly popular TV drama that gripped the nation last year.   My pop-culture radar was shamefully on high alert.

But I was not to be disappointed by what I found.  This particular bell is the largest in Korea, standing at 3.3 meters high, 2.27m in diameter and weighing 19.9 tons.  That makes it, really big.  But more than that, it can be heard evenly in all directions and the sound lingers for 3 minutes, which is longer than any other bell in the world.

Not impressed?

Well if you’re not a bell enthusiast or a historical engineering buff, I can see how this would be less than dazzling.  What had me falling down the rabbit hole of historical research, however, was the legend surrounding its casting.  Despite being named in honor of King Seongdeok, it was actually completed by his son, King Gyeongdeok, as it took an extraordinarily long time to complete.  In fact, King Seongdeok never actually saw the bell, as he died before it’s completion in CE 771.  It took roughly 34 years.

The legend goes that the bell was extremely difficult to cast (bearing in mind its size and the lack of tools and know-how of the time), and the first attempt produced no ring.  Subsequent attempts by Gyeongdeok produced similar results, and the mammoth undertaking was proving a costly venture.  In order to fund his commitment, the King needed donations from citizens, and commissioned monks to collect.  Now here’s where the accounts get murky.

Some legends say, that a monk encountered a poor woman who could not contribute, so she sarcastically replied “All I have to give you is my daughter.”  The monk returned, without collecting from the poor woman.  The King, at his wit’s end, consulted a magician to solve the quandry of the bell’s silence.  The magician, in all his wisdom, made the prophecy that a girl should be thrown into the copper during casting in order to make it sound.  The monk, recalling the poor woman’s offer, retrieved the girl, and she was sacrificed alive into the molten copper for the good of the bell.  Just as he had predicted, the bell was completed and it rang clear and true, some say for 40 miles on a clear day.  However the townspeople, upon hearing it’s solemn ring, said the tone was akin to “Em-ee, Em-ee-leh”, which was the ancient Silla word for “Mother, because of mother…..”

A creepy story no doubt.  Of course just like all good creepy stories of myth and legend, they end up losing their spark when science interferes.  A substance trace on the bell in 1998 came up with zero traces of calcium phosphate, which would be be present if there were bone in the mix.  There is also the lack of recorded evidence of the story (it being 771 and all…) and the existence of other similar Chinese legends of the time.   Whatever is to believed, there’s nothing like a good ‘I’ll throw you in the molten copper’ story to scare the kids.

White, Black, Green….Where Do I Pay?

In The Social Fabric on March 15, 2011 at 12:35 am

Well, it’s that day again.   For most of the world, Valentines day is either dreaded or hurried depending on love in life at the time.  But only once.

What is so special about living in Korea, is that it happens no less than 12 times a year.  That’s correct, a monthly reminder that you may or may not be successful in society’s eyes, in the ways of love.  Today is of course, White Day, the reciprocal version of Valentines when the men give the ladies candy.  Now I’m no great conventional romantic, but to me this is starting to take the fun out of things.

Like all great fabricated holidays, this one is the candy companies’ doing, trumping us traditionalists with not one but two days created to make a killing.  On the subway home tonight, I saw one young man after another with all sorts of ridiculous looking candy concoctions, from bouquet shaped mixes to a giant lollipop blowup toy.  Because they have to.  It’s no secret that Korean women can be demanding when it comes to the dating rules, and my assumption is it’s better to be safe than really, really sorry.

Which brings me to my earlier revelation.  I mentioned there are actually 12 dating gift days filled with love and obligation.  The 14th of every month is delegated with a gift which should be presented to your partner as a token of your creative, unique and unrehearsed affection.  Some examples include Candle Day, Music Day, and Movie Day.  On Music Day, each exchange mixed CD’s of music that has meaning and memory of the relationship.  Glad we made a day for that.

My most recent favourite discovery is Green Day, where couples are encouraged to seek nature together in romantic splendor, whilst singles drown their lonely sorrows in soju.  And no, the singles are by no means forgotten, for they are afforded their own day in this schedule of the heart.  April 14th is Black Day, a colour chosen no doubt for it’s symbolic significance, where singles eat Chinese Black Noodles called Jajangmyeon. Still not sure if this is a wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve-in-the-hopes-of-finding-a-mate ploy, or just another way to put society into neat organized plots.

Whatever the motives, not all couples follow this demanding regimen of dating etiquette.  I, for one, do not need a diary on Diary Day, nor need to use Hug Day as an excuse.

“What’s it to you?”

In The Social Fabric on March 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm

Recently I’ve been meeting new Korean people for the first time in a while, and I’m reminded of a cultural difference which may or may not be an issue for some.  I consider myself to be a fairly open person, and I don’t consider many things to be ‘too personal’ to share.  But for those that feel uncomfortable about sharing too much too soon, they may be confronted by the questions which can seem to come from no-man’s-land.

To clarify, it is quite common in Korean society to ask certain questions when meeting someone for the first time.  Most common in fact, is “How old are you?”.  From a Western perspective (especially if you’re a woman nearing the age where you would prefer to remain at for quite some time) this can be considered rude.  But Korean society is so centered around age and hierarchy, that knowing a person’s age dictates what language and courtesies to use.  Explainable.

This week I encountered a question which I was unaware of as being a common question.  I was chit chatting with a new Korean friend about life and love and a woman’s perspective, when she asked “If you don’t mind me asking, how often do you see your boyfriend in a week?”.  I was curious about this, because funnily enough it has come up in conversation with my boyfriend in the past.  Counting the times in a week people see each other when in a relationship simply had never come to my mind.  I would be lying if I said the first time I heard it I was not thrown, and a little irked.

But this seemingly innocuous question from a woman I had met only a few times before gave me new perspective.  I probed her about it, asking if it was normal to think about such things, and she assured me it was a common question amongst friends.  Having not encountered anything like it before, I asked her what the answers mean.  If I had said once, twice or even every day….what is the purpose?  What impression would my answer give?  Her response was coy, not yielding the truth.  Of course, it left me curious.

Personal questions are the norm in Korean society, and it’s a curiosity which is reflected in many other aspects of life.  Whilst trying to find other accounts of unusual questions asked of the expat community, I stumbled across a discussion thread mostly compiled of ESL teaching experiences and many pearls of wisdom from the mouths of babes.  There I relived more than one of my own experiences such as “Do you have a boyfriend?”, “What’s your blood type?” and “Teacher, why your head so small?”.  And also some others I haven’t encountered, thankfully.  I encourage you to read a few, they are a window into the everyday joys of ESL teaching, and the unabashed nature of Korean children. Questions

Fear Eats the Seoul

In Entertain Me, The Social Fabric on March 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm

I’ve never met an ESL teacher in Korea that has not had some kind of gripe about their school, boss, kids, landlady, landlady that is their boss who owns the school their kid goes to…

But now there is a film that may work out that aggression, told from one who knows it first hand. Nick Calder has thrown off the shackles of an easy stereotype, and committed himself to doing what he loves whilst still educating the Korean masses.  His first film “Fear Eats the Seoul” is a bloody horror with monsters and demons, as metaphoric as any would wish to take it.  Currently in post production, there is already a buzz amongst the expat community anxious to support someone breaking the mold.

Korean society is a swiftly evolving creature, that if you close your eyes for a few years you may not recognize it when you open them again.  It’s quite impressive to watch, but watching is not enough.  The expat community has a task to keep up with this change, and challenge its own existence within Korean society.  There’s no secret that the ESL teacher reputation is not altogether glorious, assumptions made about money makers and 24 hour party people.  Whilst this may still hold true to some measure, there is an increasing number of expats who are trying to make a greater contribution.  The point is, realizing that you can.  There is not a lot of information out there about how to go about exploiting your talents and skills without selling your soul to schools. But that makes the challenge all the more rewarding.  Being a part of diversifying Korea’s culture in a positive and constructive way is inspiring in itself.

A great percentage of teachers that come here are not teachers at all, and it can be easy to forget what it was you once were before you arrived.  Nick summed it up perfectly in an interview with Sugar and Thunder.

“It came from hating my last job as a preschool ESL teacher and feeling like I had become complacent. There are situations in Korea that I can’t help but culturally clash with, including teaching English to 18 month old babies. I was very unhappy because I had no clue what I was doing in the classroom anymore. It dawned on me that I was venturing so far from the path I once set out to take. And ultimately making decent money and having a free place was not enough. My dream kept bubbling to the surface while I was trying to push it down for the sake of a comfortable lifestyle.

So I finally quit that job and found a part-time one and my own place, which opened up my mind and my time to follow my own path. It became clear then that money was not as important if I was able to do what I was passionate about. So I finally accepted I AM a filmmaker and if that is so, I should start making some films.”

Well said.  There are people out there doing it, and they are sources of inspiration.  I’m not the biggest horror genre fan out there, but I will be waiting with bated breath for the release of this film because it marks another kind of triumph.  Small or big, however you want to see it, just see it.

Funnest Airline in the Skies

In The Social Fabric on March 2, 2011 at 9:10 pm

I couldn’t let today pass without mention of my favourite airline, Jeju Air.  What does a traveler look for these days in a carrier?  Cheap fares, quality service, adequate leg room…..

Well not me.  I have a new standard of code.  Jeju Air is the party bus of international airspace, and I guarantee you will feel you are on vacation the moment you board the plane.  Ok, maybe I’m overselling it just a tad, but I’m not lying when I tell you I grinned ear to ear on more than one occasion on my flight.  Now I’ve been known to be a thick-skinned individual in even the most emotional circumstances, so it’s the strangest things that can strike a nerve.  And I’ll say, that as that plane taxied off towards the runway, and when all the ground crew stood in a line and waved goodbye until we were out of sight….I struggled not to wave frantically back.  I don’t know if it’s because I have a thing about airports and saying goodbye, or the fact that a line of crewmen I wouldn’t know from a piece of lint were wishing me well on my trip, but it won points in my little black book of airlines instantly.

As I settled back and pretended to have the Asian gift of falling asleep within seconds of wishing it so (I find it’s better to fake it than have my eyes open and be eternally jealous), I was aware of the announcements being unfamiliar to the usual relay of safety and duty free.  There was no English this time, just Korean and Japanese, but my Korean was good enough for me to pick up the words “Rock, paper, scissors”.  Having been a teacher in the ROK for 4 years, I’m well familiar with the cultural importance of this game and found it distinctly out of place with oxygen masks and what was for lunch.  Turns out, we were going to play a game.  With the whole plane.  That’s right, hands in the air, we’re gonna play rock paper scissors with 192 passengers.  Ear to Ear grin number two.  As we hurled our best, those who threw whatever the hostess at the front threw were through to the next round.  It was a strategic lesson in how to play Rock Paper Scissors, as an astonishingly large amount of people threw scissors or paper….myself included.  Rock always wins.

After not winning the prize of some cosmetic package due to my lack of Rock Paper Scissor prowess (which I lamented for some time with all my years of practice), I thought all the excitement was over.  Not so.  The crew then proceeded to stroll through the cabin with a selection of part hats and disguises for passengers to don and take a lasting image.  You’d be surprised how many went for the Mickey and Minnie bows.

So you see, on a Jeju Air flight, there’s an atmosphere of  what the hell.  We’re on a plane.  We’re going somewhere.  We don’t need in-flight movies or headphones, lets play party games and take ridiculous photos of each other.

I leave with the words of the welcoming announcement of Jeju Air flight Incheon to Osaka “Thank you.  We love you.”

The Incheon Standard

In The Social Fabric on March 2, 2011 at 8:39 am

As someone who has grown up spending an inordinate amount of time in airports, it’s no surprise to learn that I’ve become a tad critical in my later years.  I try to keep an open mind and put my patient face on every time I encounter a new port, but every now and again that patience is tried.  One airport where  I have never had that experience is, thankfully and mercifully, Incheon Airport.  It is an airport I actually enjoy being in, and have no qualms about spending large amounts of time in wait.  There is a reason it has been voted the best airport in the world consecutively since 2005 by the Airports Council International.  Because it is.

On my way to Osaka this morning to complete the much resented visa run, and I’m flying Jeju Air.   In my confirmation email, my agent highlighted in red that I must be at Incheon 2 hours before departure.  Now as I said, I’ve been on planes once or twice, and everyone knows that is just to scare the newbies.  However after conversations with my boyfriend (who happens to be Korean), he wholeheartedly supported my agent’s instructions.  After not trusting his judgment recently on matters Korean….and being wrong…..I decided I would go with the numbers and turn up the required 2 hours early.  And yes that meant a 5am wake up call.  He had better be right.

But as if to ease the anxiety of all the uncertain things in life, Incheon Airport just exists to make my life easier.  Within 10 minutes of arriving by Airport Limousine Bus (incidentally the most efficient and affordable city airport transport system I’ve used), I was checked in.  No queue.  Friendly faces.  I’m pretty sure other passengers on the bus were still collecting their luggage.  10 more minutes later I had exchanged my currency, and yes, passed through security.  My feet were always moving.  I didn’t pause once.  5 more minutes later and I had passed through immigration.  Again, no queue.  A grand total of 25 minutes at the airport and am at a Starbucks  enjoying coffee and a ham and cheese bagel and taking advantage of the airport wide free wifi.

This airport has all the feelings of calm and efficiency.  It’s as if they’ve been doing this for a hundred years and could do it with their eyes closed.  For someone who travels frequently, I can’t tell you how appreciated the sense of ease and convenience is.  Actually, I can.  It’s great.  Whether it be arrivals or departures, I have yet  had cause to be irritated.  Of course, I realize the repercussions of jinxing myself with such a statement.  However, my affections and loyalty for this hub are already sealed and to me they can do no wrong.