Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Drum Show and a Soccer Game: How Modern Korea Sees Herself

A weekend with excess drinking here in Seoul. But at least for my last weekend here in the Metropolis, I at least had a bit of time to do a couple of things to think about how the modern side of Korea, with Seoul as her best representative, really thinks about itself, especially as she deals with an increased inflow of foreigners here for pure economic gains (rather than military, family reasons as has been the case not that long ago). Traditional culture is still very much alive in the country and among the people...or is it?

The first was a sort of action play that act as one of Seoul's longest-running man-made tourist spots. "Nanta" (literally, "random hitting") is a "silent comedy + Stomp + interpretive dance(?)" show that has allegedly been running nonstop since 1997 and in 40 different countries. The lack of actual use of spoken language, the widespread use of martial arts (or what seems to be) has been a major factor for its international success. Beautiful female chef and many body humor that depends not on culture...the show was full of elements to entertain the foreigners without slightest knowledge of Korea.

Yet, interesting enough, the show has disguised various elements of Korean tradition within a largely non-Korean show. The setting was a traditional Korean restaurant, and much of the "Stomp"-like rhythms originate from Korean drumming that has been practiced for centuries by artisans. Not openly showing Korean cultural elements, but using every opportunity to infer to Korean elements...it perhaps is a sign of lacking outright confidence in outsiders being able to accept the Korean "ways" directly, but plenty of desires and passion to introducing the culture through somewhat "easily digestible" methods....

The tendency for a not-that-confident Korea to market her culture not as a separate element but as something of a wider context, whether it is a "sub-branch of Asian pop culture phenomenon" or more specifically as a extension of Chinese kung-fu subculture (as "Nanta" has in a way attempted to do) or extension of something the Japanese has started (whether it be emotional dramas or pretty/handsome boyband/girlband pop music scene) will, as time goes on and the cultural "made-in-Korea" label becomes more globally recognizable, subside.

In fact, it would not be hard to find Koreans abroad quite confidently proud of their cultures these days. Dealing with the current crop of teenagers, the trend is evident. While the 20-somethings still speak of Chinese political power and Japanese economic power as something Korea feels truly inferior, the youth of these days have not shown a slightest degree of care in such comparisons. They, as young ambassadors of a hip, trendy country, has been recipients of widespread respect from their counterparts in other countries, in the process boosting their (and Korea's) confidence of themselves...

But, of course, Korea will always have her dark side on the global stage if the political situation stays the way it is. While the youth flaunts new-found cultural confidence, the issues with North Korea still grab the attention of non-Koreans more than anything else. Years of marketing K-pop abroad have not made any shining pop star more famous worldwide than the Dear Leader up North. And his behavior in his own backyard still cause more uproar than the behavior of any South Korean actor on the other side of the world.

With such reality in my mind, I turned on the TV the other day and was surprised to find a U-17 World Cup soccer game being shown on the popular SBS-ESPN sports channel. The two sides in contest were Republic of Congo (which no one in Korea really cares about) and an energetic North Korean side. The boisterous commentator, while trying to be equally excited by spectacular plays for both sides, had an obvious bias toward the Northerners as the game dragged and his comments piled up. The bias only got stronger as the North Korean side scored first and the flow of the game was moving in favor of the red shirts.

In all honesty, I have been and still very much am very doubtful that, as many would like to say, sports can be a great emotional unifier that connect people of different backgrounds. After all, Olympics during the Cold War have evidently shown that sports competitions are just subversive extensions of political and economic competitions among different countries. But by the same line of logic, if sports competitions are really political in nature, does it mean, as shown by this particular soccer game, that the Southerners really do consider the Northerners as their political brethren?

"Enemies of your enemies are your friends." If such common principle of Cold War geopolitics is still in effect on the Korean Peninsula, the biased commentator would be in deep trouble for sympathizing with the communist bastards up North. Perhaps, as South Korea gains more cultural confidence and try to inconspicuously make the rest of the world understand more of herself, she is at the same time redefining herself in the greater context? A culturally more powerful Korea is (at least) an emotionally unified Korea that, down underneath, actually shares some sort of ethnically based cultural unity?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

the Psychological Effects of "the End"

My roommate and fellow coworker here at Seoul often makes this statement, "I don't know when is the next time I will be in Korea, so might as well try that too," to literally anything that we have been going through for the past couple of weeks. Whether it be trying unusual food at hole-in-the-wall restaurants with no English spoken, or wondering through sketchy neighborhoods at night drinking excessively and looking for I-don't-know-what, such an attitude gave him the courage to basically venture into sometimes quite uncomfortable unknowns that most sane foreigners in the country may never venture.

Seeking the Real Korea without the Neon Lights

For most people, especially foreigners demanding a “foreign lifestyle,” Korea equals to Seoul, and Seoul equals to Korea. The cosmopolitan city has all the foreign people, expat-catered bars, clubs, and restaurants, and above all, a populace that is both friendly and at times, overly envious of the Western lifestyle that we the foreigners somehow come to define. Living in Seoul makes the Westerner feel like he/she is on the top of the socio-economic food chain, even if the person in question is a mere English teacher without much status or respect back home.

As someone who took the time to travel to every single province in South Korea (plus one in the North), I know such attitude is definitely not prevalent in the entire country. If anything, in the parts of the country where only the well-heeled foreigners dare to venture, the local reaction to the presence of people with different beliefs (whether they are real foreigners or “foreigner-like” Seoulites) can sometimes get rather, eh, interesting. Being envious of the foreigners may not be suitable, and in the worse-case scenario, be something completely despicable and spite-worthy.

But of course, traveling for few days is one thing and living for a couple months is another. After all, in a society with convenient cross-country transportation links, high-speed, relatively uncensored Internet connections (on a side note, I do want to log on to the North Korean official news site at www.kcna.co.jp though), and rapid movements of people, the prevailing attitudes across the social spectrum cannot be THAT different.

And plus, it is a small country, with a mono-ethnic population, with relatively balanced developments and income in different regions so that people’s way of thinking should not see much regional differences. Sure, if foreign presence is rare, people may have certain negative first impressions (consistent with their inherent judgmental nature), but as time goes by and the foreigner is somehow more felt as a part of the local community, I suppose the REAL nature of the locals should come out?

So, in essence, I am arguing that the “real nature” of all citizens in all parts of the country depend not on their personal experiences (especially pertaining to direct exposure to anything foreign), but the overall impression/perception of each and every idea and object developed through a combination of common tradition built through centuries of common practices as well as the more modern media-based portrayal of the “outside world.”

In other words, said directly, in terms of socio-economic environment, every single town in South Korea is just Seoul sans a few conspicuous neon signs. When looking at the concentration of non-Koreans (minus all the Chinese immigrants) in any city, I doubt that massively-populated Seoul would be able to muster any higher percentage than any English-crazed local town with their neat set of niche foreign presence. The Real Korea, outside of its unusual primate city, seems not to be that different...

But of course, all this is just my opinion for now. And soon it will be proven (hopefully). As the first session of my English teaching draws to a close in Seoul, my next assignment will be undertaken at the town of Chuncheon about an hour and a half east of the capital. Even though it is the capital of Gangwon Province, the little town with less than half a million people has little to brag about other than a local chicken dish (with which most Koreans associate the city) and being the location where Korean dramas are shot.

For a fewer neon signs, along with all the (occasionally foreigner-friendly) vices the signs promote and advertise, the town may in exchange create a more peaceful environment for understanding exactly what Koreans are like without the noise of the unnecessarily conspicuous foreign establishment here in Seoul. And if my logic stated above are to be correct, well, I think I will find that one tool to sort out the socio-cultural complications of modern Korea...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Just Get Me into a Decent College" and the Future of Asians in American Colleges

In all societies, there are students who do not give a damn about school. It is nothing surprising that some people, under any environment, would think that school can be worthless or that they can find other ways of success beyond prestigious schooling. And similarly, there are parents who believe in the same thing. They allow their kids to choose their own paths, or simply just do not care where their kids end up without proper schooling. Sometimes, the students and the parents who do not give a damn happen to come from the same household. The result can be a disaster for the kid (in the normal case) or creation of some sort of absurdly unique and widely envied stories of abnormal successes for the kids in question.

Well, not in Korea. Kids might be varied in enthusiasm for school just like kids are in any other country, but parents see absolutely no variance whatsoever. In the financial situation allows them to do so, the Korean parents will gladly pay up (and in my opinion, waste) tens of thousands of dollars to ship their kids off to the best higher level education the world has to offer. If the kids do not want to? Well, too bad, they are going anyways.

So the weird dynamic between eager parents and lazy students creates an interesting situation. The process of choosing the right schools and submitting the college applications somehow becomes a capital-intensive but not at all labor-intensive one when labor is most needed. So, as theories of economics says, capital is expended to outsource the process to a labor-intensive locale. And that is where the "college application consultants" show up, sucking on the cash to produce mass-manufactured college applications for hundreds of lazy students who are unwilling to even think about what schools they want to go.

Most just want to get their overly anxious parents off their backs. As long as the parents heard of the colleges they will be attending and let up their nagging, the kids are satisfied. And thanks to aggressive marketing campaigns by mediocre colleges from the States in Asia, the prospect of kids with below average scores getting into "I-heard-of-it" colleges across the Pacific has gotten so much easier. Its a win-win-win situation: consultants don't need to work as hard to get kids into real brand-name colleges, parents can brag about their kids back in Korea, and kids are free from being scolded by the parents.

The job of the consultant is surely over at this point, but the worries for the kids themselves begin. For those in the know, a mediocre college is a mediocre one anywhere, no matter how "famous" the school seems to be in Korea. With work visa hard to come by for foreign students in any country these days, coming back to Korea with a mediocre degree has become almost a definite for most of these kids a few years later. Evidently, the intelligent managers at the top companies would not look into the kids with much favor. Just another spoiled product of hagwon scheming and piles of cash, incapable of independent thinking and without ambitious dreams....

Consultants would hope the current situation does not change. After all, they made the promise to send the kids to certain schools, and they actually did. They got the cash and the reputation. Unfortunately, they are the only ultimate winners. The kids realize that four years of American education has only gotten them disadvantages in the Korean job market through their half-assed understanding of both American and Korean culture. Parents burned through piles of cash on international schools and colleges to see no solid returns from their investments.

One would think that at some point, the parents would realize just how lacking in merits sending their kids to these mediocre American colleges is becoming. If it is certain that their kids cannot make it to the Ivies, wouldn't (and shouldn't) they start considering alternative ways to dictate the educational and career plans for their kids? Are we looking at Korea following the Japanese model? With more and more kids staying at their home country for fear of losing out in the stiff job competition?

The consultants are confident in the continuing stream of mediocre Korean students abroad. "Korea is too small," they would say, "the parents think they need to force the kids to get out." Well, I suppose the Korean parents is different from Japanese parents in such mentality, but that does not hide the fact that the economic situations of the two countries are remarkably similar. To me, Japan is not much bigger than Korea, and in much worse economic state domestically. Yet, if the grimmer and grimmer situation at home cannot force the Japanese to take it outside their islands, I would hesitate to think that "smallness" can be the ultimate reason to decide whether people go or stay...I guess we will see in the near future...

Judgmental Korea: Creating Conformity by Praising "Individualistic Materialism"

For anyone who reads this blog regularly, there should already be a realization that "individuality" is a recurring theme in its long ranting passages. From fighting for my personal freedom at work to seeking the most unique personalities I can find during my travels, I have spent a large portion of my free time looking for sparks of rebellion against meek collectivism in some of the world's most collectivist societies.

And, in all honesty, Korea, like Japan, definitely belong in the ranks of brutal collectivism despite improving political and economic individuality over decades of opening up the countries for Western-style reforms. The resulting social bipolarity, appearing in the form of never-ending conflicts between institutional needs for absolute obedience and the economic glorification of individual materialism, has been a matter of great interest for me as I walk about the streets of the Korean metropolis dissecting its human side.

Recently, the concept of fashion trends have been catching my eyes. What goes in and out of style occurs in every country, pushed by the latest marketing ploys of the clothing retailers and magnified by the enthusiastic following of the youth. But nowhere in the world does the trend changes so drastically and so often as it does here in Korea (which has been, ironically, termed the "style capital of the world" by the Japanese media). The reason cannot be purely economic considering the spending power of the Americans, in pure cash terms, in various material goods such as clothing, is still much higher than that of this country.

Interestingly, I found a logical answer within an essay written by one of my students. The argument goes that the rush by individual youngster to imitate the "individualistic beauty/coolness" of the celebrities/models on fashion advertisements actually weaken individualism within the general society. Indeed, most Koreans, when imitating what they see on TV or billboards, do not put in enough (or any) effort to further customize what they see to create their personal styles.

The consequence is creation of an all-round stylish society in which every person is stylish in almost exactly the same way. The obvious physical aspects of rebellious individualism promoted by the advertisements (i.e. bucking the existing fashion trends by dressing in seemingly unacceptable new ways) were copied, but the underlying, consistent spirit of individual rebellion, put forth by all such fashion advertisements of totally different time periods, are not at all considered worthy of emulation by the imitators.

The ignorance of the underlying idea of individualism, of course, can be intentional or unconscious. In a society fixated with standard, almost mechanized and mass-manufactured visions of beauty and fame, what is positive in one person's opinion cannot be displayed for public consumption until someone well-known has openly endorsed it (through advertisements, for instance). It seems that in essence, a parallel social hierarchy for "fame" and "popularity" exists, where the celebrities on the top actually have some sort of social responsibilities to lead the next phase of change in social trends.

Fear for judgment props up such a structure. Anxious to be accepted by the general society, individuals avoid every opportunity to be different from their peers, whether it be behavior, dress, or language. In their eyes, only celebrities, with their huge, royal fan-base acting as stable social capital, can risk acting differently from most people and push their individuality to the mainstream. The commoners can only obey what is the mainstream, created by these self-anointed "social decision-makers."

And without revolutionary changes in the top-down decision-making structure of even something as simple as what to wear, fashion trends here will never cease to be so fast-changing and dramatic. After all, what can be worse than having your "friend" telling you that you are wearing the "wrong" kind of clothing in the "wrong" time or "wrong" location? For a Korea, or a Japanese, that is pure social embarrassment that can lower his or her position in the eyes of others. And if the position in the eyes of others is lowered, lowering in the actual position in the social hierarchy may not be that far away.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Beyond Emigration Revisited: the Losing Aura of America

Working within Korean society can bring surprising findings at random moments. The other day, we the teachers came across a gel-tipped highlighter that is unlike anything we have ever seen. Soft and smooth when it touches paper, it actually does to make any marks when slashed across the skin. The Korean students must have been quite amused by a bunch of foreign teachers being amazed by a piece of stationery so commonly used and seen in this country.

And this is not the only time I have been amazed by highly practical and technically sophisticated products found on this side of the Pacific. From heated-up toilet seats in Japan to cheap yet extremely multi-functional pirated goods in China, the Asian economic miracle based on strong manufacturing sector has in essence created societies with strong materialistic convenience. The unique products are further complemented by increasingly polite and respectful services when the products are sold or repaired.

Certainly beyond anything the States has to offer. Looking at the crummy vending machines, railroads, and shoddily made products sold in supermarkets in the States, I really come to doubt if the “high standard of living” reflected by income per capita numbers is really an accurate portrayal. Especially considering the significantly higher crime rate in the so-called “richest county on Earth,” the cost of living in the States may actually be greater for many foreigners than back home.

And then, there are the still endless numbers of Chinese and Korean students studying nonstop in various hagwons like ours, all for a slightly bigger chance of getting into American colleges. And, after graduation, at least some of these bright and worldly students never return to their home countries. And these guys are different from me; without families and relatives in the States, they still choose to stay on, many of whom eventually naturalizing as US citizens (if their immigration status allow them to do so).

The contrast of the two are quite mind-boggling, and more and more so considering the economic power of Asia is definitely on the rise, rapidly erasing American economic advantages built with victories in World War II and the Cold War. Many aspects of technology here in Asia has surpassed those of the US, and even looking at the GDP per capita numbers, the gap has become really small. If looked in terms of unemployment and worries of further financial crises, Asia has been very lucky compared to America.

Yes, the highest paying investment banks, law firms, and consultancies are based in America, and yes, the most cutting-edge medical and scientific researches are still done in the States. But come to think of it, the human capital for these “pillar industries” of the US has increasingly become the foreign-born, American-educated segment of society, and if these guys instead decided to go back to their home countries, the industries that still makes America so powerful would suddenly grind to a halt.

So, in some ways, the social welfare of the US should have already dipped to a point where individual welfare can be hurt just by merely being there. After all, individual welfare is not just about how big of a number a person has in the bank account, but how that big number can be utilized to live the most healthy and exciting life possible. Individual welfare could increase with a degree from Harvard or such, but what is the point if the degree cannot be used effectively to increase standard of living?

If anything, with rising unemployment and increasingly difficult to obtain work visas, America no longer offers that comfortable working environment not imaginable back in Asia. The insane working schedule of a white collar in Asia is now perfectly imaginable for the American counterpart, without all the protections such as some sort of employment guarantee, national healthcare system, and transportation/housing subsidy.

And certainly no amazing gel-tipped highlighters and heated-up toilet seats. Technical inferiority, cultural/linguistic difference, immigration status barriers make living in America more and more difficult for any foreigner. She is no longer that open land of opportunity embracing anyone diligent enough to scrap out a legal way of life. Yet, kids in our hagwon, just like millions of others across Asia and the world, dream on, imagining a life that, really, no longer exists....

Balancing the Asian Foreignness and the Western Foreignness

Another weekend, another round of random adventures in Seoul, with random musings, random meet-ups, and random places....senses overflows with brand-new knowledge, no matter how trivial, and the body overflows with more and more alcohol under random conditions leading to random consequences. For just another foreigner living in the massive metropolis, no experience is really off-limits and no activity really deserves to be set aside as off-limits for any reason.

But increasingly, as a foreigner living in a foreign country, not just here in Korea but Japan and pretty soon in the future, England, I am increasingly an inner split between two different kinds of foreignness, battling inside of me for supremacy in every situation I get into. As an Asian-American, the side of me that exemplifies the “Asian” natures of humbleness and respect for authority clashes with the “Western” natures of individuality and spontaneity at every opportunity I get.

Without a doubt, these are the clashes of pure stereotypes, but they are all the stereotypes I must somehow display openly to those I meet in order to be socially accepted. The ultimate goal: to be same enough so that I can communicate with others freely on the common ground, yet to be different enough so that I still stand out somehow to be noticed as “different” by the locals and be liked for those particular differences.

In Japan, balancing the two sides was quite easy. Because I do speak Japanese, I was able to at least somewhat connect with the locals on a common cultural premise. That assumption of cultural similarity allowed me to free up my mind for pushing ahead with “Western foreignness,” using every opportunity to emphasize just how many different characteristics I can come up with as someone who grew up on the other side of the world.

Yet here in Korea, the basic assumption of anybody whom I talk to is that I am a Westerner with an Asian face, not to be considered someone able to be culturally communicated with certain basic Korean values. Such an assumption, of course, is one that prevents effective interaction with any pure locals here, further exacerbated by a complete lack of understanding for the local language and some customs.

I am not satisfied with that status quo, however. I do want to connect with the locals, at least superficially, just as I have in Japan. Thus, the “Asian foreignness,” emphasizing cultural similarity with the locals by insisting cultural similarity with China and Japan, must be fully displayed before any sort of “Western values” are to be thrown in. It has been extremely difficult with I can only communicate in a purely Western language called English.

I do, though, want to, and need to, display that double-sided “foreignness.” When I went to a foreign beer festival in the foreign neighborhood of Itaewon yesterday, I realized all the sudden just how much I hated the excessive concentrated presence of completely Western foreigners there. In fact, I hate to say it, but I really sort of felt superior to those people there because I know, with my Asian face and 13 years of living in Asia, I can connect with the locals more than those guys ever can. I just had to find the correct way to do so.

I just need to observe more, and imitate more, how local Koreans behave and what sort of values they hold dear. I know, by spending more and more time with locals, I can easily pinpoint the same values I have as the core of my “Asian foreignness.” Especially under the influence of alcohol, when social inhibitions disappears, Koreans will drop their carefully crafted “cultural façade” to connect with foreigners and go back to being the pure Koreans they really are. Imitating all that, I feel, is my primary task for becoming a foreigner truly acceptable by the locals.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Professional Liar and His Law of Productivity

"How do I get my kids into Ivy League schools?" Working in the hagwon business, it is THE fundamental question teachers and consultants must be held answerable to their clients. The inquiring looks of the students and their parents are surely never to be satisfied by any explanation, no matter how long, sophisticated, detailed they are...but the question still had to be answered. Amid the non-ending competition for clients among different hagwons, the standard answers about extracurricular activities, SAT scores, and essays, at some point many many years ago, have became nowhere near sufficient....

In a market where anyone who lived and went to school in the States can claim (and often do so shamelessly) him or herself to be an "expert in American education system," the shadowy arts of "unconventional persuasion" becomes not only handy but also completely necessary and required for the very economic survival of the so-called "experts" in the hagwon business. "But the admision standards for American colleges have not changed for 50 years!" The truly honest ones can confess; and they are totally right...

Yes, it is not the admission standards that have changed, but the students themselves. The standards ask for diverse backgrounds and unique characters, but the meanings of the words "diverse," "unique," and myriads of other such buzzwords have changed. All thanks to the newly wealthy and evermore education-conscious parents, especially here in Asia, evidences of individuality sufficient to wow the admission officers 50 years ago are surely now just commonplace listing that can easily be bought with cash and listed on applications.

Sports, musical instruments, academic awards, volunteer trips to distant parts of the world...all are just "been there, done that" for high school students of these days, carried on without a slight concern for the financial burden their families have to shoulder. And as professional businesspersons in the hagwon business, we have no qualms about suggesting more "meaningful" activities for their parents to burn their hard-earned cash for, as long as they can hear that chances for their spoiled children to get into Harvard are just got that much bigger...

I recently read an article reviewing the "necessary evil" of China's gaokao (高考, national college entrance exam) system. The author argued that the system currently in place, because of the fair historical values of social mobility through education, is truly sacred. I tend to agree that such is true for Confucian cultures such as China and Korea, but to see the American college admission process as such is plain ridiculous. It is simply not a matter of efforts and input but a matter of...well, lying, just like we the hagwon consultants have been doing to the clients for years and years.

It is about taking that little grain of truth and decorating it with so much flowery details that the original truth is actually not visible without a fair amount of digging into the details. "Its ok," we say, "just leave your kids to us. We will make sure to raise his scores by 300 points and eventually get them all into the best colleges in the States. No promises of Harvard, but anything only slightly below, we see no problems." If the kids show half as much confidence on their applications and in their interviews as we show when we say such things to parents, well, maybe there really won't be any problems.

Then the reality hits. The kids are generally without big dreams about what they wanted to do because their parents forced them to do everything. Hagwon is not that sacred educational institute that we in the business hold them to be, but instead mere social environments, where kids come to make new friends (and perhaps more), with a slightly academic facade. As the kids get familiar with each other and the teachers, the learning practically stops amid non-ending mayhem and a blaming game starts amid shattered expectations.

I would call this point the "consensus of mediocrity." Kids don't give a damn, teachers don't give a damn, and consultants don't give a damn. They enjoy the relaxing environment that prevails in the hagwon and gang up to bend reality in front of the parents. Few rounds of pointing fingers later, money flows to the hagwon and kids make new friends in a truly win-win situation. I think if "productivity" here is measured in anything besides changes in SAT scores, we all here could be better at "creating value out of nothing" than those guys down in Wall Street....

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Finding the Romantic Soul of Seoul

I have said to many people many times in the past, and I will say it again, "every spot in Korea, if not specifically designated as another function, can be and is a dating spot." Strolling through malls, parks, and random streets, the sights of couples with locked hands and loving conversations are something that cannot be avoided by any means. As if to declare to the entire world that they are in love and with complete disregard for the (supposedly) Confucian tradition of toning things a bit down in public spaces, the young couples have made the streets of the metropolis dissipate invisible pink hearts at any corner and at any time of the day.

Pardon the completely overused and cliched "soul=Seoul" pun, but for the past days, I have been trying to track down exactly where all these energy for romance are generated...and gets dissipated. In a society known for social conservatism based a strong sense of different social groupings, it is always a wonder how people get past the stage of just putting on an awkward polite face to complete strangers to, a couple of months, throwing away all social prohibitions out in the public, all in the name of love.

The search, as a matter of fact, should begin in the college student neighborhoods, home of the social group most responsible for filling the city's atmosphere with scents of romance. Just another 9pm, and another night of drinking in a different student neighborhood from the one last weekend. The comparatively shabby, yet much cheaper and commoner-oriented neighborhood was filled with young crowds, girls with short shorts showing their beautiful legs, and guys, well, too busy looking at those beautiful legs.

Another night of Korean-style "hunting" and "being hunted" begins. Not in sight are the Western staples of dance clubs and European pubs for random people to hook up, but plenty of Korean-style watering holes, offering up Korean beers and crowd-favorite soju (20% potato liquor), for a crowd eager to line up in front of their door for their turns to get in. Why the lines? Well, the "special" drinking places offers an orderly way for the guys to try their hands without the background noises of clubs. Buy the girl you like a drink, and see what goes down tonight....

The Observer (yours truly) unfortunately did not have enough of a Korean language background to make such an (rather expensive, if more chances are wanted) experience actually worthwhile. But walking through the truly domestic youth neighborhood of the town with relatively little Western influences, the Observer and his friend are still getting a few "I-want-to-talk-to-this-guy" (sort of) eyes from passerby (guys and girls) as we walked down the streets speaking (honestly, screaming) completely drunken yet highly fluent English...

Contrary to the common perception of the sensitive Korean guys and girls, I am actually courageous enough to start thinking that all that intimate-looking conversations couples are having on the streets may be just so much empty words and hot air, at least in the beginning stages. Perhaps the ability to keep a flurry of loving words back-and-forth keep the couples happy (at least by outer appearances seen on the streets), but those words are definitely not what initially generate the "romance."

Walking down the streets of the increasingly shady college neighborhood, there was just too little talking and too much staring across the sexes. The "romantic soul" within each person seems to be burning, fueled by the cheap alcohol of the "meet-your-significant-other" bars. At some point, for everyone still not falling on the sidewalks and sleeping on the benches in the subway stations, it was no longer the soul that was chasing after love, it was entirely something else.

The soul, meanwhile, either burned or drowned to death by the non-stop liquid input of all-night binge drinking. As the Observer watched a movie in the nearby DVD room as he waited for the first train in the morning to go home, he can hear light moaning in the room next door, followed by incessant banging by body parts on the shared wall of the two rooms. Yep, as vulgar and XXX as it may really be, in this sketchy yet dirt-cheap "personal movie theater" on the 4th floor of a crumbling office building, the Romantic Soul of the metropolis is somehow, unwillingly and unwittingly, emm, found...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Danger as Entertainment and Near-Death as Adrenaline Rush

Walking through the little lobby of my service apartment here in a neighborhood frequented by high-end foreign visitors, I would commonly find the newest brochures for English-language tours of Korea. The familiar Seoul city tours, the Korean drama tours, the historical Korean culture tours...but even in this day and age, the most prominent and most used tour packages are still the "Korea divided" tours headed up to the northern border. DMZ tour is a crowd favorite and commonly acknowledged must-do in Korea, and wait it minute, can it be? NLL tours?!

NLL, for those who are unfamiliar, is short for the "Northern Limit Line," a highly disputed "maritime border" between the two Koreas extending west from the land border that we call DMZ. And the biggest military news of the last few months, namely the alleged bombing of a Southern frigate by a Northern torpedo, and the deadly bombardment of the nearby Southern island by Northern artillery, both occurred neared the NLL. Compared to the tense and apparent military stand-off of the DMZ, the NLL is perhaps made even more dangerous by the sheer unpredictability of when the next military skirmish will take place.

So, what kind of a crazy nutcase would be willing to pay a decent amount of cash, and take a flimsy and easily targeted tour boat into the waters that witnessed explosions and deaths just a few months ago. Even for the "fearless" myself who took already took two trips inside North Korea (one of which from the South through DMZ), joining such a tour may require a second or third thought in the current political environment. Adventurous is great, but this might just be a little bit too much even for the experienced.

Yet, the tours seemed to go on...As "news" blasted on a nearby TV proclaiming secret Chinese-North Korean collaboration to undermine Southern sovereignty, followed by severe warning of potential return of military conflicts, people, both Korean and foreign, snapped up the brochures. The gaily colored papers with big "NLL" written across the top and filled with scenic pictures serve as the most interesting contrast with the sternness of the news reporters on the TV.

Such a sight also correspond to a story told to me by a fellow teacher here. She noted that her friend in college received a research grant to Turkey, yet secretly used the money to head to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Tracing the "footsteps of bin Laden," she would call it. Well, I suppose there can be no better tribute than that to the fallen martyr. Her determination to get herself to the heart of Islamic fundamentalism seems no less than that of the fundamentalists to continue their campaign after the death of their loved-by-the-media symbol.

Indeed, come to think of it, a bit of disruption to normal operations, whether it be the death of a few Southern soldiers to artillery shells or death of a terrorist figurehead to American special forces, does not really change anything. The South Korean economy (more specifically, its tourist industry) and the lethal ideology that is the "freedom"-fighting Islamic terrorism, will live on and continue to thrive. Its participants, both active and passive, will not change overnight due to a single event, no matter how symbolic the event is presented to be by the relevant authorities and the media.

If anything, the big symbolic events can only make the prospect of experiencing the places and people involved even more exciting, and to some, necessary. Especially here in Seoul, only a hundred or so miles away from the most militarized border in the world, a little bit out of the way of complete safety and security in one of the most developed and wealthiest cities on Earth can be a whole world away in terms of personal experience. If a life-changing experience can be had in one day, this is perhaps the most convenient place to do it.

Of course, I am not sitting here downplaying the danger out there and the possibility of getting in harm's way (In fact, the tour I used in 2008 to get to the North from Seoul no longer exists because a Southern tourist was shot dead by a Northern soldier). But sometimes what people can gain from putting their lives on the line may really be something worth risking everything for. Yes, we can call it "entertainment," we can call it "adrenaline rush"...yet, the real fun of such tours as NLL and Afghanistan may be their "replay value," that gratified reflection on our own lives that we can have years later...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Reconsidering the Role of An Educator outside the Normal School Environment

Class, prep for class, sleep, class, prep for class, sleep...the normal cycle of being an "educator" in an "intensive" summer SAT program seemed to finally come back to me. Even though it has been more than a year and a half since I taught similar programs, it seems that I am having much easier time getting used to the life of an English teacher this time compared to the last few times. Perhaps it is really because that my discipline and worldview changed much since I went through my full-time job in Japan...

Perhaps, just perhaps...but what is interesting is that I can confidently say that I worked harder and had a much broader view of the world back when I was a Yale student (even though I am in many ways quite dissatisfied with it) and will certainly do when I start another tough year at LSE. My Japan experience should not play that big of a factor. So, I took a few minutes out of my prep time to rethink about exactly what is making my few days of teaching seemingly easier than my last few stints in Korea, China, and the US.

After a few minutes of reflecting on what I did in classes the past couple of days, I am beginning to consider that the perceived attitude toward teaching has seen a dramatic change, leading to my teaching methods being affected in some ways. Sure, some people (many of whom are currently teaching English in Korea and other countries with "English fevers") may have always bought in the beliefs that I will subsequently describe, but I, for one, am only coming to grips with its consequences in the past few days (or so I feel).

First, what really is a private education institute that parents pay too much money to send their kids for too long of hours everyday. I am inclined (and some part of me still agree) to think that these places (which we call "hagwons" 학원) exist because schools suck (which most people still cite as a major reason). In other words, hagwons have the responsibility to teach their kids academic knowledge the school have neglected to do or have done too sloppily.

But the reality is, unfortunately, by taking away the coercive nature of school grades and their enormous influences on the future of the students, hagwons, even when offering superior knowledge, has not given the students themselves (instead of the parents who are paying the cash) any incentive to really suck in all the knowledge they can from each of their countless hagwon experiences. And we, as hagwon operators, cannot do anything to exert pressure on the students or their parents without having the efforts backfired in a series of complaints and permanent leaves.

As a result, the hagwons, and us, the so-believed educators superiors to those in regular schools, have become nothing more than the servants of the consumers, unable to push ourselves forcefully for further effects. In fact, hagwons are really just playing it safe in many cases, offering the standard many-practices-and-some-feedback techniques that give the teachers not much of a role beyond knowledge-embodying figureheads that dispense answers and explanations that very much already exit in various prep books.

There are no revolutionary problem-solving strategies, no unique teaching techniques, and no need to act as innovative rebels within a saturated hagwon market. "This is a buyer's market," our head teacher has mentioned several times, and the buyers' wishes we shall follow. When the standard procedure for teaching SAT is to drill the students with mountains of practice questions and hope these guys eventually make the connection with our vaguely stated problem-solving techniques, we shall follow the lead, give much homework, and hope the kids figure out the patterns on their own.

To be honest, I have no problem with such current situation. While it may not be at the most effective place, uniformity and standardization of all hagwons toward some methods and curriculum that all parents and their students can handily anticipate and accept, there should be no problems with actual operations of the classes. The hagwons will be solely competing on the business side with sales and marketing, and those with big names and long reputations are bound to win. And it is on this business side that I hold quite a bit of confidence for my current workplace.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Realizing Once Again Why I DO NOT Work in Korea Full-time

People always question me why don't I just work in Korea full-time when I seem to love the country so much even though I do not even speak the language properly. No knowing the language, they argue, only works in my favor here because I can truly pretend to be completely oblivious to the "social rules" here and play the "foreign card" literally 100% of the time. No need to be like in Japan, where I still try to do as the Japanese salary-men do (occasionally) to score some brownie points and "increase friendships."

But my answer has always been the line about how the every "social rule" that exist in Japanese workplace definitely exists in Korea, and they are enforced more strictly here than over in Japan. After having a night-long conversation with a Korean friend that works in a government financial agency, such "harsh" opinion of mine just got reinforced, much more strongly...the stories of a bottom-rung Korean white collar worker, although does sound more fun in the most superficial sense, is definitely one that tires out a person very very quickly both mentally and physically.

Throughout the conversation that describe his work-consumed life yesterday, my friend's comments never ceased to impress me how a separation of work and private life simply does not exist in his profession. As this is one of my first major complaints about Japanese workplace after I started working in Tokyo, I have been paying particular attention to the topic. His stories about drinking everyday with the coworkers and clients after 12 hours of work, playing tennis with them on the weekends, and perhaps even sharing more intimate moments with the female counterparts, all described as something so matter-of-fact, just unsettle me more and more.

Of course, I am not saying this is completely bad, especially for him. Even with excess drinking that force him to take medicine to protect his liver, the guy is having an amazing time. With company credit card in hand, he has been witness to some of the most luxury, chic drinking spots in town, experienced some of the most exotic services available, and brushed shoulders (and more) with the most powerful people in the Korean financial industry. The connections built on an everyday basis in definitely a matter of extreme envy for myself.

Yet, as all this is occurring in the glittering nightlife neighborhoods of Seoul, the thought that "oh, crap, I have work tomorrow at 7am" should and must be in the back of the mind somewhere for these young white collars climbing the corporate ladders. 5 hours of sleep a day with drunken and exotic body every single day cannot possibly allow for full concentration at work, even though y friend here does keep a good habit of swimming at 6am in the morning to help him "wash away the dirtiness from the night before."

"But if you do not show up, you are gonna be considered WEIRD." Thats the answer I would get when I ask him if he can take perhaps a break from at least one of these non-ending drinking sessions. Social isolation just cannot be risked, even if the only alternative is a 25-beer 3-bottles-of-soju drinking battle with your clients from other banks. "bankers have a bad reputation in Korea," he would say. Yeah, I can certainly see where that reputation comes from.

Exceptions are made for foreigners and women, of course. But my friend made sure to remark that without going through with the after-working "bonding sessions," the women and the foreigners have much less of a "fulfilling" time in the Korean workplace. And as it is elsewhere in Asia, alcohol and all the eccentric behaviors associated with its consumption are definitely lubricants for business, bringing partners closer emotionally and making doing business together a much more likely and enjoyable thing.

But hopefully, we as English teachers will not have to go that particular step. Seeing my coworkers and superiors in situations beyond normal work environment and a friendly yet toned down dinner would just involve too much dirty secrets being shared and too much respect lost. I am willing to consider my coworkers as friends, but not yet as intimate partners for certain forbidden (and totally illegal yet socially acceptable) adventures...and this, ultimately, is the reason why I cannot work forever in Korea or other Asian countries...

Saturday, June 4, 2011

...And Annyeong Seoul...Again

...Well, the streets of Gangnam welcomed me back almost exactly the same way as I left it almost three years ago. The familiar convenience stores, Karaoke parlors, little restaurants, and of course, that gigantic COEX Mall across the street...the energetic, vibrant feel of the town is on full display for my first weekend in Korea since 2008. A few more happy businessmen having afternoon beers in a few more Western-style bars, a few more stylish cute girls walking through a few more luxury shops, and a few more sales ladies peddling to a few more happy customers...beneath the physical sameness was a country gradually moving forward...

To be honest, the fact that I am walking down the streets of Seoul still has not really settled in my mind just yet. Having been told by a straight-faced, no-mercy immigration official that my work visa to Japan was officially cancelled and my Alien Registration Card (外国人登録書) need to be confiscated on the spot, I was still reeling from the sense of sudden detachment from Japan when I walked out the door at Gimpo Airport to breath in Seoul at night.

It was weird. From the lady at the money exchange to the taxi driver who duly ripped me off on a 40-minute ride to Gangnam, many Koreans I met in the past 15 hours mistook for Japanese (if they do not mistake me for a Korean, that is), quite ironic considering just a few hours ago, I threw away my visa to work in Japan to pledge temporary professional allegiance to this particular country. Yet, at the same time, everything just felt so same, the taxi ride made me feel as if I am back in Shanghai, or Beijing, or Tokyo, for that matter. Not a bit of "Korean-ness."

Well, that is if you overlook the human aspect of the country. There was no shortage of "Korean-ness" here. For one thing, the rapid talking made me feel like I took a year of introductory Korean as a senior at Yale for nothing. Interestingly, people refused to speak any differently even after they figured out that I am not comprehending what they are saying. "I will just do what I think is fit" is the usual reaction, bypassing any need for communication, whether it be linguistic or simply hand signals...

As I met up with my boss from three years ago, sharing such little tidbit observations of Korean society cannot be avoided. He tells me of increased anxiety and insecurity of the Korean people since my last visit. Threats from the North continue to strain the psyche of the common people beneath their joyful materialistic ways, and the amount of attention devoted to political and economic happenings from around the world is at a different level from what I am used to seeing in Japan.

And the English teaching business, for better or worse, is in the midst of all that. With more and more parents willing to shell out enormous amounts of cash to get their kids abroad, the entire industry is seeing a bonanza. Yet, with other industries taking hits from financial crisis plus Quake-related downturn in Japan, investors are diverting more and more of the resources to the still lucrative English teaching sector. The result: heavy competition with little profits and increasingly picky customers.

What is more, with major American domestic chains like Kaplan and Princeton Review devoting more resources to design curriculum for the "Asian needs," institutes here in Korea that survive off the big summer inflows of high school students are increasingly seeing their customers moving or staying the States during the summer. Thousands of new institutes pop up and thousands die every summer, while everyone struggles to come up with new marketing strategies to attract a shrinking pool of interested students still remaining in Korea.

And there is even more. Compared to three years ago, work visas for English teachers have tightened so much as to push up the labor fees for hiring anyone qualified enough. No longer allowed are college students on summer vacations as college diploma is now needed for a visa. No longer possible are many foreign students who study in the US as English teaching visas are now only provided for 6 English-speaking countries (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). With a limited pool of college graduates willing to show up for a three-month stint in a foreign country, wages are soring and squeezing the institutes even more.

...well, here it is. My summer in Korea officially begins with some worries but still full of expectations. It is as I have said to so many people so many times before, it is always better to regret after trying and failing than regret for not trying at all. While my second summer in Korea will be defined much more by the need to save for grad school than "new experiences" as it was in 2008, the country will surely still bring me plenty of surprises and plenty to write about. I certainly look forward to that.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sayonara Tokyo…for Now

...And then, there was an empty one-room apartment, in the exact same condition as exactly 8 months ago, when I set sights on it for the first time, full of anticipation and newfound exhilaration. Under the unusually crisp, fresh, and not-raining early summer sunshine, the room, to me, shined just as brightly as it did in chilly October. It remains, in my view, that serene safe haven for the tired sailor, coming back to her warm embrace after another day of battling the constant storms that is Japanese society.

Yet, at the same time, the room was not, and cannot possibly be, in the same condition. What is unseen, floating in the still air and absorbed in her walls and furniture, are memories, thoughts, and endless self-reflections, stemming from so many observations, experiences, and occasionally, lonely nights looking up at the stars. The room, even devoid of all her material possessions, cannot hold all my random thoughts. They threaten to overwhelm her and escape her containment.

It is simply unfortunate that I cannot jot down the mental occupants of the room fast enough. For every presence I describe, three vanishes into the background, not to be seen again, perhaps forever. Just as I will feel a few hours from now when I exit her door for one last time, as they depart the room, there is a little bit of satisfaction, much to look forward to...but simultaneously, the feeling of leaving something behind, of leaving something unaccomplished, just cannot be erased or suppressed.

All of that sense of incompletion has to go back to that one fundamental question that has, to this day, perplexed me and compelled me to find that perfect answer. “Why are you in Japan?” They kept asking, glancing at me intently, full of curiosity and expectations of some spectacular answer. I have none. Among the clichés of “new challenges,” “cultural understandings,” and “to be a global citizen,” I cannot help but disappoint the inquirers with something incredibly shallow and stereotypical.

And eventually, my robotic repetitive replies cannot even convince myself anymore. Yes, my 6 years of childhood in Japan were amazing (hearing Japanese songs of that era still brings a marijuana-like feel of euphoria). Yes, my summer internship in Wakayama city hall told me I must spend more time to understand Japan of early 21st century. But those were, no matter how great and memorable, things of the past, largely irrelevant to the tumultuous present and a largely unknown future.

No two experiences can be alike, even in a place as homogenous and unchanging as modern Japan. From living in Rakuten to confronting the Quake to partying it up hard on the weekends, Japan has shown us her multiple faces in different situations. From superiors trying to pass vague propagandistic phrases as motivating speeches to new grads attempting to balance strong individualities with unavoidable “social rules” and obligations…I have made the effort to tirelessly effort to record the inner workings of the society that gave us so much variations despite seemingly forever constant exteriors.

I guess the ultimate answer to that “Why am I in Japan” question is that, well, I am actually NOT in Japan per se. From the beginning to the end, I was a third-person observer, inserting myself in every social situation imaginable to a normal, somewhat permanent resident of Japan, without actually participating to change the situations to my own favors. And here from this now-empty room, I have turn them into anecdotes with deep opinions, for my personal regurgitation and re-digestion at a later time.

However, for now, the Tokyo chapter of the observer’s records will have to draw to a close, maybe temporary, maybe permanent. Thankfully, my one-room apartment, so used to my pacing to gather thoughts and typing them up late into the night on the weekends, will continue to keep a vigilant watch over the Japanese metropolis. I have not had time to excavate all the ideas still packed into the room and surely she will add more after I am gone…To the room: keep the ideas with you until I come back and visit you one day, will ya? Thanks!